US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on countries to offer asylum to ethnic minorities fleeing China’s troubled Xinjiang region during a visit Sunday to oil-rich Kazakhstan – a country that borders the region.

“We ask simply for them to provide safe refuge and asylum for those seeking to flee China,” Pompeo said at a press appearance with Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi.

“Protect human dignity, just do what is right,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo was meeting top officials in ex-Soviet Kazakhstan as he rounds off a five-nation tour in two countries where Russia and China enjoy privileged interests.

His visit to the Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan also saw him meet with Kazakhs who say their family members are detained in Xinjiang, where over a million ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs and other minorities are believed to have been incarcerated as part of an unprecedented security crackdown in the region.

Kazakhstan has allowed several ethnic Kazakhs of Chinese citizenship who fled the region to stay in the country, but has not given any of them asylum – a reluctance local activists attribute to Chinese pressure.

Pompeo also commended Kazakhstan’s “quick action” over the novel coronavirus that has killed more than 300 people and infected more than 14,000 in mainland China and beyond, forcing governments around the world to take drastic measures.

Kazakhstan has hospitalized over 40 people that returned to the country from China with flu-like symptoms, but has yet to confirm any cases of the disease.

On Sunday evening Pompeo flew to Uzbekistan, a country of 33 million that is emerging from nearly three decades of isolation.

Pompeo also visited two other ex-Soviet countries – Belarus and Ukraine – as part of a trip that began with a stop in Britain.

Ahead of the visit, Pompeo stressed that the Central Asian countries on his itinerary “want to be sovereign and independent,” and Washington had “an important opportunity to help them achieve that.”

But he also acknowledged “a lot of activity [in the region] – Chinese activity, Russian activity.”

Washington has often struggled to keep a foothold in Central Asian states that were part of the Soviet Union up to its collapse in 1991.

At the height of hostilities in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks, NATO and the United States maintained important logistics centers in the region, but these have now closed.

Russia has retained military bases and heads security and trade blocs that have helped to entrench its position there.

But Central Asia also increasingly looks east to China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road global trade plan as a panacea to treat battered economies.

Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have both seen leadership transitions since John Kerry toured the region in 2015 – the last US secretary of state to visit.

In Kazakhstan, Pompeo was to meet President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as well as his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev, who last year shocked Kazakhs by retiring from the presidency after nearly three decades in office.

In Uzbekistan, he was to hold talks with President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has embarked on ambitious reforms, welcoming tourism and investment in the once-isolated republic while keeping the authoritarian system intact.

Mirziyoyev’s long-ruling hardline predecessor, Islam Karimov, turned his back on the United States in 2005 after a row over the Uzbek government’s bloody crackdown on protests.

The relationship had healed somewhat by the time of Karimov’s death in 2016.

Mirziyoyev, who visited Trump at the White House in 2018, has mused on the benefits of joining the Moscow-backed Eurasian Economic Union, a five-country bloc including Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan that is seen as a key vehicle for Russia to wield influence in the region.

In addition to holding bilateral meetings, Pompeo on Monday in Tashkent will hold a meeting with foreign ministers from all five ex-Soviet Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

This format was first tried under Kerry to enhance regional, economic, environmental and security cooperation.

– AFP