China and Central Asia Nations Agree to Expand New Silk Road

Although little reported in Western media, an important summit on May-18-19 brought together the Presidents of China and five Central Asian nations (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. They met in Xi’an, in China’s northwestern province of Shaanxi, the city from which the ancient Silk Road was launched 2,100 years ago!

A successor to that historical trade route was announced by Xi Jinping just ten years ago, in 2013, in Central Asia, during his visit to Kazakhstan. First called the Silk Road Economic Belt, it has expanded since then to become the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). During this year’s summit, the six Presidents underscored the positive effects it has had, and agreed to ensure greater coordination between the BRI and their respective development programs.

In 2022, the total trade volume between China and the five Central Asian countries hit a record high of $70 billion, an increase of over 20% compared to the year before. In addition to boosting that trend, Xi Jinping stated that China aims to strengthen cooperation with the others in the areas of energy (explicitly including nuclear energy) and food production, and help tackle the shrinking of the Aral Sea.

Many key infrastructure projects have already been undertaken as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, and others are planned, including:

  • four-fifths of the China-Europe Railway Express trains run through Central Asia, providing a “steel caravan” for the Eurasian continent.
  • the China-Kazakhstan Horgos International Border Cooperation Center, at the border between the two countries, and the China-Kazakhstan Logistics Base in Lianyungang, on China’s coast, have opened a gateway to the Pacific for Central Asian countries.
  • the Chinese built the longest tunnel in Central Asia (19.2 km) on the railway line connecting Angren and Pap in Uzbekistan, whereas passengers previously had to take a detour train through neighboring countries.
  • the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) highway has become an important international transportation route that runs smoothly through the region’s mountainous terrain.
  • an agreement has just recently been reached on a railway connecting the same three countries (Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and China’s Xianjiang province), on which construction is about to begin.

The urgent task of rebuilding Afghanistan was also taken up at the summit, in particular by Xi Jinping. China is supporting two major rail projects involving this impoverished country in South Central Asia, destroyed after decades of war and occupation: the construction of the cross-border railway linking Uzbekistan and Pakistan via Afghanistan, and the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan-Afghanistan Corridor Agreement, both of which would help open up the now-isolated country to international trade and cultural exchanges.

On this front, there is no competition to China and Central Asia coming from the United States. Since abruptly withdrawing from Afghanistan in August 2021, Washington has refused to engage with the Taliban, who took over the country, and to extend funds for reconstruction, in addition to freezing funds belonging to the Afghan people.

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