China-Central Asia Relations Entering a New Era

By Liu Bin

The year 2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the five Central Asian countries. On January 25, President Xi Jinping and the presidents of the five Central Asian countries had a virtual summit in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations. In his important speech entitled “Joining Hands for a Shared Future”, President Xi Jinping reviewed the development process of relations between China and Central Asian countries, summarized successful cooperation experience, and proposed the new goal of building an even closer China-Central Asia community with a shared future. The summit adopted and released the Joint Statement Between Leaders of China and the Five Central Asian Countries on the 30th Anniversary of the Establishment of Diplomatic Ties, in which the parties solemnly announced their determination of jointly forging a strategic partnership featuring rich substance, fruitful results and enduring friendship, building a China-Central Asia community with a shared future and leading the relations between China and Central Asian countries into a new era.

The new era is reflected on the strategic partnership with high-level mutual trust between the two sides. After establishing diplomatic ties, China resolved boundary issues left from the past with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in a constructive way through friendly consultations, turning the over 3,300 kilometers of shared borders into a bond of friendship and cooperation. It has become a fine example of peaceful settlement of territorial issues for the international community. Over the past 30 years, China and Central Asian countries have rendered mutual support on issues concerning each other’s core interests and major concerns, respected each other’s development paths suited to national conditions and supported each other in safeguarding our respective national sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. Relations between China and Central Asian countries have witnessed a major historic leap from a good-neighborly and cooperative relationship to a strategic partnership, and then to a comprehensive strategic partnership. We have become strategic partners that trust and count on each other. The development of relations between China and Central Asian countries stands at a new starting point.

The new era is reflected on the practical cooperation for win-win outcomes between the two sides. China never attaches any political strings to the practical cooperation with Central Asian countries and always takes as its original aspiration to deliver benefits to the region and the people. Over the past 30 years, China and Central Asian countries have opened up markets for cooperation, shared development opportunities and tapped into the potential for cooperation. We have promoted practical collaboration in all fields based on such principles as mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit, and win-win cooperation. China has become the largest or the most important trading partner and source of investment for Central Asian countries. Two-way trade between China and Central Asian countries has jumped from US$460 million in the early days of diplomatic ties to more than US$50 billion in 2021, an increase of more than 100 times. Achieving rapid growth in our cooperation despite the impact of COVID-19 is indeed a hard-won result.

The new era is reflected on our high-quality Belt and Road cooperation. During his visit to Kazakhstan in 2013, President Xi Jinping proposed the initiative of the Silk Road Economic Belt, which started the process of Belt and Road cooperation. Central Asian countries have since actively supported and participated in the Belt and Road cooperation. Over the past eight years and more, we have deepened the synergy between the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and development strategies of Central Asian countries, carried out concrete cooperation projects in various fields in an orderly manner. A multi-dimensional and interconnected network has taken shape. The China-Kazakhstan crude oil pipeline, the China-Central Asia natural gas pipeline, and the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan road-rail transport corridor are operating safely and steadily. China-Europe freight trains via Central Asia have made over 25,000 trips, forming a “steel camel fleet” that vigorously supported joint COVID-19 responses across the Eurasia. China and Central Asian countries implemented a large number of new projects in such fields as water conservancy, electricity, textile and chemical industry. Agriculture, digital economy, artificial intelligence and new energy have become new highlights of cooperation.

The new era is reflected on our joint efforts in maintaining regional security and stability. As close neighbors, the safety and security of China and Central Asian countries are interconnected. Safeguarding regional peace and tranquility serves the common interests of China and countries in the region. China and Central Asian countries always act on the new vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security. We have actively deepened cooperation on law enforcement and security, jointly fought against terrorism, separatism and extremism, cracked down on drug-trafficking and transnational organized crimes, and cooperated on ensuring security for major events. We jointly opposed external interference in our internal affairs or attempts to instigate color revolutions. We oppose all attempts and actions that undermine regional stability and friendship. China and Central Asian countries have coordinated our positions on the situation in Afghanistan in a timely manner, actively played our constructive role as neighboring countries, and jointly promoted the establishment of an open and inclusive government in Afghanistan. We have also joined hands in COVID-19 response and forged a public health security shield.

The new era is reflected on the mutual understanding and affinity through mutual exchanges between our peoples. Over the past 30 years, China and Central Asian countries have carried forward the traditional friendship along the Silk Road, conducted people-to-people exchanges through multiple channels and on multiple levels. Exchanges between media, women, youth, think tanks and localities, as well as in sports and other areas were institutionalized and regularized. To date, China and Central Asian countries have had 58 pairs of sister cities. 13 Confucius Institutes and 22 Confucius Classrooms have been set up in the region. Many well-known Chinese universities and colleges have country study centers on Central Asian countries and Central Asian languages majors. The Luban Workshop project was successfully launched and fruitful results were achieved in student exchange programs, joint archaeological projects, tourism cooperation, and mutual translation of literary works and mutual screening of films and TV dramas. COVID-19 may have disrupted the personnel flow, but it does not stop the enthusiasm of the people of China and Central Asian countries from interacting with each other. In the early days of COVID-19, in particular, our people supported and encouraged each other, fully testifying to our true friendship that stands the test of adversity. The millennia-old friendship between the two sides has since scaled new heights.

The new era is reflected on our solidarity and coordination on international affairs. China and Central Asian countries have worked closely together under the framework of multilateral organizations, such as the United Nations, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), with active support for each other’s initiatives. The Global Development Initiative (GDI), proposed by President Xi Jinping, has been strongly endorsed and echoed by Central Asian countries. Standing on the right side of history, we have jointly opposed unilateralism and bullying, defended multilateralism, and firmly safeguarded the common strategic security and development interests of developing countries. Together, we are working to steer the international order toward greater justice and equity. In light of new circumstances, we launched the “China plus Central Asia” foreign ministers’ meeting, demonstrating to the world this region’s commitment to cooperation, development and rejuvenation.

We are faced with profound changes unseen in a century with emerging challenges and increasing risks. What kind of a world we should build and how to build it under new circumstances? These are the questions of our times. President Xi Jinping put forward China’s proposal and proposition of building a community with a shared future for mankind and achieving shared and win-win development. He pointed out that we should build partnerships in which countries treat each other as equals, engage in mutual consultation and show mutual understanding; create a security architecture featuring fairness, justice, joint contribution and shared benefits; promote open, innovative and inclusive development that benefits all; increase inter-civilization exchanges to promote harmony, inclusiveness and respect for differences; and build an ecosystem that puts mother nature and green development first. Facts show that this is the right choice for humanity to achieve common development, prosperity, and lasting peace. We are delighted to see that China and Central Asian countries have all along walked in the same direction. With concrete actions, we are leading the international endeavor towards building a community with a shared future for mankind.

President Xi Jinping announced at the Virtual Summit to Commemorate the 30th Anniversary of Diplomatic Relations Between China and Central Asian Countries that China stands ready to work with Central Asian countries to build on the good momentum and strive shoulder-by-shoulder to build an even closer China-Central Asia community with a shared future. He also made five practical proposals, namely to magnify the exemplary role of good-neighborly friendship, build a cooperation belt for high-quality development, strengthen the shield for defending peace, build a family with diverse interactions, and protect the global village that enjoys peace and development. In early February, the heads of state of all five Central Asian countries gathered in Beijing for the Olympic Winter Games. President Xi Jinping met with the presidents of the five countries in-person for the first time since COVID-19, and reached important consensus on cooperation. The series of high-level exchanges since the beginning of 2022 have helped draw up an overarching blueprint of and chart the course for the growth of China’s relations with Central Asian countries in the new era, serving as a new milestone in our relations. The new era breeds new opportunities, which in turn call for new accomplishments. As we look into the next 30 years, broad prospects and a bright future lie ahead for this relationship.

We look forward to fostering even better political relations with Central Asian countries. Close high-level exchanges are the distinctive feature of China’s relations with Central Asian countries. President Xi Jinping has visited all of the five countries, developing fine working relationship and deep personal friendship with their heads of state. This has set the direction for the development of the relations between the two sides. Going forward, China will follow the guidance of the consensus reached by the heads of state, continue to act on the four principles of mutual respect, good-neighborly friendship, solidarity in trying times, and mutual benefit, and uphold the principle of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness. Together, China and Central Asian countries will work to deepen good neighborliness, render mutual support on issues concerning each other’s core interests, improve intergovernmental cooperation mechanisms, promote regular exchanges at all levels, and make good use of the “China plus Central Asia” foreign ministers’ meeting, in a bid to steadily upgrade the relationship between the two sides.

We look forward to deepening and enriching practical cooperation with Central Asian countries. China and Central Asian countries, with diverse resources and in different economic development stages, enjoy huge potential for cooperation. The two sides share not only the political will to deepen practical cooperation but also sound basis for cooperation. For the next step, China will, with Belt and Road cooperation as the engine for development, expand the list of trade products and encourage more quality goods and agricultural products from Central Asian countries to access the Chinese market, with a view to fully implementing the goal of increasing the trade between our two sides to US$70 billion by 2030. China is ready to focus on such key cooperation areas as transport, energy, agriculture and infrastructure, maintain the smooth operation of industrial and supply chains, roll out more livelihood programs in Central Asia that deliver tangible benefits to the public, and share China’s experience in such areas as high-tech, digital economy and poverty alleviation.

We look forward to deepening coordination in security affairs with Central Asian countries. As President Xi Jinping points out, peace is an aspiration shared by the people of all countries in the region, and the COVID-19 pandemic proves once again that virus respects no borders and humanity shares a common future. China will continue to strengthen cooperation with Central Asian countries in such areas as fighting the three forces of terrorism, separatism and extremism, border management and control, and combating terrorist use of the Internet, and deepen coordination on ensuring security for major events and oil and gas pipelines, fighting drug trafficking and transnational organized crime, and safeguarding biosecurity. We will make our contributions to the peaceful rebuilding of Afghanistan as well as peace and stability in the region through mechanisms including the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group meeting and the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting among the Neighboring Countries of Afghanistan. We will safeguard public health security by providing vaccines and anti-epidemic supplies to Central Asian countries, stepping up joint production with respect to COVID vaccines and medicines, and strengthening cooperation in traditional medicine, etc.

We look forward to adding vitality to the time-honored friendship with Central Asian countries. Amity between the people holds the key to good relations between countries. Friendship between our peoples is a valuable asset and internal driving force for the relations between our countries. China is committed to fostering a multi-faceted framework of people-to-people exchanges, exploring diverse forms of people-to-people exchanges, and will continue to promote exchanges between women, think tanks, media, and in archaeology and other fields. Against the backdrop of COVID-19, we will explore new models for tourism cooperation, and create more opportunities of exchange and study for the youth. We will fully leverage the mechanism of sister cities, hold arts exchange events of various kinds both online and in person, and carry out friendly exchanges and mutual learning at all levels and in all areas. All these efforts will add new charm and vitality to the Silk Road spirit in the new era.

We look forward to enhancing coordination on international affairs with Central Asian countries. China and Central Asian countries, all belonging to the developing world, are natural partners and friends. The two sides share the broadest common interests and similar positions on many international and regional issues. Facing the complex international landscape of profound changes and a pandemic both unseen in a century, as well as major-country rivalry, China stands ready to strengthen cooperation with Central Asian countries under the framework of the United Nations, World Trade Organization, SCO and other international and regional organizations. As each other’s staunch source of strength, we will safeguard our common security and development interests, uphold international equity and justice, reject Cold War mentality and zero-sum game. We will be builders of world peace, advocates of multilateralism and defenders of the international order.

As a poem by Chairman Mao Zedong reads, “Fear not the strong pass iron-clad on all sides! The summit is now surmounted with big strides.” China and Central Asian countries boast unbreakable friendship of thousands of years and a solid basis and strong impetus for cooperation. We have every confidence and resolve to strive for new gains and take our relations to a new height, thus setting new examples for and making new contributions to building a community with a shared future for mankind.

Liu Bin is Director-General of the Department of European-Central Asian Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.