BEIJING (AP) -- Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Thursday issued strong backing for Afghanistan at a regional conference, while making no mention of human rights abuses by the country's Taliban leaders. China's foreign minister, meanwhile, led calls for the U.S. to unfreeze Afghan assets held abroad and end sanctions on the government.
Xi pledged China's support in a message to a gathering of representatives from Afghanistan, China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in a central Chinese city that spotlights Beijing's aspirations to play a leading role in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of U.S. forces last August.
A "peaceful, stable, developed and prosperous Afghanistan" is what Afghans aspire to, which "serves the common interests of regional countries and the international community," Xi said.
"China has all along respected Afghanistan's sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, and is committed to supporting Afghanistan's peaceful and stable development," Xi said in his message to the gathering in Tunxi, a center of the tourism industry in Anhui province.
China's Foreign Ministry said meeting participants issued a joint statement following talks, the text of which was not immediately available.
However, the ministry said the sides agreed that the U.S. and NATO should "earnestly assume the primary responsibility for the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan, and return the property of the Afghan people as soon as possible," in a reference to the $7 billion in frozen Afghan assets held by the U.S.
President Joe Biden has said his administration will unfreeze $3.5 billion of those funds for families of 9/11 victims against the strenuous protests of the Taliban and others.
Afghanistan's economy is teetering on the brink of collapse after international money stopped coming into the country with the Taliban's arrival. The United Nations warns that 1 million children are in danger of starving and 90% of Afghans live below the poverty level of just $1.90 a day.
In his comments, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi continued Beijing's attacks on the U.S. over its handling of Afghanistan, saying that as the "initiator of Afghanistan's predicament," Washington should "take the major responsibility," end its unilateral sanctions on the country and unconditionally return Afghanistan's state assets.
Afghanistan has achieved "certain partial results" in boosting stability, improving livelihoods, and protecting human rights, Wang said, despite widespread reports of abuses and incompetent governance under the Taliban.
However, Afghanistan "has a long way to go to achieve lasting peace, sustainable development and to advance its foreign relations," he said.
Neither Xi or Wang gave specifics on future Chinese assistance, although China has already shipped emergency aid to Afghanistan and is seeking to develop copper mining there.
China follows what it calls a strict policy of "non-intervention" in other countries' internal affairs, including opposing those staged for humanitarian purposes unless sanctioned by the United Nations. Despite that, Beijing is frequently accused of meddling to further its own domestic and international interests.
Separately, Wang also attended a meeting of special envoys for Afghanistan from China, the United States and Russia, a group known as the " Extended Troika." At that forum, Wang again called for an end to "unreasonable" sanctions and the unfreezing of Afghan assets, saying the U.S. should take "practical steps" on those matters.
Although it has yet to recognize the Taliban government, China has moved quickly to shore up its ties with the radical Islamic group.
A month before the Taliban took power, Wang hosted a high-powered delegation from the group for a July 28, 2021, meeting in the Chinese port city of Tianjin. He referred to the group as "pivotal" force important to peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan.
On that and other occasions, Chinese have pushed the Taliban for assurances they will not permit operations within Afghanistan's borders by members of China's Turkic Muslim Uyghur minority intent on overthrowing Chinese rule in their native region of Xinjiang.
Wang also made a surprise stop in Kabul last week to meet Taliban leaders, even as the international community fumed over the hard-line movement's broken promise a day earlier to open schools to girls beyond the sixth grade.
China has studiously avoided mentioning the limits on girls' education and other human rights abuses, particularly those targeting women, while keeping its Kabul embassy open.
The foreign ministers of Qatar and Indonesia have been invited to the meeting of neighboring states as guests. Taliban-appointed foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, is representing Afghanistan at the meeting.
Participants agreed to a mechanism for regular meetings of their special envoys for Afghanistan and three working groups to coordinate on political and diplomatic affairs, economics and humanitarianism, and security and stability.
Uzbekistan will host the fourth foreign ministers' meeting.