Central Asia bloc gives Afghans observer status

June 7, 2012 - 12:37 AM

BEIJING (AP) — China, Russia and four Central Asian states are strengthening their ties with Afghanistan by granting Kabul observer status in their regional grouping.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization announced it was embracing Afghanistan at its annual summit in Beijing on Thursday. The move is intended to boost Afghanistan's involvement in the six-nation organization's efforts to improve regional economic integration and combat drug trafficking, extremism and terrorism.

Closer ties with Afghanistan will be especially significant as most international combat troops prepare to pull out by the end of 2014. Russia and China have long seen the SCO as a way to counter U.S. influence in Central Asia and hope to play a significant role in Afghanistan's future development.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

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

The war-torn nation's future is featuring prominently in discussions Thursday among leaders of the six nations that make up the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The bloc, meeting in China's capital for its annual summit, 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.

Underscoring China's growing economic dominance in Central Asia, President Hu Jintao opened the summit Thursday by saying China would offer a $10 billion loan to support economic development and cooperation among SCO member states. No details were immediately given on how the money would be used.

In comments published Wednesday in the ruling Communist Party's flagship newspaper, the People's Daily, Hu 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 Russia and China, the SCO is widely seen as a useful foil to U.S. influence in Central Asia. On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin told China's vice president that the two countries were committed to boosting cooperation between their militaries.

The SCO is just one way in which warming ties between China and Russia have blunted U.S. dominance of global affairs 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 Wednesday 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.

Despite their sometimes anti-American tone, Russia and fellow SCO member nations Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are doing their part to ensure an orderly NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, having agreed to allow the reverse transport of alliance equipment after Pakistan shut down southern supply routes six months ago.

The fourth Central Asian member of the SCO is Tajikistan.

The NATO pullout will also prompt the end of military operations out of Kyrgyzstan's Manas air base, fulfilling 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.

Firms from China — the world's second-largest economy which shares a small stretch of border with Afghanistan — have already moved into Afghanistan, which is hoping exploitation of its vast untapped mineral deposits will help offset the loss of revenue when foreign aid and spending drop with the withdrawal of international combat troops.

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 Afghanistan.

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.

Chinese 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, as is expected to happen at the summit, will speed up security and economic cooperation.

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. A key concern for Moscow is stemming the flow of heroin into Russia, 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.