Hutong Cat | Reasons why Xi Jinping went to Central Asia

Updated on Sep 19, 2022 05:02 PM IST

There are multiple reasons why Xi decided on Kazakhstan, and then Central Asia, as first stops: Delivering a clear message to Russia that it should not push its territorial agenda – beyond Ukraine – seems to have been one of them.

For China, Kazakhstan is a major supplier of minerals, metals and energy, as well as a key transit point for Chinese goods on their way to Europe. (Reuters) PREMIUM
For China, Kazakhstan is a major supplier of minerals, metals and energy, as well as a key transit point for Chinese goods on their way to Europe. (Reuters)

On his first foreign tour since January, 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping spent some six hours in Nur-Sultan, capital of Kazakhstan, before flying off to Samarkand, the ancient city on the much-romanticised silk route in Uzbekistan last week.

There are multiple reasons why Xi decided on Kazakhstan, and then Central Asia, as first stops: Delivering a clear message to Russia that it should not push its territorial agenda – beyond Ukraine – seems to have been one of them.

Cutting through the grand poetic clutter in Xi’s statements and speeches delivered during his short – but strategic – Nur-Sultan stopover, it’s clear what Xi had to offer in exchange for keeping the long border between the two countries and Chinese projects in the country safe. (China has invested over $20 billion and has more than 50 projects in the country.)

“China highly values its relations with Kazakhstan, and firmly supports Kazakhstan in safeguarding national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, and in taking reform measures to preserve national stability and development. China will always be a trustworthy and reliable friend and partner of Kazakhstan,” the Chinese President wrote in a newspaper article in the run-up to the visit.

The statement of unequivocal support for the Central Asian country’s territorial integrity can be interpreted to be aimed at Russia given that Nur-Sultan is worried over Moscow’s Ukraine invasion.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin was said to have been furious when Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev all but spoke out against Russia’s Ukraine invasion at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) earlier this year.

“In a potentially uncomfortable moment for Tokayev, Putin said the former Soviet Union covered the same territory as “historical Russia,” though he also said nobody would even think of spoiling relations with “fraternal” Kazakhstan,” Bloomberg reported from the forum as a response from “furious” Putin.

Xi, however, made it clear that Beijing will not tolerate encroachments on Kazakhstan’s territory.

“I would like to assure you that the government of China pays huge attention to relations with Kazakhstan,” he said, in remarks quoted in Tokayev’s office’s readout (originally in Russian) of their one-on-one meeting on September 14.

“However the international situation changes, going forward we will also resolutely support Kazakhstan in the defense of its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity; firmly support the reforms conducted by you to assure stability and development; [and] categorically come out against interference by any forces in the internal affairs of your country,” Xi said.

“China thinks Russia’s War in Ukraine is okay as long as it’s part of the anti-West narrative. China will not tolerate Russia going on a full “revival of hegemony in Eurasia”, offering to support territorial integrity of Kazakhstan reflects exactly this thinking,” Niva Yau, senior researcher at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, a Central Asia-focused research centre, tweeted.

Separately, Yau told HT that Xi’s visit to the region again emphasised the “centrality” of Central Asia to China’s foreign policy.

Connecting Xi’s visit to Central Asia to the problems China is facing elsewhere like, say, in Taiwan, Yau said whenever that happens — as it is happening now given the tension with the US over the self-governing island — China makes this “grand gesture” and goes to Central Asia and talks about the revival of the old Silk Road.

The visit is part of China’s effort to shift the dynamics of the international political economy from sea-based to land-based, and that’s the kind of geography that Central Asia presents for China, Yau said.

Xi’s visit was a clear attempt to strengthen China’s influence in a region which is rich in resources, is a gateway for Beijing into Europe through the Caspian Sea and generally where the Chinese leader would count on a grand welcome and receiving grand treatment.

For China, Kazakhstan is a major supplier of minerals, metals and energy, as well as a key transit point for Chinese goods on their way to Europe.

Another piece of the puzzle is Xinjiang.

The China-Kazakhstan border, nearly 1800 km long, lies all along the remote and much incarcerated region of Xinjiang; it’s the longest among several boundaries that Xinjiang has with other countries.

In Beijing’s paranoid mind, Kazakhstan is an important player to keep its remote western borders safe from “terrorists, separatists and extremists” and critical for the safety of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) resources and projects in the region.

“The fact is that in recent months, we've had a lot of really good progress with the international community recognising the Uyghur issues in Xinjiang,” Yau said.

“And we know that the last piece of the puzzle of this is for Central Asian countries to recognise what China is doing (in Xinjiang) and (China is) able to run actionable programmes from across the border,” she said.

It is also important to remember that it was in Kazakhstan where Xi in 2013 during a speech at the Nazarbayev University unveiled Beijing’s plans for a “Silk Road Economic Belt" through Central Asia.

Along with the “Maritime Silk Road" through southeast Asia, a proposal unveiled by Xi in a speech to the Indonesian parliament later in 2013, the two initiatives — as we know — came to be known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

To experts, Xi’s visit to Kazakhstan also to give a further push to BRI, said to be entering a turning point in moving forward, with much more focus on China’s neighbourhood.

Xi’s visit to Kazakhstan and Central Asia was also designed to send out a signal that the interaction between China and this region is entering the post-pandemic era, which could mean more open, unrestricted exchanges at various levels.

In the end, Xi’s choice — to visit Central Asia and the SCO — also has to do with his aim and effort to position himself, and China, as the leader of the developing world and an alternative to the western world order.

Xi’s next big option to make a re-entry into global diplomacy would have been at the G20 summit in Indonesia’s Bali in November. But then that’s a grouping of the rich and the developed.

Also, there would be little chance for him in Bali to pick up titles as souvenirs — like the grand one called Order of the Golden Eagle he picked up in Kazakhstan — or being hailed as “genuine great leader” or “President Xi is the greatest statesman and a preeminent leader in today’s world”.

International souvenirs, rightly and loudly announced by the official media, tend to give a good boost to the image of leaders among the domestic audience, especially a month away from an all-important coronation ceremony.

Sutirtho Patranobis, HT’s experienced China hand, writes a weekly column from Beijing, exclusively for HT Premium readers. He was previously posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he covered the final phase of the civil war and its aftermath, and was based in Delhi for several years before that

The views expressed are personal

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Sutirtho Patranobis has been in Beijing since 2012, as Hindustan Times’ China correspondent. He was previously posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he covered the final phase of the civil war and its aftermath. Patranobis covered several beats including health and national politics in Delhi before being posted abroad.

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