Xi Jinping trip turns focus on China’s sway in Russia’s backyard

Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to make his first trip abroad in more than two years this week, in an opportunity for Beijing to demonstrate its geopolitical clout before the Chinese Communist Party’s National Congress kicks off in October.

Xi’s visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan will be punctuated by an expected meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan, which starts on Thursday.

As Russia’s relationship with the West continues to deteriorate over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, Xi has not turned his back on Russia, and China and Russia continues to deepen economic cooperation.

Shortly before the invasion began in February, Xi and Putin met on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics in Beijing to underline a partnership with “no limits” while presenting a united front against the US-led global order.

As Western sanctions increasingly cut off the Russian economy from European and US markets, China has provided economic support to Moscow, including buying Russian energy exports and supplying cars and other products to Russia.

China sides with Russia on Ukraine

On September 9, high-ranking Communist Party official Li Zhanshu met with Russian lawmakers and expressed support for Moscow while criticizing Western sanctions.

“We fully understand the necessity of all the measures taken by Russia aimed at protecting its key interests, we are providing our assistance,” Li said, according to a statement from Russia’s State Duma, a chamber of parliament.

“On the Ukrainian issue, we see how they [the West] have put Russia in an impossible situation. And in this case, Russia made an important choice and responded firmly,” Li reportedly said.

European response to Putin-Xi meeting: DW’s Jack Parrock reports

Before visiting Moscow, Li also attended the Eastern Economic Forum in the Russian city of Vladivostok on September 7, where he met with Putin and thanked Russia for “firmly supporting China on the Taiwan question,” China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

Chien-yu Shih, an expert on Central Asia at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taiwan, told DW that mutual tensions with the West will bolster cooperation between Russia and China, even as Beijing seeks inroads in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in Central Asia.

“For now, the circumstances will force them to stick together and work against the common enemy,” he said.

Niva Yau, a senior researcher at the OSCE Academy, a foreign policy think tank in Kyrgyzstan, said that the Russia-China alliance is being built on a common goal of creating an alternative to the Western-led global order. However, she believes there are limitations as to where these interests align, as Russia seeks to recreate its sphere of influence in Asia.

“What China doesn’t realize is that Russia’s goal is not to bring down the West, but to rebuild the Soviet Union,” Yau said.

“China is going to get a wake-up call as things develop,” she said, adding that, in the future, China needs to be able to quickly adapt its relationship with Russia according to the geopolitical landscape.

Why is Central Asia important?

Both China and Russia are seeking to increase their influence in Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. For China, the region is an important node in the Belt and Road global infrastructure project.

Moscow is trying to maintain its role as a primary strategic and economic partner in the region, which was once part of the Soviet Union.

However, Central Asian states are looking for new partners in the Arab world and South Asia, as they don’t want to be too dependent on either China or Russia amid tensions over Ukraine and Taiwan, Yau said.

“Russia’s war in Ukraine is making Central Asia really anxious,” she added, while emphasizing that both Russia and China want to make sure that Central Asian countries don’t align closer with new partners.

“I think the SCO Summit is going to be the ground for all the countries to voice out their interests and what they are willing to do,” she said.

Kazakhstan has been an important partner for China in Central Asia as it is a source of minerals, metals and energy resources, while also serving as an important transport and transit hub between Europe and China.

Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has been taking a more independent course on foreign policy

Political analyst Bradley Jardine, a fellow at the Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington, sees Xi’s trip is symbolic.

“Kazakhstan is where he announced the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, which is a significant element of his foreign policy legacy as it showed China’s growing posture on the world stage,” Jardine said.

However, the political landscape in Kazakhstan remains fragile after large-scale protests in January over energy prices that left more than 200 people dead.

Russia stepped in at the request of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to provide security in the context of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, an intergovernmental military alliance comprising several former Soviet states and Russia.

China also offered suport during the riots, said researcher Niva Yau, but that offer went unanswered, leaving China “very anxious” and wondering what President Tokayev’s policy on China is.

“This makes Kazakhstan a very important country for China to visit, given the global environment and the bilateral relationship,” Yau said.

Xi and Tokayev are also expected to focus on bolstering economic cooperation during this week’s talks.

China has been active in Kazakhstan’s economic development for a long time and investment in non-oil and gas industries is expected to be high on the agenda.

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Uyghurs and Kazakhstan

A potentially touchy topic will be the issue of China’s crackdown on the Uyghur Muslim minority in the Xinjiang region.

Kazakhstan is home to a large number of Uyghurs and shares a border with Xinjiang.

“For China, Central Asia is always the region which requires constant maintenance so no such support will be given to the Uyghur diaspora community. Kazakhstan knows this extremely well and they are not willing to make public concessions. Under the table, the Kazakh government is helping a lot of ethnic Kazakhs that are coming out of China,” Yau said.

“One thing that will be on Xi’s agenda is to get Kazakhstan to reaffirm that they are supportive of China when it comes to Xinjiang, but I’m questioning how far will the Kazakh president will go, since he is a patriotic person and he is supportive of ethnic Kazakh unity,” she added.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn