Beijing Reaching Out to Central Asian Nations in Bid to Rival West

The first in-person summit meeting between China and five Central Asian countries has been held. China’s moves to use its economic might to strengthen its influence in the region and to compete with Japan, the United States and Europe must be closely monitored.

At the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, the leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan gathered in the inland Chinese city of Xian and agreed to strengthen their relations.

At the ceremony, Xi said Central Asian countries are welcome to board the “express train” of China’s development, calling for jointly striving for brighter prospects. It is obvious that Xi aims at putting those countries under the sphere of Chinese influence through its enormous investment and economic aid.

Combined trade between China and the five countries last year reached a record high of about ¥9.7 trillion. Central Asia is rich in natural gas, crude oil and other natural resources. China has also been placing importance on the five countries as key nations along the massive Belt and Road Initiative economic zone.

The Xi administration is advocating “multipolarization of the world” and challenging the U.S.-led international order. Four of the five countries, excluding Turkmenistan, are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is led by China and Russia.

Xi likely believes that bringing Central Asian countries under China’s sphere of influence will lead to undermining U.S. influence.

The five countries were members of the former Soviet Union, but Russia lost its unifying force after its national strength was reduced due to the Ukraine invasion. Those countries have started to keep their distance from Moscow, as evidenced by Kazakhstan’s call for a halt to the invasion, for example.

For the five countries, strengthening cooperation with Beijing has become essential as they can no longer rely on Moscow for their economies and security. The longer the invasion of Ukraine continues, the more China’s influence in the region will inevitably increase.

In Central Asia, there are many countries where leaders with strong powers continue to rule their nations autocratically for long periods of time. In this respect, China, which does not interfere in the internal affairs of any of these countries, is seen as being easier to build a relationship with compared to Japan, the United States and Europe.

There are many arguments, however, that projects related to the Belt and Road Initiative have only benefited China and have not led to growth in partner countries. If this problem was to arise in the five countries, there would be limits as to how much stronger the relationship can become.

This meeting of China with the five Central Asian countries was timed to coincide with the Group of Seven summit being held in Hiroshima. It is believed that the meeting was set up so China can aim at competing with Japan, the United States and Europe.

However, unlike the G7, members of which share the same visions and values, China will not be able to forge a firm unity with the five Central Asian nations. The very idea of creating an axis to rival the United States certainly is problematic.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 21, 2023)