On Monday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang joined his counterparts for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s annual prime minister’s meeting, held in Astana, Kazakhstan. He then headed to Belgrade, Serbia, for the China-Central and Eastern European (CEE) Leaders’ Meeting. At both stops, Li placed a heavy emphasis on China’s vision for a Silk Road Economic Belt linking China and Europe via Central Asia.
Li’s trip itself echoes the Silk Road, as Chinese media have pointed out. In traveling from China to Kazakhstan and then Serbia, Xinhua said, Li is taking “a march along the Silk Road.” It’s no surprise then, that Li’s current tour is functioning as a diplomatic showcase for the Silk Road Economic Belt, in much the same way that President Xi Jinping’s trip to South Asia back in September highlighted the Maritime Silk Road. Through the land- and sea-based initiatives, Beijing is hoping to expand regional connectivity and trade with an intercontinental network centered, of course, in China.
In Kazakhstan, Li showcased the Silk Road plan for the other members of the SCO – Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Xinhua argued that the Silk Road project “will inject new momentum into the SCO.” If realized, the vision would turn Central Asia into a transport hub for trade between Asia and Europe, bringing new economic vitality (and geopolitical importance) to the region. As Li pointed out, the Silk Road project also fits well with domestic Central Asian projects designed to provide desperately needed infrastructure upgrades and development.
A joint statement issued after the SCO prime ministers’ meeting included a number of commitments that mesh well with China’s Silk Road project: expanded cooperation in finance and banking, cooperation on investments in transportation and telecommunications projects, and enhancing tourism. China may be seeking to use the SCO as a guinea pig of sorts for pushing forward the sort of economic and logistical integration it seeks to create along the larger Silk Road Economic Belt. The group’s relatively small size, along with China’s ability to influence the SCO, makes it an ideal bloc for moving the Silk Road from the level of discrete bilateral agreements to a multilateral forum.
The China-CEE meeting provides another opportunity for China to win multilateral agreement on the Silk Road. That grouping provides a forum for China to talk with 16 Central and Eastern European governments, 11 of which are part of the European Union. During last year’s China-CEE meeting, Li signed a number of agreements on infrastructure, nuclear energy, and expanded trade (particularly in the agriculture sector) – all goals that mesh with China’s vision of extending the Silk Road into Europe. As Valbona Zeneli argued in a recent piece for The Diplomat, China’s interest in the region is primarily driven by “a Chinese strategy of ensuring greater access to Western Europe to promote its own commercial activities.” Building up infrastructure along the Silk Road Economic Belt – whether in Central Asia or Central Europe – is crucial to achieving this goal.
Indeed, Li has been a frequent visitor to Europe, with stops in Germany and Switzerland during his very first trip abroad after taking office. The creation of the China-CEE annual meeting in 2012 means that Li now visits the region yearly, including stops in countries like Serbia and Romania in 2013 that had previously gone decades without a high-level Chinese visit. And it’s no coincidence that the China-CEE meeting has been schedule either right before or right after the SCO prime ministers’ meeting. When it comes to China’s Silk Road vision, Central Asia and Central-Eastern Europe are linked.