The world economy is increasingly shifting into a different growth mode with South-South cooperation becoming particularly prominent in driving the performance of the global economy. Some of the events in recent years that highlighted this trend were the notable acceleration in South-South trade and investment, a rising number of countries aiming to join BRICS, the expansion in the membership of the BRICS New Development Bank, and the rising number of countries joining the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
In this respect the first China-Central Asia Summit in Xian, Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province, continues and reinforces these trends of upward momentum in South-South cooperation. This China-Central Asia nexus of South-South cooperation is proving to be especially important in advancing connectivity in the Eurasian region and raising the regional trade and growth potential.
In the sphere of trade cooperation, China and the economies of Central Asia have been making important headway in recent periods. In particular, in 2022, trade turnover between China and the Central Asian countries increased by 31.9 percent and exceeded $32 billion. The growth in trade turnover between China and the Central Asia region’s largest economy Kazakhstan was more than 34 percent in 2022, with the total trade turnover exceeded $24 billion.
In view of this positive upward momentum in bilateral economic cooperation, Kazakh Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov has declared Kazakhstan’s readiness to work towards achieving the goal set by both countries’ presidents to increase bilateral trade turnover to $35 billion by the year 2030.
The main gateway through which China is advancing its economic cooperation with the economies of Eurasia, most notably with Central Asian economies, is through the BRI. One of the key areas of economic cooperation within the BRI framework is transportation connectivity and such a focus renders this platform particularly important for Central Asia.
This is because all Central Asian economies are land-locked and rely on economic integration and greater connectivity to surmount the limitations of distance and geographical separation from key regional and global logistical centers.
In fact, the scale of the limitations of geography for Central Asia is in some ways unprecedented and calls for particular emphasis in economic cooperation with the outside world to be placed on connectivity projects. In particular, Kazakhstan is the largest land-locked economy in the world. Uzbekistan is one of the very few economies in the world to be separated from coastal lines by several countries. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are among the land-locked economies with some of the highest elevations.
Given the high investment needs for connectivity in Central Asia, it is no wonder that transportation is one of the leading sectors in terms of China’s investment in regional economies such as Kazakhstan – by September 2022, China’s investments in Kazakh transportation and storage reached nearly $3 billion, followed by the processing industry ($2.7 billion), and construction ($2 billion).
The BRI investment directed towards building transportation connectivity is already having palpable economic effects in Central Asian economies such as Uzbekistan. Using the BRI as a gateway into Eurasia, Uzbekistan’s producers are expanding their capabilities of connecting not only to China, but also to Iran, the economies of the European Union, India, Turkiye and many others.
According to existing estimates, “the BRI improvements in transport infrastructure are estimated to reduce Uzbek shipment time by almost 15 percent, the largest reduction among BRI countries. Falling shipment time will in turn raise Uzbekistan’s exports by between 13 percent and 23 percent.”
Another platform that is likely to gain prominence in the economic cooperation between China and Central Asia is “BRICS Plus” cooperation. Tajikistan was the first of the Central Asian economies to participate in the ninth BRICS Summit in 2017 conducted by China during its BRICS chairmanship. This was followed by the participation of Kazakhstan in the 14th BRICS Summit in 2022 when China expanded the BRICS Plus format during its BRICS presidency.
Going forward, there may be scope for more Central Asian economies to become part of the BRICS Plus dialogue. A related track that may be promising for the Central Asian economies is membership in the BRICS New Development Bank which should provide additional resources for such development goals as energy-efficiency, attainment of higher environmental standards, and growth in digital connectivity.
Overall, the China-Central Asia economic cooperation is “win-win” cooperation – the Central Asian economies are advancing the attainment of key development goals as well as building greater connectivity ties regionally and globally. At the same time, China is creating favorable regional conditions in Eurasia for economic growth and trade expansion – something that is likely to benefit its own growth performance in the longer term. This is the framework of balanced economic cooperation that needs to underpin the rise of the Global South in the world economy in the coming decades.
Author’s note: first published at CGTN
Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present – Book Review
The author of the Book “Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present”, is Adeeb Khalid, who is an associate professor, Jane and Raphael Bernstein Professor of Asian Studies and History in the Department of History of Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. His research encircles the history of Islam and Central Asia since the conquests of Russia in 1860s and the fate of Islam under Soviet and Imperial Russian era. He has written many articles, and his four non-fiction books include; The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform (1998), Islam after Communism (2007), Making Uzbekistan (2015) and the book under review.This book was published in 2021 and has twenty-five chapters, each branching out in their respective directions. The central idea of this book is provision of concise history of Central Asia from mid-18th Century until contemporary era, the reshaping of the most diverse and culturally vibrant region in modern world events as it stands at crossroads of Europe, Middle East and South Asia.
In this book, author has emphasized the emergence of Central Asia as a pivotal region with respect to geopolitics after the disintegration of USSR in 1991, which marked the largest transformation in Central Asian geostrategies. The newly independent Central Asian States namely; Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan joined International Organizations, established foreign embassies but massive problems were originated. Economic crisis was unleashed that rivaled the Great Depression of 1930s in its magnitude, trade and supply of goods was disrupted. Inflation escalated and people hardly made their both ends meet. The sense of de-modernization prevailed due to backwardness.
The new geopolitics was multilateral; involving a new number of powers in the region as compared to the era of colonial conquests in mid-19th Century, when region was bisected between Russia and China. Russia left in 1991 and Central Asia was open to the Globe. At the end of the 20th Century, Britain was no longer a power and USA was a new major power in the region. Turkey was the first State to establish diplomatic ties with Central Asian States. Though Russia left, but its influence didn’t vanish, it was connected to the region via language, education, transportation and commerce. China was the greatest beneficiary of this disintegration, became a major trading partner, entered into bilateral and multilateral agreements. Being suspicious of US hegemony, China and Russia initiated multilateral efforts to develop cooperation and security policies. Consequently, the formation of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) took place in June 2001.
In Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, communist leaders controlled their states entirely and got reelected several times. Kyrgyzstan experienced several power transfers and its political elite still has links to the late-Soviet period. Tajikistan has a different case, civil war stated in 1992 and ended in 1997, when a peace accord was brokered by the United Nations (UN) which allowed formation of a coalition government dominated by neo-soviets but minor role was given to the opposition. China got lesson from Soviet collapse that it happened due to mobilization of its nationalities, much power was designated to republics by Soviet Constitution, also Soviet policies of indigenization had promoted many minority officials to positions of power. Consequently, similar developments should not be allowed in China. Author has explicated the role of IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan); in order to establish Islamic State, against Uzbek President Islom Karimov’s secular regime. The actions planted threats against security agenda for the region. The incident of 9/11 in 2001 and Global war on terror changed the shape of the geopolitics. Since then, opposition to terrorism and religious extremism became universal language which was also adopted by Central Asia States with ardor and they targeted all adversaries with this language.
Author has explicated the Uyghurs issue, role of China, waves of discontentment in Central Asia and the way Uyghurs are facing complications and hardships in China. He has accentuated that with the process of Sinicization, Uyghurs and Kazakhs are considered minorities and Islam is an alien religion in China. This suppression in China comes from a very different position than it does in Central Asian States. This targeting of Uyghurs as a nationality is compared with Stalinists deportations that targeted entire national groups; Koreans, Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Poles; despite their positions, class or political viewpoints. Therefore, it is cultural genocide and war on Uyghurs by China. The current regime of surveillance is imbricated in global networks of science and commerce. The surveillance technology is itself a big business. Darren Byler said, “Controlling the Uyghurs has also become a test case for marketing Chinese technological prowess to authoritarian nations around the world”.
China itself is a big customer, now richer than ever before, can beat down the capabilities and resources in control and surveillance that is beyond everyone’s imagination. In other words, it is called high-tech totalitarianism. Central Asia is at the cutting edge of the global developments.
Concisely, Central Asia has experienced huge transformations and waves in two and a half centuries; colonialism, anti-colonialism, development, social revolution, nationalism, state-led modernization and social engineering. Author has argued that colonialism is an inherently diverse phenomenon and its standard definition can not be considered to interpret whether Central Asia was colonial or not. In late 20th Century, the idea that the nation was the most efficacious form of political organization reached Central Asia and since then, it has been the significant force in the region. In Central Asia, the role of Islam is undefined, its contentedness and indeterminacy can be visualized intensely. Central Asian States didn’t perform well in the corona virus pandemic like other states. The history of Central Asia revolves around two global forces; Islam and Communism. Islam is visualized as a threat in contemporary security debates about Central Asia and China has invoked it to justify its Uyghurs’ cultural genocide.
Russia and Central Asia: A Great Peaceful Game
The fact that Russia assumed responsibility for the security and development of the peoples of Central Asia was historically accidental, although it was connected with obvious geopolitical circumstances. Now relations between our countries are undergoing a new transition period, as is the internal development of Moscow’s partners in this vast but sparsely populated region. Inevitably, there is a temptation to assess their prospects by comparing them with existing practices of interaction between major European powers, or the United States, and their immediate neighbours. Such comparisons reveal that there is only one example where a neighbour of a large industrial power does not find itself in distress — this is Canada, which shares its main cultural practices and political institutions with America. In all other cases, whether we are talking about countries south of the United States, or about the states of North Africa and the Middle East, being in the same neighbourhood as a powerful nation does not benefit the southern neighbours. However, what provides relative confidence in the future is that Russia, by its nature and in the perception of its neighbours, is not a typical country of the developed North. Therefore, getting into a situation similar to Mexico or Libya will require much more effort from the countries of Central Asia than it might seem at first glance.
So far, the states of Central Asia are showing rather contradictory signs in their internal political and socio-economic evolution. On the one hand, all of them emerged as independent countries within a fairly short historical period of 30 years. Despite numerous internal political conflicts, none of these states collapsed, as many in the West expected, and even hoped, in the first stages of their independence process after the collapse of the USSR. Each of the countries in the region is developing along its own unique path, reflecting historical experience and cultural characteristics. Speaking of public administration practices, it is hard to find anything in Central Asia from the era of modernisation in the 20th century with a legacy powerful enough to overshadow earlier practices of maintaining comparative stability. Virtually none of the current development trends have destroyed Central Asian societies; rather, they are absorbed by them, adapted by the powerful cultural and civilisational layers accumulated over the centuries.
Due to its geopolitical and ethnic composition, the Central Asian region cannot serve as a jumping-off point for the formation of states or their unions that would pose a danger to neighbouring powers. Here, first and foremost, we are talking about the interests of Russia and China, connected with the region by long common borders on both sides, where ethnically and religiously related people often live. Theoretically, the Central Asian countries could be considered by the West as an excellent territorial base for launching an offensive against the rear of Moscow and Beijing. However, the lack of direct access to these countries, as well as their own responsible policies, makes such a prospect unlikely. Moreover, these same factors determine the serious influence of Russia on the security of Central Asia and potentially significant influence from China. Although Beijing has so far shown no desire to take direct responsibility for security in Central Asia, in the future we may see a more active policy from the Chinese government.
We have observed that clandestine American and European diplomacy is doing more and more to undermine the internal stability of the countries of Central Asia. The mood of segments of urban population (albeit extremely insignificant given the general background) is partly related to these efforts, and the authorities, who also seek to use external factors to channel public discontent, respond to them. It seems that numerous initiatives whose content is directed against the interests of Russia and, to a lesser extent, China, sometimes feel invisible support from those who make political decisions. At the same time, the governments of the Central Asian countries themselves feel confident and have no doubt about their ability to keep such destructive moods under control. This confidence deserves respect — in 30 years of independence, we have not seen a single example when movements inspired from abroad became strong enough to threaten social stability. Moreover, a significant proportion of the resources allocated by the West to undermine internal stability in the region is successfully absorbed within the framework of traditional public institutions.
The most striking examples of an internal crisis were after the dramatic civil war in Tajikistan (1992-1997) as well as the mass protests in Kazakhstan in January 2022, when the authorities even had to turn to Russia and other CSTO allies for help normalise the situation in the country. However, most observers still believe that there were very few driving factors of foreign origin in these incidents. The main reasons lay in internal socio-economic problems, the “facade” economy and public institutions. Now the Kazakh government is showing a desire to rebuild the state and society that it received from the hands of its first president Nursultan Nazarbayev. But recent protests by oil workers in Kazakhstan’s westernmost regions show that these efforts are still struggling to meet the needs of the population. According to reports, the situation in the infrastructure inherited by independent Kazakhstan from the USSR is not getting much better either. Thus, the question arises of how long the country’s peaceful development period will last and what may follow. To a lesser extent, this applies to smaller Kyrgyzstan, which also experienced several revolutionary episodes over the past 15 years, the results of which were consolidated for the time being.
Now the efforts of all the governments of the countries of Central Asia, without exception, are aimed at gradually increasing the degree of economic openness and involvement in international relations. The leader in this regard is Uzbekistan, where a policy of openness has been pursued for several years, often bringing very impressive results. Other states act less consistently or do not have such serious demographic resources as those that are at the disposal of Tashkent. However, in general, we can be quite optimistic about the stability of the state systems in the region and should not be afraid that they may fall into the abyss of disasters in the coming years, as has happened with Afghanistan, Syria and a number of African countries.
This, however, does not mean that it will be easy for the Central Asian states to achieve the level and quality of life of their largest neighbours — Russia and China. Taking into account the fact that all five countries are relatively protected from the most terrible existential challenges, the most important question may be their ability to overcome the trap where they’re at a level of development when the destruction of the state is impossible, but so is reaching a new level in terms of the quality of life of the population. A number of countries have followed this path, often showing relatively good figures for the overall development of their economies: Mexico, Algeria, Morocco, and some of the countries of Southeast Asia. It is unlikely that Russia wants its most important southern neighbours to be in a position where the gap is insurmountable. The answer to this challenge can be, among others, more active regional integration, the creation of common labour markets and the spread of related social policy practices, as well as the avoidance of the archaisation of society through the formation of a common cultural and educational space.
From our partner RIAC
New Frontier: China Makes Inroads into Kazakhstan
China has made significant inroads into the central Asia region during Russia-Ukraine crisis. Russia has award the Chinese many opportunities in efforts to strengthen bilateral relations within the context of pushing forward multipolar solidarity.
Kazakhstan is currently widening its economic cooperation with the Chinese, thus China has gained stronger economic muscles in the region. Kazakhstan and China signed 47 agreements worth $22 billion during Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s visit to China, Tokayev’s press service said following a Kazakh-Chinese investment round table.
“Last year, bilateral trade reached a record $31 billion. China is one of the five largest investors in the Kazakh economy with total investment amounting to $23 billion,” the head of state was quoted as saying. Tokayev said that despite the challenging economic situation in the world, trade and economic relations between Kazakhstan and China continue to develop dynamically.
The Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline expansion will cost about $200 million, said Magzum Mirzagaliyev, the chief executive officer Kazakh national oil and gas company KazMunayGas (KMG). “The cost of the expansion project will be about $200 million. We intend to start work next year and complete it in two or three years,” Mirzagaliyev said on the sidelines of the Kazakh-Chinese talks in Xi’an, according to Orda.kz.
The project will allow Kazakhstan to increase oil exports. Today’s throughput capacity of the Atyrau-Kenkiyak and Kenkiyak-Kumkol sections of the oil pipeline is only 6 million tonnes, so KMG and CNPC have signed today an agreement to expand the capacity of these pipelines, Mirzagaliyev said.
Theoretically, Kazakhstan could boost oil exports to 20 million tonnes from today’s 1 million-2 million tonnes, according to Mirzagaliyev. “The throughput capacity of the Atasu-Alashankou section is 20 million tonnes, which, theoretically, could be filled with our oil. Today, the transit of Russian oil is 10 million tonnes, and Kazakhstan exports about 1-2 million tonnes. That is why, we have reached agreement on the expansion [of the pipeline capacity],” the head of KMG said.
In addition, construction of Kazakhstan’s logistics center gets underway at Xi’an Dry Port. “This hub linking the Shaanxi region with Kazakhstan and Central Asia will open the way to Europe, Turkey and Iran. The project will give a new impetus to cooperation between the two countries,” Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said at the groundbreaking ceremony.
He said that last year 23 million tonnes of cargo was shipped between the two countries by rail, which is a record-high figure. Transit shipping of goods in the first quarter of this year increased by 35% and exceeded 7 million tonnes. Tokayev said that over the past 15 years, Kazakhstan had invested $35 billion in the freight transportation sector.
From next year, the dry port is expected to handle electronics and computer components, automobiles and auto components, textiles, clothing, footwear and accessories, food and agricultural products, construction products and building materials, as well as ores, metals and chemical products.
Leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan would take part in this special economic summit. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying announced that China’s Xi’an would host the China-Central Asia Summit on May 18-19 in the city of Xi’an in the Shaanxi Province.
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