STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The leader of China, Xi Jinping, is preparing to make his first trip out of his country in over two years.
A MARTINEZ, HOST:
He's been operating within a strict COVID bubble. But by midweek, he expects to be in Central Asia. His meetings include a regional security forum also attended by Central Asia's other big neighbor, Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia.
INSKEEP: NPR's Emily Feng covers China. Good morning, Emily.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What makes this trip worth it for China's president?
FENG: Well, Xi just hasn't met many other world leaders since early 2020 because of the country's strict zero COVID policy, so he's been doing everything remotely. And that is going to have a cost, however immeasurable, on China's diplomacy to the rest of the world. But you know who's been really, really busy all over the world? The U.S. U.S. diplomats have been intensifying competition with China. And China is losing out, particularly on the issue of Taiwan, which is this island that China claims control over, but which is strengthening ties with the U.S.
In August, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. And then since, there's been this stream of American governors, senators and representatives who have also paid visits, the last of which was just this past week. So there's pressure for Chinese leaders to venture out again. And this week is also one of the last possible weeks Xi Jinping could have globetrotted because he's got to head back soon and kick off the Communist Party Congress in mid-October, where he's expected to formalize his third term in power.
INSKEEP: Which, of course, is itself a big change. Now, looking at a map here, Central Asia, of course, is a group of countries, many of which used to be part of the old Soviet Union, which is right there. They also border China. So what draws China's leader exactly there?
FENG: Xi Jinping is looking to project stability in the region, because after Russia invaded Ukraine, that really frightened some of these post-Soviet republics in Central Asia. Jakub Jakobowski is a senior fellow on China at the Centre for Eastern Studies, a Polish state think tank. And I also asked him, why Kazakhstan?
JAKUB JAKOBOWSKI: I think Kazakhstan basically wants to maintain the status quo. It sees Russia as an actor that has changed. Russia is turning from a security provider in a authoritarian sense, stability provider, into an aggressive country that can actually destabilize the region.
FENG: And so now Central Asia is looking to China. Also, Central Asia is key to China's security. Kazakhstan borders Xinjiang, this region in China where the United Nations says China may have committed crimes against humanity by arresting and detaining Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic groups. China says it's battling terrorism there. And that's also one of the reasons why Xi heads to Uzbekistan on Thursday for a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is a security bloc.
INSKEEP: And, of course, Vladimir Putin will be at the table there. I would imagine they might have a little conversation on the side.
FENG: They most definitely will be talking about Russia's war in Ukraine. Remember back to February - Putin actually traveled to Xi in Beijing then. He was one of the few world leaders to attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in China. The two countries signed a no limits partnership. And then weeks later, Russia invaded Ukraine. So far, China has not wavered in its support of Russia. But that partnership is way more complicated now, given the success Ukrainian forces have had this weekend pushing out Russian forces in the northeast. And so this means this meeting is going to be really important for Putin. He need to convince China he's a reliable partner, one that will not fail and embarrass Xi Jinping.
INSKEEP: Emily, thanks so much.
FENG: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Emily Feng.
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