President Xi Jinping on Saturday proposed that China and Central Asian countries build an "economic belt along the Silk Road", a trans-Eurasian project spanning from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea.
Xi made the official suggestion for the first time during a speech on China's Central Asia strategy at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan.
The proposed economic belt is inhabited by "close to 3 billion people and represents the biggest market in the world with unparalleled potential", Xi said. Observers said the policy speech outlined the new Chinese leadership's diplomatic priority of accelerating comprehensive cooperation with the inland region that is home to China's strategic partners.
Xi is on the second leg of his first Central Asia tour - a sequence of state visits to Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan from Sept 3 to 13. "A nearby neighbour is better than a distant relative," Xi said.
He underscored the more than two millennia of exchanges between China and Central Asia. The two sides are witnessing a "golden opportunity" for deeper cooperation, Xi said.
To create the new economic belt, Xi suggested China and Central Asian countries accelerate policy communication, improve road connectivity, promote unimpeded trade, enhance monetary circulation and enhance understanding.
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Central Asian studies scholar Sun Zhuangzhi said the integration of transportation links propelled by the "new Silk Road" will "revitalize" the region's inland civilizations.
"Cooperation across the continent is expanding and deepening in scope - from the realms of traditional energy and mineral resources to the thriving collaboration in technologies, investment, finance and services," Sun said.
Xi mentioned the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is working on a transportation agreement to improve road connectivity. "After the agreement is signed, further discussion should be used to improve cross-border transportation infrastructure and forge our transportation network connecting East Asia, Western Asia and South Asia," Xi said.
The new Silk Road will become another global growth locus once western China is better connected with Central Asia, China's former ambassador to Uzbekistan Gao Yusheng said. Xi also suggested conducting trade in local currencies.
"If our region can realise local-currency convertibility and settlement under current and capital accounts, it will significantly lower circulation costs, increase our ability to fend off financial risks and make our region more economically competitive in the world," Xi said.
The total trade volume between China and Central Asia climbed in 2012 to $46 billion (S$59 billion) - 100 times the volume in 1992, the year China forged diplomatic relations with the region's five nations.
Xi announced a 10-year central government plan to provide 30,000 government scholarships to Shanghai Cooperation Organisation member states, and to invite 10,000 teachers and students from these countries' Confucius Institutes to China for study tours.
China's former ambassador to Kazakhstan Yao Peisheng said the proposed economic belt extends beyond a slogan to encompass not only economic but also political and cultural efforts. "Now, the follow-up measures to realise the new Silk Road are important," Yao said.
Four of Central Asia's five countries are China's strategic partners. China established a strategic partnership with Turkmenistan during Xi's visit from Tuesday to Wednesday. Xi's Central Asia tour is "directly addressing" both welcoming and questioning voices within China's neighbours about China's rise, East China Normal University's Center for Russian Studies deputy director Yang Cheng said.
"It is now China's turn to share growth's benefits with Central Asia," Yang said.
China and Kazakhstan will achieve an estimated bilateral trade volume of $40 billion in 2015 by improving trade structure, diversity, cooperation scale and quality to tap ties' "enormous potential", Xi said in agreement with his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev in a talk after the university speech. Bilateral trade surged to $13.57 billion in the first half of 2013, up 23.1 per cent year-on-year.
Both countries' leaders hailed the trust and support for each other's core interests. They underlined energy cooperation between China and Kazakhstan as "complimentary, mutually beneficial and win-win". The two sides agreed to ensure cross-border oil and gas pipeline construction and to strengthen oil and gas development and refinement. They will seek new cooperation focuses, including commercial nuclear, new and clean energies.
Enhancing cooperation in other fields - connectivity, agriculture, technology, localities and local currency clearance - are also shared goals. Xi and Nazarbayev vowed to crack down on the "three evil forces" of terrorism, extremism and separatism.
Central Asia and western China have both faced a growing threat of extremist and terrorist penetration in recent years.
The common pursuit of security and stability is "one of the driving forces" that brings China and Central Asia together and deepens their cooperation, China Institute of Contemporary International Relations' Central Asia studies researcher Wang Lijiu said.