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Kazakhstan: Hu's Visit Highlights Beijing's Growing Interest In Central Asia

Chinese President Hu Jintao today concluded a visit to Kazakhstan, part of his first official foreign tour since taking power. The two-day state visit highlights Beijing's goal of developing close economic ties with Astana and Central Asia as a whole.

Prague, 4 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao left Astana today for Mongolia to continue his first overseas trip as Chinese head of state.

During his two-day state visit in the Central Asian republic, Hu held talks with President Nursultan Nazarbaev. The two leaders signed a number of cooperation agreements, many focusing on economic issues.

Speaking at a joint press conference yesterday, President Hu said he and Nazarbaev had had a "fruitful and friendly" discussion and were both "very satisfied" with the development of Sino-Kazakh relations. "I am here in Kazakhstan within the framework of my first foreign trip after my having been appointed Chinese leader," Hu said. "This is a very important sign of the significance of the issue of good-neighborly relations and cooperation between China and Kazakhstan. For 11 years, the relations between China in Kazakhstan have been developing very successfully due to the personal efforts of Presidents Nazarbaev and Jiang Zemin, for which the Chinese people are very grateful."

The two leaders pledged to fight the threats of extremism, separatism, and terrorism in the region. They agreed to strengthen the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- a grouping of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- as a way of bolstering regional security.

But energy cooperation and trade topped the agenda. "There are no unsolved social, economic or political issues between Kazakhstan and China today," Nazarbaev said. "All our talks [yesterday], all the documents we signed [yesterday] -- especially our five-year joint program on further development of mutual cooperation -- I believe will boost our economic and trade cooperation."

Nazarbaev noted there are already 20 accredited Chinese companies in Kazakhstan, along with 600 joint ventures.

Kazakhstan has temporarily closed its 1,800-kilometer border with China to prevent the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) to Central Asia. But Hu and Nazarbaev pledged to more than double bilateral trade over the next two years, to $5 billion. Trade between the countries last year amounted to $2 billion; five years ago the volume stood at just $500 million.

Reuters news agency cites a Kazakh government spokesman as saying Astana is looking to set up a free-trade zone in the border region in order to bolster bilateral economic ties.

Richard Faillace teaches foreign policy and diplomatic history at Kazakhstan's Institute of Management, Economics, and Strategic Research in Almaty. He told RFE/RL that building up trade relations is a priority for both countries, and explained what China and Kazakhstan can offer each other. "Kazakhstan has raw materials, for the most part, to offer China -- oil, gas, minerals. China has really nothing to offer Kazakhstan except for inexpensive consumer goods. So I think what we're going to see in terms of a relationship is: you'll see a lot of Chinese businesses being set up, as they already are, in Kazakhstan to import consumer goods. And ultimately you'll see [Kazakh] raw materials flowing out toward China," Faillace said.

Presidents Hu and Nazarbaev also signed agreements to boost Chinese participation in the Kazakh energy sector, and to revitalize work on a 3,000-kilometer oil pipeline linking China with Kazakhstan's western oil-producing regions. The project, announced in 1997, has stalled due to a lack of sufficient oil reserves to make the plan economically viable.

As Hu emphasized at the news conference, Kazakhstan could play a vital role in helping China meet growing energy needs. Imports are expected to make up half of China's total oil consumption by 2010. By reaching out to Kazakhstan, China can reduce its dependence on the Middle East, which currently provides over half of China's imported oil.

Faillace noted, however, that Kazakhstan to date has a poor track record in honoring its contractual obligations to foreign partners. In order for bilateral cooperation in the energy sector to prove fruitful, he said Astana must work to avoid the fickleness that has dogged past agreements with U.S. oil companies.

"I would be optimistic because it's in Kazakhstan's national interest to find ways to extend its energy reserves to the international markets. What makes me worried about this type of cooperation is that there is really no concept of contract law in Kazakhstan. In the Caspian Sea, with U.S. companies the [Kazakh] government is constantly revisiting, changing, and even canceling contracts without the agreement or the consent of the other parties," Faillace said.

Hu's decision to include Kazakhstan on his first official foreign tour highlights Beijing's intention to increase its presence in Central Asia, where Russia has long been a major influence and where the United States has made significant inroads since the beginning of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001.

Phar Kim Beng, a senior research associate at the City University of Hong Kong, says China is eager to strengthen its ties with an energy-rich country like Kazakhstan in order to ensure that U.S. companies do not develop a monopoly on the region's oil fields and pipelines.

Phar notes that Beijing is eager to boost economic relations with Central Asia much as it is seeking to develop its own inland regions, like Xinjiang and Tibet, within the framework of the "Go West" campaign introduced by former President Jiang.

Francesco Sisci, the Beijing correspondent for the Italian "La Stampa" daily, agreed: "[China's] coastal area is home to about 300 million people, [and] produces 70 percent of the Chinese GDP. The western and central region -- Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Ningxia, Xinjiang -- are scarcely populated. And the economic development is driving populations -- Uighurs -- from Xinjiang to move to the coast. So it is of vital importance for China to develop its western front by developing relations with Kazakhstan and, for instance, Mongolia. Hu Jintao is [now visiting] Mongolia as the last leg of his trip."

Hong Kong City University's Phar says Hu's rise to power may herald more vigorous Chinese involvement in Central Asia. The strategy, in part, may be meant to appease his predecessor and "Go West" advocate Jiang -- now chairman of China's Central Military Commission.

(RFE/RL Kazakh Service director Merhat Sharipzhanov contributed to this report.)