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China’s Leader Emerges From Covid Bubble for First Foreign Trip Since 2020

After spending the entire pandemic in China, the country’s leader Xi Jinping finally stepped outside its borders on Wednesday for the first time in more than two years and paid a brief visit to Central Asia to profile himself as a global leader. statesman and engage in the kind of diplomacy that cannot be done through a video call.

The trip offers Mr Xi an opportunity to point out China’s growing geopolitical influence in the region, despite Beijing’s sharp deterioration in relations with much of the West. At a summit with leaders from several Asian countries, he will likely try to present China as a reliable regional and global power – and an alternative to US leadership.

Mr Xi arrived in Kazakhstan on Wednesday for the start of a three-day trip. His next stop is Uzbekistan, where he will attend a summit of regional leaders and is expected to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. That meeting will give Mr Putin, whose country has become increasingly isolated by the United States and Europe due to the invasion of Ukraine and whose armed forces have faced sharp setbacks on the battlefield in recent days, by the world’s most powerful leaders. .

Mr Xi will try to use the trip to bolster confidence in his grip on power weeks before an important meeting of the Communist Party’s ruling leadership, where he is expected to claim another five-year term.

In its official propaganda apparatus, the party heavily promotes Mr Xi’s journey at a time when the country is facing major challenges. The Chinese economy has slowed drastically. Youth unemployment is at record high. Rising inflation around the world has hurt demand for Chinese exports. The party is imposing extensive – what many say are excessive – lockdowns to try to contain Covid outbreaks, lock an estimated tens of millions of people to their homes and subject some residents to severe food shortages.

The country’s strict and determined focus on avoiding and eliminating the coronavirus at all costs also explains Mr Xi’s long absence from the world stage. Mr Xi’s last trip abroad was to Myanmar in January 2020. Even when he ventured to the southern Chinese city of Hong Kong in July, he took few risks, requiring all officials, journalists and others covering the events. attending the coronavirus daily undergoing testing and isolating himself before his arrival.

Mr Xi’s striking retreat contrasted sharply with his pre-pandemic schedule, when he spent the equivalent of more than a month abroad each year. In recent months, as more countries opened up, he became an outlier among the leaders of powerful countries. It also limited its ability to directly influence China’s image abroad amid growing concerns about Beijing’s human rights record, the saber-rattling against Taiwan and other issues.

“The only reason Xi Jinping has not gone public in the past three years has been epidemic prevention and control policies,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China in Beijing. But staying home “also brings some losses to China’s diplomacy,” he added.

“Now, the Chinese government’s leaders must carefully and properly resume personal exchanges and foreign visits with leaders of other countries,” Mr Shi said.

While Mr Xi’s and Mr Putin’s meeting will showcase their growing proximity to Beijing and Moscow, the setting will be a reminder of the many ways in which they compete. In Central Asia, China has been working to expand its presence in the former Soviet republics that Russia considers to be within its sphere of influence.

In a few essays he wrote for Kazakh and Uzbek media before his trip, Mr. Xi emphasized China’s historical ties to the two countries and portrayed Beijing as a generous benefactor and reliable regional power. He emphasized Chinese investments in pipelines, wind energy, oil refining and car production in Kazakhstan and the joint production of Chinese Covid vaccines in Uzbekistan.

“Uzbekistan is welcome to board the rapid train of China’s development and share its development opportunities,” He wrote.

Mr Xi will certainly highlight the potential of trade and investment with China. His first stop, Kazakhstan, was key to China’s extensive international investment and development program known as the Belt and Road Initiative, which he began during a 2013 visit. and energy to connect dozens of countries to China has been a signature project of Mr Xi, with ambitions to restore global economic order.

But critics say the infrastructure and investment plan makes participating countries dependent on China. Such concerns are shared by many in Kazakhstan, who worry that China’s economic dependence is giving Beijing too much power.

The ethnic Kazakh majority of the country shares linguistic, cultural, and in some cases family ties with Kazakhs in the Xinjiang region of northwestern China. Beijing has taken extensive crackdowns in Xinjiang, leading to mass detentions of many members of predominantly Muslim groups, including Kazakhs.

The crackdown has created a bottleneck in ties between the two countries, but Kazakh leaders have not publicly criticized China for it, and the country’s authorities have also punished activists who lobbied for those facing repression in China.

In Uzbekistan, Mr Xi is expected to meet with Mr Putin at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a multilateral security-oriented organization that includes China, Russia, India, Pakistan and four Central Asian countries.

The topic on everyone’s mind, the war in Ukraine, is likely to be downplayed publicly if leaders focus on regional trade. Russia, China and Mongolia have tentatively agreed to build a new gas pipeline, Putin said last week, and the leaders of the three countries will meet on the sidelines of the summit in Uzbekistan.

The biggest agenda item will be the construction of roads and pipelines to transport goods and fossil fuels through the region, said Niva Yau, a senior researcher at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

“No one is going to tackle the war in Ukraine so openly, but everyone will say why the transit potential is important,” Ms Yau said.

The meeting between Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi will be their first face-to-face meeting since February, at the start of the Beijing Winter Olympics, when they made a lengthy statement about the ‘no borders’ friendship between their nations. The Russian invasion of Ukraine began shortly after the end of the Olympics, leaving Beijing in the awkward position of getting closer and closer to Moscow, even though it avoided openly condoning the war or providing the kind of material support that would lead to U.S. could lead to sanctions.

The Chinese leadership is attracted to Russia because it can be a partner against American-led Western influence. But Central Asian countries are wary of Russia’s intentions and don’t think China is acknowledging their concerns, Ms Yau said.

China and Russia “are trying to end western world domination and that is in line with China’s interest,” Ms Yau said. “The problem is that all over Eurasia, everyone sees Russia’s goal as a revival of the Soviet Union. I don’t think this is something China understands or takes seriously.”

Amy Chang Chien reporting contributed.