Third C+C5 Meeting: Reinforcing Chinese Influence in Central Asia
Dr Pravesh Kumar Gupta, Senior Research Associate , VIF
Background

The third meeting of the Foreign Ministers (FMs) of China and five Central Asian countries within the framework of China+ C5 took place in Nur Sultan on June 8, 2022. Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi along with Kazakh Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi, Turkmen Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov, Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Jeenbek Kulubaev, Tajik Transport Minister Azim Ibrohim, and Uzbek acting Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov took part in this meeting. The major agenda of this meeting was regional security and connectivity, both of which are the highest priorities for China in Central Asia.

In 2004, Japan was the first country to have discussions with Central Asia in the C5+1 framework, followed by South Korea and the European Union. In 2015, the US started attending C5+1 format discussions to strengthen ties with the Central Asian region. Similarly, New Delhi launched the India-Central Asia dialogue in 2019 in order to expand its multilateral engagement with the region. China has maintained bilateral relations with these nations for decades, as well as multilateral interactions with Central Asian countries through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which was founded in 2001. However, in 2020, Beijing began conducting China plus Central Asia meetings, which are seen as expanding China’s position in the region to increase its influence.[1] The first meeting was held virtually, while the second took place in Xi’an, Central China, on May 12, 2021, with the participation of FMs from five Central Asian nations, in the middle of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.[2]

China has long portrayed itself as the country that will save Central Asian countries from geopolitical and economic difficulties through large connectivity projects like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or unwavering financial support to the region’s poorest countries (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan). China also formed the SCO to address common security challenges. However, China’s initiatives in Central Asia have given Beijing more leverage than they have benefited Central Asia. The third meeting of China and Central Asian foreign ministers is noteworthy because of the Russia-Ukraine crisis and its implications for Central Asian countries. Some of the issues raised by China’s Foreign Minister during this discussion are subject to a critical assessment.

Indirect Criticism of US

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also met with Kazakh President Tokayev on his visit to Nur Sultan. Wang Yi underlined the concerns about the serious economic consequences of the Ukraine crisis. He also cautioned Central Asian states to keep out of geopolitical disputes and underlined Beijing’s economic interests in the region in his remarks. The statement reads, “Under the current circumstances, the region should be on guard against attempts by forces outside the region to draw regional countries into major power conflicts and force them to take sides. China hopes that Central Asian countries will stand firm, eliminate interference, strengthen coordination, cooperate in good faith and safeguard regional peace and stability. China has never sought geopolitical interests in Central Asia nor allows non-regional forces to stir up trouble in the region.”[3]

The last phrase of this readout concerning Wang Yi’s comment that ‘China has never sought geopolitical interests in Central Asia’ is misleading. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, China aimed to develop friendly relations with Central Asian countries for two reasons. First was to guarantee that the Uyghurs do not receive assistance from the region, and second to drain off Central Asia’s hydrocarbon resources. Central Asia is also at the core of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, demonstrating the region’s importance as an instrument of strategic and geopolitical influence for Beijing.

Wang Yi indirectly referred to the US and probably Donald Lu, United States Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, when he said that non-regional forces should not be allowed to stir up problems in the region. In May 2022, Donald Lu paid a visit to Central Asia. His visit aimed to improve US relations with the region and strengthen cooperative efforts to make Central Asia more prosperous, integrated, and secure.[4] Although the US Central Asia policy has not been particularly effective, but continuity in interaction and negotiations with Central Asian governments acts as a counterforce to big actors such as China.

China-Central Asia Leaders’ Summit

In response to India’s announcement to conduct the first India-Central Asia summit on January 27, 2022, China convened the first leaders’ summit in a virtual format with the Presidents of Central Asian states on January 25, 2022. The Chinese President committed to increasing trade with these nations and has contributed 500 million USD in aid. Despite the fact that China already has a significant influence in the region, the leaders’ summit might be regarded as a response to India’s initiative.[5] Wang Yi also highlighted that one of the key goals of the third C+C5 meeting was to fulfill the commitments made during the first virtual Summit between China and Central Asia. As a result, the participating nations decided to establish the China-Central Asia Heads of State Summit Mechanism (C+C5) as a regular affair.[6]

The deep penetration of China in all spheres of Central Asia has caused problems for the ruling regimes since the local population has frequently protested and demonstrated against China. The leaders’ summit may be useful in settling the developing anti-Chinese attitudes among the Central Asian populace by providing greater financial incentives to these nations.

Promoting BRI and De-Dollarisation

In this meeting, a larger focus was also placed on regional connectivity, particularly BRI, which is a flagship project of Xi Jinping. The Central Asian nations are at the heart of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which was inaugurated in September 2013 in Astana, Kazakhstan. Since its launch, Kyrgyzstan has implemented 46 projects, Tajikistan 44 projects, and Uzbekistan 43 projects, while Kazakhstan has the highest concentration of Chinese investments with 102 projects. Turkmenistan has only 26 projects. There are 237 bilateral and 24 multilateral projects underway in Central Asia with Chinese investment, of which 209 are local, and 52 are regional.[7]

Wang Yi invoked the partner nations in the region to promote high-quality Belt and Road cooperation and expedite the synergy of development policies as an essential component of post-pandemic recovery. He highlighted that increased cooperation is needed to advance the natural gas pipeline project. Also, it is obligatory to ensure the safe operation of major transportation routes such as China-Europe freight trains and support the construction of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Corridor. In this meeting, China also sought to accelerate the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Railway project, which has been delayed for a long time due to a lack of consensus among the partnering countries. Building a digital Silk Road and a green Silk Road together was also on the agenda in the third C+C5 discussion.

The Chinese Foreign Minister also emphasised the importance of financial cooperation and expanding the scope of local currency settlements. Local currency exchanges will lessen these countries’ dependence on dollars. It will also help minimize the impact of western sanctions and continue the free flow of trade and uninterrupted supply chains. This De-Dollarisation could be done by establishing the RMB as a base currency and pegging Central Asian currencies and the Russian Ruble to it. Central Asian currencies have historically been unstable, which may pose a challenge. Still, the Russian Ruble is presently the world’s best-performing currency, and the Chinese RMB is the best-performing large economy currency.[8] Although the objective behind promoting local currencies is to achieve regional currency stability, it may also provide China with another opportunity to strengthen its economic dominance in Central Asia.

Combatting Traditional and Non-traditional Security Threats

The Foreign Ministers of China and Central Asia agreed to work together to ensure security in traditional and non-traditional domains. They noted that along with continuing coordination in combating conventional security concerns such as the three evil forces of terrorism, separatism, and extremism, a fresh focus on food security is needed. China has received criticism for mishandling and releasing incorrect information on COVID-19. Therefore, Beijing began actively pursuing medical diplomacy to improve its international image. Because its Central Asian neighbours lacked the necessary health infrastructure to combat the pandemic, they received active assistance from China during this period. Beijing provided Sinopharm vaccines as well as materials to manufacture the vaccines domestically. This has gained a level of trust in the region. As a result, in the third C+C5 meeting, China launched numerous initiatives to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, including collaborative efforts in vaccine and drug research and development and the formation of the China-Central Asia health industry partnership, and the establishment of a Chinese traditional medicine centre in Central Asia.[9] This will increase China’s presence in the Central Asian health sector and provide a market for China’s health-related supplies.

Afghanistan

China and three Central Asian nations (Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) have a direct border with Afghanistan, exposing them to the region’s growing security risks. Unlike in the 1990s, China and Central Asian nations have maintained some level of relations with the Taliban administration since they took over Kabul in August 2021. Therefore, Afghanistan was on the agenda for discussion in the third C+C5 meeting. The FMs agreed that effective coordination of positions on the situation in Afghanistan is required to support peaceful reconstruction. The proactive approach of Uzbekistan toward Afghanistan was also emphasized at this meeting. The FMs decided to help Uzbekistan host the fourth Foreign Ministers’ meeting among Afghanistan’s neighbouring Countries and the High-Level International Conference on the Afghan Issue and preserve regional peace and stability.[10] China and Central Asia share similar concerns about Afghanistan. China has been coordinating with these countries on the Afghanistan issue through the SCO. However, the China plus Central Asia meeting of FMs will increase cooperation between the two regional stakeholders.

Conclusion

China has made significant inroads into Central Asia. From the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to the China-Central Asia Foreign Ministers Meeting and the Leaders Summit, all have contributed to the advancement of Chinese influence in Central Asia. Anti-Chinese sentiments, debt traps, and Chinese cultural invasion are some serious problems that Central Asian countries are dealing with. In addition, China’s commitments during the Third China-Central Asia FMs Meeting appear to be more China-centric than Central Asian.

Despite this, China remains one of these countries’ most important investment partners.

End Notes

[1]Catherine Putz, “Geopolitics and China’s Engagement in Central Asia” The Diplomat, June 09, 2022. https://thediplomat.com/2022/06/geopolitics-and-chinas-engagement-in-central-asia/
[2]P K Gupta, “Second China-Central Asia (C+C5) Foreign Ministers Meet: Major Takeaways”, VIF Article, June 7 , 2021. https://www.vifindia.org/article/2021/june/07/second-china-central-asia-c-c5-foreign-ministers-meet-major-takeaways
[3] “Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev Meets with Wang Yi”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Peoples Republic of China, June 08, 2022. https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjdt_665385/wshd_665389/202206/t20220608_10700214.html
[4] “Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu’s Travel to the Kyrgyz Republic, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan”, press release, Office Of The Spokesperson, US Department of State, May 22, 2022. https://www.state.gov/assistant-secretary-of-state-for-the-bureau-of-south-and-central-asian-affairs-donald-lus-travel-to-the-kyrgyz-republic-uzbekistan-tajikistan-and-kazakhstan/
[5]P K Gupta, “First India-Central Asia Summit: Some Major Takeaways”, VIF Article, January 31 , 2022. https://www.vifindia.org/article/2022/january/31/first-india-central-asia-summit-some-major-takeaways
[6] “Wang Yi Talks about the Outcomes and Consensus of the Third China+Central Asia Foreign Ministers' Meeting”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Peoples Republic of China, June 08, 2022. https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjdt_665385/wshd_665389/202206/t20220608_10700380.html
[7]Harri Taliga (2021), “Belt and Road Initiative in Central Asia Desk study”, joint report by ITUC and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES). https://www.ituc-csi.org/IMG/pdf/belt_and_road_initiative_in_central_asia.pdf
[8]Chris Devonshire-Ellis, “The China Plus Central Asia C+C5 Forum: Statements and Analysis,” Silk Road Briefing, June 12, 2022. https://www.silkroadbriefing.com/news/2022/06/12/china-lays-out-ten-cooperation-points-with-central-asian-nations/
[9] “Wang Yi Talks about the Outcomes and Consensus of the Third China+Central Asia Foreign Ministers' Meeting”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Peoples Republic of China, June 08, 2022. https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjdt_665385/wshd_665389/202206/t20220608_10700380.html
[10]Ibid.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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