A surprise visit, a logical explanation


Xi Jinping arrives in Kazakhstan's capital Nur-Sultan on September 14th 2022 - his first trip abroad since early 2020 (Imago)

On the last day of the three-day Mid-Autumn festival, China’s foreign ministry announced that President Xi would pay state visits to the Central Asian countries Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan from September 14th to 16th, during which he would attend a leadership summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in the Uzbek city of Samarkand. Xi is also widely expected to hold talks with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Samarkand, the first in-person meeting since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.


Before Xi’s first foreign visit since his last trip to Myanmar in mid-January 2020, the 72-year-old Li Zhanshu, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the number three in the Politburo, met Putin at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on Sept. 7th. There, he told the Russian leader that China and Russia will “firmly support each other’s core interest and on issues of major concern,” the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.


A reflection of Xi’s confidence

Xi’s first visit abroad in almost three years caught many by surprise given the sensitivity of its timing, that falls just one month before the quinquennial 20th Party congress. Although it is widely believed that Xi is due to secure an unprecedented third term as head of the CPC Central Committee and the Central Military Commission at the Congress, him leaving China still reflects an unusual degree of confidence of his grip on power on the eve of such a landmark event. Or put more directly, it seems the dust has settled one month before the Congress, and he sees no serious threat or challenge to his imminent anointment as the most powerful leader since Chairman Mao.


This first visit abroad in more than two years for Xi can be traced to February 5th, when Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s office announced the planned trip by Xi this fall. Amid the stiff competition or even confrontation between China and the US, it was widely expected that Xi’s first overseas visit will be to “friendly” countries or partners. As a result, it makes sense for Xi’s maiden trip that he sets foot on the soil of the likes of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.


In addition, Xi’s attendance at the SCO summit is testament to the importance he attaches to the organization’s unique position in China and Russia’s “united front” against the US-led coalition of Western nations and democratic allies. In that sense, the political and security forum SCO could be roughly described as China-Russo answer to the US-led military alliance AUKUS.


Policy alignment ahead of Xi-Biden meeting in Bali?

That said, it is also anticipated that Xi may hold his first in-person meeting with US President Biden since the latter was elected into office two years ago on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali in November. The Taiwan question and Russia’s war on Ukraine are set to top the agenda of the potential US-China summit. So, a direct and in-person policy and position alignment between Xi and Putin on the eve of a potential Xi-Biden summit in Bali is necessary from the standpoint of China’s “pro-Russia neutrality”.


Xi may ask Putin to consider an exit strategy from the protracted Ukraine war, which has recently seen the Ukraine’s counteroffensive and the subsequent withdrawal of Russian troops from some occupied territories in Ukraine. It is in neither Russian nor Chinese interests to see a war of attrition with growing collateral reputational and other damage.


China has been continuously warned that its position on the Ukraine war will define its relations with the West. Although Beijing views its competition with the US as inevitable, the last thing it wants is a strategic disengagement with Europe. China remains dependent on the European market and technologies, especially given Chinese ambitions to achieve “breakthroughs in core technologies”. So, the longer Russia gets bogged down in the Ukraine quagmire, the more reluctant European leaders will be to use their political capital to mend fences with China and thus the quicker the Western anti-China front will form and take hold.


Change in China’s “pro Russia neutrality” stance?

It is also noteworthy that according to the Russian news agency Tass, China’s NPC Speaker and Poliburo Standing Committee member, Li Zhanshu, said Russia was fighting back well against the US in the situation around Ukraine, “as far as Ukraine is concerned, we also have a full understanding of Russia’s concerns and Russia’s position. I think that the crux of the Ukraine crisis is a worthy Russian response to American provocation.”


One should be cautious to jump to a conclusion that Li’s words represent the abandonment of China’s pretended neutrality given that Moscow has every reason to exaggerate Beijing’s sympathy and support and tie up Beijing strategically and diplomatically. In addition, Li is set to retire after the Party congress and the Two Sessions in spring 2023 due to the Party’s age limit, so he has less influence and authority within CPC’s higher ranks. His unabated pro-Russian words thus serve more the purpose of reassuring Putin than a serious rethink of Beijing’s straddle strategy.