FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping toast during a visit to the Far East Street exhibition on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia September 11, 2018. Sergei Bobylev/TASS Host Photo Agency/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

In his first foreign trip in more than two years since the start of Covid-19, Chinese President Xi Jinping will reach Kazakhstan on Wednesday and meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s (SCO) summit in the ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand in Uzbekistan, according to Kazakhstan and the Kremlin.

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

The meeting will give President Xi an opportunity to underscore his clout while Putin can demonstrate Russia’s tilt towards Asia amid worsening situation at Ukraine front.

The gathering of the SCO comprising China, Russia, Pakistan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan is due to take place in Samarkand on September 15 and 16. The organisation is due to admit Iran, one of Moscow’s key allies in the Middle East.

The meeting is scheduled a month before Xi is poised to cement his place as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. He is widely expected to break with precedent at a Communist Party congress that starts on Oct 16 and secure a third five-year leadership term.

Xi last met Putin in February just weeks before the Russian president ordered the invasion of Ukraine.

At that meeting at the opening of the Winter Olympics, Xi and Putin declared a “no limits” partnership, backing each other over standoffs on Ukraine and Taiwan with a promise to collaborate more against the West. China has refrained from condemning Russia’s operation against Ukraine or calling it an “invasion” in line with the Kremlin which casts the war as “a special military operation”.

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.

“The bigger message really isn’t that Xi is supporting Putin, because it’s been pretty clear that Xi supports Putin,” said Professor Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

“The bigger signal is that he, Xi Jinping, is going out of China for the first time since the pandemic in the run-up to the party congress. If there were going to be plottings against him this is when the plottings would happen. And he’s clearly confident that the plottings are not going to take place because he is out of the country.”

Putin aide Ushakov said the Xi-Putin meeting would be “very important”. He did not give further details. As Europe seeks to turn away from Russian energy imports, Putin will seek to boost energy exports to China and Asia. He will also hold three-way Russian-Chinese summit with Mongolia – a potentially much shorter route for Russian energy from Western Siberia to China.

He said last week that a major gas export route to China via Mongolia had been agreed.

India on Sunday confirmed that Narendra Modi will take part in the SCO moot, but the government statement did not say whether he would hold bilateral talks with Putin, Xi or — for the first time since he became Pakistani prime minister in April — Shehbaz Sharif.

Sourcing most of its arms from Russia, India — which is part of an alliance with the US, Japan and Australia, has also refused to condemn Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine rather has ramped up purchases of Russian oil.

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