Chinese leader Xi Jinping prepares for high-stakes meeting with Vladimir Putin on first trip abroad since start of Covid-19 pandemic
Much is at stake for Beijing when President Xi Jinping travels to Central Asia, with Xi expected to meet Vladimir Putin on the Chinese leader’s first trip abroad since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and Kyiv pushing back hard on Russian troops in its biggest victory for months.
Beijing confirmed on Monday that Xi will start a three-day trip to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan on Wednesday, and will then attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Uzbekistan.
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Analysts said Xi’s visit was part of Beijing’s efforts to shore up ties with its neighbours, while positioning itself as an alternative to the United States on the global stage.
The stakes are also high for the Chinese leader, who has been under intense scrutiny both at home and abroad over the intensifying US-China feud, the fallout from his zero-Covid strategy and his bid to secure a norm-breaking third term in office.
For Putin, Ukraine’s rapid territorial gains in its surprise counter-attacks in the Kharkiv region have added fresh urgency to his meeting with Xi at the SCO summit amid questions about how long Moscow can sustain a protracted conflict.
Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Centre, said: “Xi’s trip to Central Asia demonstrates confidence in his control of the domestic situation ... It also shows solidarity and mutual support China and SCO members lend each other.
“It is a sign to the West that China is not isolated. The political significance is more important than the economic significance.”
Li Lifan, an specialist in Russia and Central Asia at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said it was a calculated move to bolster support from China’s Central Asian neighbours to counter geopolitical headwinds from the West.
“It is in line with China’s adjusted priorities to stabilise its peripheral regions when its major-power diplomacy has hit a bottleneck,” he said.
He said Xi’s decision to pick Kazakhstan, a major oil exporter and a key player in Beijing’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, also underlined its significance for China.
At a time when the infrastructure initiative has been hit hard by Covid-19 and China’s economic slowdown, Beijing is expected to give another push for its “health Silk Road” to boost its global influence through its response to the pandemic.
Multiple economic and energy deals and cooperation agreements over technology, connectivity and official exchanges were also expected to be signed, Li said.
Xi and his Mandarin-speaking Kazakh counterpart Kassym-Jomart Tokayev are expected to gloss over frictions caused by China’s expanding economic influence, Beijing’s treatment of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang and anti-Chinese sentiment in the Central Asian nation.
According to Artyom Lukin, an associate professor at Russia’s Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, the fact that Kazakhstan, a Muslim Turkic nation that shares a border of over 1,700km (1,060 miles) with Xinjiang, is Xi’s first stop showed its importance.
“As the China-US confrontation intensifies and a military clash increasingly seems a distinct possibility, Beijing may be getting more interested in securing reliable overland access to vital natural resources, which would be invulnerable to the US Navy,” he said.
Vladimir Portyakov, deputy director of the Institute of Far Eastern Affairs at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said Xi’s trip highlighted the great importance Beijing attached to the SCO, especially in the context of growing tensions with the West.
“A trip to Samarkand provides an opportunity (for Xi) to meet personally and discuss a lot with Putin, (Indian Prime Minister Narendra) Modi and possibly with other leaders. I believe that the main interest of the Central Asian states in China is to attract new investments and further increase the volume of trade,” he said.
The SCO is made up of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, India and Pakistan, with Iran also expected to join.
In a sign of Beijing’s support, 150 Chinese-made Hongqi limousines have been sent to Samarkand for the SCO summit, according to Chinese media reports.
While Xi is likely to meet Modi for the first time since a deadly border clash in June 2020, his meeting with Putin is widely expected to be the highlight.
Xi declared a “no limits” partnership with the Russian leader during their last face-to-face meeting in Beijing just weeks ahead of Moscow’s attack on Ukraine. While it has refused to condemn Putin’s six-month war, China has also carefully avoided providing sanctions relief or military supplies to Russia.
Instead of making a trip to Russia himself, Xi sent Li Zhanshu, the Communist Party’s third-ranked official, to attend Putin’s Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok.
According to a report by Fudan University, Russia saw a 100 per cent drop in Chinese investments in the first half of this year.
Portyakov said mutual support between Russia and China, mainly politically and partially economically, looked set to increase in the face of the growing pressure of the West on both countries.
“However, China is really afraid of secondary sanctions from the West, which could complicate the already difficult economic situation in China. In Russia, this situation has already been well understood,” he said.
Russia specialist Mark N. Katz, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University, also played down the possibility that Xi would give the support Russia urgently needed to cope with Western sanctions.
“Putin is desperate for more assistance from China. I don’t think, though, that Xi will be as supportive as Putin would like,” he said.
Late last month Tass reported that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had admitted his country was living through a period when it had nobody to rely on but itself.
“Lavrov’s statement suggests that Moscow does not see Beijing as being as supportive as Moscow would like it to be. Russia is truly floundering in Ukraine. I don’t think that Xi wishes to be associated with failure,” Katz said.
“On the other hand, Xi may be happy to see the West focus more on its differences with Russia than with China. And the longer the war goes on, the more amenable Russia might be to making concessions to China.”
Lukin also said Xi’s decision not to visit Russia “may indicate that Beijing carefully calibrates its level of public support for Moscow”.
“However, it is not obvious that Beijing is getting closer to Moscow, compared to the level of the relationship that had existed prior to February 24.
“Right now, China may be reluctant to antagonise the US even more by strengthening links with Russia,” he said.
“Anyway, any major changes in Beijing’s policy toward Russia are unlikely” before the leadership reshuffle wrapped up early next year, he said.
But Sun said China was bound to do more to help Russia down the road, on top of Li Zhanshu’s pledges about economic cooperation during his visit.
“Military support may not be on the cards, but China will not refrain from investment and financing to Russia like they did since the war broke out. Xi will meet with (US President Joe) Biden in November. He doesn’t want an alliance with Russia, but the alignment is inevitable in light of the strategic competition between the US and China,” Sun said.
However, Pan Dawei, director of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, noted Russia’s growing concerns about China’s expanding presence in Central Asia, Moscow’s traditional backyard.
“Russia is wary of China in Central Asia, but this is not something that it can control,” he said.
Katz said Xi’s visit showed Beijing had been increasingly asserting its interest in Central Asia, with Russia “having to accept a lesser role there”.
“The Central Asians are hoping for more investment from China ” especially now that Russia is probably less willing or able to provide it,” he said.
Observers also pointed to recent unrest in Kazakhstan and tensions between Moscow and its Central Asian neighbour, which they said had offered another opportunity for Beijing.
“Kazakhstan is understandably nervous that Russia might one day turn its attention to ‘liberating’ the sizeable Russian population still living in northern Kazakhstan. The Kazakhs are painfully aware that America and the West will neither be willing nor able to do anywhere near as much to support Kazakhstan as they are Ukraine,” Katz said.
“So Xi’s visit to Kazakhstan can be seen as a sign that Beijing sees Kazakhstan as a friend ” and Russia should not do anything to hurt Beijing’s friend.”
Sun said Kazakhstan would need a vote of confidence from Beijing.
“The country borders China, and there were curious questions being asked about Russia’s intervention earlier this year in Kazakhstan’s turmoil. Many Chinese experts see Kazakhstan as trying to balance between its independence and Russian hegemony,” she said.
Li also said China had emerged as a balancing power in Central Asia. “I think it’s even possible that China may try to help mediate between Russia and Kazakhstan at the request of Nur-Sultan,” he said.
Xi’s expected visit to the Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan would also coincide with Pope Francis’s trip to the city. Talks between Beijing and the Vatican, one of Taiwan’s 14 remaining diplomatic allies, towards reviving official ties have been stalled to the deepening US-China tensions.
Additional reporting by Kawala Xie
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