U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has urged Kazakhstan to join Washington in pressing China over its treatment of Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region.
Human rights groups say Chinese authorities have subjected Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups in the northwestern region of Xinjiang to intense surveillance, arbitrary detentions, and forced indoctrination.
China is a major trading partner for the Central Asian country and the Kazakh state-controlled media have generally avoided reporting about the internment centers in Xinjiang.
Pompeo, speaking on February 2 during a visit to Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan, said he raised the issue in talks with Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi.
Pompeo said the two men discussed "the plight of more 1 million Uighur Muslims and ethnic Kazakhs that the Chinese Communist Party has detained in Xinjiang, just across the Kazakh border."
"The United States urges all countries to join us in pressing for an immediate end to this repression," Pompeo added. "We ask simply for them to provide safe refuge and asylum to those seeking to flee China. Protect human dignity, just do what's right."
Tleuberdi, whose government has so far refused to criticize China over Xinjiang, made no comment on the issue and focused instead on economic and security cooperation.
In August 2018, the United Nations said an estimated 1 million Uyghurs and members of other indigenous ethnic groups in the region were being held in "counterextremism centers."
The UN said millions more had been forced into so-called "reeducation camps." China denies that the facilities are internment camps.
Pompeo was meeting top officials in the former Soviet republic to express U.S. support as Washington competes with Moscow for influence in the region.
Pompeo arrived late on February 1, Kazakh officials said, and is scheduled on February 2 to meet with President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev and his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbaev.
Pompeo, who visited London before stopping in Ukraine and Belarus, is scheduled to leave for Uzbekistan late in the evening.
The State Department said in a statement that the visit to Kazakhstan is aimed at reaffirming "our shared commitment to peace, prosperity, and security in Central Asia."
Washington has seen energy-rich Kazakhstan as a counterweight to Russia in Central Asia, and U.S. oil companies have invested billions in joint ventures to develop Caspian Sea fields.
Toqaev, 66, became president when Nazarbaev announced his resignation in March 2019 after ruling the country for nearly 30 years.
Toqaev was inaugurated as Kazakhstan's new president in June after a weakly contested election that was marred by what international observers called "widespread voting irregularities."
Nazarbaev, 79, continues to control social, economic, and political spheres by leading the ruling Nur-Otan party and the influential Security Council.
Opponents, critics, and rights groups say Nazarbaev, who tolerated little dissent, denied many citizens basic rights and prolonged his hold on power in the country of 18.7 million people by manipulating the democratic process.
The capital, formerly called Astana, was renamed in his honor after his sudden resignation last year.
Protests over poor living conditions and financial shortcomings have been held across Kazakhstan for almost a year after five children from one family died when their home in the capital burned down in early February 2019.
Pompeo will then travel to the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, where he will meet with President Shavkat Mirziyoev and Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov.
Mirziyoev, a former prime minister, became president after predecessor Islam Karimov's death was announced in September 2016. Karimov ruled Central Asia's most populous country of 32 million with an iron fist since before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Mirziyoev has taken steps to bolster the country's struggling economy and to implement reforms in Uzbekistan -- where rights abuses had been widespread under Karimov.
Still, rights watchdogs have expressed concerns about conditions in Uzbekistan. Freedom House, for instance, ranked Uzbekistan "not free" in its Freedom On The Net 2018 assessment and said the Internet environment there remained "repressive."
Uzbekistan also has sizable oil and gas reserves, and it has also been seen as a counterweight to Russian influence in the region. It has allied with Washington in the war in Afghanistan and the fight against radical Islamist fighters.
During his stay in Tashkent, the top U.S. diplomat will also participate in a C5+1 ministerial summit with his counterparts from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan "to stress U.S. support for a better-connected, more prosperous, and more secure Central Asia, consistent with the U.S.’s new Central Asia strategy," the State Department said.
With reporting by AFP and Reuters