Last week, China committed to building a military base in Central Asia’s neighbouring Tajikistan, raising the number of its foreign military bases to two. However, Djibouti is not yet at risk of being stripped of its unique position in China’s foreign military engagement. Reports have revealed that China will fund the construction of a Tajik outpost and not a military base located at the intersection between Tajikistan’s eastern Gorno-Badakhshan province, China’s north-western Xinjiang region, and Afghanistan’s eastern Badakhshan province.
Explaining Chinese Outposts in Tajikistan
As such, China’s military presence in Tajikistan is not set to increase dramatically for the time being. Indeed, the outpost will not be operated by members of China’s army nor the military police, but rather by the Tajik police force.
China’s People’s Armed Police (PAP – 中国人民武装警察 Zhongguo renmin wuzhuang jingcha) is already in charge of a different Tajik-based outpost located near the Afghan border and the 76-kilometre land-border separating China from Afghanistan. The PAP is a paramilitary organisation whose primary role in Central Asia is to liaison with other security forces in domains like information-sharing and counter-terrorism. Though there is little information on the current PAP-run outpost, satellite images and fortuitous press interviews indicate the outpost is constituted by a few buildings and training grounds that have been active for less than five years.
China’s security presence in the area should then be considered in terms of the porosity of the Tajik and Pakistani borders, which facilitates drugs, weapons, and people smuggling from Afghanistan to China. In particular, Tajikistan’s status as one of the least militarily developed regional actors makes the Tajik-border even more treacherous for China. Indeed, on average, Dushanbe devotes only one per cent of its annual GDP to military expenditure, corresponding to about USD 80 million in 2020. In comparison, neighbours like Kyrgyzstan or Pakistan invested USD 130 million and USD 10 billion in the same year, respectively.
Why There and Why Now? Uyghurs and China-Taliban Relations
China’s interest in funding a Tajik military outpost raises several questions: above all, why there and why now . The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has certainly upset the security scenario in Central Asia; leading some observers to contend the time has come for China to acquire a security role in the area. However, this argument only remains wishful thinking. The Chinese-funded Tajik outpost responds to China’s increased concerns around the spreading of an Afghanistan-inspired wave of regional instability rather than a willingness to step into the US’ left behind shoes. China continues to have no interests in finding a way to mediate its global peaceful rise narrative to acquire a more assertive role as an external security provider in Central Asia, or anywhere else for that matter. This was made clear by Beijing’s hasty attempts to establish a functional relationship with Afghanistan’s newfound Taliban leadership, abandoning decades of domestic narratives around the Taliban’s violent terrorism and presenting the leadership as a legitimate political actor to its domestic audience. Despite opening a dialogue with Afghanistan’s Taliban leadership, China has quickly become aware of the existing frictions among Taliban factions and, in particular, the messages that some of these sub-groups shared in support of the Uyghur cause. Therefore, the Tajikistan outpost should be seen in terms of China’s realisation that Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders do not hold far-reaching legitimate political power nor control over all Taliban factions.
The End of the Russo-Chinese Security-Economy Paradigm in Central Asia?
The Russo-Chinese security-economy paradigm has become popular in scholarly works around Central Asia’s Great Game as a way to explain an apparent lack of regional competition between the two powers. In brief, this explanation ascribes a security role to Russia in Central Asia against China’s economic one. The Tajik outpost has once again stirred this debate. Though some criticism exists on whether a division of labour between Russia and China ever existed in the first place, one should not forget to consider the proposals both countries have made within the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation throughout the years. Indeed, these proposals indicate that complementary roles between the two powers have emerged, at least at the institutional level. This argument does not entail that only one actor has historically responded to security interests in its relations with Central Asian countries, but that strategic considerations have spurred Russia and China towards developing their respective regional roles along balancing lines. Both countries, though, have crossed these pencilled lines at some point or another, as exemplified by Russia’s launch of the Eurasian Economic Union and, more recently, China’s funding of a Tajik outpost.