In most parts of the world, the lines on maps separating countries are true borders. That is, they are controlled by the governments on one or both sides. But in some places, they remain the quasi-open frontiers they were in the past or have reemerged as such because of recent political changes; those borders are highly porous zones, where people and goods can move more or less freely in one or both directions without much regard to the powers that be. Such situations invite outside involvement that can ramp up quickly and disturb preexisting international arrangements. One poignant example is the adjoining border area shared by Tajikistan and Afghanistan. In recent years, that frontier has attracted attention because of the danger that Islamist militants from Afghanistan could cross it to move north into Tajikistan and beyond. But another danger is emerging: China is establishing increasing control over Tajikistan and, thus, is putting itself in a position to project power southward from Tajikistan into Afghanistan. If Beijing does so, that could fundamentally change the security situation and geopolitical balance in Central and South Asia as a whole.
Two new articles suggest that the likelihood of that development is increasing, ringing alarm bells in Moscow. The first, by Sofiya Musofir of the Moscow State University’s Center for the Study of Social-Political Processes on the Post-Soviet Space, highlights just how porous the frontier between Tajikistan and Afghanistan currently is (Ia-centr.ru, February 4). And the second piece, by experts at the Central Asian Analytic Center, calls attention to the ways in which China is presently focusing on Tajikistan. The authors write that Beijing has already reclassified the Central Asian republic “a zone of special interest” for itself, using both overt and covert methods to spread Chinese influence there (Caa-network.org, January 31).
The line between Tajikistan and Afghanistan was drawn by the Russian Empire and the United Kingdom in the 19th century. It runs mainly along the Pyandzh River, dividing the residents of the local Badakhshan region politically but not culturally, Musofir says. In Soviet times, the border was mostly closed; but since 1991, it has again become more a frontier, with individuals moving easily in both directions. Four bridges have been built so that travelers and goods can pass in both directions; and at an island in the middle of the Pyandzh, people from both sides meet regularly on what they consider neutral territory. Those in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region who want to visit the other side of the border for longer can easily obtain visas from the Afghan consulate in Khorog, Kabul’s only such facility in the former Soviet space. Many now do, although the pandemic slowed such movement over the past year.
Affecting this situation is China’s growing role in Tajikistan. According to the Central Asian Analytic Center, “today, China for Tajikistan is a major trading partner, a key source of investments and loans and also the most important exporter.” But for China, Tajikistan is something more, a place to expand Beijing’s geo-economic and geopolitical influence by shaping the elites in the capital through arrangements, often corrupt, that tie government figures to the Chinese (Carnegie.ru, January 22) and allow China to dominate security arrangements in that Central Asian country, which adjoins Afghanistan. In the past, Dushanbe has had to make concessions on its border with China and on Chinese use of Tajikistani lands and mines as the price for the loans it has received (see China Brief, July 29, 2011; see EDM, February 13, 2012). More recently, Tajikistan’s government has sought to distance itself somewhat from China, as might have been expected when Beijing-based writers began to suggest that all of Tajikistani territory should be part of China (see EDM, July 30, 2020).
But perhaps most concerning for Moscow and many Western capitals is China’s involvement in Tajikistan’s security arrangements as well as its construction of airbases nearby, in the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous District, which borders on both Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Beijing has helped Dushanbe construct three military commissariats, three new military units, four headquarter facilities, and a training base for Tajikistani soldiers in the Pamir region (Gorno-Badakhshan) adjoining Afghanistan—all in the name of what it says is an effort to block the expansion of Islamist groups from Afghanistan into Tajikistan. And perhaps more clearly indicative of Beijing’s plans, it has opened the first of what it says will be 30 new airfields in Xinjiang next door, nominally to promote tourism, a claim the Central Asian Analytic Network dismisses as specious (Caa-network.org, May 7, 2020).
According to the Network, China’s airport construction in the Pamir Mountains in particular is almost certainly more about the promotion of the economic and political interests of Beijing there and more broadly and not just about tourism, the Pamirs or Tajikistan as such. These facilities, both those overtly Chinese and those nominally Tajikistani, will give China the tools to project power northward into other Central Asian countries as well as southward into Afghanistan. The latter is especially likely given the porosity of the frontier between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
That, in turn, sets the stage for new conflicts between China, on the one hand, and Russia and the West, on the other. First of all, these Chinese actions undercut what had been the Moscow-Beijing modus vivendi in Central Asia, one in which China increasingly dominated economic arrangements but Russia retained control of the security environment. And second, they mean that China is rapidly acquiring in Tajikistan a place des armes into which it can introduce its own forces quickly and deploy them in ways that could further complicate Western involvement in Afghanistan. Indeed, as the Central Asian Analytic Center points out, having this capacity gives China leverage even if it has not yet projected power southward through the porous Tajikistani-Afghan border (Caa-network.org, May 7, 2020).
At a minimum, the possibility that China could use Tajikistan’s frontier region to influence outcomes in Afghanistan should be attracting at least as much attention as the danger that Islamist groups from Afghanistan might be able to destabilize Tajikistan and Central Asia.