Chinese President Xi Jinping is visiting Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, two of the most populous countries in Central Asia, on a trip that some experts say is aimed at highlighting the success of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. It is Xi’s first foreign trip since the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of COVID-19 as a public health emergency in 2020.
His arrival in Kazakhstan on Wednesday comes one month ahead of the Chinese Communist Party Congress in Beijing that takes place every five years. Xi is expected to cement an unprecedented third term as the country’s leader at this year’s event.
During a meeting with Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Kemeluly Tokayev, Xi stressed his support for Kazakhstan’s territorial integrity.
“No matter how the international situation changes, we will continue our strong support to Kazakhstan in protecting its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as firm support to the reforms you are carrying out to ensure stability and development, and strongly oppose to the interference of any forces in the internal affairs of your country,” Xi said in a statement released by Kazakhstan.
Xi was expected to sign several bilateral documents with the Kazakh president, according to the Kazakh foreign ministry.
A close ally of both Russia and China, the former Soviet republic reportedly has felt more intimidated by potential threats to its territorial integrity since the war in Ukraine began. Kazakhstan has not yet fully resolved the borders with its northern neighbor, Russia.
According to Saparboy Jubayev, an economist at the Eurasian National University in Kazakhstan, the country already has resolved its border issues with China and will enjoy Xi’s full support for its sovereignty when the two leaders meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin later this week in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
The leaders of India, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan will also attend a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit Thursday and Friday in Uzbekistan’s second largest city — an important way station on the original Silk Road linking China and Europe. Since its inception in 2001, the SCO’s priorities have included regional security and development issues.
Experts say Xi’s choice of Kazakhstan as the first foreign country to visit since the pandemic points to Kazakhstan’s significance in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a strategy to invest in and build infrastructure globally to increase connectivity and trade.
“It is part of his wider effort to demonstrate his many successes ahead of the party congress,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and senior associate fellow at the Royal United Service Institute in London.
“It is almost nine years to the day that he announced his Belt and Road Initiative in Kazakhstan, and I think this is an opportunity to return there to highlight his great foreign policy idea before he takes on the third term in office,” Pantucci told VOA.
Xi announced the BRI at Nazarbayev University in Nursultan, the capital of Kazakhstan, in September 2013.
“It is also the doorway for the first strand of BRI and wider connectivity to link Xinjiang up to the world,” Pantucci said. “The entire notion of BRI was built on the idea of globalizing a model that had been at play in Central Asia for many years beforehand.”
Former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and current President Tokayev have been firm allies of Xi, said Saparboy Jubayev, economist at the Eurasian National University in Kazakhstan.
China and Kazakhstan share many interests, including the development of the Middle Corridor connecting the East and West, while bypassing Russia and fostering regional security and cooperation in the region, said Nargis Kassenova, senior fellow at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.
“Kazakhstan is the indispensable transit link and the most enthusiastic and capable partner for China in Central Asia in Beijing’s quest to implement the Belt and Road Initiative,” Kassenova told VOA. “Both see much benefit in deepening the bilateral economic cooperation, and both are ready to invest in a land corridor to Europe.”
Kazakhstan supplies minerals, gas, oil and metals to China and transships goods between China and Europe.
On the eve of Xi’s visit to Kazakhstan, some of the country’s residents have been pushing for Tokayev to raise the issue of relatives being held in Xinjiang detention camps. Local police arrested some of the Kazakhs who were asking for the release of their loved ones, Radio Free Europe reported.
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China shares an extensive border with Kazakhstan. The majority of the population in Xinjiang speaks a similar language and shares a history and culture with the people of Central Asia.
In recent years, China’s treatment of Uyghurs and Kazakhs in Xinjiang has caused dissatisfaction among their counterparts who live in Kazakhstan, said Jennifer Brick Murtazashvil, head of the Center for Governance and Markets at the University of Pittsburgh.
“There are ethnic Uyghurs on both sides of the border. China relies on Kazakhstan to protect that border, as well as ensure that ethnic Uyghurs cannot use Kazakhstan as a haven,” Murtazashvili told VOA.
“Kazakhstan has often complied with China’s wishes and has often arrested and deported Uyghurs, and even ethnic Kazakhs are being deported back to China. China relies on Kazakhstan’s quiescence in this matter,” she said.
The United Nations released a report last month saying China has committed "serious human rights violations" and "may have committed crimes against humanity" against Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim communities in Xinjiang. Rights groups say more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities have been arbitrarily detained in reeducation camps.
China has repeatedly denied the accusations and dismissed the report, saying it is "based on the disinformation and lies fabricated by anti-China forces." It also denied the existence of reeducation camps, claiming it established vocational education training centers “to eradicate the breeding ground for terrorism and extremism from the source,” and that all the trainees had graduated by October 2019, reported state news agency Xinhua.
China relies on Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries to help ensure stability, according to Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"The issue of security, the fight against terrorism, and not allowing cooperation with the separatists from Xinjiang has always been relevant in relations between China and Central Asian countries for the past three decades,” Umarov said.
Malik Mansur and Davron Hotam from VOA’s Uzbek Service contributed to this report.