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China’s Xi visits Central Asia ahead of expected meeting with Putin

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks in Hong Kong on July 1. He is expected to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Uzbekistan this week. (Justin Chin/Bloomberg News)

President Xi Jinping left China on Wednesday for the first time in almost three years, marking his reemergence on the international stage with a tour of Central Asia intended to advance his goal of forging an alternative world order not dominated by the West.

The Chinese leader landed at Nursultan Nazarbayev International Airport in Kazakhstan’s capital ahead of a planned visit later in the week to Uzbekistan, where he is expected to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Samarkand.

The trip comes ahead of an October congress of China’s ruling Communist Party during which Xi is expected to extend his rule indefinitely — cementing his position as the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong and giving him scope to more aggressively pursue his vision of China as a dominant global power.

Putin and Xi to meet in Uzbekistan as Russia-China ties blossom

“Xi’s trip abroad is intended to signal confidence that he has secured a once-unthinkable third term in office, as well as to reinforce his desire to be seen as leading an anti-Western alliance of nations,” said Craig Singleton, a senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former U.S. diplomat.

Xi and a delegation of officials including senior diplomats Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi were welcomed with a red carpet flanked by soldiers. Meeting with Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Xi said he had chosen Kazakhstan as his first visit abroad to demonstrate the importance of the two countries’ “deep friendship.”

“No matter how the international situation changes, China will always support Kazakhstan in maintaining its national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said through a translator while wearing a face mask decorated with a Chinese flag.

Xi was scheduled to fly to Uzbekistan later Wednesday, according to state broadcaster CCTV. On Thursday, Putin and Xi are expected to hold their first face-to-face meeting since February, when the two declared a “no limits” partnership in Beijing, less than three weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine.

After months of supporting Russia without endorsing the war or providing material support that would invite secondary sanctions, senior Chinese leaders have recently signaled stronger support as Putin faces military setbacks against Ukrainian forces.

Li Zhanshu, China’s third-most-senior leader, said on a visit to Russia last week that his country understands and “fully supports” Moscow’s “core interests and security concerns” and accused the United States and NATO of pushing onto Russia’s doorstep. “In these circumstances, Russia has taken measures that they believe must be taken. The Chinese side understands and in various aspects has lent its support with coordinated action,” he said.

Yet China, worried about international sanctions, is likely to continue offering mostly rhetorical support for Moscow. Xi’s high-profile visit to a region historically dominated by Russia also highlights how Beijing is emerging as the more senior partner in the relationship. Since the 2013 launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi’s flagship foreign policy designed to connect countries more closely to Beijing through trade and infrastructure projects, China has invested heavily in railways, pipelines and other infrastructure in the region.

“Russia has views and interests in Central Asia, and China has been slowly eating away at them. This does offer China an opportunity because Russia really is on the back foot,” said Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies in Brussels.

Ahead of the SCO, founded in 1996 by China, Russia, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan to resist a Western-dominated world order, Beijing has donated 67 limousines made by the Chinese luxury carmaker Hongqi, as well as 40 buses, for use by state leaders at the summit.

“It’s kind of saying we are really the host. We are here,” Fallon said.

On China-Russia border, new bonds are forged against U.S. over Ukraine

Xi’s visit to Kazakhstan overlaps with that of Pope Francis, prompting speculation that the two may meet amid negotiations between the Vatican and Beijing on renewing a deal on the nomination of bishops. The Vatican has said there are no plans for a meeting, and the pope said during his flight to Kazakhstan that he was “always ready to go to China.”

Beijing and the Holy See broke off relations in the 1950s after Beijing insisted that Catholics in the country worship only in churches recognized by the Chinese government. In 2018, the two sides reached an agreement that would pave the way for official ties by giving the Vatican final say over bishops nominated by Beijing.

Xi’s activities abroad may help distract from challenges at home, where he faces a severe economic slowdown and discontent over the country’s strict “zero covid” policy. In recent years, he has also faced international scrutiny over a crackdown on minorities in Xinjiang, the northwestern Chinese region that borders Kazakhstan. Accounts of the campaign’s brutality, including the detention of Uyghurs and others in re-education camps, first emerged from ethnic Kazakhs who had escaped the dragnet. Last month, a United Nations report concluded that China may have committed crimes against humanity.

Still, ahead of the crucial political meeting next month, there appear to be few threats to Xi’s position. “For Xi, he’s done the internal victory lap, and this is his way of doing that externally,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Vic Chiang and Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.

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