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Central Asia forges ties with China as Xi touts 'enduring' friendship

By Andrew Hayley

XIAN, China (Reuters) - Central Asian heads of state converged in China's historic city of Xian on Thursday for one-on-ones with Chinese leader Xi Jinping to seal pledges of "enduring" friendship, paving the way for a summit expected to result in a regional pact with Beijing.

The bilaterals set the stage for a group huddle on Friday, the first in-person gathering of the six leaders, where Xi will deliver an "important" speech, according to China's foreign ministry. An "important" political document will also be signed.

Across the city of Xian, from where the ancient Silk Road linked imperial China with civilisations to its west over a millennium ago, banners, billboards and even taxi signs were set up to promote the summit.

China is intensifying its economic and political engagement with the former Soviet states as Russia channels what remaining resources it has into the war in Ukraine. Some Central Asian states are increasingly stand up to Moscow, with Kazakhstan not recognising Russian-controlled regions in eastern Ukraine to Tajikistan demanding more "respect" from the Kremlin.

The first head of state to arrive in Xian was President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan - China's largest trading partner in Central Asia. When Tokayev met Xi on Wednesday, the Chinese leader greeted him warmly and wished him a happy 70th birthday.

"We have a common goal - to intensify bilateral relations," Tokayev told Xi.

"We are also united by the desire to strengthen regional and international security and cooperation."

After their meeting, Xi and Tokayev jointly declared that the two countries shall build an "enduring friendship" and share "weal and woe".

They also agreed to ensure the safe and stable operation of the Kazakh section of the China-Central Asia natural gas pipeline, and also deepen oil and uranium cooperation.

On the summit's sidelines, state-owned Chinese energy giant Sinopec and Kazakhstan's KayMunayGaz agreed key terms for a potential investment in a polyethylene project in Western Kazakhstan's Atryau region.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called the Kazakh president on Wednesday and affirmed the ties of their countries, according to Tass news agency.

Putin was not in China, with Russia not part of the China-plus-Central Asia format.

CLOSER TO CHINA

With Kazakhstan setting the collaborative tone for other bilateral meetings, Kyrgyzstan's President Sadyr Japarov told Xi that he was keen to deepen trade, economic and investment links.

"There are no political disagreements or unresolved issues between our countries," Japarov said.

Two-way trade between China and Central Asia hit a record $70 billion last year, with Kazakhstan leading with $31 billion, as China seeks deeper economic links in its quest for greater food and energy security.

Kyrgyzstan came next with $15.5 billion, then Turkmenistan with $11.2 billion, Uzbekistan with $9.8 billion and Tajikistan with $2 billion.

"We've been supporting exactly this type of integration between China and Central Asia," said Albert Park, chief economist at the Asian Development Bank.

"Under that framework, we're trying to reduce trade barriers among the countries, harmonise trading standards to promote better integration, and just more forums where government officials can talk and try to develop standards to promote more trade," Park told Reuters in Beijing.

Xi's show of solidarity with Central Asia at the summit conspicuously coincides with a meeting of the Group of Seven leaders in Japan, where Beijing's use of "economic coercion" in its dealings abroad is expected to be on the agenda.

(This story has been refiled to remove an extraneous word in paragraph 11)

(Reporting by Andrew Hayley; Additional reporting by Joe Cash in Beijing; writing by Ryan Woo; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)