China looks to strengthen ties in Russia's Central Asian backyard

China-Central Asia Summit outside the media centre in Xian

By Andrew Hayley and Yew Lun Tian

XIAN, China -China will for the first time host an in-person summit of central Asian leaders this week, seeking to cement ties in a region seen as Russia's backyard as its relations with the West sour.

President Xi Jinping is expected to discuss deepening economic and security links with counterparts from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, former soviet states that analysts say are eager for alternative sources of investment with Moscow's focus fixed on its war in Ukraine.

The two-day summit starting Thursday in the western city of Xian, will overlap with a Group of Seven (G7) meeting in Japan from May 19-21 where efforts to counter China will be among the main talking points for leaders of the rich, western democracies.

"Beijing wants to promote a new alternative to the global order, and try to persuade the Central Asian region that this new global order is better for them too," said Adina Masalbekova, a research fellow at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek.

The inaugural China-Central Asia leaders summit was held online last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first in-person summit, Xian is a symbolic nod to the importance of economic ties as the city was pivotal in the ancient Silk Road trade route that spans Central Asia.

"One of the biggest trump cards that we expect to see at this summit is a serious opening for Central Asian products to enter the Chinese market. This is something that the region has been asking for a couple of years now," said Niva Yau, a Kyrgyzstan-based fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub.

China's trade with the five Central Asia states has multiplied a hundred-fold since the establishment of diplomatic ties three decades ago, after the break-up of Soviet Union. Investment between China and the five nations reached a record high of more than 70 billion dollars in 2022.

In the lead-up to the summit, Chinese state media highlighted the importance of the region as a gateway for China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) - a major infrastructure policy announced by Xi when he visited Kazakhstan in 2013.

The two main BRI projects currently in discussion are a railway connecting China to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and a natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan.

China's BRI initiative has faced criticism for saddling emerging countries in debt for projects they can ill-afford. Beijing is already a major creditor to the Central Asian countries, with Chinese loans to the poorer states of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan accounting for more than a fifth of their GDP.

But with the region's main backer Russia caught up in a grinding war with Ukraine and subject to international sanctions, analysts say the Central Asian states will welcome Beijing's overtures.

"They understand that it’s very important to have alternative partners to Russia, and the number one alternative you have is China," said Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Centre based in Berlin.

In exchange for greater economic cooperation, China will be seeking support in keeping the region secure, say analysts.

Three Central Asian countries border Xinjiang, China's western region where Beijing has been accused of human rights abuses against the Muslim Uyghur population in a campaign it says is aimed at stopping religious extremism. The Taliban take-over of Afghanistan has also heightened China's fears of Islamist militancy spilling across its borders.

Analysts say leaders are also likely to discuss the Ukraine war and reaffirm a position shared by both China and Russia that the region should not be used by the United States and other external powers to fight a proxy war or instigate internal unrest.

(Reporting by Andrew Hayley in Xian and Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Editing by John Geddie and Simon Cameron-Moore)