At the end of July, Tajikistan and China will hold joint military exercises in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region. These ostensibly anti-terrorist exercises will feature Tajikistani air, ground and air-defense forces. The composition of the Chinese contribution has not yet been announced (Avesta.tj, July 9). This will not be the first instance of Chinese troops holding maneuvers with their counterparts from Tajikistan: In 2016, a joint force of about 10,000 conducted the first Sino-Tajik bilateral drills, also in Gorno-Badakhshan. And that same year, China, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan formed a “Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism in Counter Terrorism” (Mod.gov.cn, August 4, 2016). Nevertheless, the recent announcement actually has outsized significance and is anything but routine. First of all, it demonstrates China’s continuing ability to either compel or impose its will on Tajikistan without anybody, including Moscow, being able to do much about it. And second of all, and building on the first fact, the upcoming exercise represents a next step in China’s overall encroachment upon Russia’s self-proclaimed “sphere of influence” in Central Asian. Again Moscow either cannot or will not do anything to counter that trend.
China’s growing influence over and pressure on Tajikistan reached a notable milestone in 2011, when it forced the Central Asian state to make previously (in 2002) agreed-upon territorial concessions in return for investment in Tajikistani infrastructure (see EDM, January 24, 2011). Since then, China has become the largest foreign investor in Tajikistan—not because the latter has resources and other attractive features, but rather because the small country is essential for the transport of goods and commodities via Central Asia both to and from China as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (see China Brief, May 25, 2012). Indeed, without Chinese support, Tajikistan might go bankrupt—and it certainly appears that Dushanbe either has already or is on the verge of falling into Beijing’s debt trap (Cgdev.org, March 4, 2018).
Having largely secured its preeminent economic position in Tajikistan and the wider Central Asian region, China has increasingly been extending its influence into the security sphere. Indeed, in 2016, Beijing signed an agreement with Dushanbe pledging to finance “the construction of eleven [Tajikistani] outposts of different sizes and a training center for [Tajikistan’s] border guards” (Belt and Road News, February 26, 2019). Moreover, a series of bilateral secret agreements reached in 2015–2016 reportedly “gave Beijing rights to refurbish or build up to 30 to 40 guard posts on the Tajik side of the country’s border with Afghanistan” (The Wall Street Journal, June 18). But as it now turns out, China is also extending its own military presence throughout Central and South Asia’s Pamir areas (ASIA-Plus—Tajikistan, February 21).
Recently, Beijing moved to create a Chinese-manned military outpost in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region, abutting Xinjiang, as well as (before that) another similar facility across the border, in Afghanistan’s remote Wakhan Corridor. These bases were ostensibly established to defend against terrorists threats; but they are likely laying the groundwork for Beijing to be able to more effectively project military power into Central Asia to guard its investments there. And even though it established its base in Tajikistan only after prolonged discussions with Russia, it is clear that this modest, piecemeal military expansion into the region is part of a larger scheme (Central Asia–Caucasus Analyst, April 18).
In June of this year, China’s and Tajikistan’s heads of state met and agreed that the two countries “will continue to support each other on issues concerning their core interests, such as national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity, and give priority to the development of bilateral ties in each side’s foreign policies” (Xinhua, June 16). But given Beijing’s track record in supporting Tajikistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity (see above), this statement evokes Vladimir Lenin’s quip about “the way a rope supports the hanging man.”
Apart from what China’s policies presage for Central Asian states, however, it is also clear that these moves represent an increasingly overt challenge to Russia’s claims of hegemony in Central Asia. To date, Russia has shown itself either unable or unwilling to confront China openly in Central Asia—or anywhere else. If anything, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping continue to state that relations have never been better. China and Russia agreed last month to upgrade their relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era (China.org.cn, June 6). And on July 23, Russian and Chinese strategic bombers carried out their first ever joint air patrol, provocatively flying between South Korean and Japanese airspaces (TASS, July 23).
To be sure, Russia has tried to strengthen its own position in Central Asia, and particularly in Tajikistan, by holding its own maneuvers with the Tajikistani Armed Forces. And it is a frequent refrain by many analysts that Russia resents China’s inroads into what it deems to be its sphere of influence (The News, July 17, 2018). Yet, so far, the official response from Russia about China’s latest announced joint military maneuvers in Central Asia has been silence or acquiescence—just like in the case of the new Chinese base in Tajikistan that reportedly came about after extensive consultations with Moscow. Russia occasionally makes unilateral moves to improve its regional position, but few of these steps actually succeed. Indeed, despite the widely held assumption that China’s rising power will inevitably drive Russia away from their developing bilateral alliance, the Kremlin leader has pointedly said that Moscow and Beijing are “natural allies” (Bangkok Post, October 14, 2014). And as early as 2011, the–prime minister Putin declared that “the main struggle, which is now underway, is that for global leadership, and we are not going to contest China on this” (Premier.gov.ru, October 17, 2011). Therefore it is unlikely that the upcoming July exercises in Tajikistan will be the apex of China’s Central Asian encroachments. Rather, these drills might reiterate the beginning of the end for Russia’s dreams of hegemony in Central Asia.