Discussing of the prospects for cooperation in the «Central Asia-China» format

The Institute of World Economics and Politics (IWEP) under the Foundation of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan – Elbassy hosted the international round table "Prospects for the cooperation between the Central Asian countries and China following the "Belt and Road" forum in May 2017."

The round table gathered experts from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, IWEP analysts, as well as other leading Kazakhstan experts. IWEP was represented by Director of the Institute Yerzhan Saltybaev, Head of the Almaty office Askar Nursha, Head of the "Eurasian Studies"program Ruslan Izimov.

Among the guests of the event were Director of National Institute for Strategic Studies of the Kyrgyz Republic (NISS KR) Azamat Dikambayev, Head of analysis and forecasting of the Strategic Research Center (SRC) under the President of the Republic of Tajikistan Abdullo Hakim, an independent expert Bakhtier Ergashev (Uzbekistan), Chief Researcher of KISS under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Konstantin Syroezhkin and others.

In his welcoming speech, IWEP Director Y.Saltybaev noted that the agenda of the roundtable includes a number of topical issues of cooperation between Central Asian countries and China.

- Today, as the Chinese "Belt and Road" initiative develops, the ties between China and Central Asia are expanding. All the countries of the Central Asian region closely interact with the eastern neighbor. The countries of the region are getting new opportunities that stimulate their economic and transport-infrastructure development. At the same time, the prospect of a totally new geo-economic situation in Central Asia that is brought about by the implementation of this initiative requires expert evaluation, including in terms of the assessment of the possible challenges and opportunities, - said Y.Saltybaev.

According to IWEP director, a new and important impetus to the Central Asia-China relations came with the development of so-called "strategy of revival of the Silk Road." Presented initially as the economic belt along the Silk Road, the initiative evolved into a grand concept, which is now called "One Belt – One Road" (OBOR).

The goals of this concept are far-reaching and not limited to Central Asia alone. However, according to the results of the "Belt and Road" Forum in Beijing, the Central Asian direction of the OBOR, is one of priorities for China.

For a short period of time, from the end of 2013, as part of the implementation of the programs and projects of the above-mentioned OBOR strategy, there have been major changes. In China alone, more than 50 research centers specializing in Central Asia and in general on the study of the Silk Road have been established over said period. In the countries of the region there have been launched state and private programs aimed at, figuratively speaking, "riding the crest of the wave" associated with the implementation of these programs. But the vision and approaches to cooperation with China in each of the countries of the Central Asian region differ.

This is the reason, as Y.Saltybaev emphasized, that one of the tasks of this scientific and practical forum is a kind of "synchronizing watches" in the format of four countries of Central Asia.

The representative of Kyrgyzstan, Director of the NISS A.Dikambayev shared his opinion on  the "Belt and Road"  Forum held in Beijing, as well as further perspectives of the Kyrgyz-Chinese cooperation. He particularly noted that the Chinese"One Belt – One Road” initiative is of a systemic, thoughtful and long-term character. This assessment is justified, in Dikambayev's opinion, by the fact that the Chinese authorities have created various institutions and mechanisms that will be directly involved in the implementation of the initiative.

In general, according to the expert, under the influence of various factors, including the policies of the US and other global powers, cooperation in Eurasia will gain momentum. In this regard, the "Belt and Road" initiative will be relevant, in particular in terms of its integration with Russian initiatives.

The expert also noted that Kyrgyzstan, when considering the Chinese initiative "Belt and Road”, highlights issues of security, development of transportation projects, as well as humanitarian cooperation between Kyrgyzstan and China.

Speaking about the future of Central Asia in general, the Kyrgyz expert asked the question: "What is the agenda for region as a whole? In other words, are we unified only in terms of geography? It is necessary to preserve the principles of regional dialogue: openness and partnership, " A. Dikambaev noted.

In the opinion of Kazakhstan sinologist K.Syroezhkin, with the advent of the "Belt and Road" initiative, China's strategy in Central Asia has been greatly transformed. Specialist noted that the Chinese initiative, first of all, is a geopolitical concept of China on cooperation with neighboring countries.

K.Syroezhkin said that after the publication of the report on the goals and objectives of the "Belt and Road" initiative in China in 2015, several circumstances became evident:

- the initiative is aimed, first of all, at boosting of the western regions of the PRC;

- the initiative is exclusively geopolitical. For all this time, there have not been published any comprehensive scientific papers on the economic justification of the "Belt and Road" initiative;

- China will no longer sponsor all of the projects and will carefully approach the selection of projects to fund;

- the Chinese "Belt and Road" initiative will work effectively only with those countries that have a well-thought-out national program. Kazakhstan is a vivid example in this respect with the "Nurly Zhol" program. The goals and principles of this program are harmonized with the principles of the OBOR. In this respect, Uzbekistan also successfully cooperates with China due to its industrial development program – K.Syroezhkin noted.

The KISI expert also identified some problematic areas in connection with the participation of the Central Asian countries in the OBOR. "The issue of relocation of Chinese industrial enterprises to the territory of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan remains a serious problem. Chinese workers are going to follow the enterprises, since we do not have the sufficient skilled labor force. In this context, it remains unclear how the arrival of the Chinese workers to the region will be perceived," said the expert.

At the same time, one of the outstanding questions is how to reconcile the EEU and the OBOR? While there are no answers to this question, since the parties do not show interest in this idea, neither Russia, nor China – summarized K.Syroezhkin.

IWEP representative R.Izimov shared his assessments of the further prospects of interaction between Kazakhstan and China in the context of analysis of the main results of the Forum "Belt and Road" held in Beijing. According to him, the Forum "Belt and Road," held in mid-May 2017, once again demonstrated the altered role of China in the world. In a short time, the SREB turned into the most debated case in the cooperation of the majority of Eurasian countries with China. At the same time, China did not follow up with any specifics about the mechanisms of interaction within the framework of this initiative.

However, according to R. Izimov, the Forum pursued several goals.

IWEP expert noted that the results of the Forum in Beijing had received mixed response. Judging by the final publications in the Chinese media, the Forum has reached all its goals. State authorities of the People's Republic of China, including the Ministry of Commerce, national companies and financial structures reported on the concluded new agreements and arrangements.

However, the expert community was quite skeptical about the results of the Forum, arguing that the Chinese authorities did not provide any specifics at the event. At the same time, there seems to be a number of international actors who do not support the Chinese initiative of the OBOR.

In this respect, the countries of Central Asia adhere to the old line of using all the opportunities available in the Chinese initiative.

In the opinion of the Kazakhstan sinologist, the only problem is that it is difficult for the countries of Central Asia to be on an equal footing in cooperation with such a giant as China.

"Thus, I would like to say that, being one of the China’s neighbors, we, the countries of the region, need to learn to negotiate on a regional level," concluded R.Izimov.

The independent expert from Uzbekistan B.Ergashev presented Uzbekistan's view on the development of the Chinese "Belt and Road" initiative and strategic directions of interaction between Uzbekistan and the PRC, as well as with other countries of Central Asia under the auspices of this initiative.

President Xi Jinping of China spoke in Davos and other venues, according the expert, clearly voicing China's move to abandon protectionism and stimulate global economic growth. Being in good economic shape, China is interested in liberalization and openness of world markets, including those of Central Asian countries.

Although China emerged as one of the key trading partners of Central Asian countries, the importance of the region's markets for China is now much inferior to that of the European market, and China invests in infrastructure projects in Central Asia – though these figures are constantly growing – tens of times less than in Chinese projects in Africa. However, this does not negate the fact that Central Asia at risk of becoming a raw materials appendage of China.

Uzbekistan is one of the first countries to support the "Belt and Road" initiative at the official level. At the same time, with all the changes that have taken place, the republic remains committed to a policy of equidistance, "rational isolationism" in the economy and reliance on bilateral relations. At present, according to the expert, both Uzbekistan and China are quite comfortable with their interaction within the OBOR in a bilateral format. At the same time, Uzbekistan considers OBOR as an opportunity to diversify its exports.

Hakim Abdullo, Head of the Analysis and Forecasting Department of the Center for Strategic Studies under the President of the Republic of Tajikistan, spoke in detail about China's role in the foreign policy concept of Tajikistan.

On the international arena Tajikistan continues to implement the multi-vector course, pointed out the Tajik expert, and China is therein recognized as one of the key strategic vectors. A strategic partnership agreement has been concluded between the countries. The settlement and establishment of state borders between countries was of great importance to the development of the bilateral relations. And today, China is the only country’s neighbor with whom the republic legally defined state borders, having finalized all the necessary procedures.

The role of China as an investment partner proved to be indispensable in the creation and restoration of the country's economic infrastructure. It was China with its large-scale investments that helped Tajikistan rebuild the transport infrastructure (roads, tunnels, bridges, railways, airports, terminals), major communication branches, and all of which was an economic breakthrough for the country that thus solved the problems of the lack of internal communications and unification of the territory.

China also provides technical and financial assistance to Tajikistan with regards to the consolidation of the infrastructure at the Tajik-Afghan border in the framework of joint efforts to ensure regional stability.

The Republic gives priority to bilateral relations with China, since the previous experience of the republic in the framework of multilateral regional formats shows losses from the economic point of view, since the country's economic interests in these formats remain on the periphery compared to the other countries in the region.

Head of the IWEP Office in Almaty A.Nursha deliberated on the development of the Chinese initiative "Belt and Road" in the overall dynamics of interaction in the regional multilateral projects. According to the expert, this interaction is carried out in the "call-response" format and depends heavily on the rapidly changing political and economic environment in the world and the region.

The emergence of the initiative of the Economic Belt of the Silk Road in 2013, according to A.Nursha, is, in many aspects, China's response to the deepening of Eurasian integration processes after the creation of the Customs Union. In turn, China's active promotion of the "Belt and Road" initiative against the backdrop of pressuring the Eurasian integration from the West has sparked such conceptual developments as the idea of a Greater Eurasian partnership in Russia to overcome contradictions and mitigate risks through "integration of integrations," that is, integration processes of a higher order.

The round table participants discussed the process of interaction of each of the countries of the region with China, the current state of investment cooperation, the problems faced by the states of the region in cooperation with the PRC, the status of interaction between the countries of the region, and the prospects for their further participation in the Chinese "Belt and Road" initiative.