Following its economic expansion in Central Asia, China unexpectedly took a step to expand its military dominance in the region. In September 2016, Beijing offered to build 11 new border checkpoints and a new military facility along the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, which raised some concerns in Russia. Although these moves could position China as a security player in Central Asia, Russian experts seemingly are doubtful about the future of any China-Central Asia military alliance. Notably, Russia has an entrenched presence in the region and its largest foreign military base is located outside the Tajik capital.
China’s economic expansion in Tajikistan is a very young phenomenon. In the early 2000s, Chinese influence in Tajikistan was quite weak and limited, due to the lack of transport networks connecting both countries. Only after the opening of a new major highway between two countries did bilateral trade significantly increase. Another factor that contributed to the boost in Chinese economic activity was the availability of financial resources and readiness to invest even in less important sectors in Tajikistan. While few others seemed to be interested in investing financially in Tajikistan’s vitally important infrastructure, Beijing not only sponsored various projects but also got giant Chinese companies involved.
Bilateral economic relations entered into a new stage in the shadow of the global economic crisis, in particular during a period of worsened Tajikistan-Russia relations. Russia’s pro-Uzbekistan position in 2009 over the Rogun dam dispute became the main catalyst that pushed Dushanbe toward China. Tajikistan, one of the poorest former Soviet republics, is heavily dependent on energy imports, particularly in the winter, and regularly experiences electricity outages. Therefore, construction of the Rogun dam is a matter of life and death for Tajikistan, which is in urgent need of energy. Authorities say the Rogun dam would be able to provide electricity, for the whole country. They say the dam could also provide parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan with cheap electricity.
With Russia’s involvement in the Rogun dam stallin, Tajik authorities began seeking an alternative partner and economic counterweight, which it found in China. Obviously, China did not pretend to intrude into Russia’s “influence zone” but actively participated in fields that did not overlap with Russian interests. China’s main interest in Tajikistan is power-engineering. However, it did not aim to replace Russia as the main constructor of the Rogun Hydropower Plant.
Through its growing economic influence, China has also expanded its presence in other fields, such as the military arena. Many claim that China’s actions in the Central Asian region, in particular in Tajikistan, are rational due to Beijing’s security concerns. By increasing expenditures in the security field in Central Asia, China seeks to create secured buffer zones along its borders with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. China’s main concern is a growing threat from radical Islam in the region would sharply destabilize the situation in its own Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Province.
China has already set up an anti-terrorism alliance with Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan in order to boost coordination with regional countries to tackle the growing domestic militant threat. Seemingly, China is pushing all these countries for closer military and security cooperation.
In October, 10,000 military personnel from both China and Tajikistan engaged in five-day counterterrorism exercises held in Tajikistan, near the Afghanistan border. Though there has been little public comment on the rise of military cooperation, it seems Dushanbe’s willingness to promote security relations with Beijing is linked to Dushanbe’s growing emphasis on the threat from radical Islamists. Even though Russian officials have not publicly condemned China’s rising military activities in Tajikistan, no doubt that such a fast-growing influence in the Central Asian region sparks a certain discomfort in Moscow. Despite the fact that Russia’s presence in the region has weakened in last ten years, it still sees Central Asia as its geopolitical sphere of influence.
Russian officials are keen not to dramatize the current Chinese activities in Tajikistan. Some claim that the new military alliance between China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan is too limited to turn into a quasi-NATO, as its main priority is border security. Even though Russia has not been invited to join the new quadrilateral alliance, it has had a continuous military presence in Tajikistan for more than 50 years, and reportedly, the latest military agreement between Moscow and Dushanbe prolongs its military presence in Tajikistan until 2042.
Still, it seems that China has successfully established a major presence in the Central Asian region both economically and militarily, including in Tajikistan. In 2015, China invested $273 million in Tajikistan — 58 percent of country’s total foreign direct investment for the year. According to EurasiaNet, that’s not all: “The potential consequences of Tajikistan’s growing economic reliance on China came into sharper focus in 2011, when Dushanbe agreed to hand over around 1 percent of its territory to Beijing in exchange for having some of its debts forgiven.”
Considering China’s neighborhood policy toward Central Asia, it is safe to say that Beijing is interested in playing a central role in the security field in the region, which is a key part of China’s multi-billion dollar Silk Road project. Therefore, Beijing may be seeking to ensure that al-Qaeda or Taliban-affiliated Islamists and insurgents in Tajikistan do not pose a serious threat to national security (in particular to Xinjiang province). In that sense, the new China-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan quadrilateral military alliance has a similar symbolic function as the Russian and Chinese co-led Shanghai Organization for Cooperation. Moreover, it should be underlined that the joint military drills in Tajikistan mostly aimed at demonstrating China’s capability.
Nevertheless, Chinese economic investments are insufficient for further expansion in Central Asia due to important factors such as language barriers, religious differences, different doctrines, and so on. Considering this fact, China actively funds the establishment of Confucius Institutes and language centers in local universities in order to be able to overcome certain barriers. However, at this stage, China is mostly focused on arms exports, counterterrorism cooperation, border security issues, and joint military initiatives. The silence of most Eurasian countries in the shadow of growing influence of China in Tajikistan proves that there is no common consensus among them over the extent of Chinese influence in Central Asia.
Fuad Shahbazov (@fuadshahbazov) is policy analyst for Wikistrat Inc. He is author of the books Syria 1946-2012 and Tunisian Model of Democracy in Arab World.