China’s Expanding Borders: Controversy Surrounding The Pamir Range In Tajikistan – Analysis

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The Pamir Range, sometimes known as the “Roof of the World,” is a spectacular mountain range in Central Asia that connects Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and China. This breathtaking scenery is extremely important to the region’s countries, affecting their geopolitics, cultural history, and environmental stability.

This Central Asian mountain range not only serves as a natural barrier between Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and China but also as a key lifeline for the ecological balance and cultural legacy. However, an old document has aroused debate as China claims a substantial portion of the Pamir Range, putting Tajikistan in a difficult and perilous position. Throughout millennia, the Pamir Range has witnessed a vivid tapestry of cultures and civilizations. It was a vital part of the old Silk Road, promoting trade and cultural interchange between Europe and Asia. Various emperors and dynasties ruled over different parts of the region over the centuries, resulting in border changes and territorial conflicts. The Great Game, the nineteenth-century geopolitical struggle between the British and Russian empires for control of Central Asia, complicated matters even more.

Following the acquisition of the Central Asian territory by the Russian Empire in the late nineteenth century, the territory came under Soviet rule, and the borders were revised. Tajikistan acquired independence in 1991 after the Soviet Union collapsed, resulting in the construction of its current borders.

Pamir: A Lifeline of Tajikistan

Environmental significance: The Pamir Mountains serve as an important ecological reservoir for the entire region. These mountains provide birth to numerous glaciers, rivers, and lakes, that offer a steady flow of freshwater to support life and agriculture downstream. Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan rely on the Amu Darya and Panj rivers, which flow from the Pamir Mountains. These rivers are the lifeblood of agriculture, supporting millions of people’s lives and encouraging regional economic development.

Cultural Heritage and Identity: The Pamir Range is not just a geographical symbol but also an important part of the region’s cultural character. Over millennia, the Pamir Mountains’ varied ethnic groups, including the Pamiri, Kyrgyz, and Wakhi, have created distinct customs, languages, and traditions. The mountains have served as a natural barrier, allowing isolated populations to maintain distinct cultural practices.

Geopolitical Importance: Because of its strategic location, the Pamir Range plays an important role in defining the region’s geopolitics. Tajikistan is a landlocked country that relies largely on mountain routes to communicate with other countries. The Pamir Highway, also known as the M41, is an important economic route that connects Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China, boosting regional integration and collaboration (Travel, 2023).

Regional Connectivity: The Pamir Range connects Central Asia with China, enhancing economic links and communication. The Pamir Range is an important feature of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims to improve infrastructure connectivity. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a key component of the BRI, runs through the region, emphasising its importance in terms of regional connectivity.

Conservation of Biodiversity: The Pamir Range is home to a diverse array of plant and animal species, some of which are peculiar to the area. Because of the unusual biodiversity found in this remote and rocky region, it is an important area for conservation efforts. Preserving the fragile biological balance of the Pamir Range is critical not just for the survival of these species but also crucial for ensuring sustained water resources for the region.

Tourism Potential: The Pamir Range’s magnificent beauty and adventurous charm contain enormous tourism development potential. The Pamir Mountains entice adventurers, mountaineers, and trekkers from all over the world for their hard climbs, gorgeous pathways, and cultural experiences. Tourism may be an important source of revenue for Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries, helping to drive economic growth and development.

To summarise, the Pamir Range is a multidimensional asset that is vital to Tajikistan, its Central Asian neighbours, and China. Its environmental importance as a water source and ecological reservoir ensures the region’s life and agriculture maintenance. The cultural legacy preserved within the mountains enhances the identities of the region’s numerous ethnic communities. Geographically, the Pamir Range promotes regional cooperation and connection while also playing a part in larger international projects such as the BRI. Its exceptional biodiversity and tourism potential increase its significance as a crucial resource for the prosperity and well-being of the nations it touches. As a result, safeguarding the preservation and sustainable usage of the Pamir Range is critical to the region’s continued prosperity and harmony.

Tajikistan’s destiny is inextricably linked to the Pamir Mountains. Tajikistan’s economic gains from the region are enormous and an important component of the country’s national identity. It is important for Tajikistan to develop the Pamir Mountains in a sustainable way so that they can continue to benefit the country for many years to come.

China’s Assertive Policy with neighbors

China has a dispute over land with every neighboring country. It has a territorial dispute with India over territories in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. The two countries have been unable to agree on the exact location of their border in this region, which has resulted in multiple military skirmishes throughout the years. The dispute was further complicated by the 1962 Sino-Indian War, during which China captured Aksai Chin from India. In 2020, there was a major escalation in tensions between China and India in Ladakh, with both sides deploying troops to the region. 

China claims the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands in Chinese) of Japan in the East China Sea (Singh, 2023). The Senkaku Islands issue is a major source of contention between China and Japan. China claims Vietnam’s Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands in Chinese) and the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands in Chinese) in the South China Sea. The South China Sea conflict is one of the world’s most severe territorial disputes. China claims a small portion of Kyrgyzstan’s Aksai Chin region. China considers Taiwan to be part of its territory and has put pressure on other countries to cut ties with Taiwan. 

China also has a major border conflict with Nepal. The dispute is over control of the Kalapani area, which is located in Nepal’s westernmost part.  China and Nepal struck a boundary agreement in 2015 but failed to resolve the Kalapani dispute. Protests over the disagreement erupted in Nepal in 2020, with the Nepalese government accusing China of intruding on its territory. The conflict over Kalapani is a crucial issue for Nepal since this territory controls access to the Lipulekh Pass, which is a major commercial route between Nepal and China. 

China also has a border conflict with Bhutan. The dispute is over who owns Doklam, Pasamlung, and Jakarlung. China claims all three places as part of its territory, whereas Bhutan argues they are part of its territory. The dispute is also complicated by the fact that Bhutan is a close ally of India, and China is concerned that Bhutan could be used as a staging ground for an Indian attack. 

The China Claim Dilemma

In the middle of this complex historical backdrop, China’s recent claim to a substantial portion of the Pamir Range has been a source of concern for Tajikistan. China’s claim is based on an old writing, most likely an antique treaty or historical record, which is thought to suggest that the land originally belonged to China. On the other hand, Tajikistan claims that the Pamir Range has been a part of its territory for millennia; therefore, the claim is invalid. The scenario deteriorated into a delicate diplomatic problem, affecting relations between neighboring countries. These claims are based on a number of factors, including:

Historical Claim: China has asserted that it has a historical claim to the Pamirs dating back to the Qing period. However, there is no clear agreement on the legitimacy of these statements. 

Geographical claims: China has also claimed that the Pamir Mountains are an extension of the Tian Shan Mountains in China. According to this argument, the Pamirs and the Tian Shan are part of the same mountain system.

Economic claims: China has also claimed an economic stake in the Pamirs because of the region’s mineral wealth. The Pamirs are rich in copper, gold, and other minerals.

In 2011, China and Tajikistan signed a border agreement in which China ceded some territory. However, the deal did not resolve all of the two countries’ boundary problems. China has made new claims in the Pamirs, and whether these claims will be addressed in the future is unclear. Tajikistan’s reaction to China’s claims to the Pamirs has been ambivalent. Some Tajik officials are concerned that the claims would lead to more territorial disputes.

Other authorities, however, have stated that they are willing to speak with China to settle the situation. The Chinese claims to the Pamirs are a complicated problem with no simple solutions. It remains to be seen whether the two countries can strike an agreement that is acceptable to both parties. In addition to the foregoing, the following factors may be influencing China’s claims to the Pamir Range:

  • Strategic considerations: The Pamirs are located in a strategically important region near the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. China may be interested in gaining control of the Pamirs in order to improve its security and influence in the region (Bawa & Ashish, 2023).
  • Economic considerations: The Pamirs are abundant in natural resources such as minerals, water, and timber. China may want to take control of the Pamirs in order to exploit their natural wealth. 
  • Geopolitical considerations: The Pamirs are situated at the intersection of numerous main trade routes. China may be interested in gaining control of the Pamirs to boost commercial relations with other countries in the region.

It is important to note that Tajikistan refutes China’s claims to the Pamir Range. The two countries have been negotiating over the issue for many years, but no final agreement has been reached. The dispute could escalate in the future.

Implications of Chinese Claims for Tajikistan

Tajikistan’s water resources are mainly reliant on the Pamir Range, which is the source of numerous significant rivers, including the Amu Darya and the Panj. These rivers, in turn, support agriculture and supply drinking water to millions of people. Any territorial loss to China would have serious ramifications for Tajikistan’s water security and economic stability.

Furthermore, the Pamir Range is profoundly entwined with Tajik culture and history, not just a physical limit. The region is home to a variety of ethnic groups and is a repository for historical traditions and customs. Loss of authority over a major portion of this area could erode cultural identity and autonomy.

Diplomatic Efforts and International Involvement

Given the sensitivity of the situation, Tajikistan has been cautious in responding to China’s claim. Diplomatic efforts to resolve the issue through conversation and negotiations have been made. Tajikistan has asked foreign organisations like the United Nations to arbitrate the conflict and secure a fair and just outcome.

China and Tajikistan have established a number of joint commissions to discuss the Pamir Range. These commissions have aided in facilitating discussion between the two countries and identifying possibilities for cooperation. Some of the joint commissions that have been established are as follows (Gupta, 2021):

  • The China-Tajikistan Joint Commission on Border Affairs: It was founded in 1992 to discuss border demarcation between China and Tajikistan. Since its creation, the commission has convened regularly and made some progress in demarcating the border. However, the panel has not been able to resolve all lingering difficulties.
  • The China-Tajikistan Joint Commission on Economic and Trade Relations: This commission was founded in 1993 to promote China-Tajikistan economic and trade relations. Since its formation, the commission has convened regularly and contributed to increased commerce and investment between the two countries.
  • The China-Tajikistan Joint Commission on Scientific and technology collaboration was formed in 1994 to promote scientific and technology collaboration between China and Tajikistan. The commission has met regularly since its inception, and it has helped to facilitate cooperation in a number of areas, including energy, agriculture, and medicine.

The joint commissions between China and Tajikistan have helped to ease tensions and boost cooperation between the two countries. However, the commissioners have failed to reach an agreement on the Pamir Range conflict. The commissions’ ability to resolve the matter in the future is unknown. However, the commissions are an important component of China-Tajikistan diplomacy, and they may play a role in resolving the dispute in the future.

Aside from the joint commissions, China and Tajikistan have undertaken several rounds of negotiations on the Pamir Range. China and Tajikistan reached a border deal in 1999, ceding some territory to China. However, the accord did not resolve the Pamir conflict. In 2002, China and Tajikistan signed a supplementary agreement to the 1999 border agreement. The supplementary agreement ceded additional territory to China but also included a provision that the two countries would continue negotiating the Pamir Range.

China and Tajikistan have had many rounds of talks over the Pamir Range since 2002. However, no final agreement has been reached as a result of the negotiations. China’s claim to the Aksai Chin region is the primary impediment to achieving an agreement on the Pamir Range. China claims Aksai Chin to be part of its territory, while Tajikistan considers it to be part of its. The Aksai Chin region is strategically significant because it controls access to vital trade routes and minerals. China refuses to relinquish its claim to Aksai Chin, and Tajikistan refuses to yield the land to China.

In the Pamir Range, Tajikistan has also sought the mediation of international organisations such as the United Nations. China, on the other hand, has thus far declined to join in any mediation efforts. The international community’s role is critical in encouraging both parties to engage in peaceful negotiations and respect each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Any unilateral acts or escalation of tensions could cause regional instability and geopolitical concerns.

Tajikistan’s diplomatic efforts to address China’s claims to the Pamir Range have yielded mixed results. On the one hand, the talks and joint commissions have contributed to a reduction in hostilities between the two countries. On the other side, China has so far refused to join in any mediation attempts, making a final agreement difficult to obtain. It is unclear whether Tajikistan will be able to resolve the Pamir Range dispute with China through diplomacy. However, the country is likely to continue to pursue diplomatic efforts, as this is the best way to avoid an escalation of tensions.


Tajikistan’s lifeline has been the Pamir Range, providing water, food, and cultural significance for centuries. Based on an old document, China’s claim to a large portion of the range poses a substantial risk to Tajikistan’s sovereignty, water security, and cultural legacy. It is critical that both countries find a diplomatic solution to this difficult issue, one that respects national boundaries and fosters peaceful cohabitation. The international community must also play a positive role in promoting dialogue and ensuring that the Roof of the World remains a symbol of unity rather than conflict. 

Dr. Jagmeet Bawa

Dr. Jagmeet Bawa, Professor & Head, Department Political Science, Central Univesity of Himachal Pradesh, India.

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