Russia’s preoccupation with its war on Ukraine gives China an opening for closer ties with Central Asia. Tajikistan could be key to Beijing achieving its regional aims.
In a nutshell
- China and Central Asia relations are developing with less regard to Russia
- While trade and investment are increasing, security problems remain
- Despite the relative poverty of Tajikistan, its location is strategically vital
On May 18-19, a first-ever China-Central Asia summit was held in the city of Xian, the symbolic origin of the ancient Silk Road trading route. The agenda was focused on breathing new life into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing’s massive infrastructure investment program launched in Kazakhstan by President Xi Jinping in 2013.
Following an economic slowdown during the Covid-19 restrictions, the past couple of years have seen a revitalization of Chinese trade with Central Asia. China’s Ministry of Commerce said trade with the five Central Asian nations rose to $70 billion in 2022, a 40 percent jump over 2021. China is the largest trading partner for Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan in the economically resilient region. Although boosting trade and investment is always helpful, the meeting in Xian also carried political weight.
Meeting without Moscow
It was the first time a Chinese leader met with the leaders of the five Central Asian states without Russia even being invited. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has made association with Moscow increasingly toxic. When President Xi paid a visit to Moscow on March 20, he made it clear that the much-touted “unlimited friendship” does not include overt Chinese backing of the Russian war effort. He had barely left Moscow before issuing invitations to the meeting in Xian. And when he finally spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on the phone, Russian propagandists voiced angry rants about “betrayal.”
Having long been a hegemon in Central Asia, Russia is fading into irrelevance as a source of investment and a provider of security. To China, this is an important turning point. The long-standing division of roles, with China as the driving force in the economy and Russia in providing security, is no longer relevant. But to what extent Beijing is interested or even welcome in providing security is unknown.
More by Stefan Hedlund on Central Asia
The role of Tajikistan
This is where Tajikistan comes into focus. With a gross domestic product per capita of just over $1,200, it is by far the poorest of the five Central Asian states that once were part of the Soviet Union.
Tajikistan’s role in the region’s trade and economic development will be minor. It is alone among the five countries in not being Turkic-speaking, so it will not feature in the pan-Turkic agenda that has been pursued by Ankara with the other four nations. And it has recently been in a shooting war with neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
The reason why Tajikistan may still be worth watching derives from its role in the development of regional security arrangements. Although its geographical size is small, its location is important. It borders on China in the east and even made territorial concessions once to the Middle Kingdom, settling a long-standing border dispute by ceding 1,000 square kilometers of the remote Pamir mountain range in 1999. Tajikistan borders Kyrgyzstan to the north and Uzbekistan to the west and has troubled relations with both. Most importantly, it borders Afghanistan to the south, meaning it constitutes an integral part of developments in that country. There are two sets of reasons why China will need to think hard about the link between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
China’s potential security role in Afghanistan
One relates to the prospects for a southward extension of the BRI to ports on the Indian Ocean. Since this infrastructure will have to cross Afghanistan, the outlook hinges critically on the regime in Kabul being willing and able to provide security for long-term investment. Having made big investments in building a railroad through Afghanistan and onward to Pakistan, Uzbekistan has gone to great lengths to court the Taliban.
On the agenda since 2017, the project was disrupted by the Taliban takeover in the summer of 2021, but following a renewed commitment by Kabul it is again moving ahead. On May 15, Uzbekistan opened a coordination office in Tashkent, to oversee feasibility studies and seek financing. Kazakhstan has also declared an interest to join. Given the size of the potential gains, the project gives China an added incentive to consider the provision of security.
Facts & figures
Ethnic Tajiks make up 25% of Afghanistan’s population
The role of Tajikistan in the development of Afghanistan derives from the fact that perhaps a quarter of the Afghan population is of ethnic Tajik origin. Although this is a smaller share than the Pashtuns, who are believed to account for 40 percent, it is still significant. Most importantly, while the Pashtuns dominate in the south, the Tajiks dominate in the north, and the two have a long history of animosity. When the Taliban were last in power, during 1996-2001, the northern part of the country was controlled by the Northern Alliance, whose subsequently murdered leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, was a Tajik.
The nature of relations between Tajiks in Afghanistan and their brethren in Tajikistan is far from clear. Some may want to nurture links to radicals within Tajikistan who want to establish an Emirate of their own. This said, from a Chinese perspective, the link is crucial. If Afghanistan remains stable, ethnic ties can offer inroads into decision-making in Kabul, where Tajiks are strong. If Taliban rule collapses, and Afghanistan again descends into sectarian violence, then the northern part of the country will be in Tajik hands. In either case, Beijing has a strong incentive to ensure that it has influence in Dushanbe.
The second set of reasons for Beijing to be concerned is that Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan meanders a total of 1,357 kilometers through rugged mountain terrain that is notoriously hard to patrol and secure. This border not only has a history of being an open door for the trade in narcotics. It also offers ample opportunities for jihadists and terrorists to infiltrate into Central Asia.
The ‘serious threat’ of militant groups from Afghanistan
After the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, neighboring countries have become increasingly concerned that the government in Kabul is unwilling to take decisive action against terrorist groups in the country. Following talks in Pakistan, Iran and China, Uzbekistan hosted a meeting in mid-April that branded the presence of militant groups in Afghanistan a “serious threat to regional and global security.”
In addition to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, the statement listed groups of particular concern to China. One is the Turkestan Islamic Party, which is fomenting unrest in China’s westernmost region Xinjiang. Given that Beijing has paid a price in deteriorating international relations over its mass imprisonment and repression of the region’s Uighur Muslims, this is serious business. Two other groups are the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and the Baloch Liberation Army, both of which have been attacking Chinese interests in Pakistan.
Tajikistan overlooked in Beijing’s plans for Central Asia
When President Xi outlined his “grandiose plan” for Central Asia, he unsurprisingly emphasized economic issues. Beijing wants more natural gas from Turkmenistan and is building a railway through Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan to complement the BRI route through Kazakhstan.
Tajikistan does not feature in any of these plans. Its location is offside from the BRI, and it has no hydrocarbon resources. It does have substantial water resources that could give it a key role in regional electricity and water management. Until it was upstaged by the Jinping-I Dam in China in 2014, the 300-meter tall Nurek hydropower dam was the largest in the world, and the flow of fresh water from the Pamir mountains is desperately needed on the plains below.
While these resources may be leveraged into a grand design for regional economic development, water management is also a notorious source of conflict. The three-day border skirmish that erupted between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in April 2021 was driven by a conflict over water supply.
If Beijing is to increase its role in building infrastructure toward the south, it will have to solve these issues. Tajikistan does not have strong armed forces. Anecdotal evidence shows how young men evade military service and how the authorities resort to illegal “press gang” techniques to fill recruitment quotas.
Nor is the United States seen as a provider of regional security. Following its shambolic retreat from Kabul in August 2021, American troops are not returning to the region any time soon.
Then there is the fading role of Russia. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow has retained a strong military presence in Tajikistan. The 201st Motor Rifle Division has long been Russia’s largest military base abroad, larger even than its bases at Tartus in Syria and at Gyumri in Armenia. Before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the base was estimated to have 7,500 personnel. At present, it is seriously depleted. Although the exact number of troops transferred to Ukraine is unclear, it is interesting to note local shopkeepers, taxi drivers and restaurant owners complaining about lost business from the Russians.
It is against this background that Tajikistan may play a vital role in how the region will develop. At the Xian summit, President Xi said that “China is ready to help Central Asian countries improve their law enforcement, security and defense capability construction.” But will Beijing cross its previous line of restraint and allow its armed forces to assume an open role abroad? Or will it remain content with outsourcing security to others, accepting the risk of serious destabilization?
Given that the Russian forces are based in the western part of Tajikistan, they have not been involved in providing security in the eastern part, the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO). The challenge for Beijing has been that this part borders both China and the Wakhan corridor, a strip of Afghan land that separates Tajikistan from Pakistan. Fearing infiltration by jihadist terrorists, it has opted to take security into its own hands.
The problem for Beijing is that if it does decide to raise its military posture, it will run the risk of “mission creep,” of being drawn into conflicts it would rather stay out of.
Opting for an open military presence in Tajikistan could stir up local nationalists exploiting animosity to Chinese debt-trap diplomacy. The country is estimated to have racked up a $2 billion debt to the Middle Kingdom and has already ceded territory.
Opting for closer cooperation with Uzbekistan, which does have a serious military force, would mean getting involved in animosities between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, at a time when relations between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are the best in a long time.
The alternatives are to outsource security to private contractors, which has already been done in Pakistan, with moderate success, or to remain content with anti-terror drills within the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which brings Russia back into the picture. Tajikistan is heavily dependent on remittances from Tajiks working in Russia.
The likely outlook is that Beijing will remain cautious in showing off its military might, hoping that lavish spending and a boost in trade will win Central Asian hearts and minds, in the process also defusing the danger of destabilizing influences. If this ambition remains a halfway house, it is a gamble that could backfire.