How might the Dushanbe-Kulma highway support interconnection between Gorno-Badakhshan and Xinjiang and regional stability?

The Dushanbe-Kulma highway will connect Tajikistan and China through the Pamir mountains (Credits: Image by Walter Frehner from Pixabay)
The Dushanbe-Kulma highway will connect Tajikistan and China through the Pamir mountains (Credits: Image by Walter Frehner from Pixabay)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 30 Issue 8
Author: Giuliano Bifolchi

The construction of the Dushanbe-Kulma highway, thanks to the Chinese investment, might support the interconnection between the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) with the final goal of improving local economies and stabilising these two strategic regions.

On April 13th, 2023, the Minister of Transport of Tajikistan, Azim Ibrohim, met with a delegation from the XUAR of the People’s Republic of China headed by the mayor of Kashgar, Yasinjan Yakhep. The interlocutors discussed strengthening cooperation in transport and logistics, as well as the construction of the Dushanbe-Kulma highway.

In 2022, thanks to Chinese support, the implementation of the second stage of the Dushanbe-Kulma highway construction project began. The project includes 93 km of roads, two tunnels 5.2 km long, five transport corridors and other structures.

The parties paid particular attention to issues related to the unhindered transportation of goods through the Kulma-Karosu point, attracting Chinese investment for the construction and reconstruction of the remaining part of Dushanbe-Kulma to increase the volume of international traffic. The parties agreed to sign an official document on this issue shortly.

In addition, Yahep invited the Ministry of Transport of Tajikistan delegation to participate in the Central and South Asia trade fair, which will be held in Kashgar on June 21st – 25th, 2023.

The relation between GBAO and XUAR: a geopolitical scenario

The Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) is located in the eastern part of Tajikistan, whereas Xinjiang is an autonomous region in the northwest corner of China. Both regions share a common border, which has made them neighbours for centuries.

The history of the relations between GBAO and Xinjiang has been mixed with cooperation and conflict.

One of the most significant economic ties between GBAO and Xinjiang is trade. The two regions have a long history of trade, in which the exchange of goods such as textiles, spices, and livestock has dominated. The shared border has made conducting business easier for traders from both sides.

The Chinese government has also been working on developing transport infrastructure between Xinjiang and Gorno-Badakhshan, including highways, railways, and airports. This development has increased trade between the two regions, with China becoming GBAO’s biggest trading partner.

Another area of economic cooperation between GBAO and XUAR is energy. The Gorno-Badakhshan has extensive reserves of hydroelectric power, which it can export to Xinjiang. Conversely, Xinjiang has significant reserves of oil and gas, which it can supply to GBAO. The two regions have been working on developing infrastructure to make this trade possible. This cooperation has the potential to strengthen energy security in both regions.

Cultural ties between GBAO and Xinjiang are strong due to the two regions’ shared history and religious beliefs. The Gorno-Badakhshan has a significant population of Ismaili Muslims, followers of the Aga Khan, who have developed ties with the Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang. The Uyghurs have a solid cultural and linguistic connection to Central Asia, leading to cultural exchanges between the two regions. GBAO’s unique cultural heritage, including the Pamiri people and their ancient traditions, has also led to cultural exchanges with Xinjiang.

Despite the opportunities for cooperation and economic development, there are also challenges to the relations between Gorno-Badakhshan and Xinjiang. One of the main issues is security.

Xinjiang has been dealing with separatist movements and terrorism, which has led to increased security along the shared border. This has made it difficult for cross-border trade and has led to tension between the two regions. On the other hand, GBAO has experienced domestic political tensions between the local population and the Tajik authorities, accused of depriving the Pamiri people of their rights and freedom.

Why is the Kulma Pass strategically important?

The Kulma Pass, also known as Qolma Pass or Karasu Pass, is a mountain pass across the Pamir Mountains on the border between Tajikistan and China, connecting GBAO and XUAR.

The pass is the only modern-day overland border crossing along the 450 km boundary between the two nations. The Asian Highway AH66 runs through the pass, with an elevation of 4,362.7 meters. The pass is open from the 16th to the 30th day of each month, from May to November.

The importance of the Kulma Pass lies in its role as a commercial corridor between China and Tajikistan. In 1997, China and Tajikistan signed an agreement to develop a commercial corridor between the two countries through the passage.

The Karasu Port of Entry opened on May 25th, 2004, and traffic volume grew considerably. The corridor transports goods such as automobiles, construction materials, machinery, electronics, furniture, eggs, and rice.

The Kulma Pass was closed for many years due to political tensions between the Soviet Union and China and the Tajikistani Civil War. The pass can be closed anytime when the access is not cleared of snow.

Why does it matter?

The Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) might be considered one of Central Asia’s most strategically important areas, attracting considerable global powers’ attention. Under Dushanbe’s control, the region has experimented with the confrontation between the central authority and the local population.

At the centre of the geopolitical interests of China and Russia, the borders with neighbouring Afghanistan and Xinjiang have alarmed Dushanbe due to the spread of jihadist propaganda and the activities of international terrorist organisations such as the Islamic State, which might exploit local disappointment in the region and recruit militants to conduct violent attacks against State military personnel or civilians.

Since GBAO shares borders with XUAR, China has paid significant attention to the region by attempting to improve the local economy through investments and interconnection projects such as the Dushanbe-Kulma highway. Considering the recent socio-political tensions in Gorno-Badakhshan and the threat from Afghanistan since the US troops’ withdrawal, China has also promoted defence cooperation with Dushanbe by supporting the construction of a military base in GBAO.

On the other hand, looking at GBAO’s neighbouring region, Xinjiang is a strategically important area for China as it shares borders with eight countries, including Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Its location makes it a vital link in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims to connect China with other countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe through infrastructure and trade links. Xinjiang’s position also makes it a key transit hub for China’s energy and resources, as many pipelines and railroads pass through the region.

In conclusion, since the local geopolitical risk might be assessed as medium-high, by promoting the construction of the Dushanbe-Kulma highway to improve the regional interconnection, China and Tajikistan are attempting to stabilise the area, especially GBAO and XUAR.

If, on the one hand, improving transportation and trade exchange might support Beijing and Dushanbe’s strategy, on the other hand, facilitating the connection might also offer an opportunity for local separatist movements or terrorist groups to move in the region and reach other potential targets.

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