Continental Shifts: The China-Central Asia Summit And Iran-Russia Corridor

Continental Shifts: The China-Central Asia Summit And Iran-Russia Corridor
At least for the Western public, Central Asia appears as an almost forgotten region of the world. There is a widespread belief that the post-Soviet republics have no future. The last time the region became ‘famous’ was in January 2022, when anti-government demonstrations broke out in Kazakhstan (at that time, the West was hoping for a colour revolution to install an anti-Russian and anti-Chinese government in this country, as it took place shortly before Russia launched a special military operation in Ukraine). However, other issues are rather ignored in the media.

The China-Central Asia Summit took place a month ago (18-19 May 2023) in the Chinese city of Xi'an. Formerly known as Chang'an, this was the city where the old Silk Route had its eastern terminus. Its ramifications have been almost completely missed by Western mainstream media.

The Summit was attended by: China’s President Xi Jinping, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart, Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov, Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon and Turkmenistan’s President Serdar Berdimuhamedow.

In addition, the outcome of this summit showed that this is not a one-time initiative, but rather a long-term programme to develop relations between the countries. At the Summit, it was agreed that the next meeting would take place in 2025 in Kazakhstan and that a permanent secretariat of the China-Central Asia Mechanism would be established to obtain cooperation and ensure joint implementation of projects.

This is the culmination of regional cooperation. China’s trade with the five Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – increased to US$70.2 billion in 2022 from US$0.46 billion in 1992, when China established diplomatic ties with the five Central Asian countries. China is the largest trading partner of Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and the second largest trading partner of Kazakhstan, as well as the third largest trading partner of Tajikistan. As of the end of March 2023, China’s direct investment stock in the five Central Asian countries stood at slightly over US$15 billion. The cumulative turnover of completed projects reached US$63.9 billion

First of all, the Summit was an opportunity to announce a great development plan for the countries of Central Asia in the form of signing many agreements (mainly economic, but also in the field of science and culture). At the press conference, Xi Jinping said: "This summit has added new impetus to the development and revitalisation of the six counties, and injected strong positive energy into regional peace and stability, […] We will jointly foster a new paradigm of deeply complementary and high-level win-win cooperation."

China will provide Central Asian countries with a total of 26 billion yuan ($3.8 billion) in financial support and subsidies. Xi said that the building of Line D of the China-Central Asia natural gas pipeline should be accelerated. He also called on China and Central Asia to increase their oil and gas trade, develop energy cooperation across industrial chains, and boost cooperation on new energy and the peaceful use of nuclear energy. In the longer term, China supports construction of a cross-Caspian Sea international transport corridor, and would strengthen the construction of transport hubs of China-Europe freight train services, Xi said.

Tokayev stressed the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railway’s potential unveils excellent prospects for Central Asian countries as one of the shortest routes from East Asia to the countries of the Persian Gulf. Kazakhstan plans to systematically increase the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR) capacity connecting China-Central Asia-Europe’s key corridor by introducing digital solutions and infrastructure upgrades. Kazakhstan is keen to increase the volume and diversify the range of agricultural products for export to neighboring countries. Tokayev proposed creating a program to bring new technology into the water management industry to utilise water resources efficiently.

In a joint Declaration, the six countries agreed to increase trade, improve rail and road connectivity and increase the number of flights between themselves. They also pledged to speed up the construction of a cross-border railway linking China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. The Xi'an Declaration says the signatory countries will explore the potential for further agricultural cooperation, and China has agreed to increase agricultural imports from Central Asia. China and five Central Asian countries also agreed to strengthen cooperation in areas such as fossil fuels, renewable energy, education, science, tourism, and healthcare.
The China-Central Asia Summit took place a month ago (18-19 May 2023) in the Chinese city of Xi'an. Formerly known as Chang'an, this was the city where the old Silk Route had its eastern terminus

In total, at the Summit, the governments of Central Asia and China signed 54 major multilateral agreements, created 19 new regional platforms, and signed another 9 documents on multilateral cooperation. Of course, you can read the complete list of contracts here, but the most interesting ones are the following:

- Regulations on the work of the mechanism of the meeting of the heads of customs services in the format “Central Asia – China”,

- Memorandum of Understanding on technical cooperation in the field of import and export of animal and plant quarantine between the competent authorities in the “Central Asia – China” format,

- Establish a regional Health Industry Alliance,

- Implementation of regional programs and projects in the field of “green” technologies,

- Development of vocational education within the “Lu Ban Workshops“,

- Expand cooperation in high-tech areas such as artificial intelligence, smart city, big data and cloud computing,

- Intensification of cooperation in the field of poverty reduction through the introduction of effective social support programs for the population, the exchange of specialists and modern methodologies,

- Exchange of experience in the field of modernisation of the agricultural sector and the establishment of production chains between urban and rural areas in order to implement measures to reduce poverty,

- Development of transport infrastructure, including construction of new and modernisation of existing railways and roads from China to Central Asia,

And for me personally, there is a particularly interesting agreement for the organisation of mutual display of television films and television programs.

It is worth mentioning that the China-Central Asia Summit coincides with the first day of the G-7 Summit in Hiroshima, Japan. This was an assembly of the world's leading industrialised democracies, i.e. Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US. It was attended by several other countries: India, Vietnam, Indonesia, South Korea, Brazil and – not very intuitively – Ukraine because the goal of the G7 summit was to persuade some countries of the Global South to get involved in the NATO-backed war against Russia. Many commentators are now of the view that Western countries do not offer equally attractive development proposals for Third World countries, and above all, that they are not reliable partners. As Javier M. Piedra writes for AsiaTimes: “Just as the June 2021 US-led ‘Build Back Better World‘ (B3W) infrastructure initiative turned out to be a flop, so, in all likelihood, will the recently announced (June 2022) US$600 billion joint EU/UK/US plan – ‘Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment‘ (PGII) – meet the same fate. The failure of the domestic version of B3W in the United States is well known in Asia.”

Of course, Western media and commentators – but also, to a large extent, Western public opinion (which is especially visible in social media) – either completely ignored the China-Central Asia Summit or decided to hit Russia with it. They claim that this is a demonstration of Chinese forces in Russia's "backyard." The Washington Post headlined its article on the Summit: "China sends a subtle message to Central Asia: Rely on us, not Russia”; CNN covered the event in a similar vein: "China woos Central Asia as Ukraine war weakens Russian influence.” According to CNN „The two-day event is also a play from Beijing to expand its influence in Central Asia, where Russia – now distracted by its debilitating and unsuccessful invasion of Ukraine – has long been the dominant great power partner”. Some also suggest that Russia does not want the development of Central Asian countries (as part of a supposedly colonial strategy of keeping them underdeveloped in order to control them). However, I believe such accusations are wrong. The sanctions imposed by the West on Russia (as a result of the launch of a special military operation in Ukraine in February 2022) were intended to destroy the Russian economy. However, this did not happen, as Nicholas Mulder rightly points out in his article: "Asian demand has made up for Russia’s lost oil exports to Europe while trade rerouted through Central Asia has helped to dodge sanctions […] Central Asian economies are active as conduits of parallel imports and transit trade […] By October 2022 year-on-year increase in exports to Russia from China, Belarus, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia nearly equaled the fall in European, US and UK exports to Russia.” The conclusion is that it is in Russia's interest to develop the countries of Central Asia, especially the infrastructure in these countries, and to increase the demand for Russian products (which is impossible without the economic development of these countries). Russia can circumvent Western sanctions effectively (and even profitably), so only if its partners in Central Asia grow.

However, the China-Central Asia Summit is not the only important event in the region. On May 17, Iran and Russia signed an agreement to accelerate and finalise the construction of a railway that is key to the International North-South Transit Corridor (INSTC). Meanwhile, in a bid to enhance trade and transit, Russia's second-largest bank (VTB) has established a representative office in Iran. The Iranian side estimates that if the construction of this corridor is completed, the total income from oil transit through it will amount to even USD 20 billion.

Under the terms of the agreement, Russian will spend 1.7 mld USD on the construction of the railway.

Iranian Transport Minister Mehrdad Bazrpash, who signed the agreement with his Russian counterpart in Tehran, said the 164-kilometre railway in Iran's north would be completed within three years.

Russian President Vladimir Putin argued about the benefits of completing the INSTC in the form of increased investment and the creation of new jobs. He also said thanks to this Corridor. "The delivery of goods from Saint Petersburg [in Russia] to Mumbai [in India] will take about 10 days, compared to the journey through traditional trade routes that takes 30 to 45 days" Putin said.

In the global context, it is worth considering the issue of the VTB bank, which is to connect the Iranian and Russian banking systems in order to circumvent Western sanctions - such a solution will certainly be a strong stimulus for further de-dollarisation.

As we can see, the world is undergoing numerous changes that systematically weaken the old dominant position of the West, and regions that have been underdeveloped, weakened, or ignored by the world's leading economies for years are coming to the fore. The development of Central Asia – and not only East and Southeast Asia, which we have been observing since the 1980s – will significantly change the rules of the game in the world and bring significant benefits to the inhabitants of the region by reducing poverty.

The author is a student of law in Poland