China's far-western Xinjiang region is in favour of establishing direct trade links over land with India and Afghanistan to avoid routing trade through third party countries such as Pakistan, officials have said.

A top official of China's far-western Xinjiang region told reporters that the lack of land ports linking China to India and Afghanistan was hampering cross-border economic ties, making a case for greater connectivity.

“By having two-way trade through a third country, it is difficult for the development of two-way trade,” said Shi Dagang, Vice-Chairman of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region government, speaking ahead of the start of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit meeting in Beijing on Wednesday.

Boosting China's economic links with the SCO member and observer countries in Central and South Asia is on the summit's agenda. A greater economic and strategic role for the six-member security organisation in Afghanistan, which is expected to be granted status as an observer this week, is also in focus. Xinjiang, the far-western Muslim majority region, has been declared by Beijing as its ‘bridgehead' to the west. The region, Mr. Shi pointed out, shared a 5,743 kilometre boundary with eight countries, four of which — Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan — were SCO members and the four others — Mongolia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India — SCO observer countries.

“With time, and in accordance with need of construction and development of Afghanistan, I believe that border trade and small border trade between Xinjiang and Afghanistan will be promoted and developed,” Mr. Shi said.

He acknowledged that the lack of infrastructure across the narrow 90 kilometre China-Afghanistan border, near the area known as the Wakhan corridor, was an obstacle to trade. “At present, we have no land ports so the two-way trade has to be routed through a third country, which is either Tajikistan or Pakistan,” he said.

China and Afghanistan are expected to sign a joint declaration this week on “establishing a strategic and cooperative partnership” and elevating ties to a higher level. China has moved quickly to bolster is economic ties with the country, signing a number of deals for mining projects, including the $4.4 billion Aynak copper mine. With the looming withdrawal of NATO troops by 2014, the SCO is looking to play a greater role in the country, although China has expressed its wariness at expanding its engagement into non-economic areas, such as training Afghan security forces.

Mr. Shi said Xinjiang also wanted to boost land trade with India. “We have no land port with India so our trade with India has to be routed through Pakistan, through places like Rawalpindi,” he said. “It only takes 50 minutes by air from New Delhi to Kashgar, while the land distance is only 1,200 km. I believe that with our relationship deepening this trade link will be further utilised.” Xinjiang is keen to reach out to the Indian market, with trade with Pakistan, through the disputed Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) region, reaching only $400 million annually. Flooding on the Karakoram highway was a major barrier, Mr. Shi said.

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