Those trying to find the weakest link in Sino-Russian relations generally point to Central Asia. It is believed that the two powers traditionally have divided their spheres of interest in the area, with China being responsible for its economy and Russia focusing on its security. Some claim that this status quo is now changing, which is bound to trigger a conflict between Moscow and Beijing. Recent reports on the new Chinese “military base” in Tajikistan ostensibly support such assertions.

However, this view fails to treat Central Asian countries as autonomous forces, and assumes that their larger and more powerful neighbors make decisions for them or force them to make certain decisions. In reality, the countries in the region have never been more autonomous than they are today, and their people have never demanded as much accountability from their governments, including on foreign policy issues.

Landlocked regional states derive no benefit from switching one influential neighbor for another. All of them try to diversify their connections to the outside world, and in that, both Russia and China are equally important to them. Moreover, Moscow and Beijing are not interested in seeking conflict; their own bilateral relations take precedence over their interests in Central Asia. This trend is especially clear in the case of Tajikistan, where China has been most active in the security sphere without triggering any conflicts with Russia.

The Weakest Link

It is true, to an extent, that Russia and China have focused on different issues in Central Asia. China’s economic role in the region has always attracted more attention, especially after Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013. However, it is entirely incorrect to say that Beijing has ceded the security sphere to Moscow.

China has been interested in regional security issues ever since the Central Asian countries first gained their independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. It was around that same time that the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region experienced a surge in separatist activity. In the mid-1990s, then Chinese president Jiang Zemin visited all Central Asian countries except Tajikistan, which at that time was in the midst of a civil war. In Jiang’s public pronouncements in the region during this period, he emphasized the importance of the struggle against the “three evils”: terrorism, extremism, and separatism.

Since that time, Beijing has made it a priority to remain on friendly terms with Central Asian regimes to prevent them from supporting separatism in neighboring Xinjiang. For China, it is equally important to ensure that the region does not link even more dangerous Afghanistan with western China. For these reasons, over the past several decades China has been expanding security cooperation with Central Asian countries. These efforts started with simple uniform shipments and have evolved into joint military exercises, border patrols, and cooperation on military technology.

Tajikistan clearly receives special attention from China. In fact, it has been reported that China has set up a second “military base” there. From China’s vantage point, Tajikistan is a weak link in the regional security structure. It is the sole Central Asian country to border both Afghanistan and China, and the Tajik military is also considered the weakest in the region. Compared to its neighbors, Tajikistan is more vulnerable to terrorism and local radicalism, and one of the drug trafficking routes into China runs through the Tajik-Afghan border. As a result, Tajikistan has become a priority for the “global vision in China’s national security work,” as formulated by President Xi Jinping in 2017. These Chinese concerns grew even stronger in the second half of 2021, following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover in Kabul.

The New Base

On October 27, 2021, Tajikistan’s First Deputy Interior Minister Abdurahmon Alamshozoda introduced a plan of cooperation with China, according to which Beijing is to construct a certain site in Tajikistan at its own cost. According to decrees 539 and 540, ratified by the Tajik parliament on the same day, the site under construction is a “police academy” for the Tajik Ministry of Internal Affairs. The new site will be located in the Wakhan Corridor of the Ishkashim District near the Tajik-Afghan border. Based on these documents, China will allocate almost $9 million for the project at the Tajik government’s request and also provide all the necessary technology, equipment, and supplies. Tajikistan will need only to provide land with some utility infrastructure, and enable the tariff- and tax-free import of China’s construction supplies.

Some media reports suggest that China’s construction of the new “military base” is not entirely free. In exchange, Dushanbe allegedly will be required to give Beijing complete control over another earlier “military base,” whose existence first became known in 2018. This installation is a former Soviet outpost that, according to satellite photographs, Dushanbe has expanded and modernized with Beijing’s help. Locals claim that the base even has Chinese servicemen stationed on it.

China officially denies all the reports of its military presence in Central Asia. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin has stated several times at regular press conferences that he is “not aware of the situation in Tajikistan” and that “China has no military bases in Central Asia.” Technically, China indeed has no military presence in Central Asia: the Tajik sites are being built not by the People’s Liberation Army, but by the People’s Armed Police, domestic paramilitary units that are tasked with maintaining order in peacetime. However, the powers that have been granted to the armed police are continuing to grow, and in many ways resemble those of the military. Pursuant to a law passed in 2015, the armed police is responsible for combating terrorism; from 2018, it is no longer accountable to civilian authorities and is under the full control of the Central Military Council: a supreme military command body headed by Xi Jinping. Also, according to a new law on China’s land borders that will go into effect on January 1, 2022, the armed police will also carry out border patrol functions.

Since the 2000s, China’s armed policemen have been deployed on UN peacekeeping missions. They also conduct regular exercises with their foreign counterparts. In 2019, before the start of the coronavirus pandemic, China’s armed police launched the Cooperation 2019 initiative, a new kind of joint training with Central Asian paramilitary forces.

It appears that Tajikistan does host a Chinese paramilitary base run by a force that increasingly resembles the regular Chinese military. Even Tajik officials have not denied the existence of a certain site—whatever it is called—and its connection to China. But how is such extensive Chinese involvement possible in Central Asia, with its recurring anti-Chinese protests?

Tajikistan’s Uniqueness

Rumors of an extended Chinese military presence would cause a public outcry in any Central Asian country apart from Tajikistan. In some countries in the region, people take to the streets to protest against what they call “Chinese expansion,” even without such rumors. Kyrgyzstan has seen fifteen such rallies since 2018, while Kazakhstan has registered over 140 of them. It’s more complicated to organize protests in Uzbekistan, but according to Gallup World Poll, less than 25 percent of Uzbeks approve of China’s policies: a figure that has declined over the past decade.

Seeing the situation in neighboring countries and fearing protests on its own territory, the Tajik government has denied all media reports about the base, claiming that there will be no Chinese military or paramilitary contingent at the site. After the construction is complete, it states, the installation will be transferred to the Tajik police urgent response unit tasked with combating organized crime.

However, Tajikistan has little reason to fear anti-Chinese protests. Along with Pakistan, Tajikistan is the most Chinese-friendly country in Central and South Asia. On average, up to 63 percent of Tajiks express positive opinions on China. Such attitudes may be attributed to the low number of Tajiks living in the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region: only 50,000 Tajiks reside there, as opposed to 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs and 180,000 Kyrgyz. Even these 50,000 people are not a monolith; they are from disparate ethnic groups, unified only by virtue of their common Eastern Iranian languages. In addition, unlike Tajiks from Tajikistan, the Chinese Tajiks are Ismaili Shia Muslims, not Sunni. There have been no high-profile stories about ethnic Tajiks detained in Chinese “reeducation camps.” Consequently, the Tajik public’s often sharp response to events in Afghanistan has been all but absent for news from Xinjiang.

Tajik elites have also embraced China for their own reasons. China has become an important source of financial well-being for many high-ranking Tajik officials, including those in the president’s family. For instance, President Emomali Rahmon’s son-in-law, Shamsullo Sohibov, has been accused of receiving $2.8 million for assisting China Nonferrous Gold Limited in securing a gold-mining license in Tajikistan. Joint ventures with Chinese participation currently mine more than 80 percent of Tajik gold, and also are involved in most of the silver mining.

No Threat to Russia

China’s activities in the Central Asian security sector cannot be overlooked, but their scale is not yet comparable to Russia’s. As a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Tajikistan is under Russia’s security umbrella, and its armed forces enjoy a close working relationship with their Russian counterparts. Tajikistan also hosts the Russian 201st Military Base, which is Moscow’s largest overseas military infrastructure with 7,000 servicemen. Moreover, Russia enjoys great support among the Tajik population, with an 88 percent approval rating. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal approval rating is even higher in Tajikistan than it is in Russia (75 percent compared with 65 percent). Tajikistan’s economic and political stability depend heavily on Tajik labor migration to Russia, which gives Moscow an effective mechanism of pressure on Dushanbe.

Still more important to Moscow is that Beijing’s actions in Central Asia do not seek to diminish Russian influence in the region. All the training exercises China conducts without Russian participation, as well as the construction of paramilitary sites, bilateral agreements, visits of high-ranking military officials, and the like are directed at securing China’s own interests.

Even if we are to interpret the developments in Central Asia as symptoms of China’s growing great power ambitions, those ambitions are very different from America’s. Beijing does not want to assume the role of a global military and ideological policeman. It is particularly keen to preserve its reputation as a “responsible” and peace-loving state that refuses to meddle in the affairs of other countries.

Russia cannot prevent China from defending its national interests by expanding its security umbrella to Central Asia. Nor can it stop China from pursuing its global ambitions. These sentiments have been publicly expressed by Putin, who stated that “China is a country with a population of almost 1.5 billion people. It is probably entitled to build its defense policy so as to ensure the security of that vast country.”

Competition between Russia and China in Central Asia is patently obvious, but their cooperation is underappreciated. There is a reason why Putin calls “work in third countries” an important vector of Sino-Russian cooperation. After the Taliban took power in Kabul in August 2021, Chinese and Russian leaders held regular discussions of regional security and the situation at the Afghan border. In addition, Sibu/Cooperation-2021, the largest bilateral military exercise conducted by Moscow and Beijing since the start of the pandemic, focused on combating terrorism. Among other things, military commanders from both countries explored cooperation scenarios in the event of a potential break through the Afghan border.

In other words, the danger of conflict between China and Russia in Central Asia is overestimated, while their potential for cooperation is underappreciated. Even if there is cause for competition in Central Asia, both Moscow and Beijing see friendly bilateral relations as a priority, especially against the backdrop of their escalating confrontation with the West.

This publication is part of a project carried out with the support of the Swedish Foreign Ministry.

  • Temur Umarov