Central Asia group seeks bigger Afghanistan role - Central Asian states meeting in Beijing this week say they want a role in stabilizing Afghanistan after most U.S. combat troops leave at the end of 2014, with China's economic juggernaut leading t

Central Asia group seeks bigger Afghanistan role

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Chinese President Hu Jintao, third right, stands with leaders of
Central Asian nations, from left, Uzbekistan's President Islam
Karimov, Kyrgyzstan's President Almazbek Sharshenovich Atambayev,
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Hu, Kazakhstan's President Nursultan
Nazarbayev and Tajikistan's President Emomali Rakhmon, for a group
photo at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing Wednesday, June 6,
2012, at the start of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit.
Central Asian states meeting in Beijing this week say they want a role
in stabilizing Afghanistan after most U.S. combat troops leave at the
end of 2014, with China's economic juggernaut leading the charge.

(06-06) 09:39 PDT BEIJING, China (AP) --

Central Asian states meeting in Beijing this week say they want a role
in stabilizing Afghanistan after most U.S. combat troops leave at the
end of 2014, with China's economic juggernaut leading the charge.

The war-torn nation's future is expected to feature prominently in
discussions by leaders of the six nations that make up the Shanghai
Cooperation Organization. The bloc, which includes China, Russia, and
four Central Asian states, seeks closer security and economic ties
among its members, most prominently through regular meetings and joint
military exercises targeting separatists, religious extremists and
drug traffickers.

In comments published Wednesday in the ruling Communist Party's
flagship newspaper, the People's Daily, Chinese President Hu Jintao
outlined a broad plan for the SCO's future role as the region's pre-
eminent grouping, while firmly rejecting outside meddling.

"We will continue to follow the concept that regional affairs should
be managed by countries in the region, that we should guard against
shocks from turbulence outside the region, and should play a bigger
role in Afghanistan's peaceful reconstruction," Hu said.

How they plan to do so remains a question. The SCO has yet to declare
a unified strategy on Afghanistan and shows little sign of filling the
void left by the withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign forces.

Dominated by the Russia and China, the SCO is widely seen as useful to
them as a foil to U.S. influence in Central Asia.

Underscoring close relations between Beijing and Moscow, Russian
President Vladimir Putin told China's vice president on Wednesday that
the sides were committed to boosting cooperation between their

Warming ties between China and Russia have counterbalanced U.S.
influence and shielded Syria from international moves to halt its
crackdown on a 15-month uprising.

The official Xinhua News Agency said the sides issued a joint
statement reaffirming their position that the Syrian crisis should be
resolved peacefully.

"China and Russia strongly oppose any attempt to address the Syria
crisis with military interference from the outside or forcefully
impose a regime change in the insurgency-ridden country," Xinhua said,
citing the statement.

Despiate that, Russia and fellow SCO member nations Uzbekistan,
Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are doing their part to ensure an orderly
withdrawal, having agreed to allow the reverse transport of alliance
equipment after Pakistan shut down southern supply routes six months

The fourth Central Asian member of the SCO is Tajikistan.

The pullout will also prompt the end of military operations out of
Kyrgyzstan's Manas air base, meeting China and Russia's oft-stated
objections to a permanent U.S. presence in Central Asia.

While the SCO's security plans in Afghanistan remain unclear, economic
outreach looks set to lead the way.

China — which shares a small stretch of border with Afghanistan — is
the most dynamic economy in the region and its firms have already
moved into Afghanistan. Kabul is hoping exploitation of its vast
untapped mineral deposits will help offset the loss of revenue when
foreign aid and spending drops with the withdrawal of international
combat troops.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters Wednesday that
the development of Afghanistan was "closely linked to security and
stability" in the region, and that Afghanistan becoming an observer
member of the SCO will speed up security and economic cooperation.

The U.S. Defense Department has estimated the value of Afghanistan's
mineral reserves at $1 trillion. Other estimates have pegged it at $3
trillion or more.

In December, China's state-owned National Petroleum Corp. signed a
deal allowing it to become the first foreign company to exploit
Afghanistan's oil and natural gas reserves. That comes three years
after the China Metallurgical Construction Co. signed a contract to
develop the Aynak copper mine in Logar province. Beijing's $3.5
billion stake in the mine is the largest foreign investment in

China's government has also contributed substantial aid to Afghanistan
over the past decade in the form of training and equipment for some
security units and government offices, infrastructure investment, and
scholarships for Afghan students.

Russia, which lost nearly 15,000 troops in its disastrous 1979-1989
invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, appears keen to recover some
of its lost influence there. Stemming the flow of heroin into Russia
is a key concern to be met by increased intelligence work in the
country and bolstered border security in surrounding states.

Moscow also has offered generous assistance to rehabilitate Soviet-era
dams and power stations and is exploring natural gas exploitation and
infrastructure contracts — putting it on a potential collision course
with China.

Joint participation in the SCO might help paper over some of those
differences, but practical cooperation remains elusive.

"China and Russia have no joint approach to Afghanistan. Cooperation
is basically limited to a common political stance," said Zhao
Huasheng, director of the Center for Russia and Central Asia Studies
of Fudan University in Shanghai.

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