Staunton, May 11 – Two weeks ago, China opened an airport in Tashkurgan, a city in its Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous District near the borders of Tajikistan and Afghanistan, the first such airport in the Gorno-Badakhshan area and one that gives Beijing new access to the peoples and natural resources of this much contested area.
The Tashkurgan field is the first of 30 Beijing says it will be opening in the next few years in the region, all intended, Chinese officials say, to promote tourism, but that claim seem specious given how few Chinese now travel to Tajikistan as a whole let alone to the Badakhshan (20,000 last year), as the CAA Network points out (caa-network.org/archives/19738).
The new airport is situated within Beijing’s Chinese-Pakistani Economic Corridor and is projected to carry 160,000 passengers and 400 tons of cargo when construction is finished in early 2022. But the Chinese may not meet that deadline given the pandemic and problems with workers in the high altitudes of this region.
Given that, the portal suggests, this airport construction in the Pamirs is almost certainly more about the promotion of the economic and political interests of Beijing there and more broadly and not just about tourism, the Pamirs or Tajikistan as such. But it will certainly allow China to expand its already enormous presence in Dushanbe.
Last year, the World Bank reported that China was responsible for approximately 75 percent of foreign investment in Tajikistan and that “more than 400 Chinese enterprises” are now operating in that country. Many of them have interests in developing the natural resources of the Gorno-Badakhshan.
What China is doing in Tajikistan could easily become a model for what it would like to do elsewhere in the broader Central Asian region, especially since its economic clout has opened the way for Dushanbe’s agreement to a Chinese role in defending the Tajik-Afghan border against the spread of terrorism.
As part of this Chinese “cooperation,” Beijing has helped build three military commissariats, three new military units, four headquarters, and a training base for Tajik soldiers in the Pamir region. Building on this foundation, Beijing has involved Dushanbe in its regional security efforts involving Pakistan and Afghanistan as well.
All this “sets a precedent for the full-blow inclusion of China in issues of security in Central Asia” and makes it more rather than less likely that Beijing and Moscow will clash in the region. China’s new airports will give Beijing new leverage but putting in place facilities that can bring Chinese troops into the region quickly – or at least be seen as giving it that capacity.
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