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With U.S. in mind, China heads to Central Asia summit

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese President Hu Jintao goes to Central Asia on Tuesday for a summit and war games officially focused on fighting terrorism, but which Beijing hopes will also boost its presence in an energy-rich region.

Chinese president Hu Jintao speaks during the inaugural ceremony in Hong Kong in this July 1, 2007 file photo. Hu goes to Central Asia on Tuesday for a summit and war games officially focused on fighting terrorism, but which Beijing hopes will also boost its presence in an energy-rich region. REUTERS/Paul Yeung

Beijing is the main backer of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which says it is dedicated to fighting terrorism and Islamic extremism in Central Asia, including home-grown groups in the far western Chinese region of Xinjiang.

The organisation -- grouping China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan -- has also invited U.S. nemesis Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the summit in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, home to a U.S. military base.

Apart from a large number of forces in Afghanistan, the United States has about 1,200 U.S. troops in Kyrgyzstan, though Kyrgyz officials have demanded Washington pay more for the use of the base.

“The Central Asian countries clearly want to have more interaction with China, and the SCO provides a very good excuse to meet with senior officials and discuss issues ranging from military to trade,” said Duncan Innes-Ker, China analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

But China and Russia have long been suspicious of each other, despite a recent rapprochement, and the ex-Soviet states of Central Asia are still trying to throw off Russia’s influence more than a decade after gaining independence.

“The SCO is making progress on the military side, and they’re working quite well on things like disaster recovery, but on the other hand none of these countries trusts the other further than they can throw them,” Innes-Ker added.

The U.S. military presence in Central Asia suffered a blow in 2005 when Uzbekistan expelled U.S troops from a base following Western condemnation of the use of force to quash a revolt in the town of Andizhan.

China has never been comfortable with the idea of U.S. forces being stationed in neighbouring countries, be it Japan or Central Asia.

Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Li Hui said last week he had “no way to predict” whether the issue would come up at this meeting, as it did at the last summit in Shanghai in 2006.

“China completely respects the will and decisions of other countries,” Li said. “The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation adheres to the principle of mutual consultation, and this of course goes for important and sensitive questions.”

Still, the military exercise -- called “Peace Mission 2007” -- will involve some 6,500 troops and 80 aircraft, the official Xinhua news agency said. It will take place both in Chelyabinsk in Russia and Urumqi in China’s far west.

China says the exercise is purely defensive and aimed only at the “three evils”, which the government defines as “terrorism, separatism and extremism”.

Human rights groups say the organisation has given international cover to Central Asian states’ repression of peaceful civilian opponents.

“The scale of the exercises suggests that they are aimed at controlling local populations and not just combatting terrorism,” the Uyghur American Association, a Washington-based NGO that champions the rights of Muslim Uighurs, said in a statement.

China has waged a relentless campaign against what it calls violent separatist activities of Uighurs agitating for an independent East Turkestan state in the remote, oil-rich region of Xinjiang which borders Pakistan, Afghanistan and three Central Asian republics.