(Un)friendly neighbourliness? China’s growing influence in Tajikistan5 min read
When in October 2020, China’s President Xi Jinping congratulated Tajik President Emomali Rahmon on his re-election as president (for the 5th time), few eyebrows were raised. Over the last decade, the relationship between China and Tajikistan has grown increasingly close. As China’s economic and military clout continues to grow, the Tajik government might soon find its sovereignty seriously threatened.
As a landlocked country in Central Asia, Tajikistan is one of the few post-Soviet nations to survive a brutal civil war in the 1990s. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union it has remained on the sidelines of global commerce, prey to rampant corruption, abuse of power, and armed border conflict. For the last decade, however, the situation looks to be changing. Having launched its One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, a rapidly-developing China is keen to splurge on infrastructure projects in Central Asia to facilitate the traffic of cargo to Europe, and kick-start economic development in the region.
China’s growing influence
One of the first major steps towards what seemed to be a strategic relationship was the demarcation of a stretch of border between the two countries. In 2010, the Tajik government agreed to solve an old border dispute with China by signing over 1,158 square kilometres of the Pamir mountain range, which borders Afghanistan and China, to the Chinese government. The fact that Chinese state media has continued to agitate for the surrender of all of the Pamir regions to China has contributed to fears of China’s possible imperialist intentions.
In 2020, the first of 30 airfields that Beijing is building in the region to boost tourism, was completed in Taxkurgan, in the Tajik Autonomous Region and part of the Tajik Pamir region. Neighbouring China, such infrastructure makes it easier for China to swiftly deploy forces into Central Asia, previously a Russian reserve. This brings to mind the construction of similar objects in the Himalayas, preceding the bloodshed in the Indian state of Ladakh, between Chinese and Indian forces.
Shortly before building the Taxkurgan airfield, China assisted the Tajik government in constructing three military commissariats, three new military units, four headquarters, and a training ground for Tajik forces in the Pamir region. It is a deal that let the Chinese military be present in the country. However, it is questionable whether the real intent is to train Tajik forces or to project military power in the Tajik Pamir region. As has been made clear by Chinese CCP-linked blogger Cho Yao Lu, some in Beijing still consider this region to belong to China.
The development of mining sites in Tajikistan by the Chinese only confirms that significant economic interests are behind the growing Chinese presence in Central Asia. More than 80 percent of Tajik gold and other mines have been developed by Chinese-Tajik companies. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic looks likely to exacerbate the country’s economic dependence on China, raising concerns over so-called debt-trap diplomacy. In late 2020, the country owed China over 1,2 billion US Dollars, that is, almost half of Tajikistan’s foreign debt.
These developments can’t but alarm Russia. While 7,000 troops from Russia’s 201st Motor Rifle Division is currently stationed in Tajikistan, Russia lacks China’s economic sway and logistical capabilities. However, Russia is promising to step up its military presence amid the imminent withdrawal of American troops from neighbouring Afghanistan and seems determined to win over the Tajikistani establishment to secure what it understands as its sphere of influence.
With Central Asia as a cornerstone in China’s ambitious plan to refashion the logistical and economic space of Eurasia, discontent against a more assertive and oppressive China is growing in the region. Anti-Chinese protests in Kazakhstan have become common, whether over the agricultural land leases to Chinese businesses, or the plight of Kazakh Uighurs and Muslims incarcerated in Xinjiang.
Xenophobia has also been on the rise in Kyrgyzstan with attacks against Chinese mining sites and the terrorist attack at the Chinese Embassy in 2016. In Tajikistan, people were not only upset by the government’s concession to hand over part of the Pamir region to China in 2010. Local farmers also felt snubbed when in 2012 1,500 Chinese farmers were brought into the country to grow rice on 2,000 hectares, an untoward generosity in a mountainous country where only 6 percent of the land is arable.
Tajikistan is clearly in need of security assistance and economic investment, crucial for the development of a long-neglected infrastructure. At the same time, China’s general promise to promote closer security and economic ties, for now, seemed to outweigh the Tajik government’s concerns over China’s potential imperialist appetite. The general regional trajectory remains directed towards a more integrated and globalized Eurasia, however, dominated by Chinese interests.
If the Tajik government will rely exclusively on China, it will soon have to make concessions that will start to undermine its sovereignty – a cause for concern for other global powers.
The repression of Uighurs and Muslims in Xinjiang along with the predatory resource extraction China is practising might push the government in Dushanbe to position itself closer to Russia or to its Central Asian neighbours. This is also a window of opportunity for the West, and its traditional allies in Eurasia, such as Japan, to engage in the region more actively.
For Tajikistan to profit from the strategic location it enjoys in Eurasia, it should embrace a multi-vector policy, similar to that of Kazakhstan, which despite strong economic integration in Russian-led regional initiatives, maintain geopolitical independence. As the threat of becoming over-reliant on one giant neighbour – be it Russia or China – is shared by the other Central Asian states, regional integration and cooperation among the five Central Asian states might be a good option, which should be encouraged by locals and outsiders alike.