Following a flurry of media reports about the Chinese leader’s Central Asia trip in the middle of this month, Chinese officials confirmed on 12 September that President Xi Jinping will make his first overseas trip since the Covid-19 pandemic broke out over two years ago.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson announced that Xi will attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, and conduct state visits to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan from 14 to 16 September. [NB: News reports confirm that he has just arrived in Kazakhstan.]
Among the heads of states of major powers during the pandemic, Xi did not travel and stayed in the country the longest.
Resumption of Chinese diplomacy
Before the pandemic, Xi was very active in the international diplomatic arena, spending more days abroad annually compared with former US Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. In January 2020, Xi visited Myanmar when the pandemic had just hit China’s Wuhan. A few days after his return, China made an unprecedented decision to lock down Wuhan, and then implemented the strict zero-Covid policy, adopting a cautious stance on diplomacy. Among the heads of states of major powers during the pandemic, Xi did not travel and stayed in the country the longest.
Xi’s Central Asia visit heralds the resumption of Chinese diplomacy since the start of the pandemic. Many analysts believe that making Central Asia the first stop and attending the SCO summit highlight Beijing’s priority in forging closer relations with non-US allies and shaping the narrative that the US-led global stage is not the only option. The visits to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan also show Beijing’s desire to exert influence in the strategic points of Eurasia.
Significance of Xi-Putin meeting
The highlight of this tour will be the meeting between Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin. While Chinese officials have yet to confirm the meeting, the Russian side has disclosed relevant plans on several occasions. A Kremlin official said at a briefing on 13 September that Putin and Xi will discuss Ukraine and Taiwan at a meeting on 15 September, which would hold “special significance” given the geopolitical situation.
This would be the first meeting between the two leaders since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war. China has not provided any military aid to Russia and is expected to maintain its neutral stance on the Ukraine war, but the frequent interactions between Beijing and Moscow lately show that the two sides are getting closer.
At the start of the month, China participated in Vostok 2022, Russia’s military exercise in the Far East and the Sea of Japan. When Li Zhanshu, member of the Politburo Standing Committee and chair of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, visited Russia last week, he reiterated China's willingness to continue firmly supporting each other on issues of core interests and major concerns.
After the Western countries announced a price cap on Russian oil, China and Russia signed a new energy agreement to start paying for gas in rubles and RMB instead of euros. Sun Yun, director of the China Program at US think tank Stimson Center, told the Financial Times that the potential Xi-Putin summit also signalled “their shared threat perception about the US”.
Indeed, Russia’s position in this war does not look good, and recent opinions in China are expressing worry that once Russia is defeated, Western pressure will shift to China.
The meeting comes at a time when the war in Ukraine is getting more complex. Going into September, Ukraine has turned the tide and reclaimed a lot of Russia-occupied territories, while the Russian army continues to retreat. However, it is still too early to say whether this will be a turning point in the war and affect Putin’s authority, as some Western observers assess.
Indeed, Russia’s position in this war does not look good, and recent opinions in China are expressing worry that once Russia is defeated, Western pressure will shift to China. So, even if China does not provide material support to Russia in the war in Ukraine, the significance of a Xi-Putin meeting is evident.
China and its neighbours
Another highlight of the Central Asia tour is Xi’s meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which the Chinese foreign ministry has yet to confirm. Ahead of the SCO summit, the military of both countries agreed to a coordinated disengagement at the Gogra-Hot Springs area (known as Jianan Daban in China) from 8 September, setting a positive atmosphere for the leaders’ meeting.
Border friction has been a constant ticking time bomb in China-India relations. In June 2020, deadly skirmishes broke out between the China and India militaries in the Galwan Valley. This SCO summit will be the first meeting between both leaders since the conflict.
Among its neighbours, China’s relationship with Japan and India remains the most precarious. The China-India border issue is difficult to fully resolve, so it remains to be seen whether their relations will show further signs of easing after the border situation cools down.
Another highlight of Xi’s Central Asia tour is the SCO summit, ahead of which the US is ramping up economic and security cooperation with its allies and partners to counter China’s growing economic and military strength, including the Indo‑Pacific Economic Framework ministerial meeting in Los Angeles last week. The China and Russia-led SCO is also expanding, with Iran and Belarus expected to become new members in due course.
As Beijing restarts normal diplomacy, it now faces a very different world from a couple of years ago.
While the SCO holds regular counterterrorism exercises, it is not yet a military alliance — it is worth watching whether this will change with the members’ common values and interests under the new geopolitical situation.
Some academics say that compared with the G20 summit in November, the SCO would be a suitable venue for Beijing to announce the normalisation of diplomacy between leaders, as its members are more stable and predictable. But this is just the start.
In the time that the Chinese leader did not travel abroad, there have been major changes in global geopolitics: Russia invaded Ukraine, setting off the largest European conflict since the Second World War; and the US joined with Western countries and democratic allies to form an alliance against China. As Beijing restarts normal diplomacy, it now faces a very different world from a couple of years ago.
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