Chinese leader Xi Jinping has arrived in Central Asia in his first foreign trip in almost 1,000 days, returning to the world stage in an attempt to reassert Beijing’s global influence during a time of increased friction with the West.
The trip will see Xi make a state visit to Kazakhstan Wednesday, before traveling to neighboring Uzbekistan for a regional summit, where he will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin – their first in-person meeting since the invasion of Ukraine.
Weeks before Russia’s tanks rolled into Ukraine, the two strongmen leaders declared a “non-limits” friendship, and Beijing has pledged to continue strengthening ties with Moscow throughout the war.
Their meeting will provide a much-needed show of diplomatic support for Putin, who is facing significant setbacks in Ukraine and counts Xi as his most powerful ally. And for Xi, Putin remains a close strategic partner, who shares his suspicion and grievances toward the West – and his vision for an alternative world order.
The meeting will take place on the sidelines of a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a China-led security and economic grouping that brings together nations from India to Iran.
The trip also comes at a crucial time for Xi, just weeks before he is expected to secure a norm-breaking third term in power at a major political meeting in Beijing – a move that will cement his role as China’s most powerful leader in decades.
That Xi feels comfortable enough to travel outside China during the lead-up to next month’s highly consequential political gathering shows he is confident about his grip on power, said Steven Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London. The choice of destination is also in line with Xi’s obsession with control, according to Tsang.
“This is somebody who wants to be in control of everything. At the G20 summit, he is one out of 20 and not quite so much in control,” he said.
But at the SCO, China is able to set the agenda, Tsang said. “[Xi] wants to send the signal that he is in charge and working with friends and partners. The SCO summit in Central Asia, with Putin joining, ticks all the boxes.”
That Xi would choose Central Asia for his first trip since the beginning of the pandemic is of no surprise to analysts, who say it is intended to sends a clear message about Beijing’s foreign policy priorities.
“Central Asia has always been the strategic pivot for China whenever conflicts loom in the East Asia side,” said Niva Yau, senior researcher at the OSCE Academy, a foreign policy think tank in Kyrgyzstan.
The thinking behind this, she explained, is that the Chinese economy will be very fragile in the event of a real conflict to its east, given how much our international political economy today is based on the sea.
“Every time China gets into tension with Taiwan, Central Asia all of a sudden opens up to be the place that they make grand gestures,” Yau said.
Over the past decade, China has expanded its land-based trade route to the west, particularly through Xi’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive infrastructure project that stretches from East Asia to Europe.
Xi’s first stop in Kazakhstan is a nod to that legacy – the country is where Xi announced the BRI in 2013, less than a year after he came to power.
Central Asia is important to China for another reason: Xinjiang, Yau said.
Since the United Nations Human Rights Office released a damning report on China’s repression against Uyghur Muslims in its western region of Xinjiang, overseas Uyghurs, human rights activists and scholars have pushed for new momentum to call for international intervention.
According to Yau, the region where actions are most likely to be taken is Central Asia, which borders Xinjiang and is home to about half million ethnic Uyghurs.
“So China knows that Central Asia is about to be hit by this international pressure and they need to go there and get reassurance that they are ready for this, or that they are on China’s side,” she said.
“Especially because at these UN votes, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan haven’t been voting along with China the way Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have. I think it’s fairly obvious what’s on the agenda.”
And the SCO could be the right platform for that. Established in 2001 by Beijing along with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, a central calling of the organization is to combat the perceived threats of “terrorism, separatism and extremism” – all terms used to justify China’s crackdown in Xinjiang.
Under Xi, the SCO has expanded in ambition, adding India and Pakistan among its members in 2017. Afghanistan is an observer, and Iran is slated to become a full member at this summit, according to Chinese state media reports.
Since its founding, the SCO has long been seen by some as a potential anti-US block, led by China and Russia, to challenge the Western-dominated global order.
Beijing and Moscow certainly harbor ambitions for a new multipolar world. Xi and Putin discussed it when they last met in Beijing, and on Monday, Beijing’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi told outgoing Russian Ambassador Andrey Denisov that China is ready to work with Russia to take the global order “in a more just and rational direction.”
But experts say in its current state, the SCO is not really the perfect platform for pushing that agenda.
As a multilateral organization, SCO is a much weaker regional block compared with the European Union or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“There has actually been some tension at times within the SCO. Russia has tried to advance some of its interests which aren’t always aligned with China’s in the region. I don’t think it’s perfectly set up to be this kind of platform for shaping a new world order,” said Brian Hart, a fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“But I do think it is an important organization, one that Beijing hopes to continue to support and lead – and one that it does appreciate Russian buy-in on.”