China has invested billions of dollars in the pipelines, highways and railways that help bring Central Asia’s rich reserve of natural resources to China. Many Chinese cities rely on natural gas from Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan has some of the world’s largest oil fields outside the Middle East.
In 2013, Mr. Xi singled out Kazakhstan as the venue for the speech where he outlined the vision for his Belt and Road Initiative, a $1 trillion plan to build infrastructure projects in developing countries to bring them closer to China’s orbit. Last year, Mr. Xi visited Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan for his first overseas trip since the start of the pandemic.
However, the relationship has not always gone smoothly. Several Belt and Road projects in the region have stalled or been embroiled in scandal, including a power plant failure in 2018 that left much of Kyrgyzstan’s capital without heating or electricity. Local residents have protested over concerns that their country is becoming too indebted to China and China’s internment of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
And the ambitions of Mr. Xi in the region are complicated by his friendship with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and by the close ties between the two countries. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, has upset Central Asia, raising concerns that Russia might try to seize other places formerly part of the Soviet Union, or encourage separatists.
Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies in Brussels, said China is engaged in a “tough diplomatic tap dance” to try to gain an edge over the Central Asian countries without angering Putin.
“China and Russia share an anti-Western narrative, but there are many areas of potential friction,” Ms Fallon said.
US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken also visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan this year, hoping to encourage Central Asian countries to resist providing economic aid to Russia despite Western sanctions.