Decoding the Institutionalization of China’s Political Relations with Central Asia
Dr Pravesh Kumar Gupta, Associate Fellow, VIF

China’s relations with Central Asia have primarily been shaped by evolving economic, political, and security objectives. Because of its geographic proximity, abundant natural resources, and advantageous position as a gateway to Europe and the Middle East, Central Asia is vital to China. China’s relationship with Central Asia is based on economic cooperation. Beijing has been a major importer of Central Asian energy resources as well as an exporter of manufactured goods in Central Asian markets.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, China-Central Asia relations may be divided into three major stages. The first phase saw an increase in economic links, which led to the Chinese exploitative strategy towards the region (China is the largest importer of Central Asian resources), causing resentment among the local populace. To assuage Sino-phobic perception in Central Asia, Beijing launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Kazakhstan in 2013, which projected China’s developmental agenda in Central Asia.

China reconceptualized its Central Asia policy by unveiling the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) as a crucial aspect of OBOR and instituting Central Asia as the main transit route to access Western markets. Incidentally, China restructured its relations with Central Asian countries as part of the SREB engagement model. China adopted a more calculated concept through this re-engagement model, adding to its other engagement patterns with Central Asia. Through SREB, China desired to bring its developmental perspective with the region to the forefront.[1]

Many Confucius institutes were also opened and educational scholarships were given to Central Asian students. According to the Hanban/Confucius Institute Headquarters, a governmental organisation linked with the Chinese Ministry of Education, there are 13 Confucius Institutes throughout Central Asia, including five in Kazakhstan, four in Kyrgyzstan, two in Uzbekistan, and two in Tajikistan. Furthermore, China has established scholarship programmes for Central Asian students.[2] According to official data, the number of Central Asian students studying in China has steadily increased, rising from over 11,000 in 2010 to almost 30,000 in 2018, with an average annual growth rate of 12.33 percent.[3] China’s use of soft power diplomacy has helped improve its image in the region, but much more was required to hold onto its position in Central Asia. Institutionalizing political links with the region’s governments is critical to China’s Central Asia policy.

Based on a few recent developments, this article will address why China is suddenly seeking to institutionalize its relationships with Central Asia after over three decades of involvement in the region. Based on the author’s observations, it can be inferred that China’s intention to formalize its political relationships with Central Asian nations by convening a leaders’ summit is motivated by two key factors—firstly, Russia’s waning influence in the region and secondly, India’s growing ties with Central Asia. India’s relations with Central Asia have been witnessing an upward trajectory. India is not only looked favorably by the Central Asian governments, but the Central Asian population has high regard for India and its people.

Beijing hosted the first China-Central Asia Summit on May 18-19, 2023. It was surprising as last year, on January 25, one day before the India-Central Asia Summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping held a virtual summit with Central Asian leaders. However, with the announcement of the first China-Central Asia Summit in a physical format in the Chinese city of Xian, it is claimed that the virtual meeting held in January 2022 was specially convened to commemorate the 30th anniversary of China-Central Asia relations. However, the virtual China+C5 summit seems designed to downplay the significance of the First India-Central Asia Summit.

At the level of Foreign Ministers, the “5+1” format, in which Central Asian governments meet regularly with a single country outside the area, is not a new arrangement. In 2004, Japan was the first to implement such a cooperative framework, followed by South Korea, the European Union, the United States, Russia, India, and most recently, China. The first India-Central Asia dialogue at the level of foreign ministers kicked off in Uzbekistan in January 2019. Following that, in July 2020, the first China-Central Asia Foreign Ministers meeting was conducted. It reflected a “smooth transition from primarily economic relations with the region to more political relations.”[4]

The way China has been following the footprints of New Delhi’s political engagements with Central Asia, it may be deduced that Beijing considers India, a geopolitical contender in the region. On the other hand, India considers Central Asia as its extended neighbour and all of the Indian initiatives are free from any political aspirations but only promote the region’s development and holistic ties between the civilizationally close India-Central Asian countries. However, India’s economic relations are still below the potential compared to China’s trade and economic partnership with the region.

Central Asia was considered Russia’s sphere of influence, but its influence has been waning due to Moscow’s ignorance and focus on other issues than that of Central Asia. Russia-Ukraine Crisis has further deteriorated Moscow’s influence. Central Asian countries have been in a tight spot since the Ukrainian crisis started. They maintained a balanced position on this issue. But these countries are certainly wary of Russian actions. The main beneficiary of this situation is China. During his visit to Kazakhstan in September 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized that Beijing would support Kazakhstan in preserving its sovereignty and territorial integrity. This was an oblique reference to the common assumption that Kazakhstan would be the next target of the Russian threat. Although Russia’s influence in Central Asia has been waning, Moscow remains the region’s top commercial partner. With the shifting dynamics of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and an upward trend of institutionally strong India-Central Asia relations, Beijing has now concentrated on institutionalizing its relations with the region.

This year Chinese BRI also completes ten years. As mentioned earlier that BRI is facing a lot of issues; on the 10th anniversary of its launch, close political relations with Central Asia will give impetus to this project.

Xi pledged to strengthen bilateral ties by increasing regional trade and investment during his statement at the China and Central Asia summit. Since trade and economic cooperation form the foundation of China-Central Asia ties, Beijing’s commitment to enhance investment and trade is not entirely unexpected. There are a few additional things, though, that ought to be mentioned. China and Kazakhstan agreed to a visa-free policy to promote travel and people-to-people exchange. The China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) railway line, which was first suggested in the 2000s but has since been postponed, was also highlighted by President XI. The major cause of the delay was the Kyrgyz dispute over the line’s proposed route, finance, and other factors. Post-Ukrainian crisis and with fresh sanctions against Russia, Beijing is attempting to diversify its transportation routes, and CKU is critical in this respect.
Finally, it may be argued that China is concerned about New Delhi’s growing role in Central Asia due to its goodwill in the region and the recognition it has received internationally as a growing power. Raising the degree of bilateral cooperation has been made possible by institutionalizing political ties between New Delhi and Central Asia. The nations of Central Asia have indicated a desire for India to take a more active role in this region. Beijing has been institutionalizing its relationships with central Asia since a proactive India poses a serious challenge to Chinese aspirations in the region.


[1]P K Gupta, ‘Great Game Revisited: China's Grand Eurasian Strategy through the Prism of 'One Belt One Road' July 5, 2022.

[2]Nurlan Aliyev, ‘China's Soft Power in Central Asia’ CACI Analyst, December 19, 2019,

[3] ‘Central Asian youth anticipate closer ties with China’, China Daily, May 18, 2023.

[4]Umida Hashimova, ‘China Launches 5+1 Format Meetings with Central Asia’, the Diplomat, July 20, 2020.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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