Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi began a four-day trip to Kazakhstan on Monday, with Beijing trying to shore up its ties with Central Asia amid uncertainties in Afghanistan and the ongoing Ukraine war.
During the trip, Wang is expected to meet Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi in the capital Nur-Sultan.
Wang will hold talks with his counterparts from four other former Soviet republics in the region – Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
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It will be the third meeting of the group since July 2020 and their second in-person since May last year.
The visit comes after the people of Kazakhstan voted on a constitutional referendum on Sunday, the country’s first in 27 years, which saw 77 per cent of voters in favour of the amendments. The changes included reducing powers of the presidency and preventing future nepotism by barring the president’s relatives from holding government positions.
Asked about the referendum, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Monday that “China firmly supports Kazakhstan in pursuing a development path that is in line with its national conditions”.
The visit also comes as Russia’s war in Ukraine is in its fourth month. The conflict has made Central Asian nations more vulnerable in economic and political terms, with some highly dependent on remittances from Russia.
Wang Xianju, deputy director of the Russian Research Centre at Renmin University of China-St Petersburg State University, said cooperation on the pandemic and economic recovery would be high on the foreign minister’s agenda.
Afghanistan, which has borders with China, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, is also expected to be discussed, with the country now under the Taliban’s control following the US withdrawal in August last year.
“The situation in Afghanistan has a direct impact on Central Asia, so I think China and the Central Asian countries will exchange views on the issue, to see what each side can do,” Wang Xianju said.
China’s far-western Xinjiang region shares a border with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
He said China’s relations with Central Asia remain stable, particularly in economics and trade, and Central Asia was increasingly looking to China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative to advance its economies.
“Central Asia needs capital and technology that China has,” he said. “Unlike Russia, which has a wide range of security and military cooperation with the region, China’s cooperation with Central Asia is largely focused on the economy and trade.”
Central Asian states are also concerned that the region could be an arena for geopolitical rivalry between Moscow and Washington in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
In early 2020, Washington unveiled a Central Asian strategy, with plans to “promote American values and provide a counterbalance to the influence of regional neighbours”.
Wang Xianju said that since the invasion, Beijing had been increasingly seen as aligning with Moscow.
“The US may see China as a target as well and try to counter China’s influence, including using the Xinjiang issues to create divisions between China and Central Asian countries,” he said.
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