China Expands Security Presence in Central Asia Through Tajikistan Bases

China is growing its security presence in Central Asia through strategic military bases located in Tajikistan, a central Asian republic bordered on the south by Afghanistan, and on the east by China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR.) Recent reports shed new light on a military base populated by Chinese personnel and a separate military base that the Tajik government has allowed the Chinese government to finance. China’s increased security activity is ostensibly a response to the threat of terrorism in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, but others suggest it risks entrenching China in long-term commitments that disrupt regional security dynamics and challenge China’s principle of noninterference. 

Over the past month, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) has reported extensively on a military base near Shaymak, a small village in southwest Tajikistan, where reporters and local villagers have spotted both Chinese and Tajik troops and an increasing number of military drones. In RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, Reid Standish provided details on a proposal by the Tajik government to transfer full ownership of the base to China:

China already operates a military base in Tajikistan in the Murghab region near the Afghan border in a remote stretch close to the Wakhan Corridor. The collection of facilities and outposts is believed to have been in operation for at least five years and was the subject of a recent investigation by RFE/RL that showed Chinese personnel taking on a growing role in the area.

Both the Chinese and Tajik governments have officially denied the base’s existence and few details about its ownership and operation are known. The documents seen by RFE/RL’s Tajik Service say that Chinese personnel are operating at the base in Tajikistan, but that it currently is owned by Dushanbe.

According to the documents, the proposal to transfer ownership of the base to China was presented by Tajik President Emomali Rahmon to Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe when he visited the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, in July.

[…] The documents do not state if Beijing has agreed to the proposal put forward by the Tajik side, but they summarize an offer put forward by Rahmon in which China would provide increased funding to build up Tajik military points along the border with Afghanistan in exchange for Dushanbe transferring full control of the existing facilities to China and not charging any basing fees. [Source]

The Wall Street Journal previously quoted a Tajik official who revealed that, in 2015 or 2016, China signed a secret agreement with Tajik authorities allowing Beijing to refurbish or expand 30-40 military guard posts on the Tajik side of the country’s border with Afghanistan. The official stated that in some areas, Chinese troops had completely taken over border control from the Tajiks and begun patrolling on their own, in Chinese vehicles. A Washington Post investigation into the Shaymak military base revealed that in 2016, German mountaineers were stopped by Chinese paramilitaries with armored vehicles in the Wakhan Corridor near the Tajik border, corroborating accounts of the secret security agreement. 

Recent reports also show that China has agreed to finance the construction of a separate military base in Tajikistan, in a village called Vakhon, on the western edge of the Wakhan Corridor. Catherine Putz from the Diplomat described the agreement regarding this new military base:

On October 13, the Tajik news site Asia-Plus ran a story citing an “exchange of letters” between China and Tajikistan in which the Chinese side agreed to provide 55 million renminbi (around $8.5 million) for the construction of a paramilitary base under the Tajik Ministry of Internal Affairs. The letters had been sent to the Tajik parliament for approval. They reportedly outlined the project, to include 12 buildings. The Chinese side, the report said, would undertake responsibility for the survey and design, providing equipment (including office furniture and computers) and direction to engineering and technical personnel. Asia-Plus did not report on the planned location of the base.

A new report from RFE/RL’s Tajik Service picks up the thread from there. On October 27,  First Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs of Tajikistan Abdurahmon Alamshozoda announced in parliament that the facility would be constructed in Ishkashim district in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province (GBAO), Tajikistan. Tolibkhon Azimzoda, a deputy in the parliament’s lower house, said the base would belong to Tajikistan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and all equipment and machinery imported from China for it would be exempt from customs duties. [Source]

Attacks on Chinese targets in the region have fueled Beijing’s desire for a more extensive Chinese security presence. In 2016, Kyrgyz state security attributed a suicide bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan to a Uyghur militant financed by Al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front. In 2017, the Islamic State, or ISIS, kidnapped and killed two Chinese teachers in Pakistan. The security vacuum left by the U.S. departure from Afghanistan and the potential for the country to become a safe haven for militant groups under the Taliban has heightened the stakes. Just last month, ISIS detonated a suicide bomb at a mosque in northern Afghanistan; it claimed the attack was carried out by a Uyghur militant as retribution for the Taliban’s proclaimed cooperation with Beijing. More attacks are likely as ISIS positions itself as a protector of Uyghurs in the face of the Chinese government’s campaign against Uyghurs in Xinjiang and around the world.

Tajikistan plays an important role in China’s counterterrorism strategy. In numerous speeches regarding Xinjiang, President Xi Jinping has expressed concern that Uyghur militants could pass through Tajikistan to attack China, a scenario that has spurred the two countries to coordinate their security efforts more closely. Their first joint counterterrorism exercise took place in 2006; since then, China has held many other exercises with Tajikistan, either bilaterally or through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Most recently, in August, the two nations held a “Counterterrorism Cooperation 2021” joint exercise. 

Tajik police have also actively cooperated with Chinese public security to deport nearly 3,000 Uyghurs—85-90 percent of Tajikistan’s Uyghur population—to China. Using reports of deportations dating back to 2016 as evidence, lawyers filed a case with the International Criminal Court to shed light on the human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tajikistan’s complicity in them. 

Several factors may explain why Tajik President Emomali Rahmon appears content to support China’s security initiatives. Tajikistan’s public debt is equivalent to 45 percent of its GDP; 80 percent of this debt is external, and much of it is owed to China. The Tajik government owes the Export-Import Bank of China, its largest creditor, more than twice as much as it does its second-largest creditor. Tajikistan’s economy is completely dependent on foreign investment, which it has welcomed from China through the Belt and Road Initiative. The Chinese government has also given Tajikistan over 300 million U.S. dollars to build its parliament and government complex. Moreover, Rahmon is concerned about the Tajik Taliban, Tajik militants in Afghanistan who over the past decade have attempted to overthrow the Tajik government in Dushanbe. Beijing’s shared concern about cross-border terrorism and its superior military resources makes China a valuable partner for Rahmon.

However, China’s military involvement in Tajikistan might prove disruptive in the long term. Military affairs in Central Asia have traditionally fallen within Russia’s sphere of influence, and while Moscow seems to have tacitly accepted Beijing’s involvement in Tajikistan, it also seeks to limit Chinese military expansion. In an article for War on the Rocks, Bradley Jardine and Edward Lemon explained the changing security dynamics between China and Russia in Central Asia

At present, Russia and China do not appear to be competing in Central Asia. But this will be tested as China’s rise in the region continues during the early post-American era. China may not be eating into Russia’s share of the arms market at present, but it may start to do so as China’s domestic arms industry develops and continues to seek export markets. 

Although China has largely been deferential to Russia and is likely to remain so in the near term, there are signs that it is considering its own approach to this strategic part of the world. Increasingly, China has developed its own initiatives without Russia. It organized its first exercise outside of the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2014, and established its own multilateral mechanisms such as the China+Central Asia meeting of foreign ministers, launched in 2020, and the counter-terrorism  with Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, established in 2016.

As China’s economic and security interests continue to grow in the region, the current Sino-Russian framework of cooperation may be folded within a broader Pax Sinica in which Beijing increasingly calls the shots. [Source]

Another major issue is the permanency of Chinese military presence. The more active China becomes in the region, the more difficult it will be to maintain a coherent principle of nonintervention and noninterference in other countries’ domestic affairs. Thus far, the type of Chinese personnel based in Tajikistan hint at less expansionist goals: personnel reportedly seen at the Shaymak base are part of the People’s Armed Police, and the agency tasked with building the new Vakhon base is under the Ministry of Public Security; both are domestic security forces separate from the People’s Liberation Army. A Tajik parliamentary spokesperson also claimed that no Chinese troops would be stationed at the Vakhon base after its construction, and Chinese officials have so far denied the existence of both bases.

On the other hand, critics have not easily forgotten the historical precedents of China’s perceived military overreach in economically fragile countries. While accusations of “debt-trap diplomacy” have been dismissed by some experts, China’s economic engagements in the ports of Djibouti and Sri Lanka nonetheless led to asset acquisitions that serve Beijing’s strategic military interests. Tajikistan follows a similar storyline: in 2011, it ceded 1,158 square kilometers of land to China in exchange for China agreeing to write off the country’s debt. Bob Rehorst and Wouter Kuijl described in The Diplomat how Tajikistan’s endemic corruption and reliance on foreign investment make it vulnerable to greater Chinese “capture”:

In order to overcome damages and stimulate development, foreign direct investments (FDI) appears to be the only viable solution. However, any FDI made in Tajikistan will almost inevitably end up in the pockets of Rahmon and his inner circle. As such, the economic outlook of the nation is bleak at best, while its debts to China continue to rise.

When we understand the gloom surrounding these developments, the Tajik position resembles a catch-22: FDI is both a lifeline and a threat to Tajikistan’s sovereignty and its stability. Governments such as Rahmon’s may try for the easy way out and continue to request unpayable loans from China’s policy banks and state-owned enterprises. While it is assumed that the Chinese military base in Badakhshan is already part of some deal struck between Dushanbe and Beijing, it is not entirely unthinkable that the pattern of handing over territorial integrity to Chinese interests may continue to threaten Tajik sovereignty. If weak national sovereignty is followed by internal instability, one might only guess at China’s next move. [Source]

 

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