The trip will see Xi pay a state visit to Kazakhstan on Wednesday before traveling to neighboring Uzbekistan for a regional summit where he will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin — their first meeting since the invasion of Ukraine.
Just weeks before Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, the two powerful leaders declared “borderless” friendship, and Beijing has pledged to continue strengthening ties with Moscow throughout the war.
Their meeting will provide a much-needed show of diplomatic support for Putin, who is facing major setbacks in Ukraine and Xi is his most powerful ally. And for Xi, Putin remains a close strategic partner, sharing his suspicions and grievances with the West, and his vision for an alternative world order.
The meeting will be held on the sidelines of a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a China-led security and economic grouping that includes nations from India to Iran.
The trip also comes at a crucial time for Xi, weeks before he is expected to secure a rule-breaking third term in power at a major political meeting in Beijing, a move that would cement his role as China’s most powerful leader for decades. .
That Xi feels comfortable enough to travel outside China during the aftermath of next month’s plenary political meeting shows his confidence in power, said Steven Tsang, director of the China Institute at London’s SOAS University. The choice of destination is also in line with Xi’s obsession with control, according to Tsang.
“This is someone who wants to be in control of everything. At the G20 summit, he is one in 20 and he is not controlled that much,” he said.
But in the SCO, China is able to set the agenda, Tsang said. “[Xi] He wants to express that he is in charge and works with friends and partners. The Central Asian SCO summit, with Putin joining in, ticks all the boxes.”
That Xi would choose Central Asia for his first trip since the start of the pandemic comes as no surprise to analysts, who say it is intended to send a clear message about Beijing’s foreign policy priorities.
“Central Asia has always been China’s strategic pivot whenever conflicts arise on the East Asian side,” said Niva Yau, a senior researcher at the OSCE Academy, a Kyrgyz foreign policy think tank.
The thinking behind this, he explained, is that China’s economy will be very fragile in the event of a real conflict to its east, given that our international political economy is based on the sea today.
Over the past decade, China has expanded its overland trade route to the west, primarily through Xi’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive infrastructure project stretching from East Asia to Europe.
Xi’s first stop in Kazakhstan is a nod to that legacy: it is the country where Xi announced the BRI in 2013, less than a year after coming to power.
Since the United Nations Human Rights Office released a damning report on China’s crackdown on Muslim Uighurs in the western region of Xinjiang, Uighurs abroad, human rights activists and scholars have mounted a new push for international intervention.
According to Yau, the region most likely to take action is Central Asia, which borders Xinjiang and is home to about half a million ethnic Uyghurs.
“So China knows that Central Asia is about to be hit by this international pressure and they have to go there and make sure they’re ready or they’re on China’s side,” he said.
“Especially because in these UN votes, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have not voted together with China in the way that Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have done. I think it’s pretty obvious what’s on the agenda.”
And SCO could be the right platform for that. Founded by Beijing in 2001 along with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, one of the main callings of the organization is to counter the threats of “terrorism, separatism and extremism”, all terms used to justify China’s crackdown on Xinjiang.
Under Xi, the SCO has grown in ambition, adding India and Pakistan among its members in 2017. Afghanistan is an observer, and Iran will become a full member at this summit, according to Chinese state media.
Since its inception, the SCO has long been seen as a potential anti-US bloc, led by China and Russia, to challenge the Western-dominated global order.
But experts say that in its current state, the SCO is not the ideal platform to push this agenda.
As a multilateral organization, the SCO is a much weaker regional bloc compared to the European Union or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“There’s been some tension within the SCO. Russia has tried to advance some of its interests in the region that don’t always align with China. I don’t think it’s perfectly equipped to be this kind of platform. Shaping a new world order,” said Brian Hart, Research Fellow of the China Power Project at the Strategic and International Center.
“But I think it’s an important organization that Beijing hopes to continue to support and lead, and that appreciates Russian buy-in.”