China is quietly and steadily increasing its military links with Central Asian states, including the weak Tajikistani military, in keeping with its policy goals of limiting U.S. influence in the region and promoting its own security agenda. Cao Gangchuan, Chinese defense minister, made his first official visit to Dushanbe on September 13, holding meetings with senior elements of the government, including his counterpart, Sherali Khayrulloyev. These meetings resulted in a series of documents being signed aimed at advancing military cooperation between China and Tajikistan (Asia-Plus, September 13).
The precise details involved in these agreements appears rather modest in their scope. In future there will be a clear emphasis upon Tajik-Chinese military-technical cooperation concentrating on training Tajik officers within higher educational establishments of the Chinese Defense Ministry. Both sides will also share intelligence and experience in mutually agreed security areas, as well as conducting more joint anti-terrorist exercises. Tajikistani officials sought support for their own efforts to deal with the threats presented to the Tajik state through international terrorism, illegal drug smuggling, and organised crime. Indeed Cao justified China’s growing interest in Tajikistan’s security concerns on this very basis, which has served as the main security thrust of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), “We are close neighbors and have good-neighborly and friendly relations. The leaders of our countries meet often and have reached agreements on important issues. There is good cooperation between China and Tajikistan. It is developing dynamically and the military cooperation is an important component of relations between the two countries” (Avesta, September 13; Khovar, September 15).
China’s security assistance to Tajikistan is therefore modest in some of its aims, focusing more on increasing ties and influencing the Tajikistani Ministry of Defense in more subtle ways. Bilateral agreements and cooperation in this sphere are not in any way controversial, underpinned by the general direction taken by the SCO; Dushanbe can deftly eschew complaints that it is developing stronger military links with Beijing by claiming it is acting in keeping with the spirit of the SCO. It will therefore seek to pursue all the assistance it can possibly secure from China, both at the bilateral level and on the SCO’s multilateral basis.
Of course, all the major powers are utilizing the argument that Tajikistan, and the whole region, requires enhanced security measures to curb the threats from terrorism, drug trafficking, and organized crime syndicates. Moscow is equally used to using such appeals in order to justify its ongoing military presence in Tajikistan and offer a buffer against what many within the Russian government see as Washington’s efforts to interfere in Russia’s backyard.
Nikolai Bordyuzha, Secretary-General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), believes that more than 30 terrorist and extremist organizations are currently active on the territories of member states of the CSTO. The CSTO secretariat is considering a plan to adopt a commonly agreed list of such organizations throughout the CSTO member states. Both Dushanbe and Bishkek are applying pressure to ensure that Hizb-ut-Tahrir is included on this list. They may be encouraged by the example of U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, who responded to the July suicide attacks on the London underground by similarly banning the organization.
On September 15 Russia’s 201st Motor Rifle Division (MRD), based in Dushanbe, held a military exercise to test its combat capabilities and promote the image of Moscow protecting its own security interests and looking after its former satellite republic (Interfax, RIA-Novosti, September 15). The continued presence of the 201st MRD represents Moscow’s low-cost method of ensuring that Dushanbe never wanders too far from its influence.
Tajikistan is not relying entirely on foreign donors to support its own efforts to strengthen state security; on September 21-23 it is holding its own military exercises in Eastern Tajikistan to ensure the rapid stabilization of emergency situations and the elimination of terrorist formations in the Rasht area. The exercises will be conducted step by step. “Training sessions with the chairmen and military commissars of districts administered from the capital (central Tajikistan) and Mountainous Badakhshon Autonomous Region will be held on 21-22 September. The sessions will work out the organization of the territorial defense zone,” commented the Tajikistani Ministry of Defense. The exercises are to examine the success of the summer 2005 training within the armed forces; testing the soldiers’ theoretical knowledge acquired during the training period (Interfax, September 16; Asia-Plus, September 20).
The prospect of increased military cooperation, involving officer training for Tajik personnel in Chinese military establishments, does not demonstrate any radical shift in Beijing’s policy either towards Central Asia or Tajikistan. It does pointedly remind Western donors to Tajikistan’s weak security structures that China only needs to make small adjustments to its defense cooperation policies to affect change and realignment within such fragile Central Asian states. Such developments make more difficult the task of providing clear guidance and justification for ongoing efforts by NATO members to assist Dushanbe in its meager efforts to enhance its own security structures; these personnel and the system from which they emerge is steeped in Soviet style traditions and thinking. Beijing’s grasp of this reality means its military cooperation efforts do not require large scale or overly ambitious targets, in order to muddy the waters.