ISLAMABAD -- China will host two days of peace talks starting on Monday between rival Afghanistan factions in a move viewed as a bold attempt to replace the U.S. as the prime arbiter of the country's future.
The talks between representatives of Taliban militants and a number of Afghan political factions in Beijing come as the U.S. has yet to resume peace talks with the Taliban, which were unexpectedly halted in September.
The talks were canceled by U.S. President Donald Trump shortly before a key visit to the U.S. by senior Taliban representatives following a Taliban attacks in the Afghan capital of Kabul that killed a dozen people, including an American soldier.
Separately, officials in neighboring Pakistan -- who closely track developments in Afghanistan -- and Western officials -- have said that Beijing wants to enlist Kabul in Chinese President's Xi Jinping's signature Belt and Road Initiative once fighting has died down.
Specifically, this could involve connecting different regions of the war-ravaged country to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, the Pakistan leg of Belt and Road, via a communications network. This would help China expand its economic interests to the energy-rich former Soviet republics of Central Asia.
The CPEC wants to construct communication links beside energy projects that would link China's western Xinjiang region with a Chinese-funded port at Gwadar in southern Pakistan.
"China's interests include linking up to Central Asia in a way that China would gain economically," said retired Major General Mahmud Durrani, a former Pakistani national security adviser to the prime minister, in an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review.
Unlike the U.S., which has yet to conclude a peace agreement with Afghanistan's Taliban to pave the way for a broader peace settlement, China has been "consistently talking to the Taliban to bring them on board," said Durrani.
Nikkei has been told by senior Pakistani officials that China has hosted visits by Taliban representatives for at least two years.
During this time, the Taliban have gained control over vast swathes of Afghanistan where the U.S. has reduced troops over the past five years. The group has also pulled off a string of military victories due to the failure of the U.S.-backed government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to consolidate control across the country. By some accounts, up to 70% of the country is under Taliban control.
Analysts have noted that Beijing's push for peace is also driven by its desire to prevent Afghanistan from hosting militant separatists from China's predominantly Muslim Xinjiang region. During Taliban rule in Afghanistan in the 1990s, rumors surfaced that the country had become a magnet for Chinese Muslims seeking arms and training.
"For the Chinese, Xinjiang is a big consideration. They want to have a role in Afghanistan partly to block the flow of people from Xinjiang," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani commentator on defense and security affairs, in an interview with Nikkei.
According to Rizvi, China's interest in consolidating control over Xinjiang is part of a plan to cement economic ties through Afghanistan to Central Asia.
Still, Durrani cautioned that Beijing's peace drive is not guaranteed to succeed in a country that has been largely at war since being invaded in 1979 by the former Soviet Union. The current phase of conflict dates back to 2001, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America prompted a U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
Trump has vowed to withdraw most -- if not all -- of the roughly 14,000 American troops stationed in the country. But analysts have warned that an abrupt withdrawal may lead to a new and more intense round of fighting between rival factions. "China is trying to bring peace to Afghanistan, which is a good thing. But Afghanistan's history is such that it is hard to be optimistic," said Durrani, adding that "Afghan rivals can keep on fighting in the future."
Pakistani officials and observers say that, despite China's latest attempt to broker a peace agreement in Afghanistan, the U.S. remains the most important foreign power in the country. For Trump, taking credit for a successful peace deal that leads to at least a partial withdrawal of American troops could prove valuable when he runs for re-election in 2020, according to Pakistani officials who spoke with Nikkei in the past.
Rizvi said that, notwithstanding last month's cancellation of U. S-Taliban peace talks, Washington can still resume negotiations. "[The U.S. and Taliban] can return to negotiate again. Nothing stops them from talking to each other," he concluded.