BEIJING (Reuters) - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will travel to China this month, China’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday, marking what will be the leader’s first foreign trip since being sworn in September after a protracted election stalemate.
China had hoped to host an international conference on Afghan’s stability last summer, but was forced to shelve the idea as the Afghan election standoff between Ghani and now chief executive Abdullah Abdullah delayed the inauguration of a new president.
China, which is connected to Afghanistan by a narrow, almost impassable mountain corridor, has been quietly preparing for more responsibility in Afghanistan after the bulk of U.S.-led troops pull out.
China says it does not seek to fill a void left by the withdrawal of Western troops but has promised to play a “huge” commercial role in helping rebuild the country.
A major worry for leaders in Beijing is that ethnic Uighur separatist militants from China’s western Xinjiang region will take advantage if Afghanistan again descends into chaos.
Chinese authorities say Uighur fighters are based in militant strongholds in ungoverned stretches of the Afghan-Pakistani border.
They say Islamist militants, some who have received support from beyond China’s borders, were behind a spate of attacks in Xinjiang and across China, which have left hundreds dead over the past two years.
However, experts dispute the influence of foreign militant groups within China, and argue that economic marginalisation of Muslim Uighurs, who call Xinjiang home, is one of the main causes of ethnic violence there.
Ghani will travel to China from Oct. 28–31, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said during a regular press briefing.
“This visit is President Ghani’s first foreign trip since taking office, and is the first high-level visit between China and Afghanistan since the formation of the new government. China attaches great importance to this,” Hua said.
“China will, as in the past, provide all assistance within its power to aid Afghanistan’s peaceful rebuilding,” Hua said.
The Taliban and their militant allies have stepped up attacks ahead of the withdrawal of most foreign troops from Afghanistan at the end of the year, seeking to weaken the new government that will take over most of the fight.
Reporting by Michael Martina; editing by Nick Macfie