China has moved to shore up ties in Central Asia through pledges for vaccines and connectivity under its Belt and Road Initiative, amid growing criticism in the West of Beijing’s repression in the neighbouring Xinjiang region.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi offered to deepen regional cooperation on Covid-19 vaccines and the development of Chinese-funded infrastructure projects with his counterparts from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in the second meeting with the grouping on Wednesday in Xian, in northwestern China’s Shaanxi province.
The six countries also discussed building a “grand Eurasian passageway of interconnectivity”, new Chinese government scholarships for Central Asia, agricultural cooperation, playing a “constructive role” after the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, as well as cracking down on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement that Beijing has blamed for violence in Xinjiang.
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In separate bilateral talks from Monday to Wednesday, Wang stressed the need to defend “non-interference in internal affairs” and the Central Asian countries’ foreign ministers said they supported China’s efforts in “safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity” and on the issue of Xinjiang, according to Chinese foreign ministry readouts.
The meetings come as Beijing clashed at the United Nations on Wednesday with the US, Germany and Britain over concerns about its treatment of Uygurs in China’s far-western Xinjiang region, which shares a border with Tajikistan, Kyrgzystan and Kazakhstan.
China has been accused of the arbitrary detention up to 1 million Uygurs and other members of ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang along with claims by rights groups of forced labour – claims the US and others have termed “crimes against humanity and genocide”. Beijing has denied these allegations, defending many of its policies as intending to counter terrorism and extremism in the region.
Analysts say China’s overtures reflect its desire to further institutionalise multilateral cooperation with the five Central Asian countries. Four of the five are also members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a Chinese-backed Eurasian alliance that includes Russia, India and Pakistan.
Zhao Long, a senior research fellow from the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, said the US had also tried to strengthen cooperation with the five countries.
“In its new Central Asian strategy, the US proposes to help countries in the area deal with other ‘malicious actors’ and avoid relying on other forces,” he said. “China can counterbalance the moves of the US through the institutionalised cooperation with Central Asian countries.”
Srdjan Uljevic, senior lecturer at the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan, said the SCO may now take a back seat to the new multilateral format with the five Central Asian nations, noting that Japan, South Korea, the European Union, US, India and Russia all had similar formats. He said it was hard for the Central Asian countries – which depended on China economically and for vaccines – to criticise policies in Xinjiang.
“They need investments and China is providing the investments, and it’s expected that they would adhere to this political goal that Beijing has when it comes to their own core interests,” he said.
But while Beijing has stepped up its investments in Central Asia, there has been growing unease in the region over the expanding Chinese footprint. Polling from the Central Asia Barometer showed that while the governments in those countries welcomed closer ties with China, public opinion was mixed, with 30 per cent in Kazakhstan and 35 per cent in Kyrgyzstan viewing China unfavourably compared to single-digit unfavourable ratings for Russia in those countries.
“There has been pushback, but I don’t see any other country stepping in and replacing China when it comes to Chinese economic engagement, and I don’t see central Asian leaders saying no to that engagement,” Uljevic said.
Temur Umarov, an expert on China and Central Asia at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, said Russia – which has traditionally held strong influence in the region – did not see Chinese interests there as conflicting with its own for now. China had also shown an awareness of negative public sentiment in Central Asia, shifting from vast projects towards ones that created local job opportunities, he said.
“For these countries, it’s a very difficult situation,” he said. “On the one hand, they have China, which is a dominant economic partner and growing power right across the border, and on the other hand, they have their own civic societies that are growing more and more dynamic and sceptical of relations with China, like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
“From their point of view, it will not be wise to criticise China because it will lead to certain economic consequences in the economic sphere.”
Michael Clarke, associate professor at the Australian National University, said China had sought to boost its presence in Central Asia as the region was a critical source of natural resources – such as oil and natural gas – and a key transit zone for Chinese efforts to trade with Europe, Russia and the Middle East.
The belt and road raised the stakes for Beijing to see a stable regional environment, to secure its investments and infrastructure as well as to secure Xinjiang, he said.
“A big issue here though is a growing divide between elite or government views and public opinion, where the former remain at least publicly positively disposed to BRI and continued Chinese investment in the region and the latter increasingly sceptical about the benefits to local populations of BRI projects,” he said.
Additional reporting by Rachel Zhang
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