Prague, 25 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Chinese officials greeted Uzbek President Islam Karimov in Beijing today with bouquets of flowers and a red-carpet ceremony.
Karimov's visit comes less than two weeks after scores were killed in violence in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon. Opposition parties say around 1,000 people died after security forces opened fire on protesters. Uzbek authorities say 169 people -- troops, civilians, and militants -- were killed in the clashes.
Both China and Uzbekistan say Karimov's trip was planned long before the recent violence. It's in response to last year's visit to Tashkent by Chinese President Hu Jintao. During that visit, the two sides signed a statement pledging further friendly cooperation.
That mutual understanding was in evidence yesterday in Beijing. A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Kong Quan, expressed China's firm support for Uzbekistan's response to the unrest in Andijon, which Karimov blames on Islamic militants.
"Support [to Uzbekistan] from China was always a given because the Chinese, of course, have got their own record in Tiananmen Square. It's something extremely similar."
"About what happened in Uzbekistan recently, we think it's their internal affair, but we strongly support the government crackdown on separatists, terrorists, and extremists. We support Uzbekistan, together with other Central Asian countries, combining their efforts in order to maintain peace and development in Central Asia," Kong said.
Indeed, regional observers say that, despite the deaths in Andijon, Tashkent has hardly skipped a beat in its most important diplomatic dealings. In addition to China, Russia, too, has expressed support for Karimov. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blamed Islamic extremists for the violence. Even Feliks Kulov, Kyrgyzstan's acting first deputy prime minister, called Karimov's actions "understandable" and tied the protests to Islamic extremists.
China's booming economy is hungry for Uzbek oil. Karimov told the "People's Daily" today that China and Uzbekistan will sign a $600 million joint oil venture during his visit.
Both Russia and China see Islamic extremism as a serious threat. Uzbekistan has reportedly received economic concessions from Beijing for helping China in its struggle against Uyghur separatists in its northwest Xinjiang Province.
Rana Mitter teaches modern Chinese politics and history at Oxford University in England. He says China's problems in Xinjiang define how it has responded to the unrest in Andijon.
"I was actually just in Shanghai when the Andijon incidents were taking place, and so I got the chance to see how it was being portrayed over there. And one of the things that is very noticeable is that I think the way in which the Uzbek government, President Karimov, puts it -- i.e., that this is an uprising by Islamic militants who want to undermine the state and so forth, which obviously is a perspective not shared by the European side in particular, and to some extent by some of those in the U.S. -- is something the Chinese government has no particular interest in trying to undermine," Mitter said.
Mitter says he would have been surprised if the events in Andijon had influenced China's willingness to host Karimov.
"They feel that, because of what they perceive as a separatist problem in Xinjiang in western China, that the question of subversion from within is one that, first of all, they are genuinely worried about. But secondly, [it's a question] they can play on as a security issue, that enables them to crack down within Chinese territory. To that extent, they have been and will continue to be very supportive of all the nondemocratic governments in Central Asia, including Uzbekistan, which continue to basically play down and often abuse human rights on the grounds that they are doing so for security reasons," Mitter says.
Mitter says China regards the Andijon uprising as an example of the kind of social unrest that must be quashed to maintain stability. He compares it to China's own crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Craig Murray also draws parallels between Andijon and Tiananmen Square. Murray was Britain's ambassador to Uzbekistan from 2002 to 2004.
"Support [to Uzbekistan] from China was always a given because the Chinese, of course, have got their own record in Tiananmen Square. It's something extremely similar. There are good parallels between Andijon and Tiananmen Square. It's not something they'd be much in a position to protest about. But also the Chinese, of course, are primarily motivated in their support of Karimov by their own concerns over their extreme northwest and the Uyghur population there," Murray says.
Murray believes Karimov's warm reception in Beijing will not only bolster the Uzbek leader's stature on the international stage after the bloody events in Andijon, but more importantly shore up his authority within Uzbekistan itself.
"I think it [the visit] will mean a huge amount to him. And it will enable him to be shown a great deal on domestic television in Uzbekistan, with powerful people, being treated as a great and important leader. And that's the message. He actually loves doing state visits because Uzbek television -- which is, of course, entirely state-controlled -- will show nothing but images of that for the next three weeks. For him, it's very, very important. We shouldn't lose that perspective. From outside, we consider the diplomatic repercussions. He's considering primarily the internal propaganda tool," Murray says.
In the end, Murray believes Andijon will only hurt Uzbekistan's relations with Europe. And he says Andijon may actually have the effect of further damaging trans-Atlantic ties, due to what is perceived in Europe as the weak response by the United States to the crackdown.