Xi leaves China for first time since COVID pandemic began to meet Putin

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LONDON/BEIJING – Xi Jinping will leave China this week for the first time in more than two years for a trip to Central Asia where he will meet Vladimir Putin just a month before Xi is poised to cement his place as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.

The trip, his first abroad since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, shows just how confident Xi is about his grip on power in China and just how perilous the global situation has become: Russia’s confrontation with the West over Ukraine, the crisis over Taiwan and a stuttering global economy.

Xi is due on a state visit to Kazakhstan on Wednesday and will then meet Putin at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s summit in the ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand in Uzbekistan, according to Kazakhstan and the Kremlin.

Putin’s foreign policy aide, Yuri Ushakov, told reporters last week that Putin was expected to meet Xi at the summit. The Kremlin declined to give details on the substance of the talks. China has yet to confirm Xi’s travel plans.

The meeting will give President Xi an opportunity to underscore his clout while Putin can demonstrate Russia’s tilt towards Asia; both leaders can show their opposition to the United States just as the West seeks to punish Russia for the Ukraine war.

“It is all about Xi in my view: he wants to show just how confident he is domestically and to be seen as the international leader of nations opposed to Western hegemony,” said George Magnus, author of “Red Flags”, a book about Xi’s challenges.

“Privately I imagine Xi will be most anxious about how Putin’s war is going and indeed if Putin or Russia are in play at some point in the near future because China still needs an anti-western leadership in Moscow.”

Russia suffered its worst defeat of the war last week, abandoning its main bastion in northeastern Ukraine. 

The deepening “no limits” partnership between the rising superpower of China and the natural resources titan of Russia is one of the most intriguing geopolitical developments of recent years – and one the West is watching with anxiety.

Once the senior partner in the global Communist hierarchy, Russia after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union is now considered a junior partner of a resurgent Communist China which is forecast to overtake the United States as the world’s biggest economy in the next decade.

Though historical contradictions abound in the partnership, there is no sign that Xi is ready to drop his support for Putin in Russia’s most serious confrontation with the West since the height of the Cold War.

Instead, the two 69-year-old leaders are deepening ties. Trade soared by nearly a third between Russia and China in the first 7 months of 2022.