By Micha’el Tanchum*
A recent investigation revealed that Chinese troops are stationed on Tajikistan’s south-eastern border, 30 kilometres from Pakistan-administered Kashmir across Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor. India has unsuccessfully sought to establish its own military base in Tajikistan for over 15 years. The discovery of Chinese troops constitutes a severe setback to New Delhi’s Central Asian ambitions.
Soldiers from the base reportedly wear the insignia of the Xinjiang units of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). In 2016, Chinese mine-resistant armoured vehicles bearing the logo of China’s paramilitary forces were photographed patrolling Baza’i Gonbad in the Wakhan Corridor. To respect Russian sensitivities — Moscow being Dushanbe’s main security provider — China’s forces in Tajikistan could plausibly be composed of paramilitaries under PLA command or perhaps PLA troops out of standard uniform.
While neither Beijing nor Dushanbe acknowledge China’s military presence, the objective of the Chinese base seems to be preventing jihadi Uighur militants returning to China’s restive Xinjiang province. Given the 2016 terrorist attack on China’s embassy in Kyrgyzstan by a Uighur suicide bomber, Beijing faces a credible threat as Central Asian and Uighur jihadis exit Syria.
China’s military presence in Tajikistan, alongside its major role in Tajikistan’s economy, poses a strategic challenge to New Delhi. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s failure to improve on the lacklustre results of his predecessor Manmohan Singh’s diplomacy in Tajikistan raises questions about India’s capacity to maintain strategic partnerships across Eurasia.
Tajikistan is India’s closest Central Asian neighbour, with Dushanbe being approximately the same distance from New Delhi as Mumbai. Tajikistan’s proximity to Pakistan-administered Kashmir would also make the country an invaluable strategic asset for India if it could establish an air base on Tajik soil capable of conducting reconnaissance and combat operations.
India’s air base at Farkhor, Tajikistan — its only foreign airbase — is sorely deficient in this regard. India started operating the base in 2002 with Russian acquiescence. But with no active combat squadrons, the airbase does not provide India with an alternative attack route against Pakistan or the ability to affect militant operations in Kashmir. The base’s main function is to transport India’s relief and reconstruction supplies into Afghanistan. India airlifts resources to Tajikistan’s Ayni air force base near Dushanbe, then transports material 150 kilometres to Farkhor, where it is then trucked to Afghanistan.
The Ayni airbase is key to India’s strategic footprint in Tajikistan. India’s interest there began 19 years ago after a report investigating the intelligence failure that led to the 1999 Kargil War, according to retired ambassador Phunchok Stobdan — the visionary behind India’s 2012 ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy.
Abandoned after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, India under Manmohan Singh contributed technical assistance and US$70 million to renovate the Ayni airbase between 2004 and 2010. India extended the main runway, built a control tower and constructed three hangars capable of housing squadrons of MiG-29 bombers used by the Indian Air Force. In September 2010, a Tajik Ministry of Defence spokesman also confirmed that the Ayni airbase has state-of-the-art navigational and defence technology and a 3200-metre runway able to accommodate all types of aircraft.
Still, there are no reports of Indian combat aircraft ever being stationed at the base and the Singh government seems never to have developed a coherent vision on how to use the base or leverage its position with the Tajik government. In December 2010, Tajikistan announced that Russia was the only country under consideration to use the Ayni airbase in future. Although India continues to maintain approximately 150 personnel at the air base, it has been effectively closed out.
Despite U.S. regional presence providing a decade-long opportunity for New Delhi to expand its role in Central Asia, India did not project any significant military or economic power in the region. Modi’s visit to Tajikistan during his highly-touted 2015 tour of the five Central Asian republics resulted in no tangible gain. It is quite possible that the visit coincided with the onset of Chinese operations in southern Tajikistan and the Wakhan Corridor.
New Delhi still seeks an expanded combat presence at Ayni but will need to incentivise Moscow as well as Dushanbe. During his October 2018 visit to Tajikistan, Indian President Ram Nath Kovind visited the base. But with the United States planning to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, China and Pakistan are well placed to prevent India from projecting any hard power in Central Asia. China’s active military presence in Tajikistan thus constitutes a severe strategic setback for India.
India is now prioritising its route to Central Asia through the Indian-built Chabahar port in Iran, with road and rail lines extending northward through Iran and Afghanistan and connecting to Central Asia and Russia. Since it will provide Russia with commercial access to the Indian ocean, Moscow also has a significant stake in the project.
Unless New Delhi can entice Russia to engage more vigorously with India as a strategic counter-balance to growing Chinese influence in Central Asia, New Delhi will watch from the sidelines as the Beijing–Moscow partnership defines the security architecture and commercial trade routes of the new Eurasia.
* Dr. Micha’el Tanchum is a Fellow at the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Hebrew University, and an affiliated scholar with the Centre for Strategic Studies at Başkent University in Ankara, Turkey (Başkent-SAM). Follow him on Twitter @michaeltanchum. This analysis appeared on 29 March 2019 in EastAsiaForum that published a revised version of the article which originally appeared in South Asian Monitor.