US issues rare praise for China over its growing role in ensuring Afghanistan's stability

China's Premier Li Keqiang shakes hands with Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani (left) during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct 29, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
China's Premier Li Keqiang shakes hands with Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani (left) during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct 29, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (Reuters) - The United States welcomed China's growing role in trying to ensure Afghanistan's stability on Thursday, saying a Beijing conference of foreign ministers on Afghan reconstruction this week shows its commitment to the region as Western troops pull out.

The comments, made by a senior State Department official, are rare US praise for Beijing, which this week hosts Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on his first visit abroad since he assumed office in September.

Washington and Beijing, which have typically contentious relations on geopolitical issues from Iran to the South China Sea, have both said they see Afghanistan as a point where their security interests converge.

On Tuesday, China pledged to give Afghanistan US$327 million (S$415.6 million) in aid through 2017, more than the US$250 million contribution it has so far offered since the fall of the hardline Islamist Taleban regime in 2001. "China's view of engaging in Afghanistan over the course of these past few years has really changed significantly, and in our view, in a very positive direction," the official told reporters during a telephone briefing.

On Friday, foreign ministers from Asian and Central Asian countries will gather in Beijing for a fourth round "Istanbul Process" conference on Afghanistan, which China hopes will help boost development and security there.

White House counsellor John Podesta will attend the meeting. "It's a real demonstration of China's commitment to Afghanistan, to its role in the region and one that we greatly welcome," the official said.

Additional support on counter-terrorism "would be very valuable", the official said, noting that improving coordination on "terror-finance" issues at the United Nations would be an area of US-China discussion in the future.

China, connected to Afghanistan by a narrow, almost impassable mountain corridor, has been preparing for more responsibility in Afghanistan after the bulk of US-led troops pull out this year.

It says it does not seek to fill a void left by the US withdrawal but has promised to play a big commercial role in reconstruction.

Chinese officials are concerned that instability in Afghanistan could lead to more unrest in China's western Xinjiang region, where the government says militant separatists influenced by extremists along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border have carried out violent attacks.

Experts, however, dispute the influence of foreign militant groups in China, and argue that economic marginalisation of Muslim Uighurs, who call Xinjiang home, is one of the main causes of violence there.