Revising the Border: China’s Inroads into Tajikistan

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 14

Pamir Mountains Near the Sino-Tajik Border

The foundation of China’s policies toward Russia and Central Asia since 1991 lies in the border treaties it signed with these states over this period.  Those treaties demarcated the borders between China and all the post-Soviet successor states: Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.  These treaties not only eliminated border disputes among these states, but also provided for confidence-building measures and reciprocal, though not bilateral, measures of disarmament along the Russo-Chinese border.  Consequently, these treaties laid the foundation for the Russo-Chinese amity since 1991, China’s subsequently flourishing commercial and political relationships with Central Asian states and the original basis for the Shanghai Treaty of 1996, which established the framework for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.


Yet in the last several years, we see repeated instances of China “rectifying” these border treaties, primarily, but not exclusively, with Central Asian states, to reclaim previously conceded territory. At the time of the original treaties, China’s position had been quite concessionary.  The most recent example of this process is the Sino-Tajik agreement that was ratified in January 2011.  This agreement—allegedly based on a prior accord between the two governments in 2002 that was reiterated in 2010—cedes about 1,000 square kilometers, or about one percent of Tajikistan, in the sparsely populated Pamir Mountains to China  (Bhavna Singh, “Sino-Tajik Border: Settlement or Entrapment?” Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, January 28, 2011; Eurasia Insight, January 28; Asia Times Online, January 2).  Tajikistan’s government hailed this as a victory because China previously claimed some 28,000 square kilometers and settled for only about three and a half percent of its claims.  Moreover, Shukhrob Sharipov, Director of the Presidential Center for Strategic Studies, argued “If we hadn’t decided to transfer the land [at this time], we would not have been able to resist China’s pressure” (Associated Press, January 14;, January 29). Accordingly, this “rectification” of the borders ensures the  inviolability of Tajikistan’s border, definitively solves its border problems with China and ensures its stability “for decades to come” (Interfax, January 14, 18 and April 28).


This deal however triggered a strong and public nationalist backlash to the surrender of Tajik territory to China, even if the disputes about it go back to Tsarist times.  Perhaps this backlash was triggered more by the fact that between 1,500-2,000 Chinese farmers will settle another 2,000 hectares of land beyond the border agreement (Eurasia Insight, January 28).  According to the opposition, Tajikistan is becoming increasingly dependent on China economically due to its large investment in the area.  The opposition also alleges the value of the raw material resources in the land ceded by Tajikistan equal the entire Chinese investment in Tajikistan to date.  If true, China has recouped its investment at no cost to itself and has both the land and its resources as well as maintaining its investments and penetration of Tajikistan (Singh, “Sino-Tajik Border: Settlement or Entrapment?”). Tajikistan represents only the latest example of such border rectifications in China’s relationships with Central Asia.

China’s Other Border “Rectifications” and the Central Asian Response

China approached Kazakshtan in late 2009 with a request to allow Chinese farmers to use one milliion hectares of Kazakh land to farm soya and rape seed (Asia Times Online, December 24, 2009).   Earlier in 2004, the Kazakh autonomous region of Ili in Xinjiang obtained permission to rent 7,000 hectares of agricultural land—which had been abandoned since the 1990s—for ten years from the governor of the Kazakhstan border district, Lake Alakol. The roughly 3,000 Chinese renters now grow soya beans and wheat on the land. This transaction provoked scathing attacks in the media against the government, apparently out of concern that the country was being carved up at Beijing’s behest. The media recalled that the Russian Far East also was becoming increasingly fragmented through Chinese purchases of agricultural land and wooded areas. Such deals, however,  have not been repeated, precisely because Sinophobe social pressures, which are quite palpable on the issue of land possession, have quelled the ambitions of local politicians [1].

In Kyrgyzstan, political life has been profoundly structured by the process of settling border issues with China, an issue that provoked the largest popular demonstrations seen in the country since independence. The first border agreement, which ceded approximately 30,000 hectares to China, was signed by the president in 1996 and ratified by the parliament (Jogorku Kenesh) two years later in 1998. In the second, signed in 1999, more than 90,000 hectares of the Uzengi-Kuush region were ceded to China. This provoked the opposition’s wrath. Tapping into national sentiment, Kyrgyz opposition groups used the settlement to try to topple the government. In fall 2001, some MPs refused to ratify the treaty, arguing the final text of the agreement had not been made known to them, no maps with precise geographical boundaries had been attached and it did not have any assessment of the value of the lands [2].

In all of these cases, China’s actions triggered a substantial domestic reaction against the government. China’s demands confirmed the findings of Marlene Laruelle and Sebastien Peyrouse that attitudes toward China, even if not loudly articulated in Central Asia, are clearly a factor in the domestic politics of Central Asian governments [3].  They further argue:

“Contrary to widespread opinion  the ostenisble Sinophilia of Central Asian statesought to be qualified,  The reason that the heads of states and their foreign ministers make so much publicity about their friendly foreign relations with Beijing is precisely because they do not view their troublesome neighbor as simply a power like the others.  Central Asia cannot afford to endorese policies that are contrary to Chinese interests” (italics in original) [4].

China’s Changing Approach to Resolving Sovereignty Disputes

China’s more recent pattern of behavior appears to bear out the warning of Allen Carlson in his book on China’s approach to sovereignty issues in international politics. Despite increased trade and economic relations between China and Central Asia and development in Xinjiang; disagreements over China’s domestic policy, it’s overbearing requests for land and other instances of Chinese assertiveness suggest Beijing’s demands have only aggravated tensions. Central Asian resentments about the border negotiations and uncertainty about Chinese intentions remain close to the surface [5].

Beyond these signs of China’s growing ascendancy over Central Asian governments, we see a comparable pattern of  rectification of borders and land leases for farmers in Russia. Chinese companies are buying up vast swathes of agricultural land in the Russian Far East (850,000 acres as of mid-2010) that the shrinking population there has abandoned and encouraging Chinese migrants to work there on a seasonal basis [6]. Moreover, the Chinese are driving hard bargains regarding the terms of trade between the Russian Far East and China.  Andrew Kramer of the New York Times reported:

“The Chinese are pressing for discounts from world prices because of the remoteness of the border region.  They argue that the Russian commodities should be cheap because of their abundance—and because without China as a near and ready buyer, the vast reserve in eastern Siberia would be far less valuable.  The Russians, on the other hand, argue that without their commodities, buyers in northeast China would have to pay much higher prices to suppliers from farther away” (June 10, 2010).


From these border issues, we can see a much greater assertiveness on China’s part even if Beijing professes moderation and has acquired a reputation for not demanding excessive concessions.  According to M. Taylor Fravel, who wrote a book about China’s negotiation and resolution of territorial disputes, China’s foreign policies as expressed in these talks were to a large degree governed by domestic considerations.  Fravel also observes in his book, where China’s internal security is a paramount issue, Beijing makes concessions on border issues to stabilize its domestic base [7].  Accordingly, in the negotiations with Central Asian states, we see a pattern of Chinese compromises on several disputed issues.  Regardless of the exchange, however, China still ultimately got what it wanted.  On the conclusion of a boundary agreement with Kazakhstan in 1994 Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev openly attacked national splittism, stating Kazakhstan “will never allow factions of ‘East Turkestan’ to involve themselves in activities here against China that will hurt Sino-Kazakhtani relations” [8].  In this and subsequent accords with Kazakhstan, China gained only about one third of the disputed territories while Kazakshtan claimed neither to have lost or gained territories.  Meanwhile its policy of non-support for Uyghur activities in China  continued.  We see a similar pattern in China’s border negotiations and subsequent agreements between 1994 – 2002 with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan [9].


This new pattern of assertiveness vis-à-vis Russia and Central Asia seems to indicate China’s growing confidence in its ability to suppress Uyghur unrest in Xinjiang and in its overall rising power and wealth   Srikanth Kondapalli, an Indian expert on China, suggests that these episodes illustrate China’s approach to handling disputed border issues.  He claims that, if the other side appears weak, China moves quickly to resolve the issue but drags its feet with stronger adversaries, hoping to defer resolution until China is in a stronger position.  Growing Chinese strength will lead China to dig in on its position, since, based on Fravel’s analysis, Beijing assesses China is not as threatened as it was twenty years ago by internal instability in its border provinces.  China also will claim more before settling for less so that the other side can say it achieved a victory. China can then parade its seeming moderation, even though territorial revisions still have been duly effected (Asia Times Online, January 27). 

Other Indian experts also are concerned that rising Chinese nationalism may inhibit future governments from making concessions in disputes with India that are still outstanding.  Given how Chinese nationalism might further solidify China’s border rectification campaign, they and Kondapalli are relatively pessimistic about the resolution of Indo-Chinese border issues anytime soon (Ibid; Singh, “Sino-Tajik Border: Settlement or Entrapment).

Arguably, China’s “rectifications” of its border treaties represent another example of its increasingly assertive—if not aggressive—behavior in its neighborhood.  With this experience, Central Asian governments should have no illusions about China’s demanding posture, but Tajikistan’s government said that its security is now guaranteed for “decades to come.”  A cynic however might say Tajikistan’s security and that of its neighboring Central Asian states is only guaranteed until such time as China demands further border adjustments.  We may not have the seen the last of Chinese demands, territorial or other, upon Central Asia.


1.     Marlene Laruelle and Sebastien Peyrouse, China as a Neighbor: Central Asian Perspectives and Strategies, Stockholm: Institute for Security, Development and Policy, 2009, p. 80.

2.     Ibid., p. 82.

3.     Ibid., p. 111.

4.     Marlene Laruelle and Sebastien Peyrouse, “Central Asian Perceptions of China,” China Eurasia Forum Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2009, p. 3

5.     Allen Carlson, Unifying China, Integrating With the World: Securing Chinese Sovereignty in the Reform Era, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004, p. 237.

6.     Ibid., Paul Goble, “Beijing ‘Renting’ Russian Border Area for Chinese Farmers,” Window on Eurasia Blog, June 1, 2010, <>.

7.     M. Taylor Fravel, Strong Borders Secure Nation: Cooperation and Conflict in China’s Territorial Disputes, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008, p. 127.

8.     Ibid., p. 161.

Ibid., pp. 160-166.