Why is Xi Jinping’s trip to Central Asia important?

BEIJING (AP) — Chinese President and ruling Communist Party leader Xi Jinping is expected to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin during a visit to neighboring Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan this month, in what would be his first overseas visits since the COVID-19 outbreak began in late 2019.

Xi, 69, has attended global rallies via video link, but his physical absence and those of other top Chinese leaders have cast a shadow over Beijing’s global political and economic ambitions. Xi only left mainland China for a one-day visit to the semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong on July 1 to speak at a ceremony commemorating the 25th anniversary of his transition from British rule to Chinese dominance. Xi has overseen a sweeping crackdown on civil rights in the city since pro-democracy protests in 2019, with opposition voices either jailed, forced into exile or bullied into silence.

According to Russian media, Xi will attend a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan where he will meet Putin. The pair last met in Beijing in January in Beijing, just weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine.

On this occasion, they released a joint statement declaring that their relationship had “no limits”. Beijing has since refused to criticize the Russian aggression or even describe it as an invasion, while condemning the sanctions against Moscow and accusing the United States and NATO of having provoked the conflict.

A brief overview of the issues surrounding Xi’s visit:

WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES FOR GOING ABROAD?

Xi is at a crucial inflection point in his political career as he seeks — and should fully obtain — a third five-year term as leader of the Communist Party. It is a break from precedent that limited members of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee to two terms in an effort to prevent the return of the one-man dictatorial rule of People’s Republic founder Mao Zedong.

The party, which tolerates no opposition, has complete control over politics, information and the media and Xi faces no overt threats. However, discontent has occasionally been raised over his consolidation of total power, a sharply slowing economy, a relentless anti-corruption campaign that has targeted political opponents, and sweeping “zero-COVID” measures imposing restrictions. strict lockdowns, quarantines, testing and masking that has wreaked havoc on the economy and society.

At the same time, relations with the United States, Australia and much of Europe have deteriorated due to China’s human rights record, often abrasive diplomacy, assertions of sovereignty in the South China Sea and threats to attack Taiwan. Along with travel issues related to COVID-19, all of these factors have contributed to Xi’s apparent reluctance to travel abroad for state visits and international gatherings.

WHAT IS THE SCO AND WHAT DOES XI HOPE TO WIN?

Along with Russia, China dominates the eight-member SCO, which also includes most of the former Soviet states in Central Asia, India and Pakistan. China has used the bloc to expand its influence in what used to be Moscow’s backyard, including taking part in multinational military exercises showcasing the capabilities of its rapidly modernizing armed forces. China also sees the grouping as a counterbalance to the NATO and US alliances in Asia-Pacific.

The dynamic in the region has changed in recent months, however, with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Russian invasion of Ukraine drawing lukewarm support from most other SCO members at best. Xi may be hoping a meeting with Putin at the summit will bolster domestic perceptions of him as opposing Western opposition to the war in Ukraine and bolster his nationalist credentials at a time when relations with the United States become increasingly tense over trade, technology, Taiwan and other issues.

Ahead of the party congress, overseas visits would also show Xi is confident in his standing and support among the party’s 96 million members, his six Politburo Standing Committee colleagues and leaders of the powerful military wing. party, the People’s Liberation Army. . As always, the party remains shrouded in secrecy, and senior leaders’ travels are almost never announced until the last minute, or even until they return from travel.

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT XI’S TRAVEL PLANS

Xi and Putin will meet in the Uzbek city of Samarkand on September 15-16, Russian Ambassador to China Andrei Denisov was quoted by Russian state news agency Tass as saying.

Xi is also expected to attend a Group of 20 summit in Indonesia in mid-November, bolstering China’s position as the world’s second-largest economy and a key link in supply chains for products from cellphones to dishwashers. . Separately, China told Thailand that Xi would attend a meeting in Bangkok of the Asia-Pacific economic cooperation forum soon after the G-20, “if he is not preoccupied with other responsibilities.”

Many leaders combine a trip to APEC and the G-20. China has not confirmed that Xi will attend either gathering.

Coincidentally, Xi’s visit to Kazakhstan on September 14, according to that country’s foreign ministry, will overlap with a trip to the national capital by Pope Francis, who will attend the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions.

China expelled all foreign priests soon after the Communists took power amid civil war in 1949, and continues to have no formal relationship with the Vatican. As the party ended its ban on religion more than three decades ago, Xi has led a campaign to demand that Christian, Islamic and other leaders pledge loyalty to the party and follow its dictates in relations. with foreign groups.

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