Chinese President Xi Jinping hailed a “new era” of ties with Central Asia on Thursday, kicking off a summit Beijing hopes will deepen relations with the strategically vital region.

Chinese President Xi Jinping received on Thursday the leaders of Central Asia ex-Soviet Republics in a summit held in the ancient Chinese city of Xi’an. The former imperial capital is the historic eastern end of the Silk Road that linked China to Europe through Central Asia.

And in a speech to the region’s leaders at a welcoming banquet Thursday evening, Xi said strengthening ties was a “strategic choice”.

This week’s meeting is the first of its kind since the establishment of formal relations 31 years ago.

Beijing says trade with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan reached $70 billion in 2022 and expanded 22 percent year-on-year in the first quarter of 2023.

Central Asia has also become key to China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, a defining geopolitical project for Xi, with Beijing keen to restart cooperation and fill the vacuum left in former Soviet states by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

China, the world’s second-largest energy consumer, has invested billions of dollars to tap natural gas reserves in Central Asia, while rail links connecting China to Europe criss-cross the region.

Analysts told AFP this week’s summit is likely to see efforts to reach agreements to further expand that vast network, including a long-stalled $6 billion China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway and an expansion of the Central Asia-to-China gas pipeline.

This week’s summit also comes as Beijing works to replace Russia as Central Asian nations’ preferred partner, and as Xi positions himself as a global statesman keen to expand China’s reach far beyond its borders.

The summit also coincides with a meeting of the G7 in Hiroshima that will likely focus on efforts to “push back China’s growing influence around the world”, Zhu said.

Roger Barake, with AFP