Hu arrived in Uzbekistan last night to begin a four-day official visit. The main event of Hu's stay will be attending a summit in Tashkent on 17 June of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, where the presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan will join Hu and Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Afghan leader Hamid Karzai will attend as an observer.
Until then, Uzbek officials have indicated they wish to focus Sino-Uzbek talks on security and economic cooperation. On the eve of Hu's visit, Uzbek Foreign Ministry spokesman Ilkhom Zakirov said it is "very important for [Uzbekistan] to continue our cooperation with China in the economic sphere and very important to have deep cooperation in the antiterrorism struggle."
Standing with Hu today at a press conference, Karimov spoke about China's importance. "China is for us a great neighbor, with an ancient history and unique culture," he said. "It is a country with well-disposed, enormous potential, a dynamically growing economy and a country that purposefully moves toward its goals."
For Uzbekistan, and all the Central Asian states, the lure of trade with China is irresistible, and Beijing's economic success may hold lessons for their own fledgling economies.
The editor of the London-based journal "Jane's Security Binder," Alex Vatanka, told RFE/RL it makes sense for Uzbekistan to court better economic ties with China. "From an economic point of view, the Chinese are looked at as a major potential trading partner in terms of the needs of this rapidly expanding Chinese economy," he said.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Zakirov said Karimov is hoping to receive commitments of financial support for a railway project linking Uzbekistan, via Kyrgyzstan, to China's railway line to the Pacific Ocean. Vatanka said the Central Asian states look at China as a potential investor in such regional projects.
But Karimov's dream of a railway line linking the Pacific to the Baltics or Western Europe while transiting through Uzbekistan must compete with China's plans -- already under way -- to help build oil and gas pipelines from Turkmenistan and western Kazakhstan. Reports say China's state oil company CPNC will sign cooperation deals with Uzbekistan's state oil company Uzbekneftegaz, but that they will be modest in comparison to contracts with Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, or Russia.
Vatanka said it makes sense for China to negotiate oil and gas deals with its immediate neighbors, while keeping old suppliers. "If you can buy your gas from the Middle East, or if you can get a pipeline from Russia and Kazakhstan, why would [the Chinese] put too much emphasis on Uzbekistan?" he asked.
Bilateral Sino-Uzbek trade amounted to $300 million last year, with Chinese exports taking up much of that figure. Uzbekistan is exporting fertilizer, cotton, silk, wool, and nonferrous metals to China, while Uzbekistan is receiving foodstuffs, ceramics, rubber products, and machinery.
Security talks between the Chinese and Uzbek presidents should prove more fruitful. Both are fighting Islamic groups, which the government of China calls "separatists" while the Uzbek government considers them "terrorists." There are suspicions that the Chinese and Uzbek Muslim groups are allied in a regional militant group calling itself the Islamic Movement of Turkestan.
After meeting with Hu today, Karimov vowed to stand by China. "We are in full solidarity with China in the fight against the three evils -- international terrorism, extremism and separatism."
The Uzbek president, whose country has often been accused of human rights violations, has said he appreciates China's approach to security matters. After a 1999 visit to China, Karimov said there were many leaders in China who asked the question. "If there is no peace and stability, no security...then how is it possible to protect human rights?"
Vatanka said security discussions between Tashkent and Beijing will likely prove successful. "The security issues which the Chinese and Central Asians are now facing is of such a nature that there is good scope for cooperation," he said.
Tsarist Russia and later the Soviet Union dictated policy in Central Asia for more than 100 years, until the 1991 collapse. Russia remains the dominant partner within the Commonwealth of Independent States, in terms of trade and military ties, for most of the Central Asian states.
China has been in contact with Central Asia for far longer, but the deteriorating Manchu dynasty withdrew its interest in the region long before Russian troops entered. Beijing is seeking to change this. Hu indicated today's talks were productive and that more discussions will follow. "In the course of the talks, I warmly invited President Karimov to make another visit to China when it is convenient for him, and President Karimov happily received this invitation," Hu said.
(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)