China’s Xi Jinping visits Central Asia on first foreign trip after pandemic

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Chinese leader Xi Jinping heads to Central Asia for the first time this week travel out of the country since the COVID-19 pandemic, attending the regional Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan, with discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin and a visit to neighboring Kazakhstan.

Xi’s journey is expected to address broad strategic concerns in response to: the formation of the Quad by the United States alongside Japan, Australia and India in an effort to counter Beijing’s increasingly assertive foreign policy.

Xi and Putin will meet at the eight-member SCO summit, which will also include: Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan, with the president making the journey on a time when Chinese citizens are barred from non-essential foreign trip.

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It also comes as his ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) gears up for her 20th National Congress on October 16, in which Xi . is widely expected secure an unprecedented third term in office after constitutional changes in 2018.

The last time Xi met Putin at the February 2022 Winter Olympics — coming soon before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine – the two leaders declared: a borderless friendship where China claimed neutrality, but declined to criticize the war amid a major spike in electronics exports components and other raw materials to Russia since the beginning of the war.

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So far, Xi has participated in other international engagement through video link, only make the trip to Hong Kong on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the transfer of the city to China.

Formed under Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao, the SCO is seen as a counterweight too US alliances in East Asia to the Indian Ocean amid growing numbers 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.

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In rolling out his “Global Security Initiative” in April, Xi said he aimed to: “uphold the principle of indivisibility of security” and “resist the” building national security based on insecurity in others to land.”

Xi will visit Kazakhstan on Sept. 14, spokesman for the Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs Aibek Smadiyarov said Monday, adding that the Chinese leader will meet Kazakh President Kassym Jomart Tokayev and sign a number of bilateral documents.

In this file photo from May 30, 2017, the SGR freight train travels from a container depot in the harbor on a China-backed railway costing nearly $3.3 billion — one of the country’s largest infrastructure projects since independence — in Mombasa, Kenya. In recent years, Beijing has become more conservative in its approach to its African investments, said Joseph Asunka, CEO of pollsters Afrobarometer. Credit: TBEN

Westward Expansion of Chinese Influence

Taiwanese national security expert Shih Chien-yu said he expects to see closer cooperation between China and its northern neighbor in the coming a few years.

“Let’s see if Kazakhstan and China work together or even go hand in hand [as allies] in the coming years,” Shih told RFA. “Kazakhstan will key role in the western expansion of Chinese influence in the future.”

Shih said that although ties between Kazakhstan and China are currently friendly, Kazakhstan also has very close ties to Moscow, amid a resurgence in US interest in locating military bases and other major infrastructure projects in Central Asia.

Meanwhile, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are deeply indebted to China and its effective are vassal states, Shih said.

Turkmenistan remains very closed to outside cooperation, while Uzbekistan is largely focused on agriculture, making Kazakhstan the most important strategic battlefield over which the great powers will fight, he said.

Taiwanese think tank analyst Chang Kuo-cheng said Xi’s journey is also great symbolic meaning.

“China recently held military exercises in the Taiwan Strait that… were criticized by the US and other Western countries, and were related to comments from new British Prime Minister Liz Truss [who said China was a threat to national security]’ said Chang.

“This visit has allayed all concerns about” [Xi’s] health, and show that … he has sufficient confidence in the domestic political situation to travel abroad,” he said. “Thirdly, he will certainly go… Kazakhstan with gifts and checks, showing that China is playing more international role as a great power, at a time of war between Russia and Ukraine.”

GDI & BRIA

Xi could also promote his newly designed Global Development Initiative (GDI), described by experts as a parallel development and loan initiative that accompanies 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, an online seminar hosted by the Center for Strategic and international studies (CSIS) for which the BRI is risky borrowers, because BRI construction projects are often not transparent, and lenders worry about defaults.

Beijing also faces international criticism diplomatically that it is so setting up debt traps for developing countries, she said.

Joseph Asunka, CEO of Afrobarometer pollsters, told the seminar that: Beijing has become much more conservative in its approach to its African investments since the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

“Chinese loans to Africa tend to keep debt levels at the continent,” Asunka said. “I do see some kind of shift, especially after 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 now runs parallel to the BRI, rather than replacing it.

“Certainly the BRI has been the dominant track, the dominant approach that people are aware of [while] the GDI was introduced as more of a parallel track,” Mulakala said. “Since COVID… there has been a decline in BRI investments worldwide.”

“China’s approach now is to learn from the experiences so far, whether it is now” good or bad, and adapt and refine what they do in the future,” she said.

“They don’t take on the gambling investments in Cambodia, or the heavy investment in real estate — it’s much more streamlined and focused now.”

tranplanned and edited by Luisetta Mudie.