Staunton, Dec. 25 – China’s growing involvement in Tajikistan has led some to conclude that this represents a challenge to Russian interests, but so far at least, Temur Umarov says, Moscow has been largely unfazed by Beijing’s actions, seeing the benefits of cooperation as outweighing any possibility of conflict.
Umarov, an Uzbek trained at MGIMO and now a fellow at Carnegie Moscow Center, says that China has become more involved with Tajikistan than any other Central Asian country, largely because it views that country as “the weak link in the regional security structure” given the state of its military and its borders with both Afghanistan and China.
But even as it has expanded security assistance, Beijing has insistently denied that it is building military bases there lest such institutions spark the kind of anti-Chinese protests that Beijing’s treatment of ethnic minorities inside China have in other Central Asian countries with larger co-ethnic populations in China (carnegie.ru/commentary/86095).
“Technically,” Umarov says, “China has no military presence” in Tajikistan. The facilities it is paying for and building are under the control not of the People’s Liberation Army but of the People’s Armed Police, domestic paramilitary units charged with maintaining public order during peacetime.”
But since 2015, the Armed Police are responsible for combatting terrorism; and since 2018, it is no longer subordinate to the civilian authorities but is fully controlled by China’s Central Military Council. And since January 1, 2022, the Armed Police are used to control China’s borders.
Thus, Umarov says, “Tajikistan is hosting a Chinese paramilitary base that is run by a force that increasingly resembles units of the regular Chinese military. Indeed, even Tajik officials have not denied the existence of this site regardless of what it is called or its direct connection to China.”
Stories about the base, however, could spark “public outcry” elsewhere in Central Asia, but there is little reason to expect “anti-Chines protests in Tajikistan.” It is the most “China-friendly country in Central Asia,” largely because there are very few Tajiks living in China and thus subject to Beijing’s repression.
As far as Russia is concerned, it has its 201st military base in Tajikistan with some 7,000 troops, the largest Russian military presence abroad. Tajikistan is in the CSTO. And Tajiks support Russia and Putin: they in fact give Putin a higher approval rating than Russians living in Russia do.