Francesco Sisci, a sinologist and senior research fellow at the Center for European Studies at Renmin University of China, is a highly talented Chinese hand and award-winning academic who has contributed much to our understanding of economic trends and political thinking in China and across Eurasia on In recent years.
A regular contributor to Global Courant, Sisci has written numerous articles notable for their foresight and insight.
He went far beyond the conventional wisdom of the time when he wrote in 2016 that “the rise of Asia, after the rise of China, is the future of the (European) story. Europe, with or without the EU, is increasingly part of the larger Eurasian continent that is emerging along with China, which in turn has fueled the growth of the rest of Asia and is driven by new, fast and cheap communications and transportation.”
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His gift for such clever and concise formulation helps explain why so many people follow his writing.
Therefore, this writer was disappointed by his essay entitled “Zugzwang and Gorbachev in Russia Justified” published in Global Courant on May 22; it contains some gross inaccuracies about Central Asia’s relationship with China, and vice versa.
Sisci writes: “Last week’s summit of the five ex-Soviet Central Asian republics (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan) in Xian, China, indicates that China wants to enter the (Central Asian) region in the feeling that Russia is losing. his grasp there.”
One gets the impression that China had been asleep at the switch until last month, only recently being shaken up to exploit the supposed vacuum in Central Asia caused by Russia’s distraction elsewhere. Such a position is puzzling, as China’s diplomatic and economic involvement with the Central Asian republics has been deep and long-standing over the past 30 years.
Sisci also seems curiously unaware that Sino-Russian relations have only deepened since 2001. Treaty of good neighborly relations and friendly cooperation between China and Russia.
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Reporting on the May 18-19 China-Central Asia Summit in Xian, Silk Road Briefing noted“The Central Asian and Chinese governments approved $3.72 billion in regional grants, signed 54 major multilateral agreements, created 19 new regional platforms, and signed an additional nine multilateral cooperation documents.”
These agreements did not come about overnight.
China announced its strategic Belt and Road Imitative to the world in 2013 in Astana, Kazakhstan. Since then, transport corridors and logistics hubs have spread across Eurasia.
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In addition, oil and gas have been flowing eastward from the shores of the Caspian Sea for more than two decades, and such Aljazeera reports that“Reciprocal trade between China and Central Asia reached a record $70 billion last year, with Kazakhstan leading the way with $31 billion.”
Sisci seriously underestimates the matter when he says China wants to “enter the region” as if it were new territory. In fact, the China-Central Asia Summit capitalized on years of economic cooperation and level-headed diplomacy.
Sisci does not understand the multilateral nature of the China-Central Asia Summit, i.e. the prevailing ethos of “all for one and one for all”, which the participating states see as an addition to bilateral relations, not as their paltry cousin.
The regional heads of state — Presidents Xi Jinping of China, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan) Sadyr Japarov of Kyrgyzstan, Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan, Serdar Berdimuhamedov of Turkmenistan and Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan — have not agreed to meet in Xian at a whim, or without having prepared for the event well in advance.
They saw it as the culmination of a long diplomatic process aimed at long-term regional peace and prosperity.
Years of preparation and a shared future
With that in mind, the Xian Declaration of the China-Central Asia Summit stated: “The parties unanimously agree that the development of fruitful, multifaceted cooperation between the states of Central Asia and China will serve the fundamental interests of all countries and their peoples.
“Against the backdrop of changes unprecedented in a century, based on favorable prospects for the peoples of the region, the parties reaffirm their desire to jointly create a closer community with a common destiny for Central Asia and China.”
To underline the fertility of the Xian top, for example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan announced that “President Tokayev returned with some 47 business and investment-related deals totaling approximately US$22 billion with Chinese companies and investors.” Kazakhstan praised the Central Asian Summit and Tokayev’s state visit to China as a “new level of cooperation between the two countries”.
Similarly, Turkmenistan President Berdimuhamedov, who made his third trip to China in 18 months, underlined that “Turkmenistan attaches great importance to and is ready to further strengthen its comprehensive strategic partnership with China.” China and Turkmenistan had been working together long before the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian war.
Kyrgyz President Japarov noted that “Kyrgyz-Chinese relations are at the highest level today.” Tajik President Rahmon also expressed his satisfaction with the state of Sino-Tajik relations. In short, China has long been deeply involved in Central Asia.
January 2022 unrest in Kazakhstan
Comment on Keynote speech by President Xi, Sisci says, “It is unclear whether India, Russia, Iran or just the United States should be considered (as forces of) ‘external interference’ (in Central Asia).” Be that as it may, he goes on to claim that “in January 2022, shortly before the Ukrainian invasion, Russia supported a coup in Kazakhstan (emphasis added), and some Kazakh leaders ran to Beijing for help.”
The historical record is clear. Kazakhstan, with the help of the members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led military alliance encompassing Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, staged a January 2022 coup attempt against the duly elected government of Tokayev knocked down.
It was the CSTO that supported the Kazakh government against the coup attempt – not a coup supported by the CSTO against the Kazakh government.
As for some Kazakh leaders fleeing to Beijing, it is not clear what exactly Sisci means by this. Suffice it to say that on January 10, 2022, President Xi stressed: in a personal message to President Tokayev, that “China resolutely opposes all forces that undermine the stability of Kazakhstan, threaten the security of Kazakhstan and harm the peaceful life of the Kazakh people.”
Like Uzbek President Shavkat said Mirziyoev at the Xian Summit: “Central Asia is different today – it is united and strong, open to dialogue and full partnership.”
Bilateral and multilateral relations between the countries of Central Asia and China are stronger than ever. That is good news for some and bad news for others, but what is clear is that, as a Chinese proverb says, a meter of ice does not form in a day.
China did not enter Central Asia to fill a power vacuum. On the contrary, the China-Central Asia Summit affirmed that – like it or not – Eurasian integration is moving forward, thanks in part to Central Asia’s responsible statesmanship in recent decades.
Francesco Sisci replies: I am very grateful for the generous comments and I certainly have the monopoly of truth and justice, therefore I would very much like to be proven wrong. This is the way I learn.
A few points anyway. I certainly didn’t express myself clearly in the Zugwang story. Yes, China’s strategy in Central Asia started a long time ago and gained momentum with the BRI. Still, I think it’s important to see when things take a different turn, and the recent summit, it seems to me, went in a different direction, something I’ve exaggeratedly called Russian influence in Central Asia.
It’s exaggerated at the moment, but points to a change of direction that seems obvious to me. Again, I could be wrong and I won’t elaborate as I’ve already tried to make my point in the article.
China is right to try to walk a thin line with Russia, but the power vacuum is there and something needs to be done about it. Russia sponsored a coup in Kazakhstan in January 2022; it doesn’t seem to me that it has the same influence in the region now.
I see major political defeats for Russia in the west, where the political goals of the invasion of Ukraine have been shattered, and in the east, where China, rightly so, is making faster progress than before. We’ll see in a few months if I was wrong.