BEIJING – Uzbek President Islam Karimov (search) on Wednesday made his first trip abroad since a bloody crackdown on protesters, arriving in China a day after it voiced support for the authoritarian Central Asian leader.
Chinese officials greeted Karimov at the Beijing airport in a red carpet ceremony with flower bouquets.
While the visit was a courtesy trip scheduled after Chinese President Hu Jintao (search) went to Tashkent, Uzbekistan's (search) capital, last year, it gave Karimov a way to underline that China is on his side. On Tuesday, Beijing said it "firmly" backed his actions in crushing anti-government demonstrators.
China is eager to tap into Central Asia's energy resources, and it has watched warily since the United States deployed troops to the region after the Sept. 11 attacks, including at an Uzbek base.
Beijing also wants stability in the former Soviet states of Central Asia, a region that China — like Russia — considers a tinderbox of Islamic militancy that could spread to its own territory.
"This is a good opportunity for President Karimov," said Joshua Lung, an assistant research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Taiwan's National Chengchi University. "He's facing international pressure, but in China or Russia, he will get the support he needs."
The Chinese and Uzbek governments said Karimov's visit Wednesday was planned long before the May 13 uprising in the eastern Uzbek town of Andijan.
Western governments criticized Karimov for using force to put down the uprising. But China and Russia have been more supportive of Karimov's decision to act after armed men seized government buildings and broke into a jail to free 23 businessmen accused of Islamic extremism.
Uzbek officials claim 169 people — mainly militants — were killed in Andijan. But rights activists contend hundreds of protesters died and insist many were unarmed civilians who were only voicing their opposition to Karimov's government and anger over economic woes.
NATO and the European Union have called for an independent probe of the events, but Karimov has resisted. The United States has also criticized the crackdown and said it hopes for more democracy in Uzbekistan. But China and Russia are lined up on the other side.
"We firmly support the efforts by the authorities of Uzbekistan to strike down the three forces of terrorism, separatism and extremism," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said Tuesday in Beijing.
China stresses the importance of maintaining stability in Central Asia through the China-backed Shanghai Cooperation Organization, whose members include Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
The group set up an anti-terrorism center in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, although the move is viewed as largely symbolic.
China claims ethnic Uighur separatists are fighting for an independent Islamic state in its western region of Xinjiang, which is about 120 miles from Andijan and shares Uzbekistan's Muslim religion and Turkic language roots.
Foreign experts are skeptical of the claims, and the regime's critics say the specter of terrorism is being used as an excuse to tighten Beijing's control there.
Although Uzbekistan is separated from China by Kyrgyzstan, the China-Kyrgyz border reportedly is porous and potentially easily penetrated by Islamic insurgents.
China closed the border for six days in March after protesters stormed Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev's offices. Akayev fled to Russia and resigned his office.