(MENAFN- Colombo Gazette)
China sought to forge closer economic and security ties with its Central Asian neighbours on Friday as the US and its allies met next door to build a common strategy to curb Beijing's challenge to the Washington-led world order.
Chinese President Xi Jinping rolled out the red carpet for his counterparts from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in the northwestern city of Xian.
The two-day summit, which analysts said signalled a battle of influence between China and the US-led West, overlapped with the Group of Seven summit in the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
As part of his flurry of diplomacy this week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is expected to travel to Hiroshima this weekend to meet G7 leaders in person to discuss the war with Russia.
China has also been touted as a potential peacemaker in the Ukraine crisis, with special envoy Li Hui touring Europe and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin scheduled to meet Xi in Beijing next week.
Chinese state broadcaster CCTV hailed the Xian summit as a success, saying it ushered in“a bright future of China-Central Asia relations”.
It showed Xi and the five other leaders capping the meeting by planting pomegranate trees, symbolising the long friendship and“close unity and cooperation” between Beijing and the region.
In his keynote address at the summit on Friday morning, Xi described ties between China and central Asian nations as having“profound historical origins [and] extensive practical needs”.
“They are full of vigour and vitality in the new era,” he said.
Xi also called for the expansion of economic and trade ties and energy cooperation, including speeding up the construction of the Line D China-Central Asia gas pipeline and strengthening oil and gas trade.
Beijing's relations with Washington and other Western powers have been strained over a wide range of issues from the Taiwan Strait to the South China Sea.
But as Western economies have pulled away from China, central Asian leaders have come out in support of Beijing, with hopes of increased Chinese engagement in their region.
In a joint statement released after the summit, the six leaders presented a show of solidarity, reaffirming mutual support for each other's core interests and approach to development.
“The parties stress that democracy is a common pursuit and value of all mankind,” the statement said.“The choice of a country's own development path and mode of governance is its sovereign right and is not subject to interference.”
The document added that China and the five central Asian countries would work together to boost cooperation in renewable energy, while stressing the“importance of a stable energy supply to the development of economic, trade and investment cooperation”.
It also stressed the importance of improving connectivity in the region, including better transport links between Central Asia, Southeast Asia and other countries on the continent.
Observers said the timing of the summit in relation to the G7 meeting could be significant.
It could also be driven by China's need to ensure a steady energy pipeline and the region's importance in Beijing's flagship Belt and Road Initiative, they said.
Reuters reported last week that the G7 leaders would discuss plans to adopt a tougher stance on Beijing.
Li Lifan, a specialist in Russia and central Asia at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said irrespective of whether the clash of the summit and G7 dates was intentional,“it's clearly a battle for influence between China and US-led West amid talks about a new cold war”.
Yang Shu, former dean of central Asian studies at Lanzhou University, said the two meetings had different driving factors.
The G7 leaders felt the need to contain Beijing while China and central Asia wanted to“oppose the West's containment, especially in terms of security”, he said.
Yang said China had to work on“all fronts” to mitigate security threats and pressure from the United States and its allies.
“The deterioration of China's eastern environment is becoming more and more apparent, including in the South China Sea,” he said.
“It has deteriorated sharply after the Ukraine war so we need to increase investment in [China's] west to strengthen security and economic cooperation.”
To that end, Beijing was looking to strengthen ties with central Asia, a region where Western nations had less influence.“China has much more space to work with there,” Yang said, adding that it was“very difficult for the West to intervene” in the region.
China is also looking to central Asia to secure energy supplies as the ripples of the Ukraine crisis and sanctions on Russia add uncertainties to the market.
“The Line D China-Central Asia natural gas pipeline could significantly enhance China-Central Asia's energy cooperation,” said Dong Jinyue, a senior China economist at Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria.
“It also could benefit central Asia's labour market and have a significant spillover effect on economic development in these countries.”
On Friday, Xi announced that China would provide 26 billion yuan (US$3.7 billion) in financial aid and support for development in the central Asian countries.
Li, from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said Chinese economic aid and investment were“critical both politically and economically” because many central Asian nations had been under secondary Western sanctions over their ties with Russia.
“For China, central Asia's pivot towards China means a lot as the central Asian nations are a pillar of the Belt and Road Initiative,” he said, adding that the ambitious infrastructure project had faced difficulties.
Earlier this month, Reuters reported that Italy was unlikely to renew its belt and road deal which was set to expire early next year, a decision that would be a major diplomatic setback for Beijing.
Li said that overall the summit in Xian had been“conducive to substantive cooperation” between Beijing and central Asian nations.
In terms of the US-China rivalry, Beijing stood to gain much from the deepened ties with central Asia while the West would struggle to match China's commitment to work with developing countries, he said.
But Li also cautioned that the summit's significance should not be overstated, noting that countries in the region were still striking a balance in their ties with China, Russia, the US and other Western powers. -(SCMP.com)