China confirmed that Xi Jinping plans to travel to Central Asia this week, which would be the president’s first trip on board since the pandemic hit more than two years ago.
Xi will visit Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan from Wednesday to Friday, China’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Monday, confirming earlier reports from those countries. Uzbekistan is hosting the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, which will give Xi a chance to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in person for the first time since Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine in February.
The trip marks Xi’s return to the spotlight on the world stage after being the only G20 leader to avoid traveling outside his country since the world’s first Covid lockdown began in January 2020. Apart from a visit to China’s Hong Kong territory in July, Xi will have gone without leaving the strict Covid Zero regime in his country for about 970 days.
The Central Asian tour comes just a month before the twice-a-decade party congress where the Chinese leader is expected to take a record-breaking third term. Xi launched the global trade and infrastructure plan that would become Kazakhstan’s Belt and Road Initiative nine years ago, and may be trying to use the trip to burnish his foreign policy credentials.
The SCO summit is also an opportunity to connect with a group of countries seen as the region’s answer to Western-led alliances at a time when China’s relationship with the US has become increasingly sour. Tensions were high after the conversation with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visit to Taipei last month, when China began unprecedented military exercises around the democratically-ruled island, which Beijing considers part of its territory.
Kazakhstan holds about 40% of the world’s known uranium reserves, an increasingly important resource as developed countries turn to nuclear power as a long-term energy source. It also borders Xinjiang, where Beijing has been accused of aggressive policies to suppress ethnic minorities, including millions of mostly Muslim Uyghurs.
In January, Xi said he was firmly opposed to forces undermining Kazakhstan’s stability, following mass protests against fuel price hikes.
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