China’s presence and machinations in Tajikistan have popped into headlines several times in the last few years and the Pentagon is, apparently, paying attention. In an annual report delivered to the U.S. Congress, the Department of Defense included Tajikistan in a list of countries where the Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), is “very likely already considering and planning for additional overseas military logistics facilities to support naval, air, and ground forces.’”
The report lists a dozen such countries: Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, the Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan.
While Tajikistan made a handful of appearances in past China Military Power Reports (the official name of the annual report is less cool: “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China”), the 2020 edition highlights the Central Asian state more than ever before. Tajikistan is by no means a major part of the report, but the parts of the report in which Tajikistan features are critical for understanding the evolution of Chinese activities in the region.
In the past several years, typical discussions about China in Central Asia, more broadly, have centered on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Its overland component was launched in a 2013 speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping at Nazarbayev University in the capital of Kazakhstan, then known as Astana.
The BRI nestled well into a pre-existing narrative about the nature of Chinese engagement in Central Asia, especially vis-a-vis Russia, in which Beijing was making huge economic moves while Moscow remained supreme in the security realm, not to mention its weight in the political and social arenas. But that apparent division of labor, while rhetorically useful, never quite reflected reality.
During his 2013 tour of Central Asia, Xi visited Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, too. In Kyrgyzstan, he attended the 13th meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In Bishkek, he met with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, among other members of the grouping, which had its roots in the Shanghai Five (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan). The Shanghai Five was formed in 1996, itself a formalization of a process that had been underway since the collapse of the Soviet Union to demarcate and demilitarize the borders between China and the new three bordering Central Asian republics. Uzbekistan joined the group in 2001 and it transformed further under the clouds of the Global War on Terror, broadening its aims but keeping security and economic cooperation at its core.
It’s within the discussion of terrorism and counterterrorism, in particular, that Beijing has made security-based inroads in Central Asia. Tajikistan is prime example. While counterterrorism was mentioned in the readout of Rahmon’s 2013 meeting with Xi, 2016 was the real turning point.
In August 2016, China Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan formed a “Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism in Counter Terrorism” (QCCM). The group met for a second leaders’ meeting in 2017 but does not appear to have met since, in that format, per a 2019 Xinhua report which only mentions two meetings. In September 2016, Reuters reported that Tajikistan had signed an agreement with China that would provide for the construction of 11 “outposts of different sizes and a training center for border guards.” The following month, October 2016, China and Tajikistan held their first bilateral military exercises.
Since that time, the presence of some Chinese troops in eastern Tajikistan became a routine rumor and military exercises between the two have broadened. In February 2019, the Washington Post’s Gerry Shih reported the clearest evidence to date of a sustained Chinese military presence in eastern Tajikistan.
All of that background underscores the Pentagon’s recent inclusion of Tajikistan in its annual China Military Power report. In a small cutout, titled “China-Tajikistan Counterterrorism Cooperation,” the report notes that since 2016, “People’s Armed Police (PAP) forces have likely operated in Tajikistan, patrolling the tri-border region connecting Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and China.” The report links these likely patrols to the QCCM and states that the “PAP forces operating in Tajikistan are from Xinjiang province, likely also exporting its more suppressive approach to the ‘three evils.’” The three evils — terrorism, separatism, and extremism — are central to Chinese security discussions with Central Asia, as elsewhere.
The Pentagon report goes on to note that while the patrols were initially authorized as combined — Tajik and Chinese troops together, for example, on the Afghan border — “China now appears to be conducting unilateral patrols in the tri-border region.”
The report links growing Chinese concerns about the border region to the 2014 withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan (a process that has started and stalled and started again in the years since). It also, somewhat erroneously, cites Chinese concerns about terrorists moving from Afghanistan into Xinjiang. Chinese authorities certainly espouse such fears, but evidence is thin that anything of the sort is happening, as Sean R. Roberts argues in his new book about Chinese policies in Xinjiang. Roberts’ book smartly takes into account how Chinese formulation of security policies, particularly in Xinjiang, tapped into the wider War on Terrorism narrative since 2001. The Pentagon report also cites China’s 2015 passing of a counterterrorism law, which authorized overseas military counterterrorism operations.
Taken together, the clear concern is that China has built the basic infrastructure to move forces into Tajikistan in a meaningful way. From the U.S. perspective, the concern in Afghanistan is the security of U.S. forces and interests there. From a Central Asian perspective, there are different concerns. It’s unlikely that China is making such moves on Tajik territory without at least the acquiescence of the government in Dushanbe, and more likely its strong support. This doesn’t necessarily engender public support, as concerns about sovereignty and Chinese land grabs are topics for headed discussion across the region and feed persistent public Sinophobia. But public distaste for the Chinese is balanced by Sinophilia among those, particularly but not exclusively the elite, who credit Beijing for its economic and development investments in the region. It’s all part and parcel of Chinese policies in Central Asia.