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China's Hu sees role for regional bloc in Afghanistan
BEIJING (Reuters) - A bloc bringing together China, Russia and central Asian states wants to play a bigger role in Afghanistan, Chinese President Hu Jintao said in an interview published on Wednesday, as group leaders gathered for an annual summit.
The future of neighbor Afghanistan, facing the withdrawal of most foreign combat forces by the end of 2014, is likely to be a main issue at the two-day meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), whose members fear instability spilling across central Asia as the pullout goes ahead.
"We will continue to manage regional affairs by ourselves, guarding against shocks from turbulence outside the region, and will play a bigger role in Afghanistan's peaceful reconstruction," Hu was quoted as saying in an interview with China's official People's Daily newspaper.
"We'll strengthen communication, coordination and cooperation in dealing with major international and regional issues," said Hu.
The SCO, founded in 2001, includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Iran, India, Pakistan and others attend the summits, but not as full members. All have an interest in Afghanistan's future.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is attending as a guest, and his country is due to be granted "observer" status, meaning it can attend SCO meetings but not vote.
On Sunday, Afghan officials told Reuters that China and Afghanistan would soon announce a plan to deepen ties, signaling China's desire to play a role beyond an economic partnership as Western forces prepare to leave.
Karzai said in Beijing the two governments were preparing to sign a preliminary agreement by Friday on the "creation of a strategic partnership".
"Afghanistan will be expanding and strengthening relations with China," Karzai said in a speech to university students.
Karzai also said China, the world's second-biggest economy which shares a short stretch of border with Afghanistan, could "play a very significant role in bringing Afghanistan and Pakistan together towards a cooperative environment in the war on terror and radicalism".
Pakistan, a close ally of China with difficult ties with Afghanistan, is seen as crucial to Afghan stability.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said China would increase cooperation with Afghanistan in the fields of resource development, infrastructure, energy and training.
"Events in Afghanistan are of great concern to the security and stability of central Asia," Liu said at a regular briefing.
But China will remain cautious about Afghanistan, edging rather than rushing towards any bigger presence on concern about getting dragged into its security troubles without the lure of extensive energy resources, said Chinese experts.
U.S. officials and legislators have said China could play a bigger reconstruction role through aid and investment.
"I don't think that the U.S. withdrawal also means a Chinese withdrawal," said Zhang Li, a professor of South Asian studies at Sichuan University. "But especially in security affairs in Afghanistan, China will remain low-key and cautious."
China has mining and other investments in Afghanistan, and its companies would look to more investment if security conditions allowed, said Zhang.
In the interview, Hu did not give details of how the loose SCO security grouping could play a bigger role in Afghanistan.
The summit will probably issue a document on regional security "against the background of the Arab Spring, as well as the uncertainties about Afghanistan after 2014", said Zhao Huasheng, director of the Centre for Russian and Central Asia Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.
China, Russia and central Asian governments have been wary of anti-government movements across the Arab world inspiring similar challenges against them and their partners.
Afghanistan's neighbors including Iran and Pakistan, as well as nearby India and Russia, have jostled for influence in the country at the crossroads of Central and South Asia, and many expect the competition to heat up after 2014.
India has poured aid into Afghanistan and, like China, has invested in its mineral sector. But China's trade with Afghanistan is small.
In 2011, total two-way trade was worth $234.4 million, a rise of 31 percent on the previous year, and Chinese imports from Afghanistan were worth just $4.4 million, according to Chinese customs data.
In theory, the SCO could be a force for cooperation and cohesion. In practice, however, the disparate and sometimes distrustful members have had trouble drawing together.
China has turned to Central Asia for natural gas, security cooperation and new markets. Its growing economic stake has kindled "complicated" feelings among Russians, who see the region as their traditional "backyard", said Zhao.
(Additional reporting by John Ruwitch in SHANGHAI and Sui-Lee Wee and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Ken Wills and Robert Birsel)
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