Xi signals greater role for China in Afghanistan

September 29, 2013 12:18 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:11 pm IST - BEIJING:

China has signalled its intention to play a greater diplomatic role in the lead-up to the 2014 withdrawal of U.S.-led NATO forces from Afghanistan, as the war-torn nation’s President, Hamid Karzai, held talks with the top Chinese leadership.

Chinese President Xi Jinping told Mr. Karzai China was ready to deepen political, economic and security support as he described 2014 as “a key year” for the nation’s future. As a sign of its intent to play a leading diplomatic role in bringing countries in the region together, Mr. Xi said China had decided to host, next year, the fourth ministerial meeting of the Istanbul Conference, which was initiated by regional countries in 2011.

Despite Mr. Xi signalling China’s widening diplomatic ambitions, analysts say Beijing is, however, unlikely to significantly alter its cautious approach with regard to providing financial and security assistance in the near-term.

The Chinese government on Saturday said it would provide a modest 200 million Yuan (around $32 million) grant to the Afghan government this year. The joint statement issued on Friday said China would provide assistance “within the realm of its capabilities”.

Andrew Small of the German Marshall Fund’s Asia Program, who has extensively studied China-Afghan relations, said Beijing was likely to “continue to move forward very carefully until it’s confident that there’s a political and security environment in which it feels comfortable about expanding its economic presence”.

“Even then,” he told The Hindu , “it’s not going to vastly increase aid or its security training. These numbers are still very small, as are the aid figures”, with the shift in policy so far “more about a considerably increased level of diplomatic involvement.”

“Heading off India-Pakistan security competition in Afghanistan is one of China’s primary concerns, alongside the prospect that the country becomes a base again for Uighur militants [the Turkic minority group in China’s western Xinjiang region],” Mr. Small told The Hindu . “China’s close relationship with Pakistan naturally sets them up to cooperate there but Beijing doesn’t want to see Pakistan playing a spoiler role in Afghanistan again and is privately communicating these expectations to them.”

Friday’s talks were, however, largely focused on two older issues the countries have been grappling with recently, rather than the question of the country’s future: China’s investment in the $ 3 billion Aynak copper mine, which has struggled to take off on account of security concerns; and Beijing’s concerns on terrorism. Reflecting the importance of the issues, the two senior officials accompanying Mr. Karzai were the national security adviser and the minister in charge of mines.

The joint statement said both sides had agreed to sign a treaty on extradition, reflecting China’s concerns on Xinjiang, as well as to “intensify exchanges and cooperation in the security field by way of jointly combating transnational threats including illegal immigration, and trafficking in persons, arms or drugs, among others”.

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