Over 2,100 years ago in Chang’an — capital of China’s Han Dynasty — court official Zhang Qian was packing. He had just been sent on a mission to bring the emperor’s goodwill to the region west of China. “This will be a hard and long trek,” he thought to himself. But little did he know that it would be way more than that. His treacherous 13-year odyssey, as it turned out, was the precursor of the Silk Road and ushered in centuries of vibrant exchanges between the Chinese and the people in Central Asia.
Thirty-two years ago, the five countries in Central Asia gained independence. Since then, Central Asia continued to have keen partners knocking its door. More recently, the US and EU have both launched charm offensives with grand initiatives, eyeing opportunities in this promising and strategically important region.
China is standing out. It has established comprehensive strategic partnerships with all five Central Asian countries, or the C5. The Belt and Road Initiative is making a positive difference in the region. And the inaugural Central Asia-China Summit will soon open in Xi’an, the city from which Zhang Qian embarked on his Central Asian mission two millennia ago.
There are sour grapes, naturally. Theories have been formulated about unequal partnerships and undue geopolitical influence. But they do not hold water in the face of history or reality.
After the end of the Cold War, having re-examined the policy of relying heavily on a single partner, the newly independent Central Asian countries were keen on neutrality and diversification in their engagement with the world. China, a close neighbor with a long history of friendship, fit right in.
In the first week of January 1992, China was among the first to establish diplomatic ties with the five countries. The two sides thoroughly settled their inherited boundary issues in good neighborliness and good faith. For both China and Central Asia, securing their shared border of over 3,300 kilometers is vital for national security and economic planning. Equally imperative for both is to rid the neighborhood of the perennial menaces of terrorism, separatism and extremism.
This led to the creation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Ministerial Meetings of Neighboring States of Afghanistan. The member states, knowing from their own history that political/military dominance is a recipe for disaster, made sure these arrangements champion equality, mutual benefit, consultation and respect for diversity.
As developing countries, the C5 and China share a strong aspiration for improving the lives of their people. They recognize that only in development can they find a sustainable solution to security challenges. In September 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping suggested in Kazakhstan for the first time that it might be a good idea to jointly map out an economic belt along the ancient Silk Road. Together with the revival of the maritime Silk Road a month later, this became known as the BRI.
Tajikistan became the first C5 country to sign BRI cooperation documents with China, a move soon followed by the other four countries. They remain committed to the partnership ten years on.
The BRI works because it is an open-ended process. Every step of the way, partners talk through the details and act on their agreed road-map. It gives ownership to those who take part in it. Again, the spirit of equality and mutual benefit.
Moreover, the BRI delivers. It builds big infrastructure projects, such as the China-Central Asia natural gas pipeline, China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan highway, and the Qamchiq tunnel. It brings two-way trade in 2022 to a record US$70,000 million, up from a mere US$460 million in 1992. Nearly 80 percent of the China-Europe Railway Express trains run through Central Asia; during COVID, this was a lifeline for essential supplies.
But if you look deeper, the roots for the thriving cooperation are cultural. Central Asia shares a multifaceted bond with western China. People-to-people exchanges across the Tianshan Mountain, also known as Tengri Tagh, started 2,000 years ago and are much more robust today. A recent example would be Kristina Grigoryan from Turkmenistan and her short documentary film “The Song of New China” which went viral on Chinese social media. Central Asians and Chinese enjoy each other’s classic literature, work together to produce movies and unearth cultural relics, and stand firmly with one another in the face of COVID and other transnational challenges.
When Chinese envoy Zhang Qian was about to embark on his journey, he envisioned equal-footed partnerships and mutual assistance. Not plundering. Nor subjugation. This vision defined the Silk Road he pioneered. Today, the same value is holding Central Asia and China together as close friends and partners. In fact, it is the only right approach if anyone wishes to engage with the proud peoples of Central Asia, who are charting their own sovereign course in the new era.
(The author is a Beijing-based international affairs commentator.)