The Central Asian Republic of Tajikistan may be under the microscope in the coming years, after its parliament approved a deal for military cooperation on the border with China at the end of October. No details have been given about the nature or extent of this cooperation.
According to Tajik statements, Beijing will fund the construction of an outpost for “a special forces unit” of the Tajik police close to the border with Afghanistan in the Gorno-Badakhshan Province of eastern Tajikistan. This is a strategic region in the Pamir Mountains that borders China’s Xinjiang Province and the Afghan province of Badakhshan.
The Tajik parliamentary speaker said the new location would not host Chinese forces and would be limited to training and raising the capabilities of Tajik elite security forces with a view to controlling the border area and addressing any potential threats given the situation in neighbouring Afghanistan.
It has come as little surprise that Tajikistan does not recognise the new Taliban government in Afghanistan, since it wants to see the broader representation of various ethnic groups in the country. Tajiks make up Afghanistan’s second-largest ethnic group, and they have been marginalised at the hands of the Pashtun, who make up most of the Taliban’s supporters.
Following the announcement of the building of the new police post, there was an avalanche of media statements from Kabul and Dushanbe. Various Afghan leaders warned the Tajik government against interfering in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, while the Tajik media reported on an alliance between the Taliban and opposition Tajik groups in northern Afghanistan that want to overthrow the government of Tajik President Emomali Rohman in Dushanbe.
Against this backdrop of tensions, or at least unease, on both sides of the border, there has been a US counter-narrative about a high level visit by Chinese officials to Dushanbe in July, during which a deal was made for China to spend $10 million on the construction of a military base where the Afghan-Chinese-Tajik borders meet.
The deal also included handing over full control to China of another base in the Murghob region close to the border between China and Afghanistan, sources said.
The Soufan Centre, a US think tank focused on security issues and armed groups, has published several reports on these arrangements, using sources in the region that follow Afghan affairs, including Afghanistan’s relations with its neighbours and domestic issues.
According to the Soufan Centre, the hand over is linked to funding for the deployment of additional Tajik soldiers along the border with Afghanistan.
Although neither side has revealed how many Chinese military personnel will be on the ground in Tajikistan, the US believes the Chinese military is planning to position itself so that it can be ready to move against the Taliban regime should threats emerge inside Afghanistan under Taliban rule or take advantage of the Taliban’s inability to control the region.
Beijing is concerned about terrorist groups that may be supported by the Taliban in order to uphold the group’s ideology of jihad, a key tenet of its ideology. China sees such support as a potential threat to its Muslim Uyghur minority, and many observers say that China is exaggerating the terrorism threat to justify its oppression of this minority.
The US is closely monitoring China’s moves in the region and has not wasted any time in formulating mechanisms to compensate for its heavy presence there over the past two decades, during which it not only interacted with events in Afghanistan but also had a front-row seat on events in Central Asia. It has closely monitored moves by China and Russia, both considered influential opponents in the wake of the US exit from Afghanistan earlier this year.
Washington has intensified contacts with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and others in order to ensure fast and effective access to Central Asian bases. It views the new agreements between Beijing and Dushanbe as going beyond possible threats from Afghanistan and extending to establishing strategic agreements relating to the balance of power in the region that will not leave the US room for manoeuvre.
Various factors will play a role in deciding such long term strategic balances, among them the fact that Washington has not established any permanent bases in Central Asia. Its closest bases are in the Gulf in Qatar and the UAE, and these are the closest to this theatre of operations.
But the Gulf is 1,500 miles from Central Asia, a region also under the influence of Iran. This means that the US finds itself under the pressure of changes in the strategic balances in the region that are now looming on the horizon.
In the past, China and Russia have established relations with neighbours and countries that are signatories to common agreements, such as the Collective Security Treaty for former Soviet countries, in order to block the possibility of any new presence of US forces in the region.
The US exit from Afghanistan has given Russia and China a geostrategic advantage, and both countries are eyeing the vacuum in their immediate neighbourhood with the expectation that new arrangements will be made soon. Moscow and Beijing also each have their own plans for the region, which may clash in the near future.
* The writer is the general director of the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies (ECSS).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.