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Chinese Premier Begins Goodwill Tour of Central Asia

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Promising that China will not try to reassert its traditional influence in this region, Chinese Premier Li Peng has launched a 12-day tour down the ancient Silk Road, which winds through the newly independent Central Asian nations.

“Even when our economy is developed and our country becomes rich and powerful, we will never claim hegemony and will always maintain friendly relations based on equal rights,” Li told officials in this Uzbek capital Tuesday, the morning after his arrival.

Shen Guo Fang, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman traveling with the delegation, added that closer Chinese ties to the former Soviet Central Asian republics will not affect relations with Russia.

Li, 66, is taking his five-nation tour at a leisurely pace. The visit, first planned for last year, was postponed amid rumors that the premier had heart problems. Li will visit four of the five former Soviet Central Asian republics--Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan--plus Mongolia.

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He is the first Chinese leader to pay a state visit to the new nations since independence in 1991 and the first to visit Mongolia in 34 years.

Li will not visit war-torn Tajikistan, which includes a large chunk of mountainous territory in the Gorny Badakhshan region that China claims as its own.

Beijing’s biggest worry about its new neighbors on its northwestern flank is that the Muslim nations could fan the Islamic fundamentalist movements that have already taken root in western China.

Li is expected to try to build stronger ties with the secular leaders of Central Asia as well as reassure them that China has no designs on their land.

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