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China In Eurasia Briefing: Why Xi Is Going To Central Asia


Portraits of Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong are seen on a street in Shanghai. Xi is poised to receive a third term as leader next month, something not done since Mao.
Portraits of Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong are seen on a street in Shanghai. Xi is poised to receive a third term as leader next month, something not done since Mao.

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China's resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

I'm RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here's what I'm following right now.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping – who hasn't left the country since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic – will head to Kazakhstan and then on to Uzbekistan next week to attend a summit for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Finding Perspective: Xi's trip to Central Asia is deeply symbolic, but also grounded in pragmatic policy.

Kazakhstan, where Xi will first step out beyond China's border for the first time in more than two years, has been a long-term partner for Beijing. The September 14 visit involves a meeting with Kazakh President Qassym-Zhomart Toqaev, in which they will sign a number of bilateral documents, according to Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Aibek Smadiyarov.

The Central Asian country is a major supplier of minerals, metals, and energy to China and is also an important transit country, bringing Chinese goods to Europe along the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – and Kazakhstan was also where Xi first announced the overland portion of the BRI back in 2013.

After the visit to Nur-Sultan, the Chinese leader will then go to Samarkand in Uzbekistan, where he will co-chair an SCO summit from September 15-16.

It's an important opportunity to reaffirm Beijing's growing leadership across Eurasia, especially following the economic and political upheaval brought by Moscow's invasion of Ukraine to Central Asia. As the war grinds on, many Central Asian governments have been looking to distance themselves from the Kremlin and are searching for ways to fill the vacuum left by Russia's retreating economy. This has left China with an even greater opportunity to accelerate the pace of its growing influence in the region.

At the summit, Xi will also meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time since they declared a "no limits" partnership in early February in Beijing.

Why It Matters: It can be easy to see this as all about a chance for Xi to meet with Putin, but there are layers on top of layers to this trip.

Yes, an opportunity for Xi and Putin to meet for the first time since the invasion of Ukraine sends a signal that China is not prepared to cut Moscow loose, while reaffirming Beijing's relationship with the Kremlin after awkwardly navigating diplomatic blowback and avoiding secondary U.S. sanctions for the last six months.

It's also a chance for Beijing to use a side meeting with Putin to potentially get back at Washington for allowing U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to visit Taiwan last month, which sparked new tensions.

But the first stop in Nur-Sultan also sends an important message about Chinese respect for Central Asian sovereignty at a time when countries in the region – Kazakhstan, in particular – have watched the Kremlin show little regard for their independence and even threaten that they could be the next Ukraine.

It's a far more difficult and nuanced balancing act than meets the eye for Beijing, but as China cements its status in the region and the world, it's increasing the type of tough policy lines it will need to follow.

Read More

● The Levada Center – long seen as Russia's most reliable pollster – released new data showing that Russian attitudes toward China have reached a new high, with 88 percent of respondents saying they have a positive view of the country.

Back in May, I looked into China's complicated balancing act in Central Asia – and the uncertain future for the SCO – following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Expert Corner: The Islamic State Takes Aim At China

Readers asked: "It seems that extremist groups like the Islamic State are focusing more and more on China in their propaganda. How significant is this and why is China becoming such a target?"

To find out more, I asked Lucas Webber, the co-founder and editor of Militant Wire, a research outlet tracking extremist groups.

"China's policy actions and its rapidly expanding international footprint have fueled jihadist animosity throughout Asia, Africa, and globally. The domestic crackdown on Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang is the most cited grievance in jihadist media and communications, but China's foreign policy is drawing increased attention from groups like the Islamic State.

"China is perceived by militants to be an ascending imperial or colonial power that is growing its political, economic, and military influence, supporting tyrannical governments, and exploiting natural resources in Muslim lands. More recently, Beijing's relations with and perceived support for the Taliban has drawn the ire of the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), which has become the movement's most hawkish anti-China branch.

"IS-K has markedly intensified its criticisms of China, has promised to strike on Chinese soil, and has threatened to attack Chinese nationals abroad. Al-Qaeda has likewise taken an adversarial position on China, and its Al-Shabaab branch in East Africa and Pakistani Taliban allies in South Asia have each attacked Chinese citizens."

Do you have a question about China's growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at StandishR@rferl.org or reply directly to this e-mail and I'll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. The UN's Xinjiang Report Is Finally Released

It came down to the 11th hour of her tenure, but outgoing UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet finally released her long-awaited report on Xinjiang, concluding that China has committed "serious human rights violations" in the province that may constitute crimes against humanity.

What You Need To Know: As I reported here, the 48-page report that was released late on August 31 did not use the word genocide to describe the abuses against Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim minorities in mass detention camps, which many activists had hoped for.

But many Uyghur and activist groups were still happy to see it reach the light of day, with Omer Kanat, the executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, calling it a "game-changer" and others saying it left them feeling validated after years of campaigning and independent research documenting detention, abuses, and disappearances in Xinjiang.

As Laura Harth, campaign director for the rights group Safeguard Defenders, told me: "As activists, we always wish it would be stronger, but given the power of the high commissioner's office, it's a good report and baseline for governments and companies around the world to react to."

Beijing, which had been trying to block its release, rejected the report outright and issued its own 131-page response, with Chinese officials calling the UN investigation a "politicized" document.

Attention on Xinjiang won't be going away any time soon, either. On September 6, my colleagues at RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service interviewed an ethnic Kyrgyz woman from Xinjiang who crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan after allegedly being in a camp.

2. China, India, And Others Join Russia's War Games

Today marks the final day of Russia's weeklong Vostok military exercises in its Far East, which saw troops from India, China, and several other countries join, as I reported here.

The Details: The drills involved various maneuvers by air, land, and sea, and they received added attention as Russia looked to use them to demonstrate that its military capabilities are still intact despite the growing cost and strain from the Ukraine war.

China's participation, including joint naval exercises with Russia's Pacific Fleet, was watched especially closely by regional powers like Japan and South Korea.

The exercise continues a series of joint war games by Russia and China in recent years, including naval drills and long-range bomber patrols, as Putin seeks to show that Russia is not internationally isolated following its invasion of Ukraine.

India's involvement in the drills – and its complex relationships with Beijing and Moscow – also received added attention.

New Delhi has long-standing defense ties to Moscow but also strong relations with Washington. China and India are in the midst of a border dispute in the Himalayas that sparked a deadly clash only two years ago, and the Indians are preparing for military exercises with the United States near the Chinese border in October.

India has so far refrained from condemning Russia's invasion and has continued to purchase cheap Russian oil, ignoring Western efforts to isolate Moscow.

But as Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, told me: "The optics from a Western perspective might not be good, but this serves Indian foreign policy in a big way."

3. Ukraine's Taiwan Caucus

In another sign of the ripple effects triggered by Russia's war in Ukraine, a group of Ukrainian lawmakers called for a review of Kyiv's ties with Beijing and announced the formation of a parliamentary caucus meant to promote closer ties with Taiwan.

What It Means: I spoke with Inna Sovsun, the deputy head of Ukraine's opposition Voice party and member of the pro-Taiwan parliamentary group, about the timing of the decision and what is driving it.

"The reaction of the Taiwanese people and government to [Russia's] full-scale invasion was very important to our country," she told me. "As security issues have become very challenging for both Ukraine and Taiwan over the last months, [it's] a good time to [take] the first steps in Ukraine-Taiwan friendship."

Before Moscow's invasion, Ukraine sought to build strong economic ties with Beijing as it reoriented its economy away from Russia and sought to limit its dependence on the West, even signing a strategic partnership with China in 2013.

Throughout the war, Ukrainian officials have largely been muted about China's close ties with Russia but occasionally expressed the hope that Beijing could use its influence over Moscow to help end the war, a position most recently expressed in early August by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

But Zelenskiy has still not managed to speak with Xi since the war began and China's support for Putin has not gone unnoticed in Kyiv. Added to that, many Ukrainian lawmakers are increasingly taking their China policy cues from their Central and Eastern European neighbors in the European Union who have been distancing themselves from Beijing.

"It's clear that Putin tries to create alliances with authoritarian and totalitarian regimes all over the world," Sovsun said. "The path of Ukraine is to develop together with democratic countries that respect international law and are ready to oppose the aggression of hostile countries."

Across The Supercontinent

An Emissary: Li Zhanshu, the Chinese Communist party's third-highest ranking official, attended an economic forum alongside Putin in the Russian city of Vladivostok this week. This makes Li the most senior Chinese official to visit Russia since the Ukraine war began.

Chinese Inroads: China is investing heavily in Kyrgyzstan's underfunded media sector, expanding its state-run outlets and building partnerships with local companies in an effort to shape the information landscape in the Central Asian country, according to a new report from Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Academy in Bishkek. I spoke with Niva Yau, the report's author, about her research.

Classified: A multiyear legal fight over the details of the multibillion-dollar Chinese project to build a rail line from Budapest to Belgrade ended with Hungary's Supreme Court ruling that the government does not need to declassify the contract it signed with Beijing.

The Price Tag: Akylbek Japarov, the chairman of Kyrgyzstan's cabinet of ministers, said in a recent parliamentary session that the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway could cost between $5-7 billion, according to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.

All Eyes On Xi: With the Chinese leader slated to come to Kazakhstan next week, relatives of those who have family members who they believe are detained in camps in Xinjiang are calling for Toqaev to raise the issue when he meets with Xi, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reports.

One Thing To Watch

We finally have a date: The Communist Party of China's top leaders are expected to hold their 20th National Congress on October 16 in Beijing.

At the congress, Xi is poised to receive a third term as leader, something not done since Mao Zedong, in what could be the most important event for Chinese domestic politics in decades.

The event is also being closely watched as Xi reshuffles the upper ranks of the Communist Party and is expected to fill it further with loyalists. The gathering also takes on additional significance as it's seen as a marker for when China may begin to ease its stringent zero-COVID policy.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your in-box on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

About The Newsletter

China In Eurasia
Reid Standish

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this biweekly dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

To subscribe, click here.

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