China’s president Xi Jinping will travel to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan this month, according to announcements by the two central Asian governments, setting the stage for a meeting with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin.

“At the invitation of the head of state, a state visit of the chairman of the People’s Republic of China to the Republic of Kazakhstan is planned for . . . September,” Kazakh foreign ministry spokesperson Aybek Smadiyarov said on Monday.

Xi will travel to Uzbekistan to attend the annual meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a Eurasian political and security forum, which will take place in Samarkand on September 15-16, according to an announcement on the Uzbek government website.

The Chinese president is expected to meet Putin on the sidelines of the forum. Though falling short of a state visit to Moscow, the meeting will reaffirm China’s ties with Russia as Putin persists with his invasion of Ukraine.

Xi’s diplomatic outreach to China’s central Asian neighbours comes amid tense relations with the US following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last month. The visits are likely to be Xi’s first outside China since the coronavirus pandemic emerged in early 2020.

Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said it was also notable that Li Zhanshu, the Chinese Communist party’s third-highest ranking official, would attend an economic forum alongside Putin in the Russian city of Vladivostok this week.

“The message is that China might not be stepping out of its way to violate the sanctions to help Russia, but it’s definitely not throwing Russia under the bus,” Gabuev said. “If it’s neutrality, then it’s definitely pro-Russian neutrality.”

Xi has remained in China throughout the pandemic, taking a cautious approach to international travel as Beijing has enforced a strict zero-Covid policy.

The president’s trip to central Asia is expected to be the first of a series to friendly countries this year, signalling Beijing’s desire to reassert international influence.

Indonesian president Joko Widodo said last month that Xi and Putin would attend the G20 summit in Bali in November, while one person familiar with the matter said the Chinese president would travel thereafter to Thailand to continue his charm offensive in south-east Asia.

The Chinese foreign ministry has repeatedly declined to comment on Xi’s travel plans. The Wall Street Journal previously reported that Xi planned to travel to Uzbekistan for the annual gathering of leaders in central Asia.

It is unclear whether Xi will travel to Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan first. The Kazakh foreign ministry said the government press service would announce a date soon, but noted that the trip would be in September.

Xi’s trip will come just weeks before he is expected to be reappointed as leader of the Chinese Communist party and head of the Central Military Commission. His confirmation at the 20th party congress starting on October 16 will pave the way for an unprecedented third term as president next year.

Steve Tsang, director of the Soas China Institute in London, said Xi’s decision to travel ahead of the congress was “an articulation of confidence in his position”.

Tsang noted that plots to oust Chinese leaders had historically taken place in the run-up to party congress meetings.

“This will squash any domestic speculation that Xi’s positions could be challenged,” he said.

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