Economics
G7 and China-Central Asia Summit: Diverging Concerns Between the North and the South

July 5, 2023

Ever since the middle of the 1970s, the Group of Seven (G7) nations had started to meet annually to discuss economic direction, curb inflation, and originally to combat the oil shock left by the OPEC embargo, which had forced up fuel prices across the Western world. These days, relevancy of the G7 often comes into question. For example, at the time of its founding, the group’s combined GDP accounted for 70% of the entire world’s economic activity. However, following the exclusion of Russia after its annexation of Crimea in 2014, when it was briefly known as the G8, that figure now sits at roughly 44% – a very noticeable decrease. Although the global economy waxes and wanes through times of recession, war, and most recently the pandemic, the G7 has attracted the ire of critics who have questioned just how effective its policy has been. The United Kingdom has underperformed along with Japan when it comes to GDP and it is noticeable that they are two similar nations that have ageing populations and have been hit by waves of economic crises.

On the other side of the Eurasian continent, China has been trying to develop its own post-pandemic economic strategy. Although, the G7 is not NATO, the two groups share membership and discuss security and geopolitical issues. China has been working hard to cultivate its neighbors to the immediate west, who in the wake of the collapse of the USSR were left drifting both economically and in security matters. For example, from 1992 to 1997, Tajikistan suffered a bloody civil war between the post-Soviet government and the Islamic Renaissance Party who were backed by the later infamous al-Qaeda. China was also a target of this threat due to its close proximity and also to joint exercises being undertaken by the similar “Shanghai Co-operation Organisation” in 2022 to combat Islamic terrorism.

So is the China-Central Asia summit (CCAS) an answer to the G7, a pushback against NATO and this group, or is China using its local influence to help a developing Central Asia curb its carbon, methane and greenhouse emissions along with safeguarding this vulnerable region from terrorism and discord?

“China’s economic coercion” or just filling the vacuum?

China once again has become a target of the West when it comes to the G7, which has hawkish members such as the United States and Japan pointing to the rise of China and accusing China of long term “Economic Coercion” – a charge that China has had to reject many times. In the G7’s 2023 joint communique, it should be noted that there is a renewed focus on addressing Africa and Micronesia (including the Cook Islands), which were long forgotten by the West and are susceptible to issues such as climate change. Although they call out China and feel that they are “held hostage” by the PRC, in reality the West has only turned its gaze towards these forgotten regions since China’s rise and involvement. For example, the most recent joint statement mentions “a shared commitment to the G7 Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) and to work together and aim to mobilize up to $600 billion by 2027” for Africa. Why this scale of aid wasn’t offered during the colonial pullout of Africa or during the past 40 years is questionable, and as in the case of Central Asia, this was a gap China successfully filled and now the West sounds the alarm about.

Meanwhile, as the war in Ukraine rages on (military support for Ukraine has also been mentioned in the Communique), Russia has had to turn its attention away from the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) project, members of which will be looking for new avenues of investment and trade opportunities. Even before Xi Jinping’s commencement of the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) in 2013, the region had obviously traded with the Chinese for thousands of years, and grand cities such as Samarkand in Uzbekistan were built as testaments to pre-modern international trade. Uzbekistan will be another important spoke in the wheel of the new China-Central Asia Summit and although paused during the Sino-Soviet split, the history of trade between China and Central Asian states is well-documented since at least the days of the Roman Empire.

The Green transition, can China make changes where the West can’t?

Although the East and West have been at loggerheads now for a substantial period of time over a variety of issues, climate change has been an extremely concerning cause for powerful nations to unite around. However, due to the remote geographic location of the Central Asian states and their abundant resources, there is a great concern about their CO2 output.

For example, the United Kingdom has done an excellent job on reducing its carbon footprint. Although during the 1980s, the closing of the mines with no replacement industry hurt many Welsh and Northern British communities, the reduction in coal use has given the UK a head-start on reducing its climate footprint by turning to wind, solar, and nuclear energy use, resulting in nine out of the past 10 years recorded falling carbon emissions. This means that from 1990 to 2022, CO2 output was cut by 49% while the economy grew by 75%. It is providing a good example to the world of how to decarbonize. Even if the UK is still scarred by the social impacts of the exit from coal, it’s a great case study for nations to follow while avoiding the same mistakes. If the UK stays on track, the country will be carbon neutral by 2050 with transport moving to EVs (electric vehicles) and other carbon offsetting schemes such as re-wilding, on which China has done a great deal of work too. In fact, the UK and China have advanced plans to share green initiatives via the exchange of hydrogen technology even at a time of strained relations.

However, Central Asia is a different story. Being landlocked and with Uzbekistan, for instance, boasting an average elevation of 450m, rising sea levels might not be at the top of some governments’ priorities. Turkmenistan has recently signed the “Global Methane Pledge,” a key deal to keep the Earth from reaching 1.5ºC, but the problem is that it is now only just plugging leaks from its leaky gas infrastructure. Although the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan did make the pledge to reduce their emissions at COP26 in Glasgow, little change has been made. Methane leaks alone from Turkmenistan’s two main fossil fuel fields amounted to the entire of the UK’s output in 2022, due to poorly maintained Soviet piping and infrastructure following the USSR’s collapse.

If China could set up an annual G7-style summit to take up these concerns with Turkmenistan and provide industrial investment into dilapidated gas fields, the country could potentially bring down methane levels, export more gas to China, put the gas that was previously being lost to use, and generally contribute to the world initiative to save our planet from environmental disasters. Furthermore, using the BRI style policy, efforts could be made to pump gas to Europe and help with growing demand as Europe tries to wean itself off Russian fuel exports, at the same time being careful not to spark further tension between Russia and its former satellite states by undercutting its larger neighbor to the north.

Security concerns

If dialogue between nations on climate change is on the top of the agenda, security is never far behind. Just like the G7 which discusses far-reaching topics such as Ukraine, so should summits between China and Central Asian states tackle issues such as terrorism, or potential sovereignty questions. Border and other disputes between Russia, India, and China, as we can see from the recent Ladakh incident high in the mountainous region between China and India, can flare up at any time. More dialogue will only reduce the chance of these tensions potentially rising in the future, and in turn let states focus more on issues such as climate change and development for their people.

The direction of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the future of Putin in power, and various spin-off effects will heavily involve the CIS which may, in an effort to push back Western sanctions or influence, turn to China for security. As previously mentioned, terrorism, the fallout from IS (Islamic State), and other issues would be on the agenda. In 2018 American and European cyclists were killed in Tajikistan in an act claimed by IS militants. The Wilson Center notes that although many Western media outlets make out that Central Asia is a hotbed of terrorism, attacks have remained fairly limited. On the other hand, the fact the region has experienced such high-level defections shows that Sovietologists were correct that the Muslim regions of the USSR had been the “soft underbelly” of the USSR after all. One could argue that this set of circumstances provides a fertile proving ground for China to test out the GSI (Global Security Initiative) proposed by Xi Jinping at the Boao Forum in 2022, which is meant to promote internal security and promote China abroad. ASEAN would be another proving ground for China to try the GSI, but the United States’ activity in the region could curb its effectiveness if China tries to roll out the program across Southeast Asia.

Central Asia, watch this space

Central Asia will inevitably play an important world role in the years to come. While the G7’s relevancy is questionable GDP wise, it will have a lasting influence for years to come. While the China-Central Asia Summit is vital for a region forgotten by the West, it will take many years to gather the same momentum as the G7, let alone other China-led organizations such as the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

Although the CCAS might be vital for BRI trade into Europe, one historical issue may remain. Around the fall of the Roman Empire and the chaos of the 7th Century and subsequent dark ages, Central Asia stemmed the flow of trade, which was not re-ignited until Pax Mongolica in the 13th and 14th centuries. Central Asian countries could in theory form an OPEC-style bloc to crank up energy prices, damaging trade between East and West. Superpowers have an unfortunate record of intervening in Central Asia and must take care not to damage sensitive relations between the nations. Another example would be the warming relations between China and Afghanistan with the potential of re-opening the long-closed Wakhan Corridor, although the possibility of admitting Afghanistan into the CCAS in the future is currently unknown.

While the G7’s concerns are far different from those of the CCAS, mankind is united on climate change. With China’s backing, the CCAS can push forward and keep the climate pledges that it signed up to, trade in all directions without being under the thumb of an Eastern or Western superpower, and the five Central Asian countries can develop their infrastructure and economy with China, and technology via the BRI. Hawkish voices in Washington will without doubt cry foul play, or like the G7 shout of “Economic Coercion,” but it may be up to the “forgotten” Central Asian states to decide for themselves, and considering how distant they are from the West and the shared Silk Road based history they have with China, the connections between Central Asian countries and China are closer, and the CCAS is in all its member countries favor. One should take their decision seriously when deciding the path they are to take in the future, whether that be environmentally, economically, or from a security perspective.

References
VIEWS BY

Chris John Hayward
TI Youth Observer
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