By Frances Mao-BBC News
https://www.bbc.com/-Image source, Getty Images
This is Mr Xi’s first overseas visit since the start of the pandemic
China’s leader Xi Jinping is set to meet Russia’s Vladimir Putin on his first trip overseas since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020.
The two will meet on the sidelines of a major regional summit in Uzbekistan.
It comes at a crucial moment for both countries – Mr Xi is seeking a historic third term while Mr Putin’s relations with the West are at rock bottom over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Neither Beijing nor Moscow have offered further details on the talks.
Mr Xi will begin his three-day trip in Kazakhstan on Wednesday. He will then meet Mr Putin on Thursday at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in Samarkand, which will run from 15-16 September. Central Asian countries – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan – and fellow members Iran, India and Pakistan are also due to attend.
Mr Xi’s visit comes amid a fresh set of lockdowns in China, where his zero Covid policy is still in place. While the rest of the world has opened up, learning to live with with the virus, Beijing continues to shut down entire towns and cities every time there is a spurt in cases.
Mr Xi last left China in January 2020 to visit Myanmar – just days before the first lockdown came into effect in Wuhan. He has remained in China since then, leaving the mainland only once in July this year to visit Hong Kong.
Mr Putin is also making a rare foray abroad. His meeting with Turkish and Iranian leaders in Tehran in July was only his second foreign trip since Russian troops invaded Ukraine.
This is the two leaders’ second meeting this year – they last met on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February.
Analysts have stressed the significance of the meeting as a show of strength against the West amid rising tensions.
Following the February meeting, the two leaders issued a joint statement saying the friendship between their countries had “no limits”. Russia invaded Ukraine days later – an action China has neither condemned nor voiced support for. Beijing, in fact, has said both sides are to blame.
China is not part of the international sanctions against Russia and trade between the two countries has continued to grow. Indian and Chinese imports of Russian oil have soared since the Ukraine invasion.
China too has seen its relations with the West and especially the US sour in recent months following ramped-up tensions over self-ruled Taiwan. China claims the island as part of its territory.
Last month, Beijing staged a five-day military blockade around the island in response to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit.
China watchers say Mr Xi’s decision to leave China after more than two years, despite significant domestic challenges – crippling lockdowns and a faltering economy – show his confidence in his leadership.
Analysts expect him to be re-elected for an unprecedented third term at the upcoming Chinese Communist Party Congress in October.
China’s leader significantly reduced the risk that he would catch the coronavirus by not travelling internationally for more than two years (assuming, of course, that he has not already been infected and we don’t know about it).
Keeping Xi Jinping at home also served a propaganda purpose – it got the message out to Chinese people that they too should not travel abroad during this time of crisis.
Now that Mr Xi has decided to start travelling again, does it mean the Party considers it safer for him to do so?
Another question: if it wasn’t safe a year ago, why is it safe now?
Also, will images of Mr Xi in other countries lead to expectations that travel restrictions should be eased further to smooth the path for Chinese people to go overseas again?
In China, the government doesn’t feel the need to spell out its reasoning when making such decisions, so we never know exactly what the thinking is behind them.
However, this trip will be seen in China as a small indication that the country may soon see a reduction in its “zero Covid” measures.
I say “may” because, if the government has a plan to eventually bring an end to its strict coronavirus strategies, it’s certainly not sharing it with the public.
The SCO is a Eurasian political, economic and security organisation that was founded by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in 2001. Iran is currently looking to join the group.
Members will discuss trade at the summit, with China being a major investor in the region through its Belt and Road projects.
Beijing has long looked to open up new rail routes for its trade to Europe, while Central Asian countries are eager for more connections to China.
Earlier this year, Kyrgyzstan announced it would begin construction in 2023 on a new line connecting it to China and Uzbekistan.