Chinese President Xi Jinping has not crossed his country’s borders since the beginning of the pandemic, but if anyone expected his first trip in more than two years to be a rapprochement between Beijing and an increasingly hostile West, they were mistaken.
Instead, on Wednesday Mr. Xi heads to Kazakhstan, where in 2013 he first mooted plans for what became his trademark Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a vast trade and infrastructure project spanning much of the globe. On Thursday, he will travel to neighbouring Uzbekistan for a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional security group dominated by Beijing.
Both projects symbolize China’s attempts to reshape the global order, away from a status quo Beijing sees as overly influenced by the United States. At the summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Mr. Xi will be surrounded by allies who share his suspicion of Washington, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.
Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin last met at the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, just weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, and Beijing’s tacit support for that war – as well as its recent sabre-rattling over Taiwan – has severely damaged China’s ties with both the United States and Europe.
While Beijing has repeatedly called for peace in Ukraine, it has also criticized Western sanctions against Moscow. Trade between China and Russia increased 31 per cent year-over-year in the first six months of 2022.
On Friday, a senior Chinese official gave Beijing’s most outright endorsement of Moscow yet, telling Russian lawmakers that China “understands and supports Russia on issues that represent its vital interests, in particular on the situation in Ukraine,” according to a news release published by the Russian Duma.
“We see that the United States and its NATO allies are expanding their presence near the Russian borders, seriously threatening national security and the lives of Russian citizens,” said Li Zhanshu, chairman of the standing committee of the National People’s Congress. “We fully understand the necessity of all the measures taken by Russia aimed at protecting its key interests; we are providing our assistance.”
Russian parliamentarian Alexey Nechaev, speaking at the same meeting, said “the old world order, which was built solely in the interests of a small group of countries led by the United States of America, shows moral bankruptcy and is collapsing.”
“It will be replaced by a new world order, and Russia and China will play a very great role in its building.”
His comments were echoed by Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who wrote in Chinese state media this week that “the modern system of international co-operation, based on the universal principles and norms, has begun to falter.”
He warned of “the risk of reviving bloc thinking,” as Washington seeks to build new alliances to counter Beijing’s growing economic and military presence in East Asia.
Last week, the U.S. hosted ministerial-level talks regarding the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), which represents 13 countries in the region. On the military front, the U.S., Australia and Britain last year launched AUKUS, a new security alliance, while Washington has also ramped up military co-operation with India and Japan.
With the U.S. increasing its footprint in Asia, much to Beijing’s chagrin, China is using the BRI to expand its influence across Central Asia and the Middle East, a result of Washington’s calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Such a move has been advocated by some Chinese analysts for more than a decade, with influential foreign policy scholar Wang Jisi writing in 2012 that increased investment and diplomacy in Central Asia could “transform China’s economic advantages in the region into political advantages and soft power and expand China’s strategic manoeuvring space.”
A key advantage of the region is the lack of any real competitor, Mr. Wang wrote, something that has become only more evident as both Russian and U.S. influence there has diminished in recent years.
Writing this week, former Kyrgyz prime minister Djoomart Otorbaev hoped that Central Asia could become to China what Central America is to the U.S. or the Balkans and North Africa are to the European Union.
“Considering China’s economic power and its geographic, political and economic proximity to Central Asia, the untapped potential for co-operation is apparent,” he said in an article published by the state-run China Daily. “The implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative opens up unlimited possibilities for this.”
The success of BRI projects in the region – unlike in some other parts of the world – as well as the growing prominence of the SCO both give Mr. Xi something to boast about as he heads into a key Communist Party summit in October, said Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the author of Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire.
He pointed to recent visits by Mr. Xi to Hong Kong and Xinjiang, as well as the upcoming trip to Kazakhstan – “all places he would like to project as success stories” – as he seeks an unprecedented third term.
The summits will also provide an out-of-practice Mr. Xi with plenty of opportunities for one-on-one diplomacy ahead of a meeting of G20 leaders in Bali in November. That event could be the first time Mr. Xi and Joe Biden meet in person since the latter became U.S. President, and the Chinese leader will also face European leaders alienated by his apparent support for Mr. Putin.
“He’s not going to find a hostile audience at the SCO – the possibility of the trip being derailed is very unlikely,” Mr. Pantucci said. “Whereas the G20 is going to be much more unpredictable.”
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