By Paul Goble
Tajikistan has ratified an agreement with Beijing to increase the frequency of bilateral military exercises with China over the next five years, an arrangement that will allow China to expand its military influence there in ways that may challenge Russia’s which is based on the presence of a sizeable Russian base there.
Russian experts are playing down this development and suggesting that China’s presence is “episodic” while Russia’s is more permanent (ng.ru/cis/2023-10-17/5_8854_tajikistan.html), but there is a chance that quantity will grow into quality and that Beijing may soon challenge Moscow for dominance in Dushanbe. (On that possibility, see jamestown.org/program/russia-china-dividing-responsibilities-in-tajikistan-is-conflict-possible/.)
China has at least three reasons for wanting to expand its military presence in Tajikistan and sees the current situation as an opportunity to do so: first, it wants to ensure that instability in the region, including in neighboring Afghanistan, doesn’t threaten its “one road, one path” projects for channeling east-west trade through Central Asia.
Second, it wants to prevent instability in the Gorno-Badakhshan from spreading into China itself. China has tens of thousands of people Beijing call Tajiks, but they are in fact not ethnic Tajiks but Pamiris, like those in the Badakhshan who are in revolt against Dushanbe (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2022/02/chinas-tajiks-arent-tajiks-and-thats.html).
And third, regardless of Moscow’s dismissive comments, China clearly aspires to displace Russia as the paramount power in Central Asia and sees the weak regime in Dushanbe as offering it the best chance to do so, especially as China’s anti-terrorism role does not attract the attention from other powers concerned about Afghanistan’s Taliban.
China and Tajikistan have been conducting joint counter-terrorism exercises since 2016, but Dushanbe up to now has been cautious about formalizing this because some in China claim part of Tajikistan as Chinese (jamestown.org/program/beijing-implies-tajikistans-pamir-region-should-be-returned-to-china/), and an expended Chinese presence could open the way to that.
For background on the growing Chinese presence in Tajikistan, see windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2022/01/new-chinese-base-in-tajikistan-will.html.