Xi to visit central Asian nations in run-up to key party meeting

The trip to Kazakhstan would mark a return to the world stage for Mr Xi Jinping. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING - Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to visit Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan next week, in what would be his first overseas trip since around the start of the pandemic.

Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Aibek Smadiyarov said on Monday that Mr Xi would visit the central Asian nation next Wednesday, meet Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and sign a number of agreements, reported Kazakh media.

Mr Xi is then expected to travel to Samarkand, Uzbekistan, to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit, which will be held next Thursday and Friday. 

When asked on Tuesday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry did not confirm the trip, but Beijing tends to keep travel details of top leaders under wraps until days before they happen.

If the trip goes ahead, it will mark the first time Mr Xi is travelling out of the country since January 2020, when he visited Myanmar.

The trip will also come just weeks before a crucial Communist Party congress beginning on Oct 16, where Mr Xi is expected to seek a norm-breaking third term in power.

It will be at this meeting where the line-up of the party’s top leadership bodies, including the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, will be unveiled.

Choosing to travel now at a time of intense politicking would suggest that the top Chinese leader is secure and confident going into the twice-a-decade meeting, said experts.

It would show Mr Xi as a leader firmly in charge of domestic and foreign policy, said political analyst Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“It’ll signal that Xi is very confident that his position in the party is not under challenge despite the problems in the economy and the tough questions that will no doubt be raised at the party congress,” said Dr Lam.

Associate Professor Alfred Wu from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy said it could also indicate that personnel decisions would have been already confirmed when party leaders met at their annual summer summit at the beach resort town of Beidaihe.

Analysts also say that Mr Xi has been keen to highlight what he views as his policy successes during his time in power, in the run-up to the party congress.

In July, he visited both Xinjiang and Hong Kong - which was his first trip away from the mainland - in part to highlight that the communist party leadership had established control and stability over these two regions that once saw riots and protests.

“Kazakhstan is very significant for him – it was where he launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013,” said Prof Wu.

But the BRI has received its fair share of criticism since it was launched nine years ago, with detractors saying that Beijing was losing large amounts of money investing in projects that were unprofitable or in countries that are not politically stable, he added.

“He wants to showcase his achievements, and that his direction and policies are right,” said Prof Wu.

Visiting Uzbekistan and attending the meeting of the SCO, a political, economic and security organisation that China sees as a counter to Western alliances, would “continue this success story narrative”, said Mr Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University.

China had helped found SCO in 2001, a multilateral platform. The other members are Russia, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Mr Xi is also expected to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of this forum.

“This is an organisation that China created, so for (Xi) not to show up would be strange, it would be a bit of a snub to their own entity,” said Mr Pantucci.

“He’s also not going to find a hostile audience. These (two countries) are not places where he’s going to have pesky journalists asking awkward questions or have protests against him. The possibility of the trip being derailed by something unpredictable are very unlikely.”

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