Several reports in October underscore the persistent growth of Chinese security engagement in Tajikistan.
New details have emerged regarding plans for China to build a paramilitary base for Tajik forces in Tajikistan. Much remains unclear, particularly with regard to what Chinese and Chinese-built security infrastructure already exists in Tajikistan, but also about the latest developments. At the same time, any and all movement in this space draws considerable attention not just in the region but from further abroad.
On October 13, the Tajik news site Asia-Plus ran a story citing an “exchange of letters” between China and Tajikistan in which the Chinese side agreed to provide 55 million renminbi (around $8.5 million) for the construction of a paramilitary base under the Tajik Ministry of Internal Affairs. The letters had been sent to the Tajik parliament for approval. They reportedly outlined the project, to include 12 buildings. The Chinese side, the report said, would undertake responsibility for the survey and design, providing equipment (including office furniture and computers) and direction to engineering and technical personnel. Asia-Plus did not report on the planned location of the base.
A new report from RFE/RL’s Tajik Service picks up the thread from there. On October 27, First Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs of Tajikistan Abdurahmon Alamshozoda announced in parliament that the facility would be constructed in Ishkashim district in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province (GBAO), Tajikistan. Tolibkhon Azimzoda, a deputy in the parliament’s lower house, said the base would belong to Tajikistan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and all equipment and machinery imported from China for it would be exempt from customs duties.
Between these two reports, on October 14, RFE/RL’s Tajik Service and Reid Standish reported on an apparent facility near Shaymak, a village in Murghab district, using satellite imagery and on-the-ground sources. Their article was an update on a 2019 Washington Post report, which claimed that Chinese troops had been in the area since at least 2016. The 2019 Washington Post report noted that the Chinese forces present appeared to be from the People’s Armed Police (PAP) rather than the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The October 14 RFE/RL report cited locals who had visited the facility as saying that before the fall of the Western-backed Afghan government in mid-August, there had been Chinese, Tajik, and Afghan forces at the facility. Now, the Afghans are gone and and given tensions between the Tajik government and the Taliban, it seems unlikely they would return any time soon.
Dushanbe and Beijing have consistently denied the existence of the Shaymak facility, although satellite imagery shows new facilities constructed next to an old Soviet base. The area is close to the tri-border shared between China’s Xinjiang, Afghanistan’s Wakhan, and Tajikistan’s GBAO.
China’s initial interests — as the October 14 RFE/RL report explained in detail — stem from a combination of protecting its Belt and Road Initiative in the Central Asian region and beefing up security in Xinjiang. It also fits into a narrative of steady expansion, with new facilities and reports back in 2019 of agreements for Chinese assistance in expanding existing border security facilities in Tajikistan.
The Taliban return to power in Afghanistan was taken in stride by Chinese officials, who elicited promises from the Taliban to not allow Afghan soil to be used by those threatening China, particularly Uyghur extremists. Even back in 2015, the Afghan government under Ashraf Ghani sought Chinese help in getting Pakistan to push the Taliban to the negotiation table in part by turning over Uyghur militants. Six years later, Beijing is singing the same tune.
Despite China’s denials related to specific facilities, it’s clear that Beijing has continued to engaged with Tajikistan on security matters. That Tajik officials are being (relatively) more transparent about the new facility is worth remarking on — as is their stressing of the Tajik nature of the facility. At the same time, China spending $8.5 million to construct a security outpost for Tajik use isn’t just out of the goodness of Beijing’s heart. Ishkashim district is at the other end of the Wakhan corridor from the previously reported facility near Shaymak and illustrates the growth of Chinese security infrastructure in the region.