A major scandal has broken out between China, on the one hand, and Tajikistan and Russia, on the other, regarding alleged Chinese claims on the Pamir region. This past month, official outlets of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) repeatedly republished an article by Chinese historian Cho Yao Lu, who says that the entire Pamir region belonged to China at one time and consequently, he implies, Tajikistan should now or in the future return it to Beijing. Of course, such a territorial concession would dramatically change the geopolitical balance in this corner of Eurasia, affecting not only the position of the Central Asian countries but also those of neighboring Afghanistan and Western powers like the United States, whose military forces are deployed there.
Dushanbe has demanded that Beijing renounce this article and stop publishing others like it, and Russian outlets have sharply criticized what they suggest is an effort by the Chinese to test the waters regarding potential future border changes (Stanradar.com, July 27; Ozodi.org, July 20; Lenta, July 24; Rossaprimavera.ru, July 25). The offending article, albeit written on a historical theme, has aggravated Tajikistani and Russian concerns that recent Chinese moves involving security and economic development in Tajikistan have been anything but altruistic. Increasingly, Dushanbe and Moscow view the PRC’s construction of border posts and airports in the Pamir region as well as its involvement in the gold mining industry there to be elements of a larger Chinese plan to eventually annex this area. Such an outcome would put China in a position to fully dominate a rump Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan as well.
In an article with the provocative title “Tajikistan Initiated the Transfer to China of Its Land and the Lost Mountains of the Pamir Were Returned to Their True Master,” Cho Yao Lu writes that, under pressure from Russia and the United Kingdom, China lost these territories in the 19th century but was able to reclaim a portion in 2010. That year, Dushanbe and Beijing agreed on a new border that required Tajikistan to hand over to China 1,158 square kilometers of territory in the mountainous Pamir region (see EDM, January 24, 2011; see China Brief, July 29, 2011)
Yet, for three reasons, observers in Tajikistan and Russia are reading Cho’s article as more than a historical disquisition. First, Cho uses only Chinese sources and, thus, gives a tendentious discussion of what happened a decade ago. Second, his comments about Chinese historical control of the entire Pamir region suggest that he and others in China see the 2010 agreement as only a first step to a broader rectification in the PRC’s favor. And so, the argument goes, Chinese development of its reacquired territory and of adjoining parts of Tajikistan’s Pamir lands are part of a single plan. And third, many of these Russian and Tajikistani analysts and officials believe Cho is speaking for far more than himself. Not only did he visit the Pamirs in 2018 as part of China’s plans to develop trade routes through that territory but his field notes at the time were published on the official website of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” project.
The Pamirs have long been a murky region, over which outside powers have struggled for control. In the 19th century, they were at the center of the “Great Game” between Britain and Russia. China was a major loser in this geopolitical contest as both London and St. Petersburg largely ignored Chinese claims on that territory and others. Since 1991, the region, almost all of which still lies within Tajikistan, has been a continuing security problem for Dushanbe due to local ethnic challenges as well as incursions by Islamists from Afghanistan (see EDM, April 30, 2020).
Having received at least part of the territorial concessions it wanted in 2010, China has offered security assistance to Tajikistan in exchange for Beijing gaining significant shares of the small mountainous country’s raw materials sector (see EDM, February 8, 2018). Though initially welcomed by Dushanbe, Moscow and even the West as a means of containing Islamist forces in Afghanistan, over time ever more analysts and officials have expressed concerns that Beijing is putting in place arrangements under which it will soon have military bases across Central Asia (see EDM, April 4, 2019).
Those fears have been fueled over the last several months by China’s actions in Tajikistan, which have now been further exacerbated by Cho’s article. Earlier this year, China opened an airport in Taxkorgan (Tashkurgan), a city in its Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous District, near the borders of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. It is the first such airport in the Gorno-Badakhshan region (geographically dominated by the Pamir Mountains) and gives Beijing new access to the peoples and natural resources of this much-contested area. Moreover, the Taxkorgan airfield is only the first of 30 Beijing says it will build in the next few years in the region, all intended, Chinese officials say, to promote tourism. But that claim looks specious given how few Chinese travel to Tajikistan as a whole let alone to the Badakhshan (20,000 last year), as the CAA Network points out (CAA Network, May 7, 2020).
Moreover, in the months before this, Beijing helped build three military commissariats, three new military units, four headquarters, and a training base for Tajikistani soldiers in the Pamir territories. Building on this foundation, China has engaged Tajikistan in its regional security efforts that also involve Pakistan and Afghanistan. These steps have enmeshed China far more directly in the region’s security and economic issues. But at the same time, the situation—especially given articles like Cho’s—has raised fears locally as well as in Moscow that Beijing is laying the foundation for being able to move Chinese troops into the region quickly or even wholly absorb the region at some point in the future.
Given China’s growing power, Beijing will certainly be increasingly involved in Central Asia (Carnegie.ru, March 25, 2020). However, implying that it has territorial aspirations there, as Cho’s article does, could backfire. Central Asians already harbor deep concerns about the PRC’s repressions of its own Muslim population in Xinjiang, and they balk at Beijing’s exploitative economic practices and ham-fisted diplomatic blunders in the region (see EDM, January 30, 2018 and November 21, 2019). Bringing historical territorial claims into this debate is likely to spark more anti-Chinese feelings, especially in Tajikistan, thus hampering whatever goals the PRC actually harbors for the Pamirs while encouraging other outside powers to step in.