The recent meeting of foreign ministers of China and five Central Asian states in Kazakhstan’s capital of Nur-Sultan reflected Beijing’s desire to seek openings for new realignments with these states.
This outreach was aimed to publicize China’s plan to mitigate pressures on itself and its partners posed by the pandemic and also to safely steer the stakeholders away from friction and instability caused by the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
The Central Asian states face two direct consequences of the ongoing conflict. Russia may not be able to pursue any major civil sector construction projects that require Central Asian immigrant workers in large numbers. This will add to unemployment woes in the region. The level of remittances from Russia is also lowering posing pressures on Central Asian economies dependent on exports which were affected by the post-pandemic slowdown.
These states are, therefore, looking to Chinese initiatives which could help them overcome the evolving challenges. Beijing has signaled its readiness to extend assistance for internal stability and support for economic security.
China issued reassuring messages promising a range of measures to address uncertainty which poses risks to China and its neighbors in Central Asia and wider Eurasia.
Chinese scholar and International Studies expert at Shanghai-based Fudan University Wu Xinbo said it will be incorrect to consider that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is affecting only those two countries. He added that its fallout has contributed to serious disagreements, contradictions, and clashes in the international system. Further, the pursuit of unilateralism and abandoning collective forums has caused serious damage to many international mechanisms and rules.
He pointed out that avoiding the harms of isolation and exclusion pursued by certain western powers depended “more on the choices and actions of China and other developing countries for the formation of a fairer system.”
On their part, the Central Asian governments are seeking to overcome the economic impact of sanctions imposed by the West in the wake of Russia's military actions in Ukraine by exploring alternatives that could help them reduce their dependence on Moscow.
The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged charting the course for cooperation among the six countries through increased and multi-tiered connectivity at the meeting held on June 8.
China pleaded to form partnerships based on the win-win approach striving for results for common gains. Secondly, China indicated expanding the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and seeking corporation and operation for connectivity with the Central Asian states. He said the initiative will help the Central Asian nations to facilitate speedy and reliable movement of goods and services along the expanded Silk Route.
China will also help establish the health industry by setting up joint production of Sinovac antidotes to combat the coronavirus. China has also offered participation in science and technology projects besides steps to boost sports and tourism. It is keen to improve the mechanism of cooperation by holding exchanges and conducting dialogues among think tanks and business forums to harness the full potential for wider future cooperation.
Marek Jochec, a professor at Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University in Nur-Sultan, however, stated that China needs to change its management approach and partner with locals by developing cultural competency, cross-cultural communication, and teambuilding. He said China should remain mindful that companies should provide more employment opportunities to local people, as well as training for local workers and experts at the managerial level.
Traditionally, Russia has been a major source of military and economic security in Central Asia. However, the conflict with Ukraine has left the Central Asia states exposed to several risks. These states may seek to distance themselves from the restrictions increasingly being imposed on Russia.
Pandemic slows down economies
Diplomats in Kazakhstan have observed that the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic and its geo-economic consequences have caused a slowdown in China’s economic growth. This has propelled Beijing to take steps to create new export and investment opportunities and to expand access to sources of raw materials and new markets for Chinese products.
Further, it has become necessary for China to address disparities between its advanced and prosperous central and western provinces and the underdeveloped eastern and southern parts. This requires implementing large-scale infrastructure projects in cooperation with the neighboring Central Asian nations.
The projects related to the BRI can increase the movement of an educated and affordable workforce from the Central Asian labor market. The initiative is aimed at investing the capital in sectors strategically important for China to stimulate its economic growth by increasing the export of products specifically from those industries with significant overproduction, such as steel, cement, and aluminum.
China seeks long-term projects
Once the major infrastructure projects in the East of China are completed, the huge construction sector, employing millions of Chinese, will need new long-term projects. The transport and logistics infrastructure to be built for expanding transit to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa can potentially provide long-term contracts to Chinese construction companies.
Experts anticipate that diversifying transport routes for Chinese export products to world markets would require a developed transport and logistics infrastructure in transit countries and favorable conditions to ensure the smooth movement of Chinese goods and services, including streamlining customs and currency regulations.