Meeting on the fringes of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Beijing on May 11, Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrohon Zarifi and his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi made the usual affirmations of good bilateral relations (Xinhua, May 11). Part of a raft of bilateral meetings between China and Central Asian states that have taken place on the fringes of the various SCO meetings occurring in the run up to the June Summit in Beijing, the encounter is hard to distinguish from the others taking place. As the single predominantly non-Turkic state, Tajikistan however has always been an outlier in Central Asian terms. This extends to Chinese interest, although, for China, it is the absence of large volumes of natural resources and an obstructive mountain range making direct road transit difficult that make it the least interesting among the Central Asian states. While clearly key in ensuring that the entire region becomes developed, Dushanbe lacks the immediate appeal of its surrounding states to Beijing and as a result seems something of a lower priority for Chinese policymakers. Nevertheless, seen from the ground, China clearly is making a few strategic decisions that show it is committed and interested in helping Tajikistan’s development. As a foreign analyst based in Dushanbe put it to us on a recent trip, in contrast to China in the other Central Asian states, ”China’s influence in Tajikistan is delayed” . Many of the long-term concerns that can be found in other Central Asian capitals towards China are reflected in Tajikistan where people are suspicious of China’s long-term ambitions.
Infrastructure and Roadways
Tajikistan’s infrastructure is in need of a massive overhaul. The crumbling Soviet hulks of the 1980s require fixing, and the country’s transport sector barely runs on a combination of inexistent roads and non-functioning air links, interspersed with badly conceived or unfinished aid projects from the last two decades . The most notorious of these is a north-south tunnel at the ShahristanPass completed by Iranian engineers in 2010 (Asia Plus, July 1, 2010). Due to its less than sterling construction, the tunnel floods periodically and these authors observed that it has collapsed in parts and has a heavily-potholed road running through it. Other more limited projects in parts of the Pamir Mountains have been sponsored by the Aga Khan Foundation. The Asia Development Bank also has funded a road Dushanbe-Kurgan-Tyube-Dangara-Kulyab as well as ongoing projects “to rehabilitate the Dushanbe–Kyrgyz Border–China road corridor ($118 million in loans and grants); and a $120 million grant, approved in 2011, to upgrade a vital road linking the capital Dushanbe with the Uzbekistan border (Tursunzade)” .
On the ground, however, it is often Chinese firms that are actually carrying out the work. When the government wanted the prestige project of the main Rudaki Avenue in Dushanbe re-done in time for September 2011’s independence day celebrations, they turned to Chinese firms to do it rapidly . This rather small project was preceded by the road linking the Tajik road network into the Kyrgyz one from Saray-Tash (the first big Chinese project in the country), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) funded road projects to link Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (Dushanbe to the border through Khojand) and Dushanbe to Dungara, which is described as being the first part of the Tajikistan-China highway . Undertaken by the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CBRC), these projects have been proceeding at a relatively rapid pace, though it seems clear that the priority is to develop the road from Dushanbe to Uzbekistan rather than the China-Tajik connection. Managed by Innovative Road Solutions (IRS) a company housed in the British Virgin Islands, the Dushanbe-Uzbekistan road is a well-functioning toll road (the only one in the country and dogged by questions of where the money is going) with one remaining piece, the Shahriston tunnel, currently under development by CBRC . Initially slated for opening in September 2011, the tunnel is now expected to open in time for National Unity Day on June 27 (Asia Plus, March 19). When seen by the authors this month, however, it did not appear to be nearing conclusion.
In contrast, the Dushanbe-Kulma Pass road, which would connect China to Tajikistan directly, was perilous and for the most parts a mud or stone track. The road immediately out of the capital (toward Dungara—President Rahmon’s home province) was well developed as was a Chinese-built portion along the Afghan border that had been funded by the Asia Development Bank (ADB), but the rest of the road was virtually impassable to all but large trucks and high performance four-wheel drive SUVs . Chinese road crews were visible on the portions of road near Dushanbe—working with signs in Chinese and Russian—but for the most part, the road was destitute, highlighting its relatively low priority in Chinese terms. For China, the priority was to develop Tajikistan’s links through Garm to Saray Tash and Osh in Kyrgyzstan, tying the country’s routes to Uzbekistan (also Chinese built as previously indicated) into the road network linking Kyrgyzstan to China directly through Irkeshtam and the Torugut Pass (“China’s Slow Surge in Kyrgyzstan,” China Brief, November 11, 2011).
Tajik officials interviewed were keen to boost the profile of a potential rail connection from China through Kyrgyzstan and northern Tajikistan to Afghanistan and eventually Indian Ocean ports—either Chinese-developed Gwadar in Pakistan or Bandar Abbas in Iran. This project however is still apparently undergoing feasibility studies and it is unclear that there is major political will behind it . The economic benefits it might bring to Tajikistan are partly hostage to future developments in Afghanistan. Connecting China and Tajikistan by rail would not make economic sense in and of itself. While there are some Chinese markets in the country, they pale in comparison to the behemoths of Kyrgyzstan’s Dordoi and Kara Suu or Kazakhstan’s Barakolka. Prospective Chinese commercial interests in agriculture and electricity generation in Tajikistan are notable, but would not require the estimated hundreds of millions of dollars that would go into rail construction in the country.
Largely due to the country’s immense need for outside aid and investment, Tajikistan’s government generally operates an “open-door” policy in its relations with major powers. Dushanbe’s relationship with Moscow is currently strained over tough negotiations on Russian troop presence in the country, while links with the United States and Western actors are largely predicated on Afghanistan. Tajikistan’s traditional ethnic and linguistic affinity with neighboring Iran is often more rhetorical than substantive. China’s approach of offering investment with few obvious strings attached is appealing to the leadership in Dushanbe, which has received considerable sums of loans for various projects from Beijing as well as support in building a number of key landmark buildings (like the new Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Library and a park surrounding the world’s tallest flagpole in the middle of the city) (Reuters, March 30, 2011).
A large volume of funding has come under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)—Tajikistan is the largest recipient of loans provided through the organization. Tajikistan’s policymakers are keen to support the SCO as it provides the opportunity for equal-status dialogue with more wealthy Central Asian neighbors as well as Russia and China (Xinhua, September 9, 2011). Dushanbe also is the largest beneficiary of Chinese aid through the SCO, receiving in total over $600 million . Despite the SCO’s origins in the Shanghai Five border delimitation agreements, however, the ratification in 2011 of the border delineation between China and Tajikistan was decided on a bilateral basis outside SCO structures. Local authorities and analysts proudly point out that Tajikistan only gave way on 3.5 percent of China’s land demands (approximately 0.7 percent of Tajikistan’s territory) in contrast to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan that ceded much larger percentages of Chinese demands.
More controversial than this agreement, however, are a pair of deals for agricultural land that were undertaken at a government-to-government level, involving, on the Chinese side, the state-owned China National Agricultural Development Group. These concern a pair of pieces of agricultural land—the first plot is about 6,000 hectares, the second plot is of unknown size—that were given over to Chinese developers. Solid information about the project is hard to find, but, according to local analysts as well as local and foreign officials interviewed, the land was reported as being heavily salinated and therefore unusable. Given China’s agricultural expertise, the government gave this to China to develop with the understanding that for the first three years all products used would be sold in Tajikistan. Local concerns however preponderate with people pointing out the numerous Chinese workers who have been sent over. Some estimates are as high as 1,500-2000 Chinese farmers coming over (“Revising the Border: China’s Inroads into Tajikistan,” China Brief, July 29, 2011). When asked, Chinese officials stated only 30 percent of the workers were Chinese and that the real controversy was a product of the fact that the Tajik side had understood that more equipment was going to be sourced locally. The success of the project currently is unclear with locals complaining it has not been performing according to plan .
Culture and Language Exchanges
At a public level, China is not that visible in Tajikistan. While there is evidence of Chinese businessmen and others walking around Dushanbe as well as Chinese restaurants and a Chinese hospital offering traditional Chinese remedies, the majority of the Chinese in the country are work crews. They however work on infrastructure projects and live in camps near their sites—one popular if unfounded rumor is that these work crews are made up of Chinese prison laborers. At a cultural level, however, the heart of China’s cultural and linguistic links in Tajikistan is the Confucius Institute based at Tajikistan National University.
Managed by Xinjiang Normal University with a team of some 4 teachers sent from China, the Institute estimates it has taught some 1,800 students from high school to university in the past year. This figure is an increase from the year before and continues a steady expansion over the past four to six years. They have established a subsidiary branch in Penjikent at local request, aimed at helping local high schoolers to learn Chinese. Unlike other Confucius Institutes in Central Asia (such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan), the Institute lacks many support materials. The only current Tajik-Chinese dictionary is a small one done by a Tajik who spent some time in China, and they have no direct language textbooks to help them. Instead, teachers operate using a mix of Chinese, Russian and English materials—something replicated in the classroom environment where students would flicker between all three languages. At a cultural level, the Chinese Embassy reported they held some six cultural events per year in the country bringing over dance, music and theater troupes—the most popular ones apparently were groups from Xinjiang .
Tajikistan is clearly a secondary priority for China. While groundwork has been laid that could be turned into influence down the road, Beijing’s immediate interests in the country are limited. Whether or not this changes depends very much on what happens in Afghanistan. Should China’s investments there, such as at the Aynak copper concession or the Amu Darya gas fields, see substantial development in a relatively stable Afghanistan after the 2014 Western withdrawal, then Tajikistan’s importance as a throughput between Xinjiang and Afghanistan will grow. Further deterioration in Pakistan’s domestic situation also would enhance Tajikistan’s value as a logistical pathway. This would likely bring with it more Chinese engagement and investment in Tajikistan’s isolated Gorno-Badakhshan region as well as in the more populous west of the country. This however depends on Afghanistan’s uncertain future.
It is more likely that Chinese investors will remain cautious in a highly uncertain and probably unstable Afghanistan over the next ten years. For Tajikistan, this means that it will remain one of multiple routes for Chinese interests to crisscross the Eurasian continent and reach ports in the Indian Ocean. As it is now, it will remain less important than Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in terms of the flow of Chinese goods and the direction of Chinese investments. Tajikistan also will remain behind Turkmenistan in terms of Chinese energy interests. Its importance will stem from its role as a redundant route, useful for diversity’s sake if political unrest erupts amongst its neighbors. The one project that could change this calculation would be the rail route through Tajikistan’s north from Kyrgyzstan and into Afghanistan to reach the Indian Ocean. So far, this has not gathered significant political or financial momentum, but, if it does, then Chinese exporters, investors and policymakers in Beijing probably will reassess Tajikistan’s strategic importance.
Author interviews with foreign NGO, Dushanbe April 2012.
- The authors traveled these routes: Dushanbe-Khorog-Murghab-Kulma Pass and Dushanbe-Sharistan-Khojand-Oybek.
- Aga Khan Foundation in Tajikistan 2012, Aga Khan Development Network, http://www.akdn.org/publications/2012_tajikistan_akf.pdf; Tajikistan Fact Sheet, Asian Development Bank, December 31, 2011, http://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/pub/2012/TAJ.pdf
- Author interviews with foreign NGOs and local analysts, Dushanbe, April 2012.
- Author interview with local journalists and analysts, Dushanbe, April 17, 2012; “Build a Bridge for the China-Tajikistan Friendship,” China Road and Bridge Corporation Press Release, August 29, 2011.
- Author interviews with local and foreign analysts, diplomats and journalists, Dushanbe, April 2012.
- Author interview with ADB officials, Dushanbe, April 26, 2012.
- Author interviews with Tajik officials, Dushanbe, April 2012, and foreign NGOs and diplomats, Kabul, May 2012.
- Author interviews with local analysts and official think tanks, Dushanbe, April 2012. According to reports in the press this number may be as high as $700 million (Reuters, March 30, 2011). Official sources in Dushanbe, however, stated the number was in fact $605 million.
- Author interviews with local journalists and analysts, foreign diplomats and official think tanks, Dushanbe, April 2012.
- Author interviews with Chinese officials and local academics, Dushanbe, April 2012.