Chinese President Xi Jinping has started his first foreign trip since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic more than two years ago with a stop in Kazakhstan, in advance of a summit in Uzbekistan with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, and other leaders of a Central Asian security group.
Xi was met on Wednesday at the airport tarmac in Nur-Sultan by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and an honour guard.
His trip underlined the importance China has placed on asserting its role as a regional leader amid tensions with the United States, Japan and India in the face of disputes about technology, security, human rights and territory.
Tokayev’s government said the two leaders would discuss energy and trade. Kazakhstan is a significant oil and gas producer that counts China as a leading customer.
On Thursday, Xi is due to fly to Samarkand in neighbouring Uzbekistan for a summit of the eight-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
China and Russia see the bloc as a counterweight to US alliances in East Asia. Xi and Putin plan to hold a one-on-one meeting on the sidelines of the summit and discuss the war in Ukraine, according to the Russian president’s foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov.
Other SCO governments include India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Tajikistan. Observers include Iran and Afghanistan.
Xi is promoting a “Global Security Initiative”, which was announced in April with few details following the formation of the Quad by the US, Japan, Australia and India in response to Beijing’s more assertive foreign policy.
Kazakhstan is part of China’s multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative to expand trade by building ports, railways and other infrastructure across an arc of dozens of countries – from the South Pacific through Asia to the Middle East, Europe and Africa.
The initiative and China’s economic inroads into Central Asia have created unease in Russia, which sees the region as its sphere of influence. Kazakhstan and its neighbours are trying to attract Chinese investment without upsetting Moscow.
“This visit is extremely important,” said Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Roman Vassilenko this week before Xi’s arrival. “We certainly hope that it will advance political and economic and commercial relations with China.”
Andy Mok, a senior research fellow at the Centre for China and Globalisation, told Al Jazeera that Kazakhstan “is vitally important” to China, with the two countries enjoying “deep, structural and historic” ties.
Pope Francis was also in Kazakhstan at the same time as Xi, but there was no indication they might meet. On board his flight, the pope was asked about a possible meeting and replied, “I don’t have any news about this. But I am always ready to go to China.”
Xi’s trip — at a time when his government is urging the Chinese public to avoid foreign travel under its “zero-COVID” strategy — underlined the importance to the governing Communist Party of asserting China’s strategic ambitions.
The summit has taken Xi abroad while the party prepares for an October congress at which he is expected to break with political tradition and try to award himself a third five-year term as leader.