Gleb BRYANSKI REUTERS
BEIJING - (Reuters) - A regional bloc bringing together China, Russia and central Asian states wants to play a bigger role in 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.
On Sunday, Afghan officials told Reuters that China and Afghanistan will soon announce a plan to deepen their ties, signaling Beijing's desire to play a role beyond their economic partnership as Western forces prepare to leave.
In the interview published on Wednesday, Hu did not offer details of how the loose security grouping could play a bigger role in Afghanistan. But a Chinese expert said the summit would provide a setting for member states' leaders to exchange views on what to expect with the withdrawal. U.S. 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 Huasheng, the director of the Centre for Russian and Central Asia Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, 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", Zhao said.
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.
"But after all, central Asia is also traditionally Russia's backyard, and a part of the former Soviet Union, and so it does have quite complex feelings about this region," he said.