China’s leader, Xi Jinping, is kicking off a summit on Thursday that the country is heralding as a historic milestone, rolling out the red carpet for five Central Asian countries that are critical to China’s regional ambitions.
The inaugural China-Central Asia summit is part of China’s broader aim to strengthen economic and political partnerships with like-minded countries, to counter what it sees as a U.S.-dominated world order that is trying to contain and suppress China.
Notably, Mr. Xi’s summit was scheduled on the eve of the annual Group of 7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, which begins Friday and will be attended by leaders of the world’s wealthiest large democracies, including President Biden. A major topic for the G7 leaders will be how to address what the United States describes as China’s growing assertiveness.
Mr. Xi has sought to deepen China’s influence in Central Asia, part of his efforts to burnish his image as a global statesman. China greeted the leaders of five former Soviet republics — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — on the tarmac with a huge crowd of dancers and jumping children chanting: “Welcome, welcome! Warmly welcome!”
The two-day summit also points to China’s interest in filling some of the void left by Russia, a key trading partner and longtime security provider for the region. Russia’s war in Ukraine has weakened Moscow’s influence in Central Asia, creating an opening for China.
“China has been trying to highlight more and more of these groupings and platforms where it is the center point, not the West,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “It’s part of the wider story that China is spinning, which is that there’s another world order out there.”
In a symbolic move, the summit is taking place in Xi’an, the city in central China that was a key stop on the ancient Silk Road trade route, which for centuries linked China with Central Asia and the Middle East.
Articles from Chinese state media outlets have hyped up anticipation for the meeting, describing it as a milestone in Chinese diplomacy and a “new model” in international relations. China’s foreign ministry called it the first major diplomatic event hosted by the country this year.
China’s interest in Central Asia stems from longstanding concerns about violence and ethnic tensions in the country’s far western region of Xinjiang, which shares a border with Central Asian countries. China sees economic prosperity in the region as a way to further stabilize Xinjiang, analysts say.
China has invested billions of dollars into the pipelines, highways and railways that help bring Central Asia’s rich reserve of natural resources into China. Many Chinese cities rely on natural gas from Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan has some of the world’s largest oil fields outside the Middle East.
In 2013, Mr. Xi chose Kazakhstan as the site of the speech where he outlined the vision for his Belt and Road Initiative, a $1 trillion plan to build infrastructure projects in developing countries to draw them closer to China’s orbit. Last year, Mr. Xi visited Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan for his first overseas trip since the pandemic started.
Still, the relationship has not always been smooth. Several Belt and Road projects in the region have stalled or been embroiled in scandal, including a power plant breakdown in 2018 that left much of Kyrgyzstan’s capital without heat or electricity. Local residents have protested over concerns that their countries are becoming too indebted to China, and over China’s internment of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
And Mr. Xi’s ambitions in the region are complicated by his friendship with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and by the two countries’ close ties. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, has unnerved Central Asia, stirring concerns that Russia could try to seize other places formerly part of the Soviet Union, or encourage separatists.
Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies in Brussels, said China is engaged in a “tough diplomatic tap dance” of trying to gain an edge with Central Asian countries without angering Mr. Putin.
“China and Russia share an anti-Western narrative, but there are many areas of potential friction,” Ms. Fallon said.
Antony J. Blinken, the United States secretary of state, also visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan this year, hoping to encourage the Central Asian countries to resist providing economic aid to Russia in the face of Western sanctions.
China is watching closely as a growing number of Western actors are wooing Central Asia, said Niva Yau, a researcher in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, who works as a nonresident fellow for the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, a think tank.
In hosting the summit, Ms. Yau said, China aims “to give further reassurance to Central Asia that China will always be here, China is predictable, China is able to provide for the region.”
Olivia Wang contributed research.