ISTANBUL (Reuters) - China called on Wednesday for an independent and stable Afghanistan free from outside interference, in what diplomats interpreted as a new, higher-profile effort by Asia's largest economy to take a more active role in its neighbour's future.
Speaking at a conference on Afghanistan in Istanbul, Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin urged the international community to respect Afghanistan's sovereignty and said Afghans must rally behind a national reconciliation.
"The international community must support an Afghanistan run by the Afghans," Liu said.
"We must pledge to respect Afghanistan's independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, to respect the dignity and rights of its government and people to be masters of their own country."
China has previously steered well clear of any serious political engagement in Afghanistan, focusing instead on investing billions of dollars in the Central Asian country as it hunts precious resources and profit.
But senior Western diplomats said China's position in Istanbul reflected a positive move away from Beijing's wait-and-see stance when it came to Afghanistan's politics and security.
"They realise that a policy of further being on the wings, watching what goes on and ready to pick up things, isn't good enough," said one senior diplomat.
For the first time, diplomats said, the Chinese had taken an active role in the drafting of the conference communique mapping out regional cooperation on Afghanistan's security.
"They were very vocal and raised several issues during the drafting. We weren't even allowed to begin the final version until the Chinese delegation had arrived," another Western diplomat said, adding that the final version was not finished until early on Wednesday.
"Before, you would attend meetings on Afghanistan and the neighbours would be silent, and here you have them taking a lead and that's what it is all about," said another diplomat.
"The Chinese for the first time were very comprehensive and constructive, you could really see an elevated role of China in the region and more outspoken than ever before," he said.
All the diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity so they could speak freely on the subject.
A senior member of China's delegation in Istanbul, who also wanted to remain anonymous, said: "The communique reflects the consensus of the regional countries".
FOREIGN TROOPS LEAVING
China has watched the Soviet Union and the United States struggle in Afghanistan, which has largely shaped Beijing's more reticent approach -- investing billions of dollars in the country but shying away from political or military influence.
But China also fears the spread of Islamic militancy from Afghanistan into its restive Western Xinjiang region, home to millions of Uighur Muslims, and a new stance by Beijing may signal a fear of what will happen after 2014 when most Western forces will have left Afghanistan.
"They understand the footprint of the international community, especially of international forces, will be reduced, if not all, to a very minimum," said one diplomat.
"Attention is moving elsewhere and there is also increasing recognition that what this country (Afghanistan) needs is a serious security dialogue among the countries involved."
China's ties with Afghanistan have long been strongly influenced by the powerful bonds that tie Beijing and Islamabad. China supplies finance and weapons to Pakistan and the two are also bound by mistrust of neighbouring India.
"The West will also need to engage China to talk about the region and Afghanistan, especially bearing in mind China's close relations with Pakistan, and I don't think we have done that," said the same diplomat.
"It's just a gentle reminder by China that the West has to talk to China and not only to India or Pakistan when it comes to Afghanistan and the region."
Expectations were low before the Istanbul conference, with violence in Afghanistan at its worst levels after more than 10 years of war and with Afghan-Pakistani ties at a new low since the murder of the chief Afghan peace envoy in September.
But delegates were upbeat at the end of Wednesday's talks, agreeing to a series of wide-ranging commitments in the 12-page communique. Among those were "resolutely combating and eliminating terrorism", preventing safe havens for terrorists and terrorism in the region", and "dismantling terrorist sanctuaries".
"It's a very complex gathering of countries with very different, sometimes conflicting national agendas but if we can move forward in facilitating the birth of regional dialogue on security matters, that's what I think Istanbul is all about," said a Western diplomat after the conference.
"But what is going to be most important is what will be the follow-up. Will they retain the momentum? Will they deliver with deeds and not only words?"
(Editing by Tim Pearce)
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