BEIJING - China on Friday hailed an international conference on Afghanistan that it said agreed to launch dozens of programmes to boost development and help the country maintain peace as foreign forces draw down.

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said that under a “Beijing Declaration” the meeting agreed to start 64 programmes covering issues such as trade, investment, infrastructure, disaster management and education.

The projects would help Afghanistan to develop and keep the peace without outside assistance, he added.

“The ministerial conference was a success,” Wang told reporters at the end of the Fourth Ministerial Conference of the Istanbul Process on Afghanistan.

The Istanbul Process - a key annual meeting on Afghanistan by high-level representatives from more than three-dozen countries and organisations - coincides with the end of new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s four-day visit to Beijing.

Addressing the conference, President Ghani reiterated his call for the Taliban to join a national peace dialogue and urged his country’s international partners to support what he said is an Afghan-led and Afghan owned process.

“Peace is our highest priority. We invite the political opposition, particularly the Taliban, to join an inter-Afghan dialogue and ask all our international partners to support an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process,” said Ghani.

Ghani vowed his country will not permit anyone to use Afghan territory against another state. “We must not, and will not permit groups pursuing grand illusions to use our country as the battle ground or launching pad against the international system,” he stated.

“We are determined to lead and own the peace process through an inter-Afghan dialogue. We ask our neighbours and partners to assist us in this critical process by honestly and clearly communicating whether they have the capacity and the will to be of assistance,” he said.

The new Afghan leader has acted on several key campaign promises since taking office late last month, but promoting political reconciliation with the Taliban appears to be the most formidable challenge facing Ghani. He has yet to assemble his national unity government in which he will have to share power with the new chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, the runner-up in the presidential election.  

Both leaders have divergent views on how to deal with the Taliban and there are fears internal political rifts in the unity government may embolden the Taliban to intensify their violent campaign to try to seize power.

Addressing Friday’s gathering in Beijing, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang reaffirmed China has faith in Kabul’s ability to solve its own problems and urged support for Afghanistan’s efforts to realise security and stability. He said the international community should respect the country’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. According to BBC, Chinese prime minister asked Afghanistan’s neighbours not to interfere in that country.

A US State Department official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity on the eve of the regional conference, welcomed China’s increased involvement in Afghanistan. As he put it, the US now regards China as a “critical player” in the region, and sees Afghanistan as an area of real cooperation with China and not one of competition, reported Voice of America (VOA).

American and Afghan officials also hope that Beijing will use its historically close strategic ties with Pakistan to convince it to crack down on extremists accused of fuelling the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is at a turning point as all NATO combat troops will depart the country by December, leaving Afghan troops and police to battle Taliban insurgents on their own. A residual force of around 12,000 soldiers will remain, focusing on counter-terrorism and training local forces. Afghan Foreign Minister Zarar Ahmad Osmani said that his country’s 350,000-member army was poised to take control of the entire country.

“Now 90 percent of Afghan territory is under the protection of the army,” he told reporters. “Next, it will take control of 100 percent of all regions.”

China earlier this week pledged 1.5 billion yuan ($245 million) in aid to Afghanistan over the next three years, as well as greater support for Kabul in the struggle against “terrorist forces”.

Symbolising China’s importance, Ghani chose as his first destination for a state visit the resource-hungry economic giant that is seeking greater investment opportunities in Afghanistan.

“We look at China as a strategic partner, in the short term, medium term, long term and very long term,” Ghani told President Xi Jinping at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on Tuesday.

China shares a narrow 76-kilometre border with Afghanistan’s remote far northeast, but has a keen interest in its neighbour’s mineral resources.

It has already secured major oil and copper-mining concessions in the country, which is believed to have more than $1 trillion worth of mineral resources, according to studies by the US Geological Survey.

China’s state-run media have highlighted both Beijing’s stepped-up involvement and the pitfalls that come with it.

“A comprehensive involvement in Afghan affairs by China will bring huge risks,” the Global Times newspaper warned in an editorial Thursday.

“It will have to confront the mess that the US experienced, the different views of Afghan sects in addition to the remaining US influence, making it a nearly impossible idea,” it wrote.

The paper concluded, however, that involvement in such international dilemmas is “the cost of being a major power and we need to get used to it”.