On June 23, 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping met Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Tashkent. In an official statement following their meeting, Xi Jinping pledged to increase security cooperation between China and Tajikistan. Xi also emphasized the need to combat the illegal drug trade and prevent the diffusion of terrorist networks across the Tajikistan-China border.
China’s call for closer security cooperation with Tajikistan at the SCO summit follows months of bilateral negotiations aimed at strengthening defense linkages between Beijing and Dushanbe. In February, Tajikistan’s Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda revealed that China was planning to establish a joint counterterrorism center in Dushanbe. To show its appreciation for China’s security assistance, Tajikistan made a firm statement of support for Beijing’s position on the South China Sea dispute.
China’s increased interest in Tajikistan’s security is motivated by its desire to prevent instability in Tajikistan that undermines Rahmon’s hold on power. Beijing is concerned that unrest in Tajikistan could trigger an influx of illegal drug trafficking to China. China also fears that a regime turnover in Tajikistan could foment ethnic unrest in Xinjiang and make northern China vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
China-Tajikistan Cooperation on Curbing Drug Trafficking
Even though China and Tajikistan only officially established a strategic partnership in 2013, Beijing-Dushanbe cooperation on curbing the flow of illegal drugs began shortly after the end of the Tajikistan Civil War in 1997. In 1998, China signed a solidarity agreement with Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia to demonstrate its commitment to combating transnational drug crime emanating from Central Asia.
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, China strengthened Tajikistan’s fragile political and legal institutions to assist Dushanbe in combating the illegal drug trade. To improve governance in Tajikistan, China gave Tajikistan a prominent role in its New Silk Road project.
In 2004, the completion of an extensive highway network linking Dushanbe to selected Chinese cities removed a major barrier to the flow of goods across the China-Tajikistan border. The expansion of trade with China greatly strengthened Rahmon’s domestic position. The prospect of further growth in Chinese investment encouraged Rahmon’s government to crack down on corruption amongst Tajik officials involved in enforcing drug laws.
Tajikistan’s efforts to improve the effectiveness of its anti-narcotics policy were highly successful. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) and SCO have praised the Tajik Drug Control Agency as one of the best performers in Rahmon’s government. These institutional improvements resulted in an increase in direct coordination of anti-drug policy between Chinese and Tajik law enforcement officials. In November 2014, 38 drug manufacturers and dealers were arrested for attempting to ship 181 kilograms of narcotics across the China-Tajikistan border.
This joint effort greatly strengthened China’s security linkages with Tajikistan and Beijing’s support for Rahmon’s continued rule. Rahmon’s dependency on Chinese assistance has grown in recent months due to Russia’s troop cuts to Tajikistan in February, and divisions within the Tajik military engendered by last September’s mutiny.
Rahmon’s reliance on China explains why Dushanbe-Beijing cooperation has continued to grow unabated, even though Tajikistan’s Foreign Ministry vehemently opposed China’s January 2016 execution of a Tajik drug trafficker. By proving to Rahmon that Beijing is a reliable ally during periods of crisis, China has ensured that Tajikistan remains committed to combating drug-related crime on its northern border.
China’s Border Security Concerns and Beijing’s Support for Rahmon
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, China has been concerned by the prospect of prolonged instability or political violence in Tajikistan making Dushanbe a nexus for terrorism. Tajikistan’s importance to China is compounded by its close proximity to the Xinjiang region, which possesses a large Uyghur population seeking autonomy from Beijing.
During the 1990s, many Chinese policymakers linked Uyghur separatism to economic underdevelopment. Therefore, China expanded its trade linkages with Dushanbe in the hopes that economic growth in Tajikistan would spill over to Xinjiang, and discourage Uyghur separatism.
As Rahmon recognized that Chinese investments were vital for Tajikistan’s economic development and his long-term political survival, he willingly cooperated with China on border security issues. Tajikistan’s support for China’s security agenda was ensconced by its endorsement of the SCO’s creation of a regional counterterrorism structure in 2004.
Rahmon’s cooperation with China on border security issues convinced Chinese policymakers that preserving the political status quo in Dushanbe would guarantee China’s security. Therefore, China framed its relationship with Tajikistan around preserving Rahmon’s hold on power.
China’s efforts to empower Rahmon were closely intertwined with its push for a swift resolution of its border disputes with other SCO members. Thus Beijing decided to make a tactical compromise on its dispute with Dushanbe in 2002.
Even though China had legal claims to one-third of Tajikistan’s territory, it settled its long-standing territorial dispute with Dushanbe by accepting a Tajik offer of 4 percent of the land it had initially claimed. Rahmon was able to frame China’s concession as a major victory for Tajikistan’s sovereignty and thus temporarily improve his image amongst Tajik nationalists. These favorable perceptions of Rahmon’s handling of the China-Tajikistan territorial dispute lingered even after Tajikistan ceded more territory to China in 2011.
China has also provided Tajikistan with considerable military assistance to combat terrorism. Beijing has increased its assistance to Dushanbe even during periods when the terrorist threat emanating from Tajikistan was minimal. Therefore, Rahmon has been able to justify his pre-emptive mobilization of Tajikistan’s security forces against Islamist opposition groups on national security grounds.
China’s military assistance provides credibility for Rahmon’s claims that Islamist opposition leaders are covertly assisting terrorist organizations like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Hizb ut Tahrir, and the Islamic State. Chinese military support has occurred in tandem with Rahmon’s implementation of highly authoritarian policies that weaken his political opponents.
In exchange for Chinese support for his regime, Tajikistan has played an increasingly important role in legitimizing China’s counterterrorism justification for its repression in Xinjiang. In 2011, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan took part in China counterterrorism exercises in Xinjiang. By including Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in its coalition, China was able to depict Uyghur separatism as a regional security threat, and distract the international community from its repression in Xinjiang.
The expansion of joint counterterrorism cooperation between China and Tajikistan in 2016 has been politicized in a similar fashion. Much like during past periods of escalated Chinese counterterrorism assistance, the threat posed by Islamic extremists in Tajikistan remains ambiguous.
Despite these ambiguities, official rhetoric from Beijing has described terrorism’s growth in Tajikistan as an imminent danger to China and the broader region. During his late February meeting with Rahmon, PLA Chief of Staff Fang Fenghui described terrorist activity in Tajikistan as an urgent issue of concern for all governments in Central Asia. This demonstrates China’s continued propensity to exaggerate terrorism threats emanating from Tajikistan and Xinjiang to entrench Rahmon’s political position.
China’s escalation of counterterrorism and anti-narcotics cooperation with Dushanbe is motivated principally by Beijing’s fear of instability in Tajikistan and its desire to keep an increasingly vulnerable Rahmon in power. If Russia continues to scale back its military presence in Tajikistan, China’s hegemony over Tajikistan will considerably strengthen. With Chinese support, Rahmon’s stranglehold on power in Tajikistan could continue for years to come.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Washington Post and Huffington Post. He can be followed on Facebook at Samuel Ramani and on Twitter at samramani2.