Xi begins Central Asia tour to expand China's sway

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan - Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Turkmenistan on Tuesday on the first leg of a four-nation tour of ex-Soviet Central Asia aimed at further increasing China's influence in the region.

Xi was to hold talks with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov before heading Wednesday to inspect the vast Galkynysh gas field in the south of the country that is being jointly developed with China's state energy company.

China is eagerly eyeing the vast oil and gas resources of ex-Soviet Central Asia for its fast growing domestic economy and is also clearly keen to assert its political influence in a strategic region which for decades was dominated by Moscow.

"Relations which for long have been marked by friendship and fruitful cooperation have received a new impulse in the last years," the Turkmen foreign ministry said in a statement ahead of the visit.

Xi and Berdymukhamedov are to open a new complex of industrial buildings at the Galkynysh gas field which is estimated to have 26 trillion cubic metres of gas.

Turkmenistan, which is already exporting gas to China via a pipeline whose first stage was completed in 2009, is also being courted by the European Union and Russia for its energy resources.

"The bilateral talks will be a new step on the path towards a further dynamic development of dialogue based on principles of equality, mutual trust and respect of each other's interests," Turkmen state media quoted Berdymukhamedov as saying.

After visiting Turkmenistan, Xi is expected to briefly leave Central Asia to attend the G20 summit in Saint Petersburg on Thursday and Friday.

After the G20, Xi is then expected to head to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

In Kyrgyzstan, he is set to attend a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation where he will again encounter Russian President Vladimir Putin and have the chance of a first meeting with new Iranian President Hassan Rowhani.