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China Steps Up Investment In Afghanistan

China Afghanistan

CHRISTOPHER BODEEN   03/24/10 01:13 PM ET   AP

BEIJING — Facing criticism in the West over corruption and electoral fraud, Afghan President Hamid Karzai found a receptive audience in Beijing on Wednesday, overseeing the signing of economic pacts and reaffirming warm traditional ties.

The trip to Beijing comes as Karzai seeks to establish himself as a regional political figure with stature and independence, partly in response to new criticism of his leadership from the U.S., Britain and other foreign partners.

Such issues aren't likely to be raised in his talks with Chinese leaders, who oversee a one-party Communist state that brooks no internal dissent or outside criticism.

While China has no troops in Afghanistan – where Karzai relies on U.S. and NATO forces to prop up his weak government against Taliban insurgents – its proximity and booming economy make it a valuable partner for the war-battered country.

In their meeting Wednesday at the hulking Great Hall of the People, Chinese President Hu Jintao congratulated Karzai on his reelection in an August poll seen by the United Nations as deeply flawed.

"Your visit will definitely help promote practical cooperation between China and Afghanistan, and take our comprehensive and cooperative partnership to a new level," Hu said in opening remarks.

After their talks, the presidents then presided over the signing of new agreements covering economic cooperation, technical training and preferential tariffs for some Afghan exports to China.

Karzai's visit comes as he looks to burnish his international standing. Since he first took power after the Taliban regime's ouster in 2001, his government has been tainted by inefficiency and persistent allegations of corruption that Western officials say have only boosted support for the insurgency. Last year's electoral fraud further hurt his profile.

The Afghan leader – although mocked by some opponents as a puppet of the West – now appears eager to strike a more independent stance on the foreign stage.

"Karzai is seeking to strike a balance among foreign powers and is pretty much emulating the 'multi-vector diplomacy' of the neighboring Central Asian states, for example Kazakhstan," said Nicklas Norling of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program in Sweden.

"By playing foreign powers against each other it can maximize leverage on each and thereby strengthen its sovereignty," said Norling.

Karzai has participated as an observer in summits of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a grouping of Central Asian nations dominated by China and Russia that aims to challenge U.S. dominance. He has also cemented ties with India to balance the influence of neighboring Pakistan, with which Afghanistan has an acrimonious relationship.

And earlier this month, Karzai hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who used his brief visit to lob insults at the United States and argue that international forces in Afghanistan would only lead to more civilian deaths.

Karzai called Iran – with which Afghanistan shares a long land border – "our brother nation" with whom it had excellent relations.

China, which professes to have a noninterventionist foreign policy, is not known to have interposed itself in U.S. relations with Afghanistan. It has limited its involvement in the country to diplomatic and humanitarian support, some trade, and investment in the minerals sector.

Still, Afghanistan's woes incorporate issues that Beijing considers direct threats to its stability: Islamist extremism spreading to China's Muslim region of Xinjiang, the long-term presence of U.S. and NATO forces on its borders, cross-border drug smuggling, and the deepening involvement of India, with which China shares a disputed border and a sharpening rivalry.

It is China's growing economic clout could prove most telling in its relations with Afghanistan. It is already a major source of consumer goods for Afghanistan and two-way trade totaled $155 million in 2008, according to Chinese figures.

In what could be a major boon to Afghan government coffers, a Chinese company has pledged $3 billion to tap one of the world's largest unexploited copper reserves at Aynak in Afghanistan, and is favored to win the rights to iron deposits at Hajigak when bids are considered this year.

Those projects have lagged because of the insurgency. American officials have alleged that Karzai's former minister of mines accepted a $20 million bribe to award the Aynak contract in late 2007 to China Metallurgical Group Corp.

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Filed by Jeff Muskus  |