Central Asia: Beijing bracing for summit-o-rama
A bulletin of recent developments in Chinese-Central Asian affairs.
Central Asia: Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang is sending mixed signals about China’s brewing geopolitical rivalry with the United States. At a gathering of foreign ministers of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member states on May 4-5, Qin was quoted by the Foreign Ministry’s press service as saying “the Cold War is resurgent” and “hegemonism and power politics are on the rise.” Clearly referring to the United States, he went on to urge his SCO colleagues to “resolutely support each other in defending sovereignty, security and development interests, [and] counter the interference of external forces in regional affairs and the instigation of ‘color revolutions.’”
He added that the SCO should “contribute to the development of the international order in a more just and reasonable direction.” Qin didn’t stop there: he additionally endorsed the speedy accession of pariah states Iran and Belarus to the SCO.
Just days later in Beijing, Qin struck a less hostile note during a meeting with the US envoy to China, Nicholas Burns. The Chinese foreign minister told the American diplomat that stabilizing bilateral relations was a top priority for Beijing. US-Chinese relations have been in a tailspin since the United States shot down a Chinese spy balloon in February.
The SCO’s foreign ministers meeting focused on preparing an agenda for the group’s upcoming summit of heads of state, to be held in India in early July.
Central Asia: China’s Foreign Ministry is confirming that the presidents of all five Central Asian states will be participating in a summit on May 18-19 in the historic central Chinese city of Xi'an. The Central Asian five were last seen together at May 9 Victory Day events in Moscow.
“China and Central Asian countries are friendly neighbors and comprehensive strategic partners,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on May 8. “The two sides have been growing their relations following the principles of mutual respect, good-neighborly friendship, solidarity in trying times and win-win cooperation.”
In addition to participating in the summit, the leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will conduct state visits in the days before and after the joint gathering, the official Xinhua news agency reported. Each Central Asian presidents will hold individual discussions with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Turkmenistan’s president, Serdar Berdymukhamedov, already paid a state visit to China in January, and thus will not get a one-on-one with Xi later this month.
“China has always seen Central Asia as a priority in its neighborhood diplomacy, while the stability and development of the region is directly related to China’s own development,” the official China Daily quoted Li Yongquan, the head of the China Society for Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies, as saying.
Central Asia: When it comes to China’s trade with Central Asia, the math can get a little fuzzy. Chinese officials tend to cite turnover figures that don’t match up with their Central Asian counterparts.
The statistical disconnect was on display following an online meeting of top trade officials held in April. At that gathering, Chinese Minister of Commerce Wang Wentao said trade volume between China and Central Asian states approached $70.2 billion by the end of 2022, setting a new trade-turnover record. Wang also said Chinese investment in the five Central Asian states reached almost $15 billion, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua reported.
After the same gathering, Kazakhstan’s minister of trade and integration, Serik Zhumangarin, presented a differing picture of regional trade, indicating that regional turnover amounted to $32.1 billion in 2022, less than half the dollar amount touted by Wang. Still, the $32.1 billion figure represented an almost 32 percent increase in annual trade volume over 2021, according to the Kazakhstani official.
Kazakhstan accounted for the vast majority of trade between China and its Central Asian neighbors in 2022, according to Zhumangarin. Kazakhstani annual export volume to China totaled $13.2 billion, a 33 percent increase over the previous year’s turnover figure.
Observers believe the numbers gap concerning regional trade could be a potential indicator of large-scale smuggling in the region.
Meanwhile, officials from the customs services of China and Central Asian states also convened a video conference in late April, the Russian media outlet Sputnik reported. Participants explored ways to implement a so-called “Smart Customs” concept, as well as discussed guidelines for “mutual recognition of the status of an authorized economic operator.”
Kazakhstan: Kazakhstan and China are expected to sign an agreement allowing for 30-day, visa-free travel for citizens of the two countries, a Kazakhstani Foreign Ministry representative announced May 2. The agreement should be finalized during the China-Central Asian summit in mid-May. Several arrests were reported amid a small protest in Almaty on May 1 against visa-free travel. The Kazakhstani Foreign Ministry representative, Aibek Smadiyarov, dismissed concerns that the agreement would lead to a large influx of Chinese visitors to Kazakhstan as “groundless.”
The prime ministers of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are accelerating efforts to foster economic cooperation. Kazakhstani Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov and his Uzbek counterpart Abdulla Aripov signed a variety of documents during the 20th meeting of the Intergovernmental Commission on Bilateral Cooperation in Tashkent. Among them was a letter of intent to speed the creation of a Central Asia International Center for Industrial Cooperation, the Kazakhstani government’s press service reported May 5.
Rail freight traffic bound for Europe is picking up at the Alashankou border hub in China’s Xinjiang Region. More than 2,000 freight trains have passed through Alashankou into Kazakhstan so far in 2023, the Xinhua News Agency reported on May 5. The number represents a 12 percent increase in freight traffic compared to the same period in 2022.
Uzbekistan: So far in 2023, China is Uzbekistan’s top trade partner. The Uzbek State Statistics Committee published first quarter trade data showing Q1 trade volume between Uzbekistan and China stood at $2.36 billion, an almost 16 percent increase over the same period in 2022. Uzbek exports in Q1 amounted to $358.5 million, and imports totaled $1.99 billion. Uzbek-Russian trade turnover lagged slightly behind in Q1, reaching $2.23 billion. Kazakhstan was Uzbekistan’s third ranking trade-turnover partner during the quarter, amounting to $1.1 billion.
A Chinese governmental agency, the General Administration of Customs, pegged Q1 bilateral trade with Uzbekistan at a slightly higher amount than the Uzbek figures – $2.44 billion. According to the Chinese statistics, exports to Uzbekistan reached $2.3 billion while imports stood at $143 million. The agency statistics indicated that the level of Uzbek imports declined by almost 70 percent compared to the first quarter of 2022.
Meanwhile, China congratulated Uzbekistan following the formal adoption of a new constitution in Tashkent. A Chinese Foreign Ministry statement heaped praise on the Uzbek leadership, stating that Beijing believed “that under the leadership of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the people of Uzbekistan will make even greater progress on all fronts as part of efforts to reform and develop the country.”
According to the Uzbek Election Commission, over 90 percent of voters in the April 30 referendum approved constitutional tweaks. Among the approved changes was an extension of the presidential term from five to seven years. The changes enable the incumbent, Mirziyoyev, to run for reelection two more times.
Kyrgyzstan: After Kyrgyzstan’s Prime Minister Akylbek Japarov confirmed that a feasibility study had been completed, the Eurasian Development Bank (EABR) announced that the planned China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway will cost upwards of $5 billion. In an announcement on its official Telegram channel on May 5, the bank said the railway will stretch for 450 kilometers, 280 of which will traverse Kyrgyzstani territory. The route will include a total length of 57 kilometers of tunnels. Workshops also must be constructed to adjust train wheel sets due to differing track gauges.
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