09/09/2022, 13.44
CHINA – KAZAKHSTAN
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Xi Jinping’s visit in Nur-Sultan highlights China’s regional leadership

The visit is also an indication that the Chinese president feels confident enough about his status at home on the eve of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China. Bilateral deals are set to be signed. Kazakhstanis look to China to counter Russia's influence. Beijing is courting a major provider of raw materials and energy, but bilateral relations are not free from tensions.

Beijing (AsiaNews) – Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to visit Kazakhstan on 14 September.

For experts, two factors explain the timing, namely Xi’s desire to boost China’s position in Central Asia and to show that his leadership at home is firm and undisputed at a time when the country is affected by an economic crisis.

For Xi, this will be his first trip abroad since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. After Kazakhstan, the Chinese leader will attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan.

Between 13 and 15 September, Pope Francis will also be in Kazakhstan on an apostolic mission, with the Catholic News Agency not ruling out a meeting between the two, however unlikely it might seem.

Back  in China, ordinary Chinese also hope that Xi's Central Asian tour will be the first step towards easing the country's draconian COVID-19 health restrictions. However, this is unlikely to happen before the end of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China, which opens on 16 October.

According to several analysts, the visits to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan on the eve of the party congress are also a sign that Xi’s power is safe.

During his stay in Nur-Sultan, Xi will sign a series of bilateral agreements with Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesperson said.

China is the main economic player in Central Asia, even though Russia remains the dominant military player. Thus, Xi's trip is seen as an opportunity to reaffirm China's growing hegemony in the region at a time that Russia grapples with the political and economic fallout from its aggression against Ukraine.

At the SCO summit, China's supreme leader is expected to meet Vladimir Putin. By stopping first in Kazakhstan, Xi may want to send a message to his Russian counterpart that China recognises the sovereignty of Central Asian countries. In 2014 Putin had said that Kazakhstan was an artificial creation of its first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Ethnic Kazakhs, who live with a large Russian community, fear that after Ukraine the Kremlin could also threaten their independence.

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, and a major link  in the Belt and Road Initiative, the huge infrastructure project Xi announced in 2013 during a visit to Kazakhstan.

Since then, Chinese investments in Central Asia have surpassed Russia’s. What is more, the pipeline that delivers Turkmen gas to Xinjiang, north-western China, also runs through Kazakhstan. Turkmenistan is China’s main supplier of natural gas.

Following street protests in Kazakhstan at the start of the year over the rising cost of living, China expressed veiled concerns about the country’s stability; however, during the turmoil, energy facilities were not affected.

Observers on the ground note that any group seeking power in Kazakhstan would not sabotage gas and oil pipelines, which are the bases of the country’s wealth.

Not everything is smooth between two countries either. Chinese nationalist groups claim that China traditionally ruled Kazakhstani territory, while over the past few years, some Kazakhstanis have protested against the growing presence of Chinese companies, considered major polluters.

Kazakhstanis are also unhappy about the way China treats their "cousins" in Xinjiang where China is accused by many parties of placing more than a million Turkic-speaking Muslims, including ethnic Kazakhs, in concentration camps.

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