Why Xi Began His First Trip Since the Pandemic in Kazakhstan

After almost three years spent attending virtual international meetings, the Chinese President Xi Jinping returned to real life on Wednesday as he visited Kazakhstan.

Aside from a trip to the semi-autonomous Chinese territory of Hong Kong in July, Xi hasn’t left mainland China since January 2020, when Beijing’s zero-COVID policy saw the country slam its borders shut. That makes Xi’s travels this week particularly significant.

Xi plans to visit Uzbekistan as part of his tour. He will attend a Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting (SCO), a regional trading and security bloc whose members include India, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It will be the SCO’s first in-person gathering since 2019 and Xi is expected to take the opportunity for a face-to-face meeting with Vladimir Putin—his first since the Russian leader launched a war against Ukraine in February.

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But Xi’s first stop is Kazakhstan, where he’ll hold talks with President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Here’s why Kazakhstan matters a great deal to China, and why Xi has decided to make Central Asia the focus of his first foreign sojourn in almost 1,000 days.

Chinese President Xi Jinping holds a welcoming ceremony for visiting Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev before their talks at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Sept. 11, 2019. (Huang Jingwen/Xinhua via Getty)

Chinese President Xi Jinping hosts a greeting ceremony for Kazakh President Kassym Jomart Tokayev, before they meet at the Great Hall of the People Beijing, September 11, 2019.

Huang Jingwen/Xinhua via Getty

Kazakhstan’s strategic importance

Kazakhstan is China’s neighbor to the northwest. The two countries share more than 1,000 miles of border and this will be Xi’s fourth visit. “China and Kazakhstan are good neighbors, good friends and good partners,” Xi said in a letter published Tuesday in the Kazakhstanskaya Pravda newspaper.

Hard geopolitical calculations lie behind these friendly gestures.

As of 2019, China had around $14 billion invested in Kazakhstan’s oil and gas sectors. Kazakhstan has become more significant than ever after the Russian invasion and chaos in Ukraine.

The Central Asian country of almost 19 million people “is a significant supplier of energy to China, thereby crucial for Beijing’s energy security strategy,” says Baohui Zhang, a professor of political science at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University.

Kazakhstan has an 18% Russian population and shares a border. Experts believe that Xi may be signaling to Moscow that Beijing views Central Asia as part of its sphere.

Learn More Russia’s War in Ukraine Spells Disaster for Central Asia

George Mason University politics professor Mark N. Katz told Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper that “Kazakhstan is understandably nervous that Russia might one day turn its attention to ‘liberating’ the sizeable Russian population still living in northern Kazakhstan.”

Mason explained: “So Xi’s visit to Kazakhstan can be seen as a sign that Beijing sees Kazakhstan as a friend and Russia should not do anything to hurt Beijing’s friend.”

Meanwhile, China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—a development strategy that links nearly 150 countries in a sprawling program of infrastructure building—was launched by Xi in 2013 during a visit to Kazakhstan’s capital Astana. Besides its economic benefits, the BRI is seen by Beijing as a way of increasing its global clout and in particular of practicing “periphery diplomacy” with the many countries along its borders.

By China’s own admission, the BRI has run into a slew of challenges, from unfavorable shifts in the geopolitical climate to the COVID-19 pandemic. Xi’s trip to Kazakhstan can be seen as a way of revitalizing the initiative, according to analysts.

“This is all about the ‘renewal of vows’” on the Belt and Road Initiative, says Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Centre. “The country is where it all started. That’s why he is going.”

A Kazakh family watch a documentary on China-Kazakhstan economic cooperation at their home in Astana, then called Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, on Oct. 9, 2020. (Kalizhan Ospanov/Xinhua via Getty)

Kazakh family watches a documentary on China-Kazakhstan economy cooperation. It was filmed at their Astana house, now Nur-Sultan (Kazakhstan), on Oct. 9, 2020.

Kalizhan Ospanov/Xinhua via Getty

China’s future direction

Zhiqun Zhu, a professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University, who is currently a U.S. Fulbright Scholar at Australia’s Griffith University, says that in stepping beyond China’s borders Xi may also be sending a message that his country will gradually reopen. As COVID-19 ceases, international travel may resume.

There are periodic signs that discontent over China’s zero-COVID policies—which have caused severe economic problems—is growing. Xi might be showing that he still has control of China despite these mounting problems. He could also be suggesting that he is assured in his bid for a precedent-breaking third term as China’s president, at a key Communist Party meeting next month.

“He can confidently travel abroad now,” says Zhu.

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The SCO conference, following Xi’s Kazakhstan trip, will be of crucial importance to Xi’s geopolitical clout. “In the context of the Ukraine war,” says Zhang at Lingnan University, “the SCO summit meeting will allow the leaders of major non-Western powers to talk about recent developments in world politics and coordinate their policies.”

Experts say Beijing might be seeking to build support against the West in a geopolitical climate that is tense.

“The message to Western powers is that they do not represent the whole international community, and China has many friends in developing countries and the non-Western world,” says Zhu.

Kazakhstan is one of the most important. “We are friends to trust and partners to count on for each other,” wrote Xi in his letter in Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, “and our peoples always stand shoulder to shoulder with each other.”

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