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Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Qingdao on June 10, 2018. Xi is using his first trip abroad since the start of the pandemic to promote China’s strategic ambitions at this year’s summit of the Central Asian security group. Photo: AP

ExplainerWhat’s at stake as China’s Xi Jinping makes first trip overseas since the pandemic began?

  • Trip comes ahead of key party congress where Xi is expected to secure third term
  • Xi will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and attend SCO summit
Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping will travel to Central Asia on Wednesday, setting out on his first overseas trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
He is expected to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Uzbekistan – their first encounter since the war in Ukraine started in February – on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit. The SCO is a regional political, economic and security organisation headed by China and composed of eight states, including former Soviet Union countries and India and Pakistan.

Xi’s trip will be watched very closely, as it comes just before he is expected to secure a third term in mid-October during the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.

Why is Xi Jinping’s trip important?

This is his first foreign trip since the pandemic started in 2020. In those 2½ years, Xi has mostly held meetings by video link with foreign leaders, amid waves of Covid-19 and sporadic lockdowns throughout the country to maintain its zero-Covid policy.

In-person diplomacy and people-to-people exchanges across borders have been kept to a minimum.

China’s economy has also seen a significant slowdown following months of lockdowns in the country’s financial hub of Shanghai as well as other cities and regions.

Last week, Li Zhanshu, chairman of the National People’s Congress, became the first of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee to set foot outside the country since the start of the pandemic. Li’s 11-day trip has included stops in Russia, Mongolia, Nepal and South Korea.

Why does the trip’s timing matter?

Despite economic challenges, Xi’s trip comes as the party is in the final phase of preparations for the high level, twice-a-decade party congress.
Next month’s national congress will be highly scrutinised as the ruling party will undergo a significant reshuffle. Close to half of the officials in the 25-member Politburo, the party’s principal policymaking body, are set to retire.
Xi’s trip will also take place amid high tensions between China and the United States and its allies. China has been widely criticised by the US and its allies for military drills around Taiwan following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the self-ruled island, which Beijing considers as its own territory.
Observers have said the timing of Xi’s trip is not just intended to promote China’s strong ties with Russia and Central Asian countries amid diplomatic difficulties with the West, but its also meant to project strong confidence in domestic politics just one month ahead of China’s most important political event of the year.

Why is the meeting between Xi and Putin so highly anticipated?

Xi and Putin will meet for the first time since the two leaders declared “no limits” in the relations of their countries when they last met during Beijing’s Winter Olympics in February, just days before Russia invaded Ukraine.

The pair have stayed in contact by phone over the past few months, notably on June 15, Xi’s birthday.

Xi’s trip comes as Russian troops are being pushed back by the Ukrainian army in the Kharkiv region, a major setback for Moscow after months of fighting, which has caused significant death tolls on both sides and harsh international condemnation of Russia.


Ukraine’s shock counteroffensive on eastern front pushes back Russian invasion forces

Ukraine’s shock counteroffensive on eastern front pushes back Russian invasion forces
China’s position on Ukraine will be watched closely as it tries to avoid international criticism. Beijing has been hesitant to side with Russia over the war, given that Ukraine is also an important trade partner of China’s.

“As the [world] situation has been going through some relatively large changes, it’s normal for [Russia and China] to hold talks on international and regional affairs and bilateral cooperation,” said Yang Cheng, executive president of the Shanghai Academy of Global Governance and Area Studies.

“But in regard to the Ukraine tensions, China will be careful in expressing its stance, most likely [it] will continue to stick with its neutral position.”

Ukraine pushes to retake all land from Russia, calls for Western arms

What’s at stake in Xi’s meeting with Putin?

The annual UN General Assembly is also taking place this week. The Ukraine crisis, Taiwan, and alleged human rights issues in Xinjiang are all topics likely to be widely discussed among world leaders.

Despite China repeatedly saying it is not forming an alliance with Russia, some observers say Western pressures, such as sanctions, will draw Russia and China closer – economically and diplomatically.

The two countries have stepped up military cooperation as well: the recent Vostok war games hosted by Russia with Chinese participation, and a recent joint bomber mission around Japan have kept stakeholders wary of stronger Russia-China ties.


Vladimir Putin oversees multinational military drills in Russia’s far east

Vladimir Putin oversees multinational military drills in Russia’s far east

Why is Xi travelling to Central Asia?

Xi will travel to Central Asia for a three-day trip from Wednesday to visit both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and will attend the SCO summit in Samarkand. The SCO is often considered as a Eurasian regional response to Nato.

Since the SCO was launched in 2001, China has fostered deep economic ties with Central Asian countries. The ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, which was first announced in 2013 during Xi’s visit to Kazakhstan, has further strengthened those relations.

The SCO maintains China’s interest in Central Asia with many ongoing Chinese projects overseen by the initiative.

Why the SCO needs to be brave and embrace Afghanistan

At the beginning of this year on the 30th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Central Asian countries, China’s Ministry of Commerce said that the volume of bilateral trade had increased more than 100 times in the last three decades, and Chinese direct investment in Central Asia had exceeded US$14 billion in the same period.

Given the close ties between China and Central Asian countries, observers say that it is very reasonable for Xi to make the region his first destination.

As economic opportunities continue to flourish, they say Xi will be able to further reaffirm the belt and road strategy’s success as the initiative moves into its second decade.