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China's “Silk Road”Ambitions in Central Asia Could Tread on Russian Toes

Premier Li Keqiang is on the road, the Silk Road, to Kazakhstan this week as China seeks to increase its sway in a region long dominated by Russia.

Li's trip is the first by a top Chinese official to any country on the ancient trade route since last month's announcement of a US$40 billion Silk Road Fund to finance the building of infrastructure to link markets across Asia. Li arrived in Astana on Sunday and was met by Prime Minister Karim Massimov. Li signed cooperation agreements worth US$14 billion during the trip, according to the State Council.

Li called for the two countries to continue deepening energy cooperation, advancing the construction of a gas pipeline and implementing their memorandum of understanding on nuclear cooperation, according to the State Council. Kazakhstan says its wants to be on good terms with all the major powers - China, the United States, and the European Union, as well as Russia, a nation with which it has historical, economic, and political ties.

Dr Nargis Kassenova, associate professor and director of the Central Asian Studies Centre at KIMEP University in the former Kazakh capital of Almaty, said Russia remained the top diplomatic priority for Kazakhstan. "Ultimately we lean toward Russia, but at least we're not going to eliminate other options," Kassenova said. "We can't afford to upset China to please Russia; they're two powerful neighbours of ours; we'll do everything to be on good terms with both."

Russia has yet to protest against China's rapid expansion into Central Asia, where three parallel gas pipelines have been completed over the past four years to pump gas to Chinese households. More than one-fourth of China's crude and over half of its gas imports were from Central Asia, according to China National Petroleum Corp.

scmp.com Edited by Topco)