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China defends Islamabad`s key role in Afghanistan

BEIJING: China`s top diplomat has defended Pakistan`s `important role` in Afghanistan in a phone call with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, after President Trump accused Islamabad of harbouring militants.

Mr Trump, while unveiling his Afghanistan strategy earlier this week, alleged that Pakistan was playing a double game by accepting American aid while giving safe havens to insurgents who killAfghan and Nato troops.

Islamabad denies harbouring militants.

China State Councillor Yang Jiechi told Mr Tillerson on Wednesday that `we should attach importance to the important role that Pakistan plays in theAfghanistan issue, [and] respect (Pakistan`s) sovereignty and legitimate security concerns,` according to a foreign ministry statement.

It is the second time Beijing has defended its neighbour this week,with foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying praising Pakistan on Tuesday for making `great sacrifices and contributions to fighting terrorism`.

Beijing is investing around $50 billioninPakistan as part ofa plan unveiled in 2015 to link its farwestern Xinjiang region to the Gwadar port.

Mr Yang, who outranl(s China`s foreign minister, said Beijing was committed to `advancing the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan` and that political dialogue was `the only way to solve the Afghanistan problem`. He added that `China would like to continue to maintain communication and coordination on the Afghanistan problem with the US side`.

The call between the US and Chinese diplomats came af ter new tensions arose between the two powers on Wednesday as Washington slapped sanctions on Chinese companies accused of links with North Korea, angering Beijing.

China has warned Washington against triggering any `trade war` after Mr Trump ordered an investigation into Beijing`s intellectual property practices.

China`s security concerns Beijing has its own security concerns in the South Asian region, in particular any links between militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan and Islamist groups China blames for violence in its region of Xinjiang.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi met Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua in Beijing on Tuesday, according to a statement on Thursday. He praised Pakistan`s efforts to combat extremism and to secure the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the development initiative central to President Xi Jinping`s global Belt and Road development plan.

`Given the current complicated and changing internationaland regionalsituation, the strategicsignincance of China-Pakistan relations is even more prominent,` Mr Wang said.-Agencies Anwar Iqbal adds from Washington: At a Wednesday news briefing, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said that Secretary Tillerson provided an overview of President Trump`s South Asia policy to Mr Yang.

`They focused specifically on the Afghanistan and Pakistan policy elements of that [policy]. The two sides also discussed global, regional and bilateral issues of mutual concern.

As a State Councillor for Foreign Affairs, Mr Yang is the leading architect of China`s foreign policy. Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif is likely to meet Mr Yang when he visits Beijing later this week for consultations on the new US strategy.

After a high-level meeting in Islamabad on Thursday, Pakistan decided to send its foreign minister to `all friendly states` to seek `reassurances of their support` said a statement issued after the talks.

Mr Asif will also visit Washington for talks on the new US policy.

According to media reports earlier this week, Secretary Tillerson had invited Mr Asif to visit Washington to discuss Pakistan`s response to the US strategy and he was scheduled to leave for the US capital on Thursday but the visit was rescheduled. He would now visit Washington after consulting Chinese officials in Beijing.

The US media reported on Thursday that the Chinese support to Pakistan had reduced Washington`s influence in Islamabad and it could no longer force Pakistan into doing what it wanted.

At the State Department, Spokesperson Nauert noted that the Yang-Tillerson conversation was a continuation of US-China strategic bilateral dialogue.

At the same briefing, she also explained Mr Tillerson`s earlier suggestion to New Delhi to seek rapprochement with Islamabad. She said the secretary made the suggestion because Washington wants the two South Asian neighbours to resume their dialogue.

`One of the things that we would do is ask or encourage India and Pakistan to sit down together and engage in direct dialogue that is aimed at reducing tensions between both of those countries,` Ms Nauert said.

Asked if the US was now linking a solution to the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan-Afghanistan issues, Ms Nauert said: `I think, going up to 30,000 feet, we view the whole strategy and handling Afghanistan as being a regional strategy, and that, of course, incorporates India as well as Pakistan.

Asked again if the US saw pushing for a solution on Kashmir as part of its regional strategy for Afghanistan, Ms Nauert said: `In terms of Kashmir, our policy on that has not changed. We continue to encourage the sides to sit down and talk together about that.