SINGAPORE – The state visit by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to the Chinese city of Xian and his participation in the China-Central Asia Summit last week emphasized the importance of bilateral relations and multilateral interaction. It highlighted Kazakhstan’s eagerness to engage with China, said Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and a senior associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, in an interview with The Astana Times.
Pantucci is an author of several publications about China’s relations with Central Asia, including the book “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire.” According to the expert, economic ties have always been a key component of the China-Kazakhstan cooperation and will likely develop further in the near future.
The two countries announced new agreements in different domains, including in the spheres of large-scale investments and construction in Kazakhstan, as well as new technologies and green energy.
“Some trade arrangements, which were signed before the pandemic, will likely kick in after being added to the new agreements in Xian. Minerals, oil and gas, renewable energy and electric vehicles will be amongst the most prominent sectors in the medium term,” he said.
During his visit, President Tokayev signed a joint statement with Chinese President Xi Jinping, participated in the multilateral sessions between China and Central Asian countries, and held talks with Chinese officials and business representatives.
“The signing of the mutual visa-free agreement between the two sides was one of the key developments,” noted the expert.
Pantucci also spoke about the increasing attractiveness and strategic uncertainties regarding the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, also known as the Middle Corridor. It starts in Southeast Asia and China, runs through Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, Georgia and further to European countries.
“We will see more investment going into the Middle Corridor. At the same time, whether it will ever be capable of replacing the routes via Russia remains to be seen. Expanding its capacity to compete with the routes going through the northern neighbor’s territory is going to take a lot of effort and investment, given Russia’s strong influence and links across the region,” he said.
The China-Central Asia Summit was the first one in-person. During the May 19 high-level meeting in Xian, China reaffirmed its commitment to coordinating development strategies with Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
“The fact that China hosted this large summit demonstrated the willingness of Central Asian states to engage with Beijing. Meanwhile, the G7 leaders [Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States] gathered in Japan issuing statements about China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy,” said the expert.
In terms of greater Central Asian cooperation, coordination and unity will strengthen the region in a world where conflicts become more frequent among major powers. According to Pantucci, this will clearly benefit Kazakhstan and help the country “push back the fact that the region has a shrinking space for maneuvers between China and Russia as the two of them come closer together.”
In his opinion, the idea to create a business grouping between the five Central Asian countries and China, as well as President Tokayev’s initiative to offer Kazakhstan as a transit and storage location for Central Asian goods coming from China reflect positive dynamics within the C5 format (the five Central Asian countries), which should be encouraged.
On the day of the China-Central Asia Summit in Xian, the Kazakh city of Almaty hosted the high-level session of the second European Union-Central Asia Economic Forum. It focused on EU-Kazakhstan cooperation, trade, investment and economic opportunities between Central Asia and Europe.
“There has been an increase in regional discussions, and there are lots of prospects for positive engagement within the Central Asian region. However, it is worth pointing out that there are still limits to the regional comity. Tensions between the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan serve as an example. Besides, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Turkmen still do not cooperate on Afghanistan,” said Pantucci.
“However, the fact that we see much more positive C5 engagement with outside powers and together is a good tendency for the whole region,” he concluded.