In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed the “Silk Road Economic Belt” concept in a keynote speech delivered in Kazakhstan, aimed at reviving the historical Silk Road that connected China to Europe. The proposal later evolved into China’s iconic Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with Central Asian countries becoming pioneer participants.
As the BRI substantially boosts infrastructure building in the region and fosters closer economic ties, bilateral trade between China and the five Central Asian countries has grown exponentially in recent years. In 2022, total trade between China and the region reached US$70.2 billion, marking a record high and a 40 percent year-on-year increase. Among the five countries, Kazakhstan took the lead with US$31 billion, followed by Kyrgyzstan (US$15.5b), Turkmenistan (US$11.2b), Uzbekistan (US$9.8b) and Tajikistan (US$2b).
The momentum continued into the first four months of 2023, as trade between China and the five countries soared to 173.05 billion yuan (US$24.3b), reflecting a 37 percent increase over the same period in 2022.
“The China-Central Asia Summit is the first to solely focus on the Central Asian region, providing a new platform for China and the region to upgrade and elevate cooperation,” Yang Jin told NewsChina.
Qian said the China-Central Asia Summit provides an opportunity for both parties to go beyond traditional energy cooperation to explore new growth areas such as finance, agriculture, poverty reduction, green and low-carbon initiatives, healthcare and digital innovation.
In the China-Central Asia Summit declaration, the six countries agreed to further boost road and flight connections and speed up the construction of cross-border railways connecting China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
The leaders also approved mechanisms to boost cooperation in areas such as renewable energy, education, science, tourism and healthcare. China agreed to increase imports of agricultural products from Central Asia and pledged to provide 26 billion yuan (US$3.8b) in grants and low-interest loans to Central Asian countries.
China’s foreign direct investment into the five Central Asian countries was around US$15 billion by the end of 2022, involving oil and gas mining, manufacturing and digital technology, according to Wang Wentao, China’s Minister of Commerce, on April 18 during the trade ministers’ virtual meeting with his counterparts from the five Central Asian countries. China will continue to work with the region to develop digital trade and the green economy, Wang said.
For Yu Zeyuan, a senior researcher at the Singapore-based newspaper Lianhe Zaobao, the biggest takeaway of the China-Central Asia Summit is the six countries’ consensus to intensify their efforts to strengthen the status of Central Asia as a trans-Eurasian transport hub.
In the joint declaration, the six countries pledged to intensify the development of the China-Central Asia transport corridor toward the Middle East, Europe, South Asia and Iran. The statement specifically mentions accelerating the construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) railway project.
During the summit, China signed a memorandum of understanding on the CKU railway with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, signaling major progress on the project. China and Uzbekistan also announced the construction of another railway that could connect Central Asia with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As a major component of the southern route of the China-Europe Railway Express, the CKU would reduce the rail distance from China to the Middle East and southern Europe by about 900 kilometers.
If the proposed railway projects can be effectively implemented, it will bring China closer to reviving the ancient Silk Road and connecting East Asia to Europe.