There are many formats of regional dialogue in Central Asia today, and there are even more attempts to organize them. Over these decades, the European Union, Japan, the United States, India, South Korea, and others have tried and are trying to create an institutional framework for permanent and close cooperation in our region. In July 2020, Beijing also proposed its own C5+1 or Central Asia plus China format.


On July 16, 2020, the first ministerial meeting “Central Asia – China” was held in the format of a videoconference with the participation of the Foreign Ministers of Kazakhstan M. B. Tleuberdi, China Wang Yi, Kyrgyzstan Ch.A. Aidarbekov,Tajikistan S. Mukhriddin, Turkmenistan R. O. Meredov and Uzbekistan A. H. Kamilov.

What are the features of the new “Chinese format” of the regional dialogue?

First. The dialogue “Central Asia and China” is a logical natural continuation of many years of cooperation in the region.

The PRC has long-standing well-known historical ties with the region, and since 1990, cooperation has grown to the level of strategic partnerships in bilateral relations. China also has a successful region-wide experience (and this is not only the Great Silk Road of the period of the II century BC – X century AD).

At one time, it was Beijing that was the first of the non-regional players who managed to unite all the Central Asian states within the framework of one project. In particular, this is the construction and maintenance of a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to China, four lines of which cross the entire region. It is based on pragmatism, mutual profit and no politics – this is what attracts.
Previously, the regional dialogue was held annually on the basis of multi-level meetings of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Over the years, the SCO has experienced an expansion (the peculiarities of relations between China and India do not contribute to a trusting dialogue), and the Central Asian agenda in the Organization as a whole has ceased to be a priority.

Well, in general, the institutionalization of the dialogue did not happen from scratch. For many years, 7 forums of cooperation between China and Central Asia have been held in different provinces of the People’s Republic of China, which were organized by the SCO Chinese Committee for Good-Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation. Representatives of government agencies, businessmen, experts and journalists took part in its work.

In addition, it was necessary to involve Turkmenistan, which is not a member of the SCO, in cooperation. Cooperation has also improved in Central Asia itself – regular meetings of state leaders since 2018 and the policy of rapprochement creates a favorable basis for Beijing’s regional initiative. Against this background, a separate Central Asian dialogue platform has become increasingly popular.

Second. Thanks to the aspiration of the People’s Republic of China to the remote markets of Eurasia, today Central Asia is getting an opportunity for an economic renaissance.

Through the Belt and Road Initiative, China has essentially reopened Central Asia to the world community. For the first time in almost 30 years, the region is becoming a participant that influences its development, and not just an object of external efforts. Due to the integration of the “East-West” transport communications, the problem of continental isolation is eliminated, strong prerequisites for intraregional cooperation are created.
The transport corridors that are developing within the framework of the modern Silk Road have connected Central Asia with remote markets and created real economic opportunities. Thanks to cooperation with China in the field of transport, for example, Kazakhstan has the opportunity to trade with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries. Other Central Asian countries have similar opportunities.

Previously, due to the geographical specifics of the region, it was simply impossible to plan such projects. And the role of Central Asia in continental trade will continue to increase. Moreover, in the conditions of international quarantine, suspension of transport links and closure of many countries of their borders, transit from China to Europe through the Central Asian corridors increased by 54% in six months of this year.

During the online meeting held on July 16, China again expressed its readiness to create an “express corridor” for convenient movement of business and technical personnel, a “green corridor” for uninterrupted simplified cross-border cargo flow with the Central Asian states. The participants of the dialogue understand that the transit and transport potential of the region has not yet been fully used.

Therefore, today the development of an integrated and multifunctional system of infrastructure interconnectedness and sustainable transport architecture, as well as integrated and multimodal communications, including road and rail routes, continues. All these measures contribute to strengthening the transit potential of Central Asia as a strategic transport and economic corridor between Europe and Asia.

The third. Today, it is much easier for China to develop a dialogue format in Central Asia, since there is no need to specifically develop a cooperation program.

Cooperation in the region has been actively developing for 28 years. China and the Central Asian states have similar or similar positions on a number of topical issues on the international and regional agenda. With the participation of Chinese capital, dozens of projects in the field of industry and energy are being implemented in the countries of the region, trade, transport, etc. are developing.

The active regional dialogue is based on the non-interference of the participating countries in each other’s affairs. The parties respect each other’s development path chosen in accordance with the national characteristics of the state, provide support in matters related to important interests, such as State sovereignty, security and territorial integrity. This approach has created a trusting atmosphere.

In general, the region is satisfied with the Chinese approach of “less politics, more economy”. The PRC occupies one of the first places in the foreign trade of all Central Asian countries. A direct dialogue will facilitate the discussion of issues of access of goods from our region to the large Chinese market, and it will be more convenient for Chinese manufacturers to focus on the 70-million-strong Central Asian market.

In addition, this format will allow us to comprehensively discuss various issues that are sensitive for the entire region, for example, water allocation, the limit of credit borrowings, etc. All the difficult aspects of cooperation related to the stability and sustainability of Central Asia can now be discussed directly with the PRC. This will bring benefits for all participants.

Fourth. As a result of the meeting, a new agenda for cooperation was outlined in accordance with the ongoing changes in the world.

The parties are determined to actively expand cooperation in the field of high technologies, including e-commerce, smart city, artificial intelligence and big data, and strive to jointly build a digital partnership. In the conditions of the forced transition of many spheres of life to the digital format, this direction will be increasingly relevant.

It is worth paying attention to the digital format of the first meeting of the foreign ministers of the Central Asian countries and China. This emphasizes the specifics of modernity and reflects the attitude of the Central Asian states and the People’s Republic of China to build equal friendly relations in the era of changing world order.

The participants of the first meeting discussed cooperation between China and the Central Asian states in the fight against coronavirus infection. The readiness to establish cooperation in the scientific and applied sphere, in particular on the production of high-tech products, as well as the development of cooperation in the pharmaceutical industry, was noted.

The COVID-19 pandemic not only did not affect the nature of interaction between neighbors, but also strengthened regional ties. During the entire period of the epidemic, both Central Asia and China have repeatedly provided humanitarian assistance and support to each other. In the culture of the peoples of the entire region, this approach is regarded only as: “a friend is known in trouble.” In historical memory, this period will be recorded in this context.

Some preliminary conclusions:

At the present stage, the strategic importance of Central Asia as a natural gateway to Eurasia is significantly increasing for China. Our region is a key element of the implementation of the Belt and Road initiative. The international situation in the world is changing dynamically, uncertainty is growing, and therefore stability on its northwestern borders, as well as direct access to Eurasian sales markets (especially against the background of growing competition with the United States) are critically important for China.

The dialogue between China and the Central Asian countries has now been formalized and consolidated at the political level. All countries of the region take part in the work of the dialogue platform, and the absence of other major players (such as in the SCO) will allow developing the Central Asian cooperation agenda and further unlocking the potential of the region.

At the same time, China and Central Asia do not need to find or invent issues for cooperation, the neighbors in the region have common tasks and challenges. This dialog format is distinguished by the general understanding that many issues can be solved only by collective measures.

The wording of the joint statement of the Central Asia-China dialogue draws attention to itself. It reflects the political readiness of the participants for action and the general mood for results. If we compare the results of similar dialogue meetings in Central Asia, they are usually declarative in nature and reflect only the desire to cooperate in certain areas.

During the pandemic, all “artificial” dialog formats with external players at the regional level froze. This objectively reflects their demonstrative specifics and low demand (only in June of this year the C5+1 (CA+USA) dialogue was organized, but since 2017 this process has remained purely declarative, without a clear agenda and real financial support).

Thus, the last working meeting or a high-level collective video call was the beginning of the institutionalization of the “Central Asia and China”dialogue. The parties decided to create a format for meetings of the foreign ministers and agreed to hold them once a year or by agreement. And such working meetings are likely to be held traditionally in turn in the capitals of all participating countries.

In the future, it can be assumed that the beginning of such a promising dialogue will definitely attract the constructive attention of the European Union and the countries of the Middle East, which are the beneficiaries of China-Central Asian cooperation. They are also well aware of the special role of the central part of Eurasia and will closely monitor the development of the dialogue, and, perhaps, in the future, during the post-pandemic period, they will sometimes be able to join its work to promote joint pan-Eurasian projects.

China Studies Centre,

Nur-Sultan, 2020

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