Xi Jinping from China travels to Central Asia, first foreign trip since pandemic

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(Bloomberg) — China confirmed that Xi Jinping plans to travel to Central Asia this week, in what would be the president’s first trip on board since the pandemic struck more than two years ago.

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Xi will visit Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan from Wednesday to Friday, China’s foreign ministry said in a statement Monday, confirming previous reports from those countries. Uzbekistan is hosting the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which will give Xi the chance to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in person for the first time since Moscow began its invasion of Ukraine in February.

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The trip marks Xi’s return to the spotlight on the global stage after becoming the only Group of 20 leader to avoid travel outside his country since the world’s first Covid lockdown began in January 2020. In addition to visiting the Chinese territory of Hong Kong in July, Xi will disappear without leaving his country’s strict Covid Zero regime for about 970 days.

The Central Asian tour comes just a month before the party’s Twice in a Decade Congress, where the Chinese leader is expected to take on a groundbreaking third term. Xi launched the global trade and infrastructure plan nine years ago that would become the Belt and Road Initiative in Kazakhstan nine years ago and may be trying to use the trip to brush up on his foreign policy credentials.

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The SCO summit is also an opportunity to connect with a group of countries seen as the region’s response to Western-led alliances at a time when China’s relations with the US have become increasingly ragged. Tensions were high after Chairman Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei last month, during which China launched unprecedented military exercises around the democratically-ruled island that Beijing considers part of its territory.

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Kazakhstan holds about 40% of the world’s known uranium reserves, an increasingly important resource as developed countries begin to use atomic energy as a longer-term energy source. It also borders Xinjiang, where Beijing has been accused of aggressive policies to suppress its ethnic minorities, including millions of mostly Muslim Uyghurs.

In January, Xi said he strongly opposed forces undermining Kazakhstan’s stability after mass protests over spikes in fuel prices.

(Updates with duration of the absence of travel in third paragraph.)

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