Chinese leader Xi Jinping will head to Central Asia this week on his first trip out of the country since the COVID-19 pandemic, attending the regional Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Uzbekistan, holding talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and visiting neighboring Kazakhstan.
Xi’s trip is expected to focus on broad strategic concerns in response to the United States’ formation of the Quad alongside Japan, Australia and India in a bid to counter Beijing’s increasingly assertive foreign policy.
Xi and Putin will meet at the eight-member SCO Summit, which also includes Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan, with the president taking the trip at a time when Chinese citizens have been barred from non-essential foreign travel.
It also comes as his ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) gears up for its 20th National Congress on Oct. 16, during which Xi is widely expected to secure an unprecedented third term in office following constitutional amendments in 2018.
The last time Xi met Putin at the February 2022 Winter Olympics — shortly before Russian launched its invasion of Ukraine — the two leaders declared a “no limits” friendship that has seen China claim neutrality but decline to criticize the war, amid a large spike in its exports of electronics components and other raw materials to Russia since the war began.
Until now, Xi has taken part in other international engagement via video link, only making the trip to Hong Kong to mark the 25th anniversary of the city’s handover to China.
Formed under Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao, the SCO is seen as a counterweight to U.S. alliances across East Asia to the Indian Ocean amid increasingly tense relations with Washington, Europe, Japan and India over trade, technology, security, Taiwan, Hong Kong, human rights and territorial conflicts at sea and in the Himalayas.
Rolling out his “Global Security Initiative” in April, Xi said he aimed to ”uphold the principle of indivisibility of security” and “oppose the building of national security on the basis of insecurity in other countries.”
Xi will visit Kazakhstan on Sept. 14, Kazakh foreign ministry spokesman Aibek Smadiyarov said on Monday, adding that the Chinese leader will meet Kazakh President Kassym Jomart Tokayev and sign a number of bilateral documents.
Westward expansion of Chinese influence
Taiwanese national security expert Shih Chien-yu said he expects to see ever-closer cooperation between China and its northern neighbor in the next few years.
“Let’s see if Kazakhstan and China cooperate or even go hand-in-hand [as allies] over the next few years,” Shih told RFA. “Kazakhstan will play a key role in the westward expansion of Chinese influence in the future.”
Shih said that while Kazakh-China ties are currently friendly, Kazakhstan also has very close ties with Moscow, amid a resurgence of U.S. interest in locating military bases and other major infrastructure projects in Central Asia.
Meanwhile, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are deeply in debt to China, and are effectively its vassal states, Shih said.
Turkmenistan remains very closed to outside cooperation, while Uzbekistan is largely focused on agriculture, leaving Kazakhstan the key strategic battleground over which major powers will tussle, he said.
Taiwan think-tank analyst Chang Kuo-cheng said Xi’s trip also carries great symbolic meaning.
“China just recently conducted military exercises in the Taiwan Strait that were criticized by the U.S. and other Western countries, and were related to comments from the new British prime minister Liz Truss [who said China was a threat to national security],” Chang said.
“This visit have put to rest any concerns about [Xi’s] health, and show that … he is confident enough in the domestic political situation to travel overseas,” he said. “Thirdly, he’ll definitely be going to Kazakhstan with gifts and checks, showing that China is playing a more international role as a major power, at a time of war between Russia and Ukraine.”
GDI & BRI
Xi could also be promoting his newly conceived Global Development Initiative (GDI), which experts described as a parallel development and lending initiative running alongside a more streamlined Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Samantha Custer, director of policy research at the Aid Data Lab at the College of William and Mary, told an online seminar run by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that the BRI is risky for borrowers, because BRI construction projects often lack transparency, and lenders are concerned about defaults.
Diplomatically, Beijing also faces international criticism that it is setting up debt traps for developing countries, she said.
Joseph Asunka, CEO of pollsters Afrobarometer, told the seminar that Beijing has gotten far more conservative in its approach to its African investments since the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
“Chinese lending to Africa tends to exacerbate debt levels on the continent,” Asunka said. “I do see some kind of shift, especially following this year’s … focus event in Senegal for China-Africa cooperation, where China seemed to be moving towards what they call small and beautiful.”
Anthea Mulakala, senior director of the Asia Foundation, said the GDI is now running parallel to the BRI, rather than replacing it.
“Definitely the BRI has been the dominant track, the dominant approach that people are aware of [while] the GDI has been introduced as more of a parallel track,” Mulakala said. “Since COVID … there has been a decline in BRI investments globally.”
“China’s approach now is to learn from experience to date, whether it’s good or whether it’s bad, and adapt and refine what they do going forward,” she said.
“They’re not taking on the gambling investments in Cambodia, or the heavy real-estate investments — it’s much more streamlined and focused now.”
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.