June 5, 2023

Great Indian Mutiny

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Xi Jinping pushes the defense cooperation plan for Central Asia

Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday laid out an ambitious plan for cooperation with Central Asian countries on defense and security, advancing a region traditionally seen as Russia’s backyard at a time when Moscow is distracted by the war in Ukraine.

Xi, who hosted his first in-person summit with leaders of the “C5” group of Central Asian nations, also offered to increase transportation and energy ties with the region. The group consists of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

“Xi stressed that China is ready to help Central Asian countries improve law enforcement, and build security and defense capabilities in a bid to safeguard regional peace,” Xinhua reported.

For Beijing, Central Asia is critical to the security of the politically sensitive western region of Xinjiang, where it has been accused of oppressing the Muslim Uighur population. The region is an important source of onshore energy imports and a gateway to overland trade with Europe.

Russia is the dominant power in Central Asia, but its attack on Ukraine has caused concern in the region. Moscow has also traditionally acted as peacekeepers, but its ability to maintain stability is in question after it failed to quell border skirmishes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan last year.

Xi, who hosted the two-day summit in the Chinese city of Xi’an, said Beijing will provide 26 billion renminbi ($3.7 billion) in “financial support” and “free aid” to Central Asian countries. He did not give more details.

Beijing will also increase the volume of cross-border shipping, including supporting the Trans-Caspian transport corridor through port modernization, developing freight train hubs between China and Europe, and encouraging warehouse construction in Central Asian countries.

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China views Central Asia as a crucial land alternative for sea trade with Europe. But since the outbreak of the Ukraine war, the northern part of this route through Russia has been disrupted.

This has led to efforts to promote alternative corridors through the region that do not pass through Russia.

Xi said China will speed up the construction of oil pipelines and increase oil and gas imports.

While Xi did not provide more details on defense cooperation, analysts said China would be keen to introduce a formal security cooperation arrangement.

This could take the form of more efforts to stop terrorism — China is concerned that the area could act as a conduit for separatists entering Xinjiang — as well as efforts to export the model of state control to help countries with internal security.

China is likely to focus on reviving joint exercises in Central Asia involving the People’s Armed Police, said Timur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. Such exercises took place across the region in 2019, but were suspended during the pandemic.

Umarov said Tajikistan would be of particular interest to Beijing as the only country bordering both China and Afghanistan.

“Tajikistan’s army is not the strongest in Central Asia. That is why, from China’s point of view, it is an extension of China’s national security” to deepen cooperation there, he said.

Analysts said Beijing could also help the region build 5G networks equipped with social monitoring and control systems, such as advanced facial recognition software.

Both Moscow and Beijing fear insecurity in the region due to so-called “color revolutions” – pro-democracy movements they claim are backed by Western governments.

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“They help the local authorities in Central Asia not toppled the color revolutions,” said Xinyu Shih of the Taiwan Institute of National Defense and Security Research.

The European Union launched a new campaign on Friday to counter Chinese influence in the region. Valdis Dombrovskis, the bloc’s trade commissioner, said after a meeting in Kazakhstan with ministers from the five Central Asian countries that the EU sees “clear prospects” for further cooperation and investment.

Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Riga and Alice Hancock in Brussels