By How Yong Yang
As it practices its “Peripheral Diplomacy” with its neighbors along its borders, China recently concluded its inaugural in-person China-Central Asia Summit in Xi’an, the capital of northwest China Shaanxi Province. The city was the starting point of the millennia-old Silk Road.
To enhance cooperation, Chinese President Xi Jinping has pledged a total of 26 billion yuan ($3.8 billion) of financing support and grants to six Central Asian countries, namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. China has proposed 19 multilateral cooperation platforms including establishing Institutes of Governance cooperative networks, industrial alliances, and forums for cooperation. The six leaders present at the Summit signed nine multilateral cooperation documents including the Xi’an Declaration within the summit’s framework.
China’s Grand Strategy for Eurasia Reconnection
The China-Central Asia Summit has made a breakthrough in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for two reasons.
First, it institutionalizes comprehensive partnerships among the countries through concrete plans. It established Ministerial-level Meeting Mechanisms in priority areas and will study the feasibility of establishing a permanent secretariat to drive China-Central Asia cooperation. China plans to increase categories of its imports of Central Asian agricultural produce; cooperate on smart agriculture; step up the exchange of experiences on water-saving and green technologies; establish China-Central Asia Energy Development Partnership on new energy; expand cooperation in Artificial Intelligence, Smart Cities, Big Data and Cloud Computing.
Second, it employed a multilateral and consultative approach that considers the partner states’ national agendas. A multilateral and joint-development approach has allowed China to forge stronger relationships with Central Asia as this avoids contentious bilateral issues within the participating countries. China aims to strengthen the interfacing of the BRI with Kazakhstan’s New Economic Policy, the National Development Programme of the Kyrgyz Republic until 2026 (NDP 2026), the National Development Strategy of the Republic of Tajikistan for the period up to 2030 (NDS 2030), Turkmenistan’s Revival of Great Silk Road, and New Uzbekistan 2022-2026 Development Strategy.
These plans have addressed the concerns raised by India’s Foreign Secretary that the BRI is a Chinese “national initiative” and calls for “larger discussions”. Although the Summit was only attended by Central Asian leaders, it was not only for the Central Asian countries as China proposes initiatives that seek to connect Central Asia with other regions. For example, all sides have acknowledged that it is crucial to study and draft a proposal on the optimal form of cross-border transportation from Central Asian countries to Southeast Asia and other Asian countries.
The Summit spotlighted Non-Traditional Security (NTS) issues confronting humanity. The six countries hope to create a peaceful, open, safe, cooperative, and orderly cyberspace under the Global Initiative on Data Security proposed by China in 2020. To jointly deal with the threats and challenges facing global data security, they call for the negotiation and drafting of a comprehensive international convention to fight the use of information and telecommunications technology for criminal purposes.
Two new BRI subconcepts have also been proposed at the Summit: Cultural Silk Road and Health Silk Road.
As part of the Cultural Silk Road, China would invite the Central Asian countries to participate in joint archaeological projects, museum exchanges, and the recovery and return of lost cultural relics; support Central Asian universities in joining the University Alliance of the Silk Road; promote the development of vocational technology education through the Luban Workshop; launch the “China-Central Asia Cultural and Tourism Capital” program and offer special train services for cultural tourism in Central Asia.
All sides would study the possibility of jointly mapping out China-Central Asia Tourism Routes, of which Xinjiang is likely to be a part given it was the only passageway, through which ancient Silk Road travelers must pass, connecting the East and West of Eurasia. Should this be realized, it would offer the Xinjiang Uyghur ethnic minority opportunities to interact with their counterparts in the neighboring countries and preserve their culture.
In terms of the Health Silk Road, China would build more Traditional Chinese Medicine centers to grow and manufacture medicinal plants in Central Asia.
Aside from these initiatives, the Summit was special in its proposal of several multilateral initiatives which are to be led by the United Nations. In fact, the Xi’an Declaration mentioned the United Nations (UN) 18 times. Backed by China, the initiatives seek to improve Central Asia’s global standing as the Summit calls to establish a UN-led Central Asia Climate Technology Regional Centre as a platform for transferring technologies in adapting and reducing the impacts of climate change, and a UN Sustainable Development Goals Centre for the Central Asia and Afghanistan Region in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The countries support Kazakhstan’s earlier initiative to establish the International Agency for Biological Safety (IABS) under the auspices of the UN amidst the global debate on the COVID-19 virus’ origins; calls to promote international cooperation in hydrogen energy; and reaffirmed the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” as enshrined in Article 3(1) of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to build a just and reasonable global climate governance structure.
On nuclear energy’s peaceful use, the Summit highlighted that the member states of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have the right to participate fully in all the body’s decision-making processes. The countries support the provision, in the IAEA’s Statute, that “[t]he Agency is based on the principle of sovereign equality of all its members”, and Central Asian countries to join the relevant regional task forces. These came after the IAEA recently endorsed Japan’s plan to discharge Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station’s Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) Treated Water Discharge into the Pacific Ocean in the spring or summer of this year. The Agency’s Director General is due to visit China in late May to visit key nuclear facilities.
Unsurprisingly, the Afghanistan issue loomed large in the Chinese and Central Asian leaders’ minds given its close proximity to the region. After a big power vacuum left behind by the United States, the leaders vowed to rebuild the Taliban-ruled country’s social infrastructure and integrate it into the regional and global economic system and highlighted the importance of encouraging Afghanistan to form an inclusive government that has broad participation of different ethnic groups and political parties. They concurred with Uzbekistan’s earlier initiative to form a high-level international negotiating group with the support of the United Nations as they support building Afghanistan into a peaceful, stable, prosperous country free from terrorism, war, and drug threat.
Lessons for ASEAN
If the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) wants to have a larger voice and be relevant in the new world order, it has to expand its presence beyond Southeast Asia by actively forging closer relations with the culturally diverse Central Asian countries, which share similar goals to maintain peace and stability in their respective regions. More critically, this will keep ASEAN Centrality alive, where ASEAN seeks to be “in the driver’s seat” for the former ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan once reminded us that “ASEAN centrality and leaderships (sic) need to be earned”. Indonesia’s interest to be involved in Cambodia’s infrastructure development showed that it is keen to share its experience and expertise abroad. As such, Indonesia could take the lead to increase investments in the Central Asian countries, which are also part of the Global South.
ASEAN could leverage its strength in institutionalizing relations with Central Asia by studying how the ASEAN communities and framework would fit into the latter’s national development strategies and co-organizing cultural exchanges since both Southeast Asian and Central Asian cultures remain unfamiliar to people beyond their regions. ASEAN can take a leaf out of the Summit’s book to form a Central Asia-ASEAN Business Council to establish industrial links between both regions. Any investment profits gained from the interregional cooperation could be repatriated to further develop their home regions. In the words of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Asia would become “stronger and more resilient” if its countries “build a mesh of cooperation and interdependence” among themselves.
Central Asia would increasingly become a key player in tackling non-traditional security threats such as food security and energy security. Kazakhstan, being the only surplus wheat producer in Central Asia, might serve as an alternative to Russia and Ukraine, as ASEAN diversifies its food import sources. Moreover, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan make up more than half of the world’s uranium mining production. This is an opportunity not to be missed as Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines explore nuclear energy to power their energy needs.
Opportunities for Foreign Companies
Critics of the Belt and Road Initiative might claim that the Chinese companies would have taken the lion’s share of the investments, leaving little behind for the foreign companies. But the Summit marks a new era in which businesses from the rest of the world should take a stronger interest to invest in the region. According to a report by PwC, Chinese players in the BRI are, in fact, more open to partnering with experienced global firms, not least those from the developed markets, than before.
China’s “Going Out” Strategy into the international markets seeks to drive the optimization of asset management. Multinationals and financiers can partner with Chinese companies in Belt and Road (B&R) activities on three levels. First, companies in traditional sectors such as engineering can supply Chinese companies with construction equipment and software for infrastructure projects. Second, major global Engineering, Procurement, and Construction (EPC) firms can partner with Chinese companies to provide technical expertise and international project management experience. Third, trilateral partnerships between China, the destination country, and third-party investors help to achieve “risk mitigation and quality assurance” through co-investing in projects. While China would take the lead in potentially increasing its funding in the countries, it is unlikely to finance the projects entirely since it is also interested in other regions, thereby opening up opportunities for foreign banks and companies to invest in.
The China-Central Asia Summit resolved specific considerations foreign companies often have. BRI projects used to be contingent upon the destination country’s bilateral relationships with China. However, since the Central Asian countries have at least comprehensive strategic partnerships with China, and future projects are likely to drive economic growth, the BRI activities would see little headwinds ahead, strengthening investors’ confidence. Given China has taken a multilateral and joint development approach, cross-territorial tensions would be minimal and would be handled much more easily if any. All sides of the Summit have pledged to realize the normalized operations of the China-Tajikistan-Uzbekistan Highway, which was caught in the middle of cross-territorial disputes in the past such as the Amu Darya River between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. China’s plan to share security experience in managing key projects and large-scale events to ensure the safe and stable operation of strategic projects would probably ease investors’ concerns as well.
The China-Central Asia Summit has shown that the Asian century has dawned on not just the people in the region, but also the rest of the world. Nevertheless, the benefits would only be bestowed on us if we are bold and decisive enough to seize the opportunity.