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Central Asia and China: “5+1” new format of cooperation and future implications

NDCF - ST Central Asia August 2020
In order to coordinate joint efforts to contain the negative effects of Covid-19 in Central Asia and to restore regional economies, China held an online meeting with the foreign ministers of all five Central Asian countries within a new “5+1” format, which appears a significant step of the Chinese policy towards the region, traditionally based on bilateral cooperation.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, China has undertaken a concrete “aid diplomacy” supporting Central Asia’s health care systems sending medical equipment and offering economic support. Central Asian economies appear seriously damaged by the effects of global pandemic that has triggered the collapse of commodity prices, a sharp fall in remittances from migrant labourers (especially from Russia and Kazakhstan) and increased unemployment.
According to the World Bank, the global economic slowdown will lead to a contraction of the Central Asia’s gross domestic production by up to 5,4% (World Bank, Fighting Covid-19. Europe and Central Asia Economic Update, Spring 2020, https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/33476/9781464815645.pdf?sequence=5&isAllowed=y).
During his speech in the “5+1” format, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi promised to step up cooperation with Central Asia in three areas: medical aid, trade and security. One of the planned initiatives is to purchase more agricultural products from the region and to launch “green corridors” for the Central Asian countries to ensure a nonstop transborder flow of goods (Umida Hashimova, China Launches 5+1 Format Meetings with Central Asia, The Diplomat, July 20, 2020).
It is interesting to observe that for the first time China has involved Central Asian republics in an exclusive cooperative format that goes beyond economic or energy cooperation (such in the case of China-Central Asia gas pipeline, involving all five republics as suppliers or transit countries), but it is clearly based on political cooperation: as a matter of fact, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – the only regional organization attended by Beijing – also includes Russia (India and Pakistan), while Central Asia is not entirely represented due to Turkmenistan’s reluctance to join it.
As one of the main external powerful actors in the region, also Russia has adopted some measures to contain the pandemic – in the agricultural and industry sectors – within the Eurasian Economic Union’s framework, but these relate only two of the five Central Asian states (Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan), stressing the weakness of the Moscow-led EAEU as pole of attraction due to its lack of inclusiveness.
The determination to held regular meetings within “5+1” format and the role of China as main economic partner and investor in the region will inevitably increase Chinese influence in a post-Covid geopolitical scenario. In February 2020 also United States tried to involve Central Asian countries in a “5+1” format: unfortunately, due to the fact that security concerns (linked to Afghanistan) and the purpose to contain China were prevailing drivers, the global impact of the project was seriously weakened.

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