BEIJING: Chinese President Xi Jinping promised on Friday to defend the “territorial integrity” of Tajikistan as he announced a boost to diplomatic relations with the neighbouring country on a rare visit.

Xi arrived in the Tajik capital Dushanbe on Thursday night from Kazakhstan following a gathering of leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), during which he held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and urged the bloc to “resist external interference”.

Central Asia is a vital link in China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive infrastructure project that Beijing has used to expand its clout overseas, but which critics say has left developing countries saddled with onerous loans.

Beijing has sought to fill a void in the region created by Moscow’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, as former Soviet states worry about an increasingly bellicose Russia.

“China will continue to unswervingly promote friendly and mutually beneficial cooperation with Tajikistan... firmly support Tajikistan’s efforts to safeguard national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Xi told his Tajik counterpart Emomali Rahmon, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

Xi also pledged to “firmly oppose any external interference in Tajikistan’s internal affairs under any pretext”, without mentioning any foreign player by name.

Beijing has recently stepped up its diplomatic efforts in Central Asia, a region rich in hydrocarbons and crucial for the transport of goods between Europe and Asia, but also traditionally a region of Russian influence.

Xi, who was welcomed by Rahmon at Dushanbe’s airport where more than 1,500 young Tajiks dressed in traditional costumes performed Chinese and Tajik songs and dances, praised his counterpart.

“Thanks to the joint efforts of the two sides, the political mutual trust between the two countries has been continuously deepened,” said Xi, praising Rahmon.

Published in Dawn, July 6th, 2024

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