A bloc bringing together China, Russia and central Asian states wants to play a bigger role in troubled Afghanistan, Chinese President Hu Jintao said in an interview published on Wednesday, as regional leaders gathered for their annual summit.
The future of neighbor Afghanistan, facing the withdrawal of most foreign combat forces by the end of 2014, is likely to be discussed at the two-day meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), whose member states fear growing instability spilling across the central Asian region as the pullout goes on.
"We will continue to manage regional affairs by ourselves, guarding against shocks from turbulence outside the region, and will play a bigger role in Afghanistan's peaceful reconstruction," Hu was quoted as saying in an interview with China's official People's Daily newspaper about the SCO summit.
"We'll strengthen communication, coordination and cooperation in dealing with major international and regional issues," said Hu.
The SCO, founded in 2001, includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Iran, India, Pakistan and others attend the summits, but not as full members. Each has a strong interest in Afghanistan's future.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is attending the summit as a guest, and his country is due to be granted "observer" status in the SCO, meaning it can attend meetings but not vote.
On Sunday, Afghan officials told Reuters that China and Afghanistan will soon announce a plan to deepen ties, signaling Beijing's desire to play a role beyond their economic partnership as Western forces prepare to leave.
In Beijing on Wednesday, Karzai said the two governments are preparing to sign a preliminary agreement about the "creation of a strategic partnership" between them.
But Beijing will remain cautious about Afghanistan, edging rather than rushing towards any bigger presence, said Chinese experts. U.S. officials and lawmakers have said Beijing could play a bigger reconstruction role through aid and investment.
"I don't think that the U.S. withdrawal also means a Chinese withdrawal," said Zhang Li, a professor of South Asian studies at Sichuan University in southwestern China who has studied Sino-Afghan relations. "?But especially in security affairs in Afghanistan, China will remain low-key and cautious."
China has mining and other investments in Afghanistan, and its companies would look to more investments there if security conditions allow, said Zhang. ?"Stability is going to be crucial if China is going to keep investing,"? he said.
In the interview, Hu did not give details of how the loose SCO security grouping could play a bigger role in Afghanistan.
The SCO summit would give leaders a chance to exchange views on preparing for the withdrawal, said Zhao Huasheng, the director of the Centre for Russian and Central Asia Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. American troops make up the bulk of the NATO-led force in Afghanistan
"The Afghanistan issue is certainly being taken seriously by the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, because this region - with China, Russia and central Asia - is very sensitive to what happens there," Zhao told Reuters.
The summit will probably issue a document on regional security "against the background of the Arab Spring, as well as the uncertainties about Afghanistan after 2014", he said.
China, Russia and central Asian governments have been wary of anti-government movements across the Arab world inspiring similar challenges against them and their partners.
Afghanistan's immediate neighbors are Iran and Pakistan, but nearby India and Russia have jostled for influence in the country at the crossroads of Central and South Asia, and many expect the competition to heat up after 2014.
India has poured aid into Afghanistan and, like China, has invested in its mineral sector. But China's trade with Afghanistan remains scant.
In 2011, total two-way trade was worth $234.4 million, a rise of 31 percent on the previous year, and Chinese imports from Afghanistan were worth just $4.4 million, according to Chinese customs data.
In theory, the SCO leaders meeting in Beijing could be a powerful force for regional cooperation and cohesion. In practice, however, the disparate and sometimes distrustful member states have had trouble drawing together.
China has turned to Central Asia for natural gas, security cooperation and new markets. Its growing economic stake in central Asia has kindled "complicated" feelings among Russians, who see the region as their traditional "backyard", said Zhao.
"At a macro level, there is a cooperative attitude. After all, to a certain extent, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is all about China and Russia cooperating," said Zhao.