After two years and eight months stationed in his country, Chinese President Xi Jinping traveled to Kazakhstan on Wednesday on his first state visit abroad so far during the pandemic. His three-day tour will also take him to neighboring Uzbekistan, where it is assumed he will meet his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
Xi landed at the airport in the Kazakh capital Nusrultan after noon (local time). There he was received by the country's president, Kasim-Yomart Tokáyev, accompanied by a guard of honor, all of them wearing a mask.
After the welcome ceremony, the two delegations headed towards the Akorda Palace to address the problems facing the energy market and the world economy, among other issues.
The day before, the local newspaper "Kazakhstanskaya Pravda" published an article by Xi in which he stated his intention to propose to his counterpart "a new paradigm for the development of bilateral relations."
Kazakhstan's choice to break China's face-to-face diplomacy drought is no accident. Given its geographical position, it was here that Xi presented to the world in 2013 his ambitious New Silk Road, a multi-million dollar investment, infrastructure and telecommunications program with which he intends to improve his land and sea trade networks with the rest of the world.
With a population of 19.4 million people, the vast Central Asian nation shares a 1,700-kilometre border with China's Xinjiang province, where repeated violations against the rights of Uyghurs and other minorities have been reported.
In addition, Nusrultan is a major supplier of oil and gas, shipping to its neighbor through pipelines owned by China's largest state-owned oil companies.
After today's meeting between the two leaders, several trade agreements were signed. The documents add to the fifty projects financed by Beijing that are already underway on Kazakh lands worth more than 20,000 million dollars. The trip also allows Xi to expand his influence in Central Asia, a region traditionally beholden to Moscow where many are suspicious of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Despite its significance, Kazakhstan is just the appetizer of the main course, which will be served on Thursday in the Uzbek city of Samarkand. There, Xi will attend the meeting of leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which also includes important regional players such as Russia, India and Pakistan.
On the margins of the summit, a face-to-face meeting with Vladimir Putin is taken for granted. Personally related, with almost 40 meetings in person in recent years, and partners for national convenience, his meeting could strengthen the common front of these two autocracies against the United States and its allies.
The Russian will look to his Chinese colleague for firmer support in his confrontation with the West, especially after the latest military setbacks suffered by his troops in Ukraine.
In return, he is expected to show support for Beijing on issues such as Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan, around which China deployed troops this summer following a controversial visit by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
However, the real extent of that Chinese support remains to be seen. Since the conflict began, Beijing has criticized the expansion of NATO in the vicinity of Russia or the sanctions applied by the West and has exponentially increased its purchases of Russian fuel, which it acquires at an advantageous price.
Even so, the Asian giant has not gone further and has refrained from military support for its neighbor or from violating Western sanctions, since it wants to avoid ending up being punished as well.
Xi's trip comes a few weeks before the 20th congress of the Communist Party of China is held, in which it is assumed that the president will renew the position for an unprecedented third term and strengthen his power and figure.
For analysts, the fact that he is going abroad just now is a sign that he arrives at the appointment with everything tied up and that he is not afraid of last-minute internal movements that could jeopardize his dominance.
In the absence of new announcements, his next departure is scheduled for November, when he will participate in the G2O summit to be held in Bali, Indonesia. In addition to Putin, it is possible that he will then also meet with US President Joe Biden, who has already advanced his attendance at the meeting.