China Will Pay To Build A New Military Base On Tajikistan's Border With Afghanistan

Chinese-supported border security bases in Tajikistan are just one part of a changing geopolitical environment across the region.

Chinese troops march in review during an exercise in Tajikistan in 2019.
China Military Online

Tajikistan's parliament had approved a plan to establish a new border security base with Chinese funding. This news comes amid other reports that Tajik authorities have offered to turn over control of a separate base in their country entirely to the Chinese government. All of this would seem to reflect a broader response from Beijing to the newly emerging security situation following the Taliban's takeover of neighboring Afghanistan and the U.S. military's controversial withdrawal from that country. There are particular fears that Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorist organizations will be able to exploit the current situation to step up activities inside Afghanistan, as well as the surrounding region and elsewhere around the world.

The lower house of Tajikistan's Supreme Assembly signed off on the proposed base construction, which is part of a larger deal between the country's Interior Ministry and China’s Public Security Ministry, on Oct. 27, 2021. Tajik First Deputy Interior Minister Abdurahmon Alamshozoda said that the facility would be situated in the village of Vakhon in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province, according to the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's (RFE/RL) Tajik Service. Gorno-Badakhshan lies to the north of Afghanistan's narrow Wakhan Corridor, which is wedged in between Tajikistan, China, and Pakistan.

Tajik lawmaker Tolibkhon Azimzoda also said that it would cost around $10 million in total to build the base, but it's not clear how much of that will be paid for by the Chinese government, RFE/RL reported. However, Tajik authorities have said that, at least officially, Chinese troops will not be stationed there. Elements of Tajikistan's Rapid Reaction Group, a specialized paramilitary force assigned to the Ministry of Interior, is expected to be the main tenant, while regular Tajik military forces will also make use of the facility.

"The exact function of the new base is unknown, although lawmakers said it would carry out policing duties focused on combating organized crime," according to RFE/RL. "The facility would have 'special equipment for the Interpol information system' installed from China." 

However, “the construction comes amid the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan and growing security threats along the country's border,” Tajik parliamentarian Azimzoda made clear in a statement to RFE/RL. By every indication, China shares many of Tajikistan's concerns — and has for some time.

Though authorities in Dushanbe and Beijing have repeatedly denied it, there is significant evidence the two countries have been running a separate joint border security base near the village of Shaymak, which is also in Gorno-Badakhshan, since at least 2016. Prior to the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban in August, rotating contingents of Afghan government forces were reportedly stationed there, as well. Over the years, Chinese authorities have also repeatedly denied reports that they had deployed troops into the Wakhan Corridor itself, or were planning to do so. Afghan authorities had previously said that China had offered to train their troops and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has publicly conducted training exercises with Tajik forces.

Google Maps

A map with Tajikistan's Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province highlighted. Immediately to the south is Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor and to the east is China. Both the planned base at Vakhon and the existing one near Shaymak are extremely close to the Afghan-Tajik border along the northern edge of the Wakhan Corridor.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported yesterday that documents it had seen said officials in Tajikistan have now proposed turning over the facility south of Shaymak to Chinese forces entirely. It's unclear if authorities in Beijing accepted the offer or were otherwise warm to the idea. 

A separate report from RFE/RL earlier this month had said that there were indications that work was being done to expand this base and that there had been an uptick in activities emanating from it, including unmanned aircraft flights. Satellite imagery of this site from Planet Labs and other sources that The War Zone has reviewed appear to show only limited expansion of the facilities there in the past two years or so, though the initial construction work was significant. It also has no runway, meaning any unmanned aircraft would have to be launched via other means. This could suggest what residents have reportedly been hearing flying overhead are smaller types used for more localized surveillance and reconnaissance missions. These might use catapults to get airborne, take off and land vertically, or might even be hand-launched. 

Whatever the exact state of China's cooperation with Tajikistan on regional security issues might be, a more robust ability to monitor activity in the region would certainly be in the interests of both countries. 

In particular, China has long used the threat posed by Islamist terrorist groups to justify its increasingly brutal crackdown on ethnic Uyghurs in the country's far-western Xinjiang semi-autonomous region. Beijing has been seeking to engage with the Taliban directly, with so far unsubstantiated reports that it might be looking to establish bases inside Afghanistan. That group has expressed a willingness to try to clamp down on militant organizations like the Uyghur-founded East Turkestan Islamic Movement. At the same time, it's not hard to see why China would want its own robust security presence in the region to gather intelligence and provide a staging point to take more direct action, should it decide that is necessary.

The Chinese government has broader concerns about terrorist threats in the region, as well, which are only now magnified by the potential for various groups to exploit the current situation in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is still working to solidify its control. In July, before the collapse of the preceding Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, nine Chinese engineers had already been killed in a suicide bombing targeting a bus in Pakistan. Though Pakistani officials sought to blame the governments of India and Afghanistan for that attack, local media reports linked it to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known simply as the Pakistani Taliban, which has links to its counterpart in Afghanistan.

ISIS's franchise in Afghanistan, called ISIS-Khorasan Province or ISIS-K, as well as al Qaeda, to which Afghanistan's Taliban still has links, presents additional threats in the region and beyond.

In many ways, Chinese involvement in Tajikistan reflects a broader trend in recent years of the country seeking new military footholds, or ones that could have a military use in a contingency scenario, around the world. Pursuing these kinds of arrangements in neighboring countries could offer something of an immediate buffer against various kinds of threats, not necessarily limited counter-terrorism concerns related to Afghanistan.

For its part, the government of Tajikistan has been outspoken in its opposition to the Taliban and has actively engaged with a nascent Afghan resistance movement that is primarily operating in exile now and includes a significant number of ethnic Tajiks, as you can read more about here. The country also could face threats from various other terrorist groups already mentioned if the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorates. All this could make it difficult for officials in Dushanbe to ignore Chinese offers to help bolster its border security. 

In addition, Russia, which has a publicly acknowledged military presence in Tajikistan, said earlier this month that it was prepared to help defend that country against attacks coming from Afghanistan. Russia and Tajikistan are both members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) bloc, which includes mutual defense obligations. Various CSTO members recently took part in routine exercises in Tajikistan.

For China, increased security ties and general influence in Tajikistan could have broader geopolitical benefits. China is competing ever more on a regional basis with India, including directly over disputed territory along the border between the two countries, and globally with the United States. India has seen the previous government in Afghanistan as a valuable partner to challenge the designs of its chief rival Pakistan, as well as those of China.

On the U.S. government side, President Joe Biden's administration had defended following through the withdrawal from Afghanistan in no small part based on the argument that so-called "over-the-horizon" counter-terrorism capabilities would be sufficient to target any future threats emanating from that country. However, this seems to have been predicated largely on the assumption that neighboring countries would agree to host American troops or allow for their rapid deployment on a contingency basis, arrangements that do not seem to be forthcoming, at least so far.

While there is no indication that Chinese influence has been a direct factor, Undersecretary of Defense Colin Kahl told senators just earlier this week that, despite "extensive conversations” with authorities in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, “we have not secured firm basing agreements.” He also added that "we could see ISIS-K generate that capability in somewhere between six or 12 months" when asked about the group's potential ability to at least try to organize attacks on the United States from Afghanistan. 

There was a report over the weekend from CNN that the U.S. government was nearing an agreement with Pakistan for use of its airspace to conduct missions in Afghanistan, but not to base forces in that country. In September, the U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe had also said that America would help Tajikistan improve its border security apparatus.

All told, the new security deals between Tajikistan and China appear to reflect significant geopolitical shifts in the region, both with regard to Afghanistan specifically and the Chinese government's interest in expanding its influence substantially abroad.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com