China on Tuesday said that President Xi Jinping’s visit to Kazakhstan and later to Uzbekistan to attend the SCO summit is the “most important event” ahead of next month’s key Congress of the ruling Communist Party, which is widely expected to endorse a record third term for him.
Xi, 69, will travel to Kazakhstan on Wednesday — his first visit abroad after the coronavirus pandemic broke out over two years ago — and later to Samarkand in neighbouring Uzbekistan to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other leaders of the eight-member grouping will also take part.
“This will be the most important event in the head of state diplomacy on the eve of the 20th Congress, which shows the high importance China attaches to the SCO and our relations with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told a media briefing here while commenting on Xi’s visit.
The first in-person SCO summit since 2019 will be watched closely for the possibility of bilateral meetings on the sidelines between Xi and other leaders, including Putin and Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are China’s friendly neighbours, comprehensive strategic partners and important members of the BRI, spokesperson Mao said, adding that Xi’s state visit to these countries will mark a new stage in the bilateral relations.
“The profound changes in the international landscape and protracted COVID 19 pandemic have further underscored the role of the SCO in upholding regional security and stability and promoting the countries’ development and prosperity,” she said.
Mao, however, declined to confirm Xi’s meetings, including with Putin, on the sidelines of the two-day summit.
“Heads of state diplomacy is the most important political foundation for the development of China-Russia ties. For a long period of time the presidents of both the countries maintained close exchange through multiple means and engaged in strategic communication to guide the bilateral ties on the right track of development,” she said.
This will be the first in-person summit after June 2019 when the SCO summit was held in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The 2020 Moscow summit was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while the 2021 summit at Dushanbe was conducted in a hybrid mode.
Launched in Shanghai in June 2001, the SCO has eight full members, including its six founding members, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. India and Pakistan joined as full members in 2017.
Besides the eight member states, four observer countries and six dialogue partners, around 10 other nations have expressed their interest to join the political, economic and security organisation or upgrade their status within the group, according to official media reports here.
After the Samarkand summit, where Iran is expected to be formally admitted into the SCO, India will take over the Presidency of the influential grouping of the Central Asian countries.
The 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) will be held in Beijing on October 16. The once-in-a-five-year congress of the century-old party is regarded as significant as Xi — who heads the party, the military and the Presidency — is widely expected to be endorsed for an unprecedented 3rd term and perhaps for life.
All his predecessors except the party founder, Mao Zedong, retired after 10-year tenures to ensure the emergence of new leadership in the party.
Xi was officially declared as “core leader” on par with Mao, who will be completing his 10-year tenure this year and will break the convention to continue in power.
Observers here say that Xi’s attendance at the SCO summit ahead of the CPC Congress reflects his confidence to get the party’s endorsement for his continuation.
Xi chose Kazakhstan as his first visit after the COVID outbreak because it is where he launched his multi-billion dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, Chinese Ambassador to Kazakhstan Zhang Xiao told the official media here.
Meanwhile, though there is no official word on whether Modi will have a meeting with Xi, it will be the first time the two leaders will come face to face after their meeting at Brasilia on the sidelines of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) in 2019.
Since then, relations between the two countries nosedived over the incursion of Chinese troops in Eastern Ladakh in May 2020, leading to a prolonged military standoff that is still continuing.
China and India on Thursday last announced the disengagement of their troops from the Patrolling Point 15 in the Gogra-Hot springs area of eastern Ladakh in a “coordinated and planned way”.
The disengagement was officially announced to be completed by Monday.
The Eastern Ladakh border standoff erupted on May 5, 2020, following a violent clash in the Pangong lake areas.