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Karzai to seek Chinese assistance on economy, insurgency

Afghan President Hamid Karzai will ask China to use its diplomatic clout to help rein in a growing insurgency when he arrives for a state visit on Tuesday, putting security concerns ahead of his economic wishlist.

Aid, trade and drug trafficking will also be on the agenda for Karzai's fourth visit to Beijing since taking the reins of power more than eight years ago. But with violence at its highest level since the U.S.-backed ouster of the Taliban in 2001, his main focus is on a new diplomatic push to end the fighting.

Mr. Karzai, who will meet Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao, is trying to muster international support for peace talks with the Taliban and other insurgents. He wants China to weigh in with its ally, Pakistan, a vital regional player.

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"The main goal is to ask China, as a close friend to Pakistan, to take part in a solution to the problems in Afghanistan," said a source with knowledge of Mr. Karzai's agenda.

Mr. Karzai has launched a high-profile effort this year to reach out to insurgents for talks, which took a step forward with the announcement on Monday that he had met a delegation from Hezb-i-Islami, one of the main insurgent factions.

Some Afghan and international diplomats fear Pakistan is interfering in efforts to start peace talks with the Taliban because it wants a bigger role in negotiations. Islamabad also worries Karzai is too close to rival India.

"That is one of the primary things he is doing in Beijing, insofar as it is possible. He is trying to shore up his relationship with Pakistan, and China's help is useful," said Andrew Small, a China and South Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States think-tank.

China could benefit from a more peaceful Afghanistan as its firms would find it easier to complete multi-billion dollar resource deals they have secured or are eyeing. It would cut the threat of violence in its largely Muslim northwest Xinjiang region, and possibly curb a flow of heroin into the country.

But Chinese experts say Beijing is reluctant to get any more involved in a country that has proven a quagmire for outsiders for centuries, and is now bogging down U.S. and NATO troops.

It is even less keen to meddle via Pakistan, a staunch ally which it has long supplied with finance and arms.

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"China is not going to put any pressure on Pakistan; problems between (Kabul and Islamabad) are for them to sort out. Pakistan is not a province of China," said Zhao Gancheng, director for South Asia at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.

"This affects Pakistan's own fundamental interests so no country can affect it ... The U.S. is constantly trying to put more pressure on them to tackle this issue and it has no effect."

Afghanistan is heavily dependent on international aid, but its government hopes the vast reserves of minerals will provide the key to eventual financial independence.

Its copper and iron are attractive to resource-hungry China, and two Chinese firms have committed to a $4 billion investment in the vast Aynak copper mine, south of Kabul, with production slated to start in 3 or 4 years.

Yet work on the project is progressing slower than expected.

Challenging conditions may have slowed the project but China is also happy to await the result of a surge in U.S. troops and other new policies aimed at curbing the insurgency.

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"If things get better, China will step up investment, but if things don't, they will have to start withdrawing because without security, what kind of investment can you have?" said Zhao.

"I can only say that we must have a 'wait and see' attitude."

One issue that is a more urgent concern for Beijing is the flow of Afghan heroin into the country, even if little comes directly across the short and high-altitude border the two share.

Two Afghans were recently executed for bringing heroin into China, an Afghan source with knowledge of the case said. Their unreported deaths came days after a Briton, Akmal Shaikh, was put to death for the same crime, drawing a blaze of publicity because the UK government had called for clemency.

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