Xi Visits Central Asia in First Trip Abroad Since 2020

This week, Xi Jinping traveled to Central Asia in his first trip abroad in over two and a half years. On Wednesday, he visited Kazakhstan, and on Thursday and Friday he visited Uzbekistan to attend the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). During his trip, he held a face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, their first in-person encounter since the Beijing Winter Olympics in February. Xi’s visit provided an opportunity to expand Chinese influence in a region wary of Russian imperialism and important to China’s geopolitical projects, while testing the endurance of his “no-limits” partnership with a Russian president beleaguered by military setbacks in Ukraine. 

The SCO was founded in 2001 and has evolved into a loose political, economic, and security bloc of Central Asian states. Its core members include China, India, Pakistan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. In his remarks at this year’s summit, Xi stressed the importance of expanding security cooperation and people-to-people exchanges. Reuters reported on some of Xi’s main points at the SCO summit:

Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday called on Russia and other members of a regional grouping to support each other in preventing foreign powers from instigating “colour revolutions” – popular uprisings that have shaken former Communist nations – in their countries.

[…] He also said that China will train 2,000 law enforcement personnel from member countries over the next five years and set up a training base focusing on anti-terrorism work.

He invited member countries to sign up to China’s Global Security Initiative, a concept he proposed in April which includes the idea that no country should strengthen its own security at the expense of others. [Source]

All eyes were on Xi’s meeting with Putin, searching for signs of strain in their two countries’ relationship. Russia’s recent losses in Ukraine may have weakened the position of Putin, who has become increasingly reliant on Chinese economic and diplomatic support. As noted by Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, “The Chinese readout [of the meeting] suggests a lot of substantive cooperation, but the tone is rather detached and unemotional, [while the] Russian readout is more enthusiastic, only short of singing a song for the bilateral relations.” Xi also skipped a dinner with Putin and other heads of state, citing COVID precautions. In another development cited as a possible sign of a rift by numerous media outlets and commentators, Putin admitted that China had raised “concerns” about the situation in Ukraine. From the Associated Press:

Speaking at the start of talks with Xi in Uzbekistan, Putin said he was ready to discuss unspecified “concerns” by China about Ukraine.

“We highly appreciate the well-balanced position of our Chinese friends in connection with the Ukrainian crisis,” Putin said, facing Xi across a long table.

“We understand your questions and your concerns in this regard, and we certainly will offer a detailed explanation of our stand on this issue during today’s meeting, even though we already talked about it earlier,” he added. [Source]

Tom Mitchell, Edward White, Polina Ivanova, and Max Seddon from The Financial Times described other signs of a slowly shifting relationship between Xi and Putin:

Putin’s unexpected remarks about Chinese concerns over Ukraine are “a sign of the shifting power balance in the relationship”, said Jakub Jakóbowski, a senior fellow with the China programme at the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw.

Putin landed in Uzbekistan after a lightning counter-offensive by Ukrainian forces recaptured swaths of territory in the north-east of the country.

“The summit comes at the worst possible time for Putin, in the immediate wake of disastrous setbacks on the battlefield that have exposed, irrefutably, the truth that Russia cannot win this war and no longer knows what its objectives are,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London think-tank.

By comparison, for Xi’s domestic purposes, the summit with his Russian counterpart was successful, coming just weeks ahead of a Chinese Communist party congress at which he will secure an unprecedented third term in power. [Source]

But other analysts were quick to caution against claims that the relationship between Xi and Putin was deteriorating. The Economist noted that “China’s goal in Ukraine is Western disunity and failure, more than a Russian triumph,” undercutting the stress caused by Putin’s recent military setbacks. The Stimson Center’s Yun Sun predicted, “Whether Russia wins or loses, China will not change its willingness to further develop ties with Russia, because that is determined by the overall geopolitical dynamics, especially the deterioration of Sino-U.S. relations [….] If Russia wins, China will gain a powerful ally. Even if Russia loses, it will likely become a vassal of China.” Russia’s defense ministry also announced on Thursday that Russian and Chinese warships held live-fire joint artillery exercises while the two leaders met, following other joint military exercises that took place earlier this month. Reid Standish from Radio Free Liberty/Radio Europe argued that for both Russia and China, the SCO meeting was more about optics to warn adversaries and lure potential allies, rather than a renewal of their fundamental relationship:

“The reason for this meeting at the end of the day is very different for each side, but it’s ultimately about optics,” Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute, told RFE/RL. “Putin wants to show the West that he isn’t isolated and still has friends in Asia. For Xi, it’s about showing that he is a key powerbroker and just as respected as a leader around the world as he is at home.”

[…] “Both leaders are attracted to the idea of building a non-Western international order,” said Pantucci. “The SCO is in many ways a flimsy institution, but this shows how they can engage more with it and other institutions like it to offer an alternative path.” [Source]

Professor Joseph Torigian, an expert on Sino-Russian relations, penned a widely-acclaimed Twitter thread challenging the popular view that China offered significantly greater, or less, support for Russia at the SCO meeting:

Aligning with Torigian, Evan Feigenbaum at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explained how China’s position going into the SCO summit, and in the months to come, will be defined by the “Beijing straddle,” an attempt to counterbalance Russia, the U.S., and other countries in the region:

On the one hand, China will provide diplomatic support for Russia and broad commitments to a Beijing-Moscow entente whose principal rationale and focus is to counterbalance Washington and backfoot the favored global institutions and policy preferences of the transatlantic West and Japan. On the other, China will continue de facto compliance with Western sanctions to avoid painting a target on its own back, and it will deploy mealy-mouthed language about “peace” and “stability” aimed at placating the Central Asian nations and partners in the Global South that are uneasy about Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

[…] Beijing is a multidimensional power that has other relationships and interests [beyond Russia] at stake. Refracting Chinese diplomacy and Xi’s visit solely through the prism of the Beijing-Moscow condominium would ignore two decades of China’s investments in relations with its neighbors, downplay the stakes for Xi, and miss the multifaceted interests that have led China to straddle since February 24. [Source]

Some Central Asian states, alarmed by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, were eager to receive Chinese rhetorical support for their territorial sovereignty. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan greeted Xi with enormous pomp and fanfare, and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev called Xi “the greatest statesman and a preeminent leader in today’s world.” At The Diplomat, Brian Wong and Iskander Akylbayev described how Central Asia remains an important part of China‘s geopolitical interests and a necessary priority for Xi, one he must juggle alongside relations with Russia:

Kazakhstan serves as a critical bridge between China and Europe and the Caspian Sea, as well as a growing prime supplier of natural gas to China, alongside Turkmenistan (though the latter has struggled with meeting its pledged volumes). Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are engaged in an ongoing railway project (CKU) with China – a prime corridor of infrastructural mega-projects that could in fact yield significant returns. Tajikistan remains the least heavily involved partner to China in the region, but with Wang’s recent visit in August, this may well be changing.

The upshot of all this engagement is the broadening of China’s historically investment- and commerce-led presence in the region to include strategy-security-military dimensions too. Such “holistic” cooperation arises from the gradually tipping balance of power between China and Russia in the region, but also – as we see below – the autonomous volitions of leaderships.

[…Central Asia] enjoys a heightened level of salience as a result of Russia’s large-scale military activities. Beijing’s increasing influence over the region is not a foregone conclusion – it turns on the reactions and autonomous directives of the states in question, whether China can indeed offer a compelling economic pitch in exchange for greater influence across a “holistic” range of areas, and, last but not least, Russia’s plans. How China juggles its expanding ambitions in the region with its complex attitudes of concurrent alignment and guardedness toward Russia remains to be seen. [Source]

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