China's Xi acclaims 'new era' of ties with Central Asia at summit
Central Asia has become an important part of China's trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, a defining geopolitical initiative for the Chinese leader.
Chinese President Xi Jinping praised a "new era" of ties with Central Asia on Thursday, starting a summit Beijing hopes will cement relations with the strategically vital region.
This week's gathering, held in the ancient Chinese city of Xi'an, the historic eastern terminus of the Silk Road that linked China to Europe via Central Asia, has been dubbed "milestone significance" by Beijing.
Xi also stated that deepening connections was a "strategic choice" while addressing the region's leaders at a welcome dinner Thursday evening.
"I am confident that with our joint efforts, tomorrow's summit will be a full success and will herald a new era of China-Central Asia relations," Xi was quoted as saying in a readout of the speech seen by AFP.
"Join us in opening up a bright future of China-Central Asia cooperation," he said.
The meeting this week is the first of its type since formal relations were established 31 years ago.
Beijing announced that trade with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan hit $70 billion in 2022 and expanded 22% year-on-year in the first quarter of 2023.
Central Asia has also become an important part of China's trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative; a defining geopolitical initiative for Xi.
China, the world's second-largest energy user, has spent billions of dollars on Central Asia's natural gas deposits, while train routes connecting China to Europe crisscross the area.
Analysts said, as quoted by AFP, that 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.
On his account, Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev hailed the "unique scope" of that project at a meeting with Xi prior to the summit.
Xi also told Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov in talks on Thursday that China was "willing to work with Kyrgyzstan to build a community of good neighborliness, friendship, shared prosperity, and a shared future."
He then met with the presidents of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, praising their strong connections and promising to strengthen economic and cultural ties.
"Your policies will ensure the development and further prosperity of a modern socialist state, the strengthening of the authority and the global economic leadership of the country in the nearest future," Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev told Xi.
In the evening, Xi and Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan received the heads of state in a welcoming ceremony, posing for a group portrait in front of an old-style Chinese structure lighted by red lanterns.
On Friday morning, all six presidents are slated to attend a media appearance at which a joint statement will be published.
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