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China urges US to unlock Afghanistan's frozen assets

China has urged neighbouring countries to help build a stable Afghanistan and demanded that the United States returns the country's frozen assets as Beijing seeks to bolster its role as a major influence in the region.

In a written statement delivered to an international conference it hosted on Thursday, Chinese President Xi Jinping said Afghanistan's neighbours should put more effort into the war-torn nation, but made no mention of alleged human rights abuses by the country's Taliban leaders.

A "peaceful, stable, developed and prosperous Afghanistan" is what Afghans aspire to, Xi said, adding this would "serve the common interests of regional countries and the international community".

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"China has all along respected Afghanistan's sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, and is committed to supporting Afghanistan's peaceful and stable development," Xi said.

The meeting in Anhui province was attended by officials from both Russia and the United States and analysts said it offered an opportunity to discuss the war in Ukraine.

Representatives from Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as well as Afghanistan were also present.

Wrapping up the two-day meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said humanitarian and economic assistance should be provided to Afghanistan.

"We urge the US and Western nations to earnestly fulfill their primary responsibility for the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan, return the assets of the Afghan people as soon as possible, and oppose any attempt to create chaos in Afghanistan and harm the region," Wang was quoted as saying by a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement.

The United States froze around US$9 billion in central bank assets after the Taliban seized power in Kabul last year and US President Joe Biden later ordered them to be seized and divided between victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and humanitarian aid.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow is concerned that the Islamic State is plotting to destabilise central Asia and spread instability in the country, the RIA news agency reported.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi used the conference to stage a three-way meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Afghanistan's foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi on Wednesday.

Wang said the three nations share a common history and supported each other in their national development.

"China, Afghanistan and Pakistan should restart the tripartite cooperation mechanism, and promote cooperation in the three major fields of politics, development and security based on the principles of mutual respect, equal consultation, and mutual benefit and win-win results," Wang said, according to a statement from the Chinese foreign ministry.

Wang also said the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor - a major infrastructure project of Beijing's - should be extended to Afghanistan.

He also called for greater anti-terrorism cooperation. Beijing has long been concerned that separatists from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement would enter Xinjiang through Afghanistan, especially after the withdrawal of US troops last year.

"We will take comprehensive measures to address both the symptoms and root causes, eradicate the breeding ground for terrorism," Wang said. China also joined Pakistan and Afghanistan in urging the US to lift unilateral sanctions against Afghanistan, with Qureshi and Muttaqi demanding Afghanistan's frozen overseas assets - mostly held in the US - be returned immediately.

Beijing has been taking a more proactive approach to Afghanistan since the withdrawal of American troops in August, demanding that Washington does not abandon its responsibilities to the country.

It has also provided economic support and winter supplies but has not yet recognised the Taliban government.

The meeting was held as China is facing mounting pressure from the United States and Europe to put pressure on Russia to stop the invasion of Ukraine.

Over the past weeks, China has stepped up engagement with developing nations, saying they do not wish to be forced to pick sides and warning that sanctions on Russia will hurt other countries.

In the meeting with Qureshi, Wang said small and medium-sized countries in the region should not become the "tools and victims" of great power games.

Wang Dehua, a regional affairs specialist at the Shanghai Municipal Centre for International Studies, said the Afghanistan meetings showed China is trying to play a greater role in regional affairs.

"The parallel meeting among special envoys for Afghanistan from China, Russia and the US this week, which was not announced by Beijing, was of special significance because China was trying to provide a platform where American and Russian officials can talk directly about Ukraine. It should be seen as part of China's contributions to the easing of tensions in Ukraine," he said.

Zhu Yongbiao, director of the Centre for Afghanistan Studies at Lanzhou University, said the US was trying to "isolate" the Taliban, adding: "China does not approve of this practice. It believes that the result of this may make the Taliban more extreme".

Additional reporting by Shi Jiangtao and Laura Zhou

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.