During the second week of August, Chinese troops openly carried out military drills together with their Tajik counterparts in southern Tajikistan. A situation which would have come as a surprise a decade ago but that has now become commonplace. Chinese have been present in the country for some time now and they are there to stay.
The manoeuvres carried out this summer in the Gorno-Badakshan region of Tajikistan, participated by almost 600 troops of the People Liberation Army, are the latest example of the growing security ties between Beijing and Dushanbe. China is gradually increasing its military presence in the Central Asian nation, which it sees as an important component of its security policy against threats entering its territory. Both countries have organised joint security exercises in Tajikistan in 2006 and 2015, but it was in 2016 when they held their first joint bilateral drills, involving around 10,000 troops of which around 200 were Chinese.
Drills and exercises are one thing, as physical presence in the terrain is ephemeral, but setting up a base is something quite different. This is what China has already accomplished, according to a report published by The Washington Post earlier this year. The Chinese would have already been present in a base near the Afghan and Chinese border for about “three, four years”. In addition, it is believed, since dealings between both countries are not always made public, that China was given the right to build or refurbish between 30 and 40 guard posts along the Tajik-Afghan border.
In the first instance, it looks like Dushanbe can benefit from Beijing’s security support. China will pay the bill for the guard posts, it will help train Tajik troops and border guards and its presence can deter, or help fight back, any trouble coming from Afghanistan. However, it is not entirely voluntarily that Tajikistan is accepting this assistance. The Central Asian’s nation economic dependence on China, with around half of its external debt owed to Asian giant, forces Tajikistan to be compliant with Beijing’s demands, whether they want it or not.
With Chinese military presence and links already established, and Tajikistan’s say on it, the question is what is Beijing doing there? It is easy to see China’s policy as simply an expansionist one, looking to extend its political and military influence in the region at the expense of Russia, as it has already done in economic terms. This would fall under the classic Great Game cliché of world powers vying for the control of Central Asia. However, that would be missing the point. China’s main concern is Afghanistan and, more specifically, its own internal security.
China’s main security objective is to fight what it has called the three evils: terrorism, separatism and religious extremism. It is in its westernmost province of Xinjiang where the authorities believe these three -isms are most strongly present. Public unrest and riots in the region, home to the Uyghur minority, a Turkic and Muslim ethnic group, have been seen by Beijing as a threat to its control and authority. To counteract it, Xi Jinping’s government is trying to wipe out Uyghur culture and identity through the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs, and other Turkic minorities, in internment camps and the imposition of an Orwellian state in Xianjiang. So why is Tajikistan relevant in this challenge and in Beijing’s wider fight against the three evils?
Tajikistan shares approximately a border of 1,300 kilometres with Afghanistan, a country struggling to fight the Taliban, the Central Asian branch of the Islamic State and other insurgent groups. The sheer length, geographical features and lack of resources make it hard to guard. China seeks to avoid instability from Afghanistan spilling over to Tajikistan, affecting the Central Asian republic, and in turn reaching China through the 500 kilometres long Tajik-Chinese border. In addition, it is reported that Uyghurs, together with Uzbek and Tajiks, fight alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Badakshan province, nestled between Tajikistan and China, which reinforces Beijing’s narrative.
China’s military presence in Tajikistan is mainly a defensive strategy to guard itself against the possibility of insecurity reaching its borders. In a similar fashion, China has carried out joint exercises with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, namely counter-terrorism drills. Nevertheless, as a by-product, it is undeniable that Beijing is increasing its influence in the region. While Russia still has, by far, the upper hand in Central Asia in military terms and it has officially denied having any concerns about it, it would not be surprising if the Kremlin was looking at the Chinese troops in region out of the corner of its eye.