Chinese military base in Tajikistan: regional implications

China-Tajikistan security cooperation and border control (Credits: CC BY 4.0, mapchart.net)

Geopolitical Report 2785-2598 Volume 12 Issue 13
Author: Giuliano Bifolchi

China might expand its military presence in Central Asia by establishing bases in those countries where Beijing has invested financial funds to support the Belt and Road Initiative. At the same time, since the U.S. troops withdraw from Kabul, Beijigin aims to control border dynamics with Afghanistan, particularly in Tajikistan, and fill the vacuum left by Western military forces.

The Tajik authorities have announced that China will build a militarised base in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, but it will belong to Tajik security forces. According to the Tajik service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, this security facility will be built within the framework of an agreement between the Tajik Interior Ministry and the Chinese Security Ministry. The military base will be located in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) that shares borders with China and Afghanistan and will counter any security or terrorist threat in the region.

The Deputy of the Majlisi Namoyandagon of the Majlisi Oli of the Republic of Tajikistan, Azimzoda Tolibkhon Sitammurod, said that this base would belong to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Tajikistan. According to him, all equipment and machinery imported to Tajikistan from China during the construction of the base are exempt from customs duties. The construction budget is estimated at 55 million Chinese yuan, equivalent to about 100 million somonis.

Meanwhile, back in 2019, the Washington Post newspaper, citing residents and satellite images of the area, reported that a secret Chinese military base had been located in the Murghab district of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region of Tajikistan, a few kilometres from the border with China.

Geopolitical scenario

China aims to strengthen its military presence in Central Asia countries, particularly those that share borders with Afghanistan since the U.S. troops withdrawal (The new geopolitical game of Afghanistan). Chinese-Tajik relations have grown closer during the last decades while European and U.S. investments have vanished.

Since 2013 when Beijing launched the Belt and Road Initiative, China has invested significant financial funds in Central Asia to modernise regional infrastructure and stabilise this strategic area. In 2011, due to Dushanbe incapacity of paying back loans to Beijing, Tajikistan offered 1,158 square kilometres of disputed territory in exchange for the writing off of the debt. At the beginning of 2021, China suspended debt repayments from Tajikistan since Beijing owns nearly half of Tajikistan’s 3.2 billion dollars foreign debt pile (more than 1.2 billion dollars).

Russia has considerable interests in Tajikistan since it is part of the Kremlin’s blizhnee zarubezhe (near abroad) and lebensraum (vital space), where Moscow aims to expand its political, economic, and military influence and presence. In Tajikistan, the Russian Federation has the 201st Military Base near Dushanbe. Moscow has several times confirmed its readiness to support and guarantee Afghan-Tajik border security and prevent the spread of terrorism in the country. Furthermore, Tajikistan is a member of Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union and Collective Security Treaty Organisation (Tajikistan: the Kremlin’s frontier against the Taliban; The effect of terrorism in Afghanistan on Russian-Tajik relations).

Undeniably, since the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Tajikistan has supported a firm policy against a possible Taliban Government supporting the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan in Panjshir and discussing with regional and international actors issues related to borders control, security, and counter-terrorism (Relazioni Tagikistan-Afghanistan e possibile escalation regionale).

Iran also aims at playing a leading role in Tajikistan, exploiting common cultural and historical background even though the relations between Tehran and Dushanbe have deteriorated at the end of 2015. Tajikistan openly and indirectly accused the Iranian authorities of supporting the Hizbi Nahzati Islomii Tojikiston (Islamic Renaissance Party), banned in the country, and Tehran blamed Dushanbe for disappearing millions of dollars transferred there by Babak Zanjani. However, over the past three years, the relations between these two countries have warmed up again. The Islamic Republic of Iran has demonstrated its desire to strengthen economic, security and political cooperation with the Tajik Government. Considering that Iran took part in two large projects in Tajikistan, the Istiklol Tunnel and the Sangtuda-2 Hydroelectric Power Plant (HPP), enhancing energy, economic, and security cooperation might finally help Tehran to affirm its presence in Tajikistan, therefore in Central Asia, and cooperate with Dushanbe over Afghanistan.

As reported recently, India is highly interested in enhancing its partnership and cooperation with Tajikistan in different sectors, first among all the military field (Indian interests in Tajikistan in the emerging regional dynamics). Since New Delhi aims to establish its presence in Central Asia and counter Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and the Taliban Government in Afghanistan backed by Pakistan, India has targeted Tajikistan to intensify its military activities in the Ayni airbase (or Gissan military airfield – GMA) and Farkhor Air Base.

Recently, Dushanbe has also attempted to attract Anakara’s interest by inviting Turkish companies to invest in domestic economic development projects. Although Tajikistan is not part of the Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States, Ankara is interested in entire Central Asia promoting pan-Turkism and economic partnership (Turkey and pan-Turkism in Central Asia: challenges for Russia and China).

Conclusion

The Chinese military base in Tajikistan supports Beijing’s presence in Central Asia and alarm the Russian Federation, the United States, the Islamic Republic of Iran, India, and Turkey. Considering that the People’s Republic of China is the prominent investor in the Central Asian republic of Tajikistan, a significant Chinese military presence in the country might include Dushanbe in Beijing’s strategic orbit and decrease Russian influence and regional actors’ presence.

Considering recent talks between China and Kyrgyzstan about security cooperation (China and Kyrgyzstan strengthened security cooperation), it is possible to foresee Beijing’s attempt to establish military bases in the region to avoid U.S. military presence in Central Asia as recently suggested by the U.S. Administration to support local republics in securing and stabilising the area after U.S. troops withdrawal from Afghanistan. Furthermore, the Chinese military presence in Central Asia, particularly in Tajikistan, might help Beijing to control Russian activities in the region and local actors.

Looking at the map, it is possible to underline that the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region is located between Afghanistan and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR), a Chinese region where Beijing fights against the Uyghur movement and local terrorism since it has a strategic role in the Belt and Road Initiative.  The military base in Tajikistan might also support the Chinese fight against the Uyghurs and allow Beijing to control the security situation of XUAR.