A welcome surprise as Xi Jinping resumes travel to overseas countries
- Given the Covid-19 situation and the Communist Party’s crucial national congress next month, few would have expected the president and other top leaders to venture abroad at this time, but that they are doing so puts China back on the global diplomatic map
Xi Jinping has not ventured outside China since the early days of the pandemic in 2020. Few expected the president or other senior Chinese leaders to do so at this time as outbreaks continue and the zero-Covid policy prevails, curtailing travel.
Meanwhile, the Communist Party’s 20th national congress will be held in just over six weeks, when the future leadership line-up will be revealed. Preparations have gone smoothly.
But stability remains paramount leading up to such a politically sensitive event.
So news of Xi’s visit to Kazakhstan next week for talks with President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev – a little over a month ahead of the congress – comes as a surprise. Moreover, he is expected to travel on to Uzbekistan for a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a security, political and economic grouping.
There he will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin face to face for the first time since the pair announced a “no limits” partnership earlier this year, three weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine.
News of the visits, and an 11-day trip including Russia and South Korea beginning on Wednesday by No 3 leader, National People’s Congress Standing Committee chairman Li Zhanshu, is welcome. The world has keenly felt the absence of the leaders of the world’s second-largest economy at face-to-face meetings.
Video talks do not compare when it comes to developing rapport and understanding, especially between two sides with opposing views.
It would be premature to interpret the decision to travel as signalling a relaxation of the overall zero-Covid-19 policy, although a gradual relaxation cannot be ruled out. Politically, however, it may be a good sign.
After this trip, people will expect a return to normal on the political and diplomatic side at least.
There are reasons for choosing Kazakhstan for Xi’s first foreign visit in more than 2½ years. The pandemic there is relatively under control and logistics easier to arrange.
The stability of Central Asia is now very important to China, and not just because of the war in Ukraine but also for Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, which he floated in Kazakhstan and Central Asian countries. The visit to the region also provides a platform and opportunity for China to again pledge commitment to the initiative.
Political considerations therefore played a role in the arrangements, rather than any rethink of Covid measures. Uzbekistan is the most convenient venue for Xi to meet Putin and leaders of Central Asian countries.
With no sign of easing of tensions with the United States and Europe, the SCO is a constructive platform for China to enhance close partnerships, not only for the Belt and Road Initiative but also for regional security and stability.