Five former Soviet states have arrived for a key summit in China, and the absence of Vladimir Putin signals Central Asia's desire to distance itself from Moscow — and China's rising global dominance.
PARIS — They are called the five "Stans"... Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan. They used to be part of the Soviet Union and are today at the center of a strategic zone between Russia and China.
The leaders of the Central Asian countries arrived Thursday in Xi'an, in central China to meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping. And there was undeniably someone missing from the picture: Vladimir Putin.
The Russian leader's absence is highly significant: the "Stans" are getting closer to Beijing in order to put more distance between themselves and Moscow.
We are not talking about a change of direction or a rift, but rather a rebalancing, a new regional order in which the Chinese ascendancy is now an undeniable reality. But an unofficial representative of Beijing admitted it Wednesday in private: this summit between the Central Asian countries and China, without Russia, must not have pleased Putin.
Rebalancing order in Asia
The choice of Xi'an as the venue for this summit is a deliberate symbol. The former imperial capital, now the capital of Shaanxi province, was the starting point of the ancient Silk Road, more than 2,000 years ago. Hosting the summit there was a way to bridge the gap between the shared history and current geopolitics — but with China once again front and center.
With Central Asia, Beijing ensures that its western flank is well secured.
In its new Cold War with the United States, China often feels encircled by U.S. allies: Japan, South Korea or the Philippines. With Central Asia, Beijing ensures that its western flank is well secured.
This is an old concern: since the end of the USSR, Russia has generally maintained a political dominance over its former possessions, while sharing a sort of co-tutorship with China. In the early 2000s, the Chinese and Russians founded the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security structure designed to prevent Central Asia from falling prey to radical Islamist insurgents, and to block dissidents of all kinds, especially Uighurs.
Freight train lines in Inner Mongolia along the new Europe-bound Silk Road trade route.
Guopngjie/SIPA Asia via ZUMA
China weaves its web, all the way to Europe
Today, Beijing assumes regional leadership without hesitation, taking advantage, without saying so, of the fact that Russia is busy elsewhere. Geography, economics and the weakening of Russia are pushing the five Stans into Beijing's arms.
One of China's motivations is related to the war context. In recent years, China has considerably developed commercial rail transport to Europe. But with the war in Ukraine and the sanctions against Russia, these freight trains can no longer use the main route, via the north. Alternatives are needed.
There are two of them: one, to the south, goes through another pariah state, Iran. Not advisable. The middle route remains, which passes through several Central Asian countries and Turkey to reach Europe. This is the route that is developing today. Traffic on this middle route has increased sixfold in the last year.
China is now playing nice with Europe, and is methodically weaving its web.
China needs reliable trade routes and open markets. This is the opposite of Russia, which exports mainly hydrocarbons. And this explains why, facing U.S. hostility, China is now playing nice with Europe, and is methodically weaving its web. That weaving is what Xi'an is all about.