Karzai courts China and its cash

BEIJING: Afghan President Hamid Karzai travels to China this week eyeing investment from his mighty neighbour, which prefers helping rebuild his war-torn nation to military involvement.

More than eight years after the Taliban regime was toppled by US-led forces, Karzai will also seek to strengthen ties with China, increasingly seen as a key player in maintaining stability in Afghanistan after US troops pull out.

During the trip — his first to China since re-election last year — Karzai will hold separate talks with his counterpart Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

Karzai will present the Chinese leadership with his plan for reconciliation with the Taliban during his visit from Tuesday to Thursday but financial issues are likely to dominate talks, said his spokesman Waheed Omar.

“Most of what will be discussed with the Chinese government will be on economic issues and a big number of Afghan national businessmen will accompany the president,” Omar told reporters in Afghan capital Kabul last week.

China has a keen interest in Afghanistan’s natural resources. Three years ago, for example, a Chinese group put a record three billion dollars into the Aynak copper mine, one of the biggest in the world.

And whereas Beijing refuses to send troops into the Afghan quagmire despite the risk of instability were an Islamist regime to return to power in Kabul, and the ongoing scourge of drug trafficking, it has given aid and assistance.

Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi recently pointed out that China had given assistance to Afghanistan “without conditions” in areas such as the construction of schools, hospitals, roads and waterworks.

He also stressed that China, which itself says it faces a militant Islamist threat in its western regions bordering central Asia, had taken part in a series of international conferences on Afghanistan in Moscow, London and Turkey. “Representatives of many countries at the conferences were of the view that military means did not offer a fundamental solution to the Afghanistan issue,” Yang said.

Chinese observers say Beijing’s investments in Afghanistan help stability as they create employment and are therefore in step with the Afghan government’s wish to offer a future to Taliban who want to lay down their weapons.

Andrew Small of the German Marshall Fund, a US research centre, said China’s “influence is potentially significant both economically... and politically, where its close ties with Pakistan’s military could be leveraged.” “But Beijing has been reluctant to use this influence to complement allied efforts — it has largely pursued its bilateral interests without much reference to more broadly shared international goals,” he added.

Experts say stronger relations between Afghanistan and its neighbours are an important factor for the success of US President Barack Obama’s strategy for the troubled country.

Obama aims to start withdrawing US troops in 2011. In the meantime, he has sent in military reinforcements to step up the fight against the Taliban.