ISLAMABAD -- As the U.S. and Afghanistan's Taliban militants head toward a long-awaited peace deal, China and its Belt and Road Initiative are looming larger over the Central Asian country's future.
The U.S. and the Taliban "seem to be close to an agreement which, for the first time, could bring a cease-fire after 18 years," said a Western diplomat in Islamabad who spoke to the Nikkei Asian Review on condition of anonymity. But even before the peace talks picked up this year, China had been hosting Taliban representatives in Beijing since 2017, according to two senior Pakistani government officials who also did not wish to be identified.
"For China, the big interest in Afghanistan is getting a foothold" to be a part of the nation's "future economic prospects," one official said.
Afghanistan boasts mineral resources including lapis lazuli -- the coveted blue stone thought to have been used in a powdered form by some of the most famous European painters. Other deposits include gold, copper and chromite, which are still untapped due to recurring conflicts beginning with the 1979 invasion by the former Soviet Union.
U.S. President Donald Trump's move toward withdrawing troops from Afghanistan would end one of America's most expensive and longest wars. For the president, a successful drawdown would help his campaign for reelection next year, analysts said. The White House's effort to pull out comes after the Taliban fanned out across the country and captured more than half of its territory.
China, meanwhile, is playing the long game.
"China is taking a longer-term view of Afghanistan, which is based on its economic interests as the U.S. plans to step back," said Qazi Humayun, a former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan and commentator on defense and regional security. He told Nikkei that a peace settlement will also allow China to expand its economic ties with the landlocked former Soviet republics of Central Asia using new routes via Afghanistan -- bolstering the Belt and Road.
Separately, retired Brigadier Farooq Hameed Khan, a Pakistani commentator on foreign policy, added that China's plans will likely include building a new network of highways to link Central Asia with the China Pakistan Economic Corridor via Afghanistan. "As China looks to the future, connectivity from Central Asia to CPEC will be an important priority," Khan told Nikkei. Furthermore, he added, contacts between China and the Taliban will lay the groundwork for closer security cooperation.
"China has had concerns in the past over Uighur separatists from its own Muslim Xinjiang region reaching out to Islamic groups in Afghanistan for support," he said. "As Beijing is now in regular contact with the Taliban, I am certain there must have been an understanding that the Taliban will not host Uighur separatists in the future."
At the same time, however, there is no guarantee peace will hold.
While many Afghan officials are optimistic, Western diplomats warn that a U.S.-Taliban pact would be only a first step toward restoring calm. "The Americans have been demanding consistently that there can be no lasting peace unless the Taliban also strike peace agreements with other key players, notably the government of President Ashraf Ghani," said a second Western diplomat who spoke to Nikkei on condition of anonymity.
Ghani, who previously served the World Bank in Washington, became Afghanistan's president in 2014 with U.S. backing. Owing to his reputation as a Westernized individual, the Taliban have been doubly suspicious of him, said a Pakistani government official well-versed in Afghan affairs.
"The biggest danger is that the Taliban agreement with the U.S. may reduce the fighting in Afghanistan for the time being," he said. "Afghanistan has been at war for 40 years. They [Afghans] now have to settle down peacefully. The problem is that most Afghans consider war as the only way to settle a score."