Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan left Tuesday for visits to Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, central Asian neighbors that Beijing has courted to counter U.S. influence.
The official Xinhua News Agency called Cao's trip "an official goodwill visit" made at the invitation of his Tajik and Kazakh counterparts.
Tajikistan and Kazakhstan are members of the six-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security group dominated by Beijing and Moscow.
The, group recently called on the United States to set a date for withdrawing its forces from bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan a move reflecting the growing unease Moscow and Beijing feel about the American presence in the resource-rich, strategically placed region.
Cao's visits follow a trip to Russia last week during which China reportedly agreed to buy 38 Il-76 transport planes and Il-78 tankers. The Russian newspaper Vedomosti said the deal was worth US$1.5 billion (Ђ1.2 billion).
With strong U.S. alliances with Japan and other Asian states to the east, Chinese military thinkers have warned that China risked being encircled undermining its hopes of locking in oil, gas and other resources and recovering Taiwan, the self-ruled island claimed by Beijing.
Beijing communist leaders, meanwhile, frequently emphasize their indifference to human rights as a factor in foreign relations. China's fast-growing economy and massive demand for Central Asian gas and oil have also strengthened its hand in the region.
Uzbekistan's authoritarian President Islam Karimov, whose country is also a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, was given a red-carpet reception in Beijing just days after Uzbek troops brutally quashed a popular uprising in the eastern city of Andijan on May 13, reports the AP.