China has unexpectedly begun taking steps to become more militarily active in the small Central Asian republic of Tajikistan. Moreover, it is pushing for closer joint military and security cooperation with Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. These moves could position China as a potential regional counterweight to Russia, whose military role in Central Asia is exemplified by the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO—of which Tajikistan is also a member) as well as Russia’s largest foreign military base, which is located on Tajikistani soil.
On October 20–24, a combined 10,000 military personnel from the National Army of Tajikistan and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China were mobilized together to engage in a five-day counterterrorism exercises in Tajikistan’s Ishkoshim region, which borders on Afghanistan (Centre1.com, October 26; News.tj, October 20, 21; Sputnik-tj.com, October 19; Regnum, October 20). To date, neither Beijing nor any of its regional partners have publicly commented on China’s sudden interest in bilateral military cooperation with Tajikistan.
According to Tajikistani and Russian security experts, Beijing’s growing military activity in Central Asia is highly unusual. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, China has promoted its economic interests in this region, but it had always maintained a largely invisible military presence (Centre1.com, October 26; Ozodi.org, August 11). Some analysts posit that Dushanbe’s sudden appetite for Chinese military investments and cooperation is linked to the deteriorating security situation along its border with Afghanistan, and to security threats emanating from radicalized followers of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) (see EDM, October 14; Sputnik-tj.com, October 19; News.tj, August 11; 24tv.ua, August 8). Historically, the politico-economic elements of Dushanbe’s multi-vector foreign policy have largely been tolerated by Moscow. But the recent developments in Sino-Tajikistani military relations might ignite new tensions between Moscow and Dushanbe (News.tj, August 11).
Even though Moscow has not publicly protested China’s unprecedented military steps in Tajikistan, these developments are almost certainly raising discomfort inside the Kremlin. Russian influence in Central Asia, particularly in Tajikistan, is significant. And although over the last quarter century Moscow’s grip on the region has somewhat loosened, Russia still sees Central Asia as falling within its exclusive sphere of influence. The Russian military base in Tajikistan has existed for over 70 years, and the new bilateral agreement reached in 2012 allows it to remain there until 2042 (Riafan.ru, October 18). Considering this long-term, institutionalized presence of Russian boots on the ground in Tajikistan, it is particularly surprising that in late summer 2016, Beijing actually undertook concrete steps to form a regional counterterrorism coalition of sorts, bringing together Tajikistan along with Pakistan and Afghanistan (Knews.kg, News.tj, Ozodi.org, August 11).
The process for establishing this military coalition was kicked off after a February 25, 2016, high-level meeting in Beijing between Ramazon Rahimzoda, Tajikistan’s minister of internal affairs, and Guo Shengkun, the state councilor and minister of public security of China (Chinamil.com, February 26). Following this meeting, the chiefs of the armed forces of China, Tajikistan and Pakistan met together in Dushanbe. One of the outcomes of the meeting was an agreement to launch a joint counterterrorism center in Dushanbe for Tajikistan’s Ministry of Interior and China’s Ministry of Defense. In addition, Chinese officials pledged $70 million in military assistance for the Afghan security forces. These progressive steps culminated last August in a quadripartite meeting of the heads of the armed forces of China, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan, in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The four pledged to join together in a military coalition to bolster their collective counterterrorism efforts and cooperate on providing greater regional stability (Regnum.ru, October 20; Knews.kg, News.tj, Ozodi.org, August 11). In the past, Russia had expressed interest in putting together a similar “alliance.” The heads of state of Russia, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan met on multiple occasions in 2009–2012, with the goal of forming a joint regional security and stability mechanism following the withdrawal of the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) from Afghanistan. But the initiative spearheaded by Russia never came to fruition (Sputnik-tj.com, April 3).
By undertaking a more central role in providing security in Central Asia, Beijing appears determined to mitigate the physical risks to doing business in the region. China may also be seeking to ensure its own border with Tajikistan is safe from militants and insurgent groups arising in Afghanistan and the wider area. In their joint counterterrorism exercise on October 20–24, Tajikistani and Chinese troops engaged in a simulated battle against a terrorist group that infiltrated Tajikistan with a mission to destabilize Xinjiang. Reportedly, the two militaries successfully neutralized this threat during the course of the exercise. Tajikistan’s minister of defense, General Sharali Mirzo, believes this shared experience of mutual support will have long-term positive consequences for the two countries’ armed forces and their ability to work together in the future (News.tj, October 20, 24).
Many countries like Tajikistan, which suffer from enormous socio-economic problems, strongly favor establishing closer ties to China. Unlike Russia, which is itself struggling with an economic crisis, China is more generous when it comes to investing in foreign countries’ domestic economies and building up their local infrastructure. And in terms of military assistance, China has already spent $15 million to construct apartments for military officers in Dushanbe. It has also agreed to build new military facilities for Tajikistani border troops (Ozodi.org, October 19; Pressa.tj, October 20). Compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars that Russia has for years been spending on military assistance to Tajikistan (see EDM, October 16, 2013), the Chinese aid remains quite small. But it nevertheless represents the opening of a tangible new area of cooperation.
Moscow’s silence regarding Beijing’s military-sector initiatives in Central Asia could imply that the Russian government is giving China the benefit of the doubt: presumably, Russia may trust that China’s main objectives are simply to provide security for its multi-billion-dollar infrastructure projects under the Silk Road Economic Belt and to fight international terrorism. However, it is quite possible that Beijing is in fact positioning itself in preparation for the eventuality that the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU)—which Tajikistan may eventually join—ends up closing China off from Central Asia economically. Either way, the quadrilateral China-Tajikistan-Pakistan-Afghanistan military coalition will likely be a stepping-stone for Beijing’s future military expansion in the region. As such, it can serve as a long-term lever for China to diminish Russia’s overall influence in Central Asia.