Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's tour of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, from November 2-9, combined a demonstration of China's commitment to its Belt and Road (B&R) Initiative with a search for synergy with the various multinational economic initiatives which have recently emerged within the Eurasian region. These include a Russia-led bid to create a Eurasian economic area as a bulwark against Western economic preponderance.
Li began his tour in Kyrgyzstan, where he met his counterpart, Prime Minister Sooronbay Jeenbekov, and attended the 15th Prime Ministers' Meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
The SCO is one of the longest-established elements of the Eurasian security network, going back some 20 years. It was founded to ensure stability in Central Asia following the emergence of newly independent states in the region. China realized early on that establishing firm and mutually beneficial economic links would be the best defense against instability and the incubation of terrorism in this region, as poverty and backwardness always provide the most fertile seedbed for terrorism and extremism. In the turbulent 21st-century world, it is hardly surprising that China has invested a lot of time and energy in the SCO, which dovetails neatly into China's regional and extra-regional infrastructural initiatives, the B&R projects.
Premier Li's proposed approach to development of the SCO consisted of several main planks: the creation of a safe and stable environment; the building of an integrated pattern of development; cooperation in upgrading production quality; cooperation in innovation; improving regional financing mechanisms; and promoting people-to-people and cultural exchanges. While China is happy to take the lead in all these areas, especially in the field of regional financing, it is far from being the only player in this area. Besides the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the B&R mechanism, the SCO Interbank Consortium, the China-Eurasia Economic Cooperation Fund and the BRICS New Development Bank, among others, also operate in the region.
After the first stop, Premier Li continued on to Kazakhstan, which, like Kyrgyzstan, belongs to both the SCO and the five-nation Eurasian Economic Union. The focus of this visit was the third in a series of regular, bilateral heads of government meetings. Kazakhstan's domestic economic improvement policy, known as "the Bright Road," has obvious synergy with China's B&R regional outreach policy.
The premier then traveled westward, proceeding to the Latvian capital Riga for a summit meeting between
China and a number of East European countries, which has become known as the 16+1 summit. This forum, established fairly recently, held its initial meeting in Warsaw in 2012.
Expectations of support from China were high, and Premier Li did not disappoint. He witnessed the signing of a contract for a new high-speed railway linking the Serbian capital Belgrade and the Hungarian capital Budapest between Chinese companies and the Serbian Government during the 16+1 summit on November 5. The Chinese premier set this in the context of China's wish to establish an intercontinental land-sea express route, incorporating transport arteries running through the Central and East European region into the development of transport corridors between Asia and Europe.
Appropriately, Premier Li ended his trip in Russia, the main participant in the Eurasian economic and security partnership initiatives. Bilaterally, the visit chiefly comprised of the 21st regular meeting between the two nations' premiers. This bilateral forum summarizes the results from a broad spectrum of regular meetings between government heads and numerous committees, subcommittees and working groups of the two sides, covering almost all areas of bilateral cooperation. On this occasion, Premier Li and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed framework cooperation agreements in trade, energy, customs and education.
The key to Premier Li's extended tour lies in China's unremitting efforts to diversify its economic links, knowing that political relations are best founded on the proper basis of mutually beneficial economic and financial ties. Equally, China wishes to demonstrate that external economic relations need not focus exclusively on the West. This implies neither aggressive intent nor a wish to exclude anyone. Rather, it reflects the view that a maximal spread of economic interests is the best hedge against the emergence of conflicts.
Central Asia and Eastern Europe are regions in transition: The more solid their economic foundations, and the wider and more securely based their international contacts, the more likely it is that the two regions will prosper in common. Premier Li's long and arduous travels show that China is naturally keen to take the lead in encouraging this process.
The author is a columnist with China.org.cn, where this article was originally published, and a former British diplomat
Copyedited by Chris Surtees
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