The American Institute of Central Asia and the Caucasus (The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center), within the framework of the Silk Road Studies Program, published an analytical review on China and its policy in Central Asia. In this publication, the researcher focused his attention on the military direction of cooperation between the PRC and Tajikistan.

As the author writes in The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, the gradually increasing economic role of China in Central Asia since the early 2000s is not surprising, given the geographical proximity of the region to the dynamic economy of China. In this context, Beijing has carefully formed a military strategy in the region, especially in neighboring Tajikistan.

In September 2016, Beijing offered to finance and build several outposts and other military facilities (in addition to the Gulkhan post, which was opened in 2012) to strengthen the protection of Tajikistan’s borders with Afghanistan, while the Chinese and Tajik armed Forces conducted major anti-terrorist exercises in October 2016. These unexpected actions have caused concern in Russia about the growing influence of China in Tajikistan.

According to the researcher, China’s economic expansion in Tajikistan began relatively recently. In the early 2000s, China’s influence in Tajikistan was rather weak and limited due to the lack of transport communications that could connect the two countries. Bilateral trade relations have significantly increased only after the opening of a new major highway Dushanbe-Kulma.

China has invested about $ 720 million in infrastructure development in Tajikistan, including the restoration, expansion and improvement of the road between Dushanbe and Khujand, which has been going on since August 2007 with the involvement of Chinese equipment, labor and control. Another factor contributing to the expansion of China’s economic activity is the availability of financial resources and the willingness to invest even in less important sectors of the Tajik economy.

Bilateral economic relations entered a new phase during the intensification of the global economic crisis in 2008, and, in particular, against the background of the weakening of relations between Tajikistan and Russia. In 2009, Russia took the side of Uzbekistan in the dispute with Tajikistan over the Rogun HPP, which became the main catalyst that pushed Dushanbe to the PRC. Tajikistan, as one of the poorest post-Soviet countries, is heavily dependent on the import of hydroelectric power and regularly experiences power outages.

Therefore, the construction of the Rogun HPP is regarded as a matter of life and death for Tajikistan, which requires an urgent increase in domestic electricity production capacities. The Tajik authorities say that the Rogun dam will be able to provide electricity to the whole country and even supply the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan with cheap electricity.

Therefore, the Tajik authorities were in search of an alternative partner and an economic counterweight to Russia, which became China. While China was actively investing in certain sectors of the Tajik economy, it tried to avoid infringing on Russia’s interests. China’s main interest in Tajikistan is energy, which is the most profitable for foreign investors. However, China did not try to replace Russia as the chief designer of the Rogun HPP, and in October 2016, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon unexpectedly announced the launch of construction of the world’s tallest dam for a hydroelectric power plant. In a speech broadcast on state television, Rahmon said that the Rogun HPP will start supplying electricity at the end of 2018.

Thanks to its rapidly growing economic influence, China has gradually become the most influential economic power in the region. Trade between China and the five post – Soviet Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan-increased from $ 1.8 billion in 2000 to $ 50 billion in 2013.

At the same time, China’s influence in the region, and in Tajikistan in particular, is also of a military nature, which is due to security issues. In fact, by increasing security spending in Central Asia, China is seeking to create safe buffer zones along its borders with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan. China is primarily afraid of the threat posed by radical Islamism in the region, which could affect the destabilization of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Province of China.

In this regard, China has established an anti-terrorist alliance with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan in order to strengthen coordination with the countries of the region in the fight against the growing intraregional military threat. Against this background, China is increasing its military activity in Tajikistan, which is considered to be in the sphere of influence of Russia.

On October 20-24, 2016, 10,000 servicemen from the National Army of Tajikistan and the People’s Liberation Army of China (PLA) conducted five-day anti-terrorist exercises in the Ishkoshim district in Tajikistan, on the border with Afghanistan. Today, neither Beijing nor its regional partners commented on the growing interest of China in bilateral military cooperation with Tajikistan. Dushanbe’s desire to cooperate with Beijing is associated with the growing activity of radical Islamists, namely members of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan.

Although these steps can significantly strengthen China’s position in Central Asia, Russian experts still doubt the prospects of China’s military cooperation with the countries of Central Asia. It is noteworthy that Russia is the strongest player in the region, and its largest foreign military base is located in the very center of Tajikistan. Nevertheless, although Moscow has not commented on China’s military activation in Tajikistan, it is unlikely that it will agree with the growing influence of China in Central Asia. Despite the fact that Russia’s position in the region has weakened in the last decade, it still considers Central Asia a zone of its interests.

Russian officials are trying not to dramatize China’s activity in Tajikistan, noting that the main priority of military cooperation is the preservation of borders. Despite the fact that Russia has not been invited to the new quadrilateral alliance, its military forces have been present in Tajikistan for more than fifty years, and the new military agreement between Moscow and Dushanbe extends the deployment in Tajikistan until 2042.

China may continue its expansion in Central Asia, including Tajikistan, both economically and militarily. Direct investments from China to Tajikistan in 2015 amounted to $ 273 million, which is 58% of the total volume. The potential consequences of Tajikistan’s growing economic dependence on China escalated in 2011, when Dushanbe agreed to transfer about 1% of its territory to Beijing in exchange for debt relief.
China’s policy towards Central Asia demonstrates Beijing’s interest in playing a key role in the security sphere in the region, which is a significant factor in its multibillion-dollar investments in the Silk Road Economic Belt. China also seeks to ensure that Tajik Islamists and militants from Al-Qaeda or the Taliban do not become a serious threat to Chinese national security (in particular, to Xinjiang Province).

China’s new regional security concept will also help to involve other Central Asian countries and, possibly, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in the future. The new quadrilateral military alliance between China, Tajikistan and Pakistan (with the exception of Russia) is aimed at preventing the growing threat of Islamism in the region, which affects all participating countries. Geopolitically, China is also interested in creating a “safe zone” along its Central Asian borders, while the alliance will mainly contribute to strengthening coordination along with training military personnel and special forces.

In the end, the researcher concludes that China does not seem to believe that economic investment alone will be enough for further progress in Central Asia for a number of reasons, including language barriers, religion and incompatible doctrines. Therefore, China is now actively promoting and funding the establishment of Confucius institutes and language centers at local universities, as well as offering training or exchange programs for students from Central Asia.

However, as the author of the article concludes, at the current stage, China’s main military tasks are the export of weapons, the fight against terrorism, border security and joint military initiatives. Despite the fact that the Central Asian countries themselves want to strengthen ties with Beijing, most of them, and Tajikistan in particular, cannot afford to ignore the Russian factor in the region.


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