By Mirwais Harooni
KABUL (Reuters) - China urged its neighbor Afghanistan on Saturday to embrace an inclusive political solution to its long-running conflict during a rare visit by a top Chinese official, who said the very security of his own country's western regions depended on peace.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi was due to meet President Hamid Karzai during his visit, which coincides with preparations by U.S. and allied troops to draw down their forces after more than 12 years of fighting Taliban extremists.
China, which shares a short border with Afghanistan in the country's mountainous northeastern corridor, has become increasingly concerned about security in its western region of Xinjiang, where it says Muslim extremists receive help from militants in neighboring countries.
"The peace and stability of this country has an impact on the security of western China, and more importantly, it affects the tranquility and development of the entire region," Wang told a news conference alongside his Afghan counterpart, Zarar Ahmad Osmani.
"We hope to see a broad-based and inclusive political reconciliation in Afghanistan as soon as possible, and China will play a constructive role to facilitate that...A divided country will have no future."
Wang last visited Kabul in early 2002 when he was vice foreign minister and reopened China's embassy after the fall of the Islamist Taliban government.
His visit coincides with a time of transition for Afghanistan, ahead of both the year-end deadline for the pull-out of foreign troops and an April presidential election.
Eleven candidates, representing different ethnic, tribal and religious groups, are competing to replace Karzai, who has served two terms as Afghanistan's elected president. All pledge to end decades of civil war and insurgent conflict.
China has been stepping up its engagement with other regional players in recent months in Afghanistan, Beijing-based diplomats say, mainly out of concern that the NATO-led force's pullout may spawn instability that could spill into Xinjiang.
"They're taking a lot of initiative," said a Beijing-based diplomat who follows China's relations with Afghanistan, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They're worried about what will happen in Xinjiang."
Plans by the United States and its allies to keep a small force in Afghanistan to bolster Afghan forces against the Taliban have run up against Karzai's refusal to sign an accord authorizing the post-2014 foreign troop presence.
The Taliban and its Pakistan-based leadership show no signs of renouncing their guerrilla campaign to regain control of Afghanistan. Karzai's government has had little success pursuing peace talks with the Taliban to produce a political solution.
Chinese President Xi Jinping met Karzai on the sidelines of this month's Sochi Winter Olympics, where Xi pledged help for reconstruction and urged Kabul to create a "safe environment for bilateral cooperation," according to Chinese state media.
Xi said China wanted greater cooperation to fight extremism, saying that "the fate of Afghanistan will be more closely linked with that of the region after 2014".
Xinjiang, with its large Muslim minority, has risen up China's domestic security agenda since a vehicle ploughed into tourists on Beijing's Tiananmen Square last October, killing three people in the car and two bystanders. Authorities blamed the incident on extremists from the province.
More than 100 people, including several policemen, have been killed in violence in Xinjiang since last April, according to state media reports. But foreign experts have doubted the extent of assistance from overseas militants to extremists in Xinjiang, as alleged by Beijing.
Wang's visit may also underscore Afghanistan's economic potential, despite the insecurity that has deterred foreign investment. China is keen to invest in Afghan resource deposits worth as much as $1 trillion, based on U.S. Pentagon estimates.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Adam Jourdan in Shanghai; Writing by Missy Ryan; Editing by Ron Popeski)