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China-Tajikistan Relations Deepen; Has Beijing Debt-Trapped Another Country?

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China-Tajikistan relations have garnered momentum due to aggressive diplomacy by Beijing. After Chinese President paid his first state visit to Tajikistan in 2014, bilateral relations between China and Tajikistan have blossomed. 

Map indicating locations of China and Tajikistan

Together, China and Tajikistan have laid out plans and strategic measures to boost bilateral relations and collaboration. Both nations have further enhanced the integration of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with Tajikistan’s national development strategy, making the diplomatic relations between China and Tajikistan truly historical.

In its effort to further deepen ties, China has issued a $357 million grant to Tajikistan to reconstruct the Dushanbe-Kulma highway through the Kuhistani Badakhshan Autonomous Region. The highway connects the country’s central area with China and a Chinese company has been awarded the contract to build nine bridges in the region.

According to experts, China is becoming Tajikistan’s key economic partner, driving all other investors away. In addition, over the past few years, Tajikistan has found itself heavily indebted to China, which could eventually lead to changes in Dushanbe’s foreign policy.

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.

According to experts talking to the EurAsian Times, Russia is not too pleased with China over its moves in Central Asia. Tajikistan has shown little interest to join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) as regional powers are seeking to expand spheres of influence in the region.

According to experts, Kuhistani Badakhshan is Tajikistan’s troubled region but strategically very important. Since Tajikistan is incapable to integrate the region, then some other powers like China could fill the void.

“Investments into Kuhistani Badakhshan are not a purely economic matter, it’s more like an initiative to curb extremism by investing in the local economy and its good that Beijing is filling the void instead of the US.

Chinese Troops In Tajikistan

Chinese troops have reportedly been posted on Tajikistan’s south-eastern border across Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor since 2016.

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.

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