Beijing: Chinese President Xi Jinping has stepped out of the country for the first time since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic that originated in his country in early 2020 and forced global lockdowns, clobbered large economies and caused the deaths of thousands across the world, not to forget the millions who fell sick and escaped death but paid with lifetime of infirmities.
But, we won’t discuss the pandemic here even though any discussion in the world today is incomplete without mentioning the affliction that has acquired a universal character.
Xi, wearing a face mask, landed in Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan, to a red carpet welcome by his Kazakh counterpart Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on Tuesday.
The Central Asian republic is celebrating 30 years of the establishment of diplomatic relations with China.
Central Asian countries are of strategic interest to China not only because they can help the second largest economy deepen its economic footprint in the region but because they also provide a diplomatic perch to ride on as Beijing faces increasing isolation from the West.
Later in the evening, Xi flew to Samarkand, Uzbekistan, where he will attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit from Thursday to Friday.
Beyond the security implications of the meeting of the strategic group of eight countries, the spotlight on Samarkand this fall is on bilateral talks.
Though Xi is thousands of kilometres from home, his heart would be in Beijing as the Chinese leader who would be virtually crowned for the third term to lead the nation of 1.5 billion is just two months away from the grand event — the upcoming Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
Xi carries loads of baggage on his shoulders. The baggage is made of political pledges and expectations, declarations of social and cultural resuscitation of the nation and the promise of reuniting Taiwan with mainland China.
Xi is in Samarkand not only as the president of his country but as a reservoir of hope for the millions of Chinese of his generation who want to live by the ideals of Communist leader Mao Zedong and believe in the revival of an ethos that the China of today may have strayed away from amid lapping waves of globalisation and the unnerving war cry of capitalism over Communism.
The presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the summit adds to the precariousness of Xi’s situation. While northern neighbour Russia is seen as a renegade by the West for attacking Ukraine and bringing the region to a military ferment, India has to speak its mind to Beijing that was behind the Galwan standoff which brought two nuclear powers quite close to a full-blown war.
A Xi-Putin summit will see the Chinese president trying to leverage the opportunity to buy more support from Moscow for its stance on Taiwan. President-for-life he may be, but nothing prevents Xi from catalysing more support from a country that again stands isolated among most nations of a community comprising mainstream international politics. Ahead of the 20th CPC National Congress on October 16, Xi has to show his constituents (Chinese people) that he is capable of standing tall in the Great Hall of the People.
In Modi, Xi will find an adversary who straddles the eastern and western hemispheres with equal ease. In the summit with Modi, Xi will try his best to turn the tables on India over the spy ship Beijing sent to Sri Lanka or have the upper hand on border disputes with New Delhi. After all, the delegates at the 20th Congress need to see their leader unfazed. But Modi is no political novice. He surely has his cards close to his chest and would not be cowered by the flaming dragon. If Communism has steeled Xi, democracy has strengthened Modi.
“We should join hands to combat terrorism, separatism, extremism, drug trafficking and transnational organised crimes, and ensure the security of oil and gas pipelines and other large cooperation projects and their personnel. We should resolutely oppose interference by external forces and work together for lasting peace and long-term stability of our region,” Xi said in a signed article published on Tuesday in the Kazakhstanskaya Pravda.
If words were horses, all politicians would ride. Let’s see which way the dragon sits.