China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has promised to enhance strategic ties with Central Asian countries and help them tackle economic and security challenges in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
At an inaugural virtual meeting on Thursday with five foreign ministers from the region, namely, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, Wang also said Beijing would continue to push forward China’s signature Belt and Road Initiative despite delays caused by the pandemic.
His renewed pledges came as Central Asia, a key energy source and a vital region for its belt and road plans, has seen intense competition for influence in recent months between China and the United States.
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Without mentioning the US, Wang said China attached great significance to forging strategic partnerships with Central Asian countries and their cooperation was based on common interests instead of geopolitical calculations.
“It does not target any third party, nor does it affect bilateral and multilateral cooperation in the region,” he said, according to the foreign ministry website.
“We are opposed to any attempts by external forces that may lead to ‘colour revolutions’ or zero-sum rivalry in Central Asia, or the meddling of domestic affairs in the region under the pretence of human rights.”
Colour revolutions refer to the anti-government movements that swept through a number of former Soviet republics, including Kyrgyzstan, a decade or so ago, which Beijing, Moscow and others have blamed on interference from the West.
In a joint statement after the meeting, the Central Asian countries voiced support for Beijing in fighting against what they described as Washington’s stigmatisation and politicisation of the deadly virus and also expressed their readiness to expand economic, trade and security cooperation with China.
Observers said the meeting was in part a direct response to America’s attempts to push back against China’s growing clout in the region and develop a global anti-Beijing coalition, especially in the wake of China’s use of internment camps for Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
It was also aimed at securing China’s western borders in the midst of a prolonged border standoff with India and increasing China’s leverage in competing with other major players, such as Russia, the European Union and Japan, according to Li Lifan, a specialist in Russian and Central Asian affairs at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.
“Geopolitical competition in Central Asia between major powers is gathering pace, especially when the US and China have seen a steep decline in bilateral ties, which is basically all about rivalry with little cooperation left,” he said.
“As the US has more or less created a worldwide geopolitical encirclement of China, Beijing has no choice but to come up with a counter-strategy to avoid being further isolated. The harder Washington pushes, the more robust Beijing’s response is expected to be.”
For China, security and geopolitical elements are also important considerations in its Central Asian investment strategy, which includes more than 200 projects ranging from energy, infrastructure to the hi-tech, telecommunications and agricultural sectors.
However, China’s rapid inroads in Central Asia have also attracted criticism, with simmering anti-Chinese sentiments spreading across the region.
China’s mass internment of a reported one million mainly Uygur Muslim has also triggered large public protests in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Beijing denies claims the detainees are mistreated and says the camps are for re-education and training.
After President Xi Jinping officially unveiled the belt and road scheme in Kazakhstan seven years ago, the US began to expand its presence in the region, launching its own five-plus-one foreign ministers’ dialogue in 2015.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held two meetings with the five foreign ministers in the space of six months: one in New York in September and the other one during the top US diplomat’s February visit to the two most populous Central Asian nations – Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Just days later, Xi’s top diplomatic aide Yang Jiechi also paid a visit to the two countries and Tajikistan in late February and early March.
In February the US State Department also unveiled its new Central Asian strategy, which promised “strong support” for countries in the region to “strengthen their independence from malign actors” along with political, economic, and security partnerships.
Apart from moves to counter China, Washington is also trying to outcompete Moscow in the former Soviet republics and tackle an increased synergy between China and Russia in economic and security coordination in the region.
“Given its vast energy resources, strategic location and uncertainties in the shifting world order, Central Asia will be one of the most important battlegrounds for major powers to vie for influence,” Li said.
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This article China promises to strengthen Central Asia ties amid struggle with US for influence first appeared on South China Morning Post