Top China official visits Afghanistan, signs security deal

KABUL (Reuters) - China has signed security and economic agreements with Afghanistan during a rare trip to Kabul by a top Chinese official, in deals seen aimed at bolstering Beijing’s influence ahead of a NATO withdrawal of most combat forces by 2014.

Zhou Yongkang, China’s domestic security chief and a member of the ruling Communist Party’s central Politburo, made an unannounced visit to the Afghan capital late on Saturday, holding talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at his garden palace.

Zhou’s visit was the first to Afghanistan by a senior Chinese leader since 1966 and followed a visit by Karzai to Beijing in June when both countries agreed to cooperate on combating extremism in the region.

During the talks, held under tight security after violent protests in Kabul over a film which insults Islam, Zhou signed agreements on increased security and economic cooperation, including a deal to help “train, fund and equip Afghan police”.

The agreement was not specific on how much assistance China planned to give the 149,000-strong police force, which is currently trained by the NATO-led coalition.

“It is in line with the fundamental interests of the two peoples for China and Afghanistan to strengthen a strategic and cooperative partnership which is also conducive to regional peace, stability and development,” Zhou said in a statement, according to China’s official Xinhua news agency.

Resource-hungry China, which has a small border with Afghanistan in the country’s mountainous north-eastern corridor, is keen to invest in Afghan resource deposits worth as much as $1 trillion, based on U.S. Pentagon estimates.

Chinese state-owned miner China Metallurgical Group (MCC) CNMET.UL operates the $3 billion Aynak copper mine in eastern Logar province, which has been subject to rocket attacks and other raids by insurgent groups looking to disrupt operations.

MCC won the contract to develop Aynak in 2008 and it was originally scheduled to begin production in 2013, but work has been delayed by the discovery of a huge and significant archaeological site in the area.

Zhou’s visit underscores the concern in Beijing about a deterioration in security as the NATO presence in Afghanistan winds down.

It also comes after Karzai last week voiced concern about strategic pacts signed with chief ally the United States earlier this year ahead of talks starting in three weeks’ time on a continued U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

Zhou had originally been scheduled to travel to Turkmenistan following a visit to Singapore, but diverted to Afghanistan for the meeting.

The Chinese government fully respects the right of the Afghan people to choose their own path of development and will actively participate in Afghanistan’s reconstruction, Zhou told Karzai, according to Xinhua.

Karzai said security in the region “depends on the relations between Afghanistan and its neighbours”, presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi said, with both countries agreeing to expand their so far limited ties. (Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)