Xi Jinping will change the world a lot this week when he sets foot on foreign soil for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began in central China’s Wuhan in early 2020.
Since the Chinese president closed his country’s doors in February of that year, Russia has invaded Ukraine and the US has mobilized Western countries and democratic allies to counter China’s rise.
But Xi will initially be among friends and allies – including Russian President Vladimir Putin – when he travels to Kazakhstan on Wednesday to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, which begins Thursday . Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi and Pakistan Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif are also expected to attend.
China’s foreign ministry on Monday confirmed Xi’s travel plans.
“Both Putin and Xi need a strong signal that the ‘anti-American front’ . . . remains strong for both international and domestic audiences,” said Jacob Jakobowski, a senior fellow in the China program at the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw. .
Xi’s appearance on the Eurasian political and security forum is the first in a series of high-level diplomatic engagements expected in the coming months as the Chinese leader seeks to re-establish Beijing’s influence.
This week’s visit will also showcase the closeness between Beijing and Moscow, when Xi and Putin talked of a “no-limits” partnership after their last meeting in Beijing just 20 days before the invasion.
Since then, China has refrained from criticizing Moscow’s military aggression, in contrast to Western condemnation and the Kremlin’s isolation.
Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center think-tank in Washington, said Xi’s visit to Central Asia was intended to showcase China’s international partnership.
“It means that China is not isolated and still has solid partners. This means that Xi is looking at his second decade of global leadership,” he said, adding that a possible summit with Putin on the sidelines of the SCO also indicated “their shared threat perception of the US”.
The SCO meeting comes as the Biden administration has stepped up efforts to formalize economic and security groups that the US sees as China’s growing military and economic dominance. Ministerial talks on one such initiative, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework involving 14 governments, began in the US last week.
Andrew Gilholm, head of China analysis at Control Risk, a consultancy, said Beijing may not show “enormous urgency” in addressing the deterioration in its ties with several Western governments, including the European Union, which has intensified since the pandemic began. went.
“I see many in Chinese policy circles speculating that this whole ‘re-galvanizing of the West in response to Ukraine’ is a temporary phenomenon that will not survive the economic pressures . . . and the changes of government that will come from it, Including the US,” he said.
Instead, Xi would probably prioritize strengthening ties with governments she viewed as less-aligned with the US.
“This is in line with the statement that the non-rich, non-Western world wants no part of this new ‘America-led hegemony,'” Gilholm said.
Xi and Putin will attend the G20 summit in Bali in November, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has said, setting up a possible meeting with Joe Biden. Foreign diplomats and businessmen in Saudi Arabia and Thailand have also been briefed about possible visits by Xi to those countries this year.
Wei Xi, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California San Diego, said Xi’s presence on the world stage would reinvigorate his foreign policy agenda after the pandemic and some “uncertainty” during the war in Ukraine.
This includes the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi’s hallmark infrastructure investment and lending program, he said.
The tendency for China and the US to “rapidly become” separate spheres of influence was “a long time to build”, but it was “being deepened by the pandemic and then the war in Ukraine”, she said.
Xi’s decision to go abroad for the first time in more than two-and-a-half years is also seen as a sign of self-assurance in his domestic political power.
The 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China will begin in mid-October, at which the party will reappoint Xi as its leader and head of its Central Military Commission, giving him an unprecedented third term in power.
Xi’s visit will also take place against the backdrop of a wave of city lockdowns and restrictions on travel in China as officials try to stamp out the coronavirus outbreak as part of the Chinese leader’s controversial zero-Covid policy.
However, analysts differed on whether Xi’s visits should be seen as a sign that Beijing would turn its back on that strategy.
“For domestic audiences, the primary goal of these engagements is to showcase Xi’s third term and the leadership the world has accepted. The goal is to strengthen his legitimacy,” Sun said.
Additional reporting by Maiki Ding in Beijing, Eleanor Olcott in Hong Kong and Samir Altrush in Riyadh