Dushanbe has invited China’s Tebian Electric Apparatus Stock Co., Ltd. Company (TBEA) to take part in the construction of Saikhun, the first new city to be built in Tajikistan since its independence, Azernews reported last April. The new city is to be built on a 14,000-hectare desert land near Khujand, the country’s second-largest city in the Sughd province (northern Tajikistan), and will have 19 residential areas, 17 schools, 31 kindergartens, 40 sports centers, 140 shopping and services centers, a transport terminal, and other social facilities. It is also said to provide housing and jobs for some 250,000 people in nearest future helping to reduce the number of Tajik citizens working abroad and lessen Tajikistan’s dependence on remittances as an engine of growth.
TBEA is a leading Chinese producer of transformers, wire and cable, high-voltage electric aluminum foil, and solar energy equipment with experience in the construction of high-rise buildings, hotels, schools, sports, and other social facilities. The Chinese company was also asked to consider energy projects in the Sughd region.
This would be a big deal in itself, but it gained even more prominence after the announcement of a similar project last month. As Khovar Information Agency reported, in the near future a large residential project will begin in Khujand called “China town.” This will be the first project featuring foreign construction companies to be carried out in Tajikistan. The project, being undertaken by a Chinese state-owned construction company with the support of the Tajikistan national and regional authorities, will include 15 high-rise buildings for 1,200 families, schools and a number of social facilities. The construction work is expected to take up to five years.
Under a bilateral agreement, the construction company is obliged to provide housing for those persons whose houses are located on the project site. But local people fear that the area will see massive Chinese immigration, becoming a “China town” in the true sense. To date, the presence of Chinese workers has generated relatively few concerns in Tajikistan. Some estimates put the number of Chinese workers at between 7,000 and 10,000, relatively lower compared to comparable figures in neighboring countries. Consequently, although the local population has expressed some unease, the issue has yet to engender the fears seen in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, according to a Crisis Group report.
However, this could change rapidly as Beijing looks west for its One Belt One Road strategy, which aims to enhance interconnectivity among Eurasian countries and export China’s industrial overcapacity. Tajikistan lacks natural resources but possesses strategic importance since it shares borders with Afghanistan, a sanctuary for Islamic fundamentalism and drug proliferation. Moreover, now that Chinese investors are tiring of persistent uncertainty in Kyrgyzstan after it joined the Kremlin-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), Tajikistan is becoming more attractive to Beijing, according to EurasiaNet.org. And the Sughd region holds particular appeal.
“Khujand is Milan; the rest of Tajikistan is Sicily,” said Christian Bleuer, research fellow at the Australian National University. “In Khujand you can find a reliable and professional business partner. There is an old industrial and economic base. People are educated, skilled and cosmopolitan. Khujand is close to large population centers and to lucrative markets. People in Khujand have 3000 years of trade experience. A contract will be honored by a Khujandi.” China is definitely in southern Tajikistan, but the north is far more attractive. “The Chinese projects in the south have more of the characteristic of the Chinese government building ties and influence (and are tied to big Chinese bank loans). Chinese projects in the north are more independent so Chinese businessmen see a good investment opportunity,” explained Bleuer.
In 2006, a Chinese company commenced the Dushanbe-Khujand-Chanok highway project (DKC), financed by a $296 million loan from the Chinese government. Today, the highway serves as a vital trade artery, connecting capital Dushanbe to the economically vital Sughd province and the Ferghana Valley. It is a sign of things to come.
Alessandra Colarizi is an Italian sinologist, translator and freelance writer. Her research interest is focused on China-Central Asia relations and the New Silk Road.