A few days ago, the Central Asian region became the epicenter of the world’s attention due to Xi Jinping’s historic visit, which is his first post-pandemic trip outside the People’s Republic of China. Xi’s Central Asian voyage started in Kazakhstan, where he landed on September 14 and met with the Kazakhstani President, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, together with the delegation including the Deputy Prime Minister, Foreign Minister of Kazakhstan and the Mayor of Nur-Sultan. The two sides discussed energy, health and trade relations and agreed on signing numerous new bilateral agreements. Two countries issued a joint statement according to which Kazakhstan supports the PRC’s claim over Taiwan and stay loyal to the “One China Principle”. “During this short period (30 years), we have established strong interstate ties. I sincerely thank you for your support for Kazakhstan’s economic development and our international initiatives,” – Tokayev told the Chinese leader. The same day, after ensuring mutual understanding and support with Kazakhstan, Xi Jinping flew to Uzbekistan to attend a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and held bilateral meetings with several leaders, of which Russian President Vladimir Putin is particularly noteworthy. Prior to the meeting with the Russian president, the CCP leader met with President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan to likewise Kazakhstan, safeguard their long-term partnership and shared future at the bilateral level. The president of Uzbekistan expressed his firm and unequivocal support for the one-China principle concerning its core interests in Taiwan. On September 16, the CCP leader met with the Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan and pledged “political mutual trust”. On the same day, Xi Jinping also held bilateral talks with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, where the latter showed his willingness to obstruct the US sanctions with the help of the PRC and SCO. Xi himself mentioned that he expects the growth of their comprehensive partnership and showed support to “Iran in safeguarding its sovereignty and national dignity”.
However, it is interesting to know why the Chinese leader specifically chose Central Asia as his first destination after two years of lockdown. Unsurprisingly, his behavior carries more broad and more strategic meaning for the country and his party. His message was concise and clear, addressing that in these challenging times when Russia’s role is declining in Central Asia, PRC shows readiness to play the role of the leading global power in the region and seeks to reconfirm this objective with the visit of the Chinese leader. CCP’s foreign ambitions have always aimed to link countries to China through economic and infrastructure projects. The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative has served this goal since 2013 and connected countries from the South Pacific through Asia to the Middle East, Europe and Africa through various trade routes. With his visit, Xi guaranteed the PRC’s devotion and considerable financial investment in the global initiative. Central Asia, and particularly Kazakhstan, has played an essential role during the nine-year bilateral cooperation under the BRI. The region itself is conceived being a gateway connecting the PRC with Europe. It is not surprising that in a world full of tense circumstances, China does not lose interest in Central Asia and is always ready to expand its influence in the region. Central Asia itself proved to be reasonably stable without any significant power competition compared to the rest of the world. Accordingly, China is positioning this region as a favorable hub for its companies and long-term investments.
On the other hand, the expectations of the Central Asian countries about Xi’s visit being a vow to deepen mutual understanding and trust, and bring bilateral economic bonds closer, were also justified by Xi’s first and historical visit since the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic. While the region is closely dependent on Moscow in various sectors and Russia itself is embroiled in a war with Ukraine, sanctioned by the entire West (and not only by the Western countries but also by the leading Asian democracies), and waned on the regional level, Central Asia may consider the PRC as an effective alternative to Russia in the future, especially in terms of the economic cooperation. Accordingly, the statements made by the Central Asian leaders during Xi’s visit and their shared future expectations for survival reflect this strategic intention.
Meanwhile, the Chinese leader used the SCO summit in Uzbekistan to meet face-to-face with the Russian president. Given China’s strong opposition to sanctions against Russia and the urgency to acquire more supporters on the Taiwan issue, Xi Jinping vowed his readiness to work with President Putin and pursue their shared interests in defiance of the West, as Beijing and Moscow both perceive the SCO as a counterbalance to the US alliances in the region. “China is willing to make efforts with Russia to assume the role of great powers, and play a guiding role to inject stability and positive energy into a world rocked by social turmoil,” Xi told Putin during the sideline meeting. It is important to note that despite China’s publicly announced policy of restraint on Russian aggression against Ukraine, it covertly continued economic and political cooperation with Kremlin even before this meeting. To be clear about PRC’s positioning in the Russian-Ukraine war, it is not accusing Russia solely but the US-let North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which, according to Chinese perception, has provoked and manipulated the already tense situation between the conflicting parties. At this meeting, Xi Jinping reiterated PRC’s position and sought an assertion from Putin that war will not further undermine regional security. Nonetheless, on September 21, several days after this in-person meeting, President Putin declared the partial mobilization of the Russian military, and the mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, announced the preparation of the first recruitment center in Moscow for foreigners willing to fight along with the Russian soldiers against Ukraine. It is unknown whether the meeting with Xi Jinping and the “strong mutual support” voiced by the Chinese leader involved the narrative of military assistance to Russia amid the Western military aid to Ukraine. However, Putin’s subsequent actions certainly give a reason to suppose so. Surprisingly enough, the same day, the Chinese leader gave instructions to the People’s Liberation Army of China for military readiness due to the escalation of the situation over Taiwan.
Noticeably, foreign interests are accompanied by Xi’s personal intentions and ambitions. On October 16, 2022, the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will gather in Beijing, where the party’s top leadership for the following five years will be elected. The congress is particularly noteworthy as the current leader, Xi Jinping, is likely to take a third term, breaking the “seven up, eight down” rule, according to which those leaders who are 68 and above are expected to step down and Xi Jinping has already exceeded the age limit. Experts anticipate that Xi is already preparing for the third term despite this political tradition, as his rule has dramatically transformed the PRC’s political landscape. His visit to Central Asia came ahead of the congress to prove his confidence in being the PRC’s most influential leader since Mao, heading the anti-Western alliance of nations.