Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin Could Be Meeting for First Time Since War Began

President Xi Jinping of China could hold in-person talks with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin for the second time this year when the pair travel to Central Asia next week.

Their last publicly acknowledged meeting took place in Beijing in February, three weeks before Russia's invasion of Ukraine. China says it remains a neutral party to the ongoing conflict, while Xi and Putin have spoken at least twice over the phone since the war began.

A "state visit by the chairman of the People's Republic of China to the Republic of Kazakhstan" was planned for September 14, Aybek Smadiyarov, Kazakstan's foreign ministry spokesperson, said on Monday. Xi's first foreign trip in more than two years would include a meeting with President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan, the statement said.

Both Xi and Tokayev are due in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, the following day for an annual gathering of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Eurasian political and security bloc. All SCO heads of state—including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi—are expected to attend the forum between September 15 and 16, the Uzbek government said on its website.

Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin Set For Meet
President Xi Jinping of China waves to President Vladimir Putin of Russia via video link at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on December 2, 2019. Inset, Putin holds a meeting via video link with Xi at the Kremlin in Moscow on June 28, 2021. The two leaders are both due at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s annual meeting of heads of state in Uzbekistan between September 15 and 16. NOEL CELIS/POOL/ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Xi and Putin could use the occasion to meet on the sidelines and reaffirm the growing alignment under their watch. Beijing insists it has no plans to help sustain the Kremlin's war against Ukraine, but observers see the strategically significant Sino-Russian relationship as far too important for China not to buttress, despite open condemnation from its major trading partners in the West.

A possible meeting with Putin, who has been shunned by Western capitals, would signal Xi's intention to back the Russian president regardless of external pressures. President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has yet to speak with Xi despite efforts by his office to arrange a call.

The visit to Central Asia would be Xi's first official trip outside China since early 2020, when the country's senior leadership isolated itself amid the spread of COVID-19.

Although Xi remained in China throughout the pandemic, he has hosted foreign delegations and dignitaries, most notably Putin, who was invited to attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics as Western leaders boycotted the games over Beijing's repression of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang.

Xi and Putin, who issued a 5,000 word joint-statement in February declaring a "no limits" partnership between their nations, could meet again in Bali in November as part of the G20 summit. President Joko Widodo of Indonesia said both leaders were expected to attend.

Xi's November itinerary could bear special significance; it would come shortly after he is expected to secure a third term as leader following the Chinese Communist Party's national congress in the middle of October.