By: Bob Rehorst
In February 2019, the Washington Post reported the existence of a 'secret' Chinese military base in the remote and inhospitable Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province of eastern Tajikistan. According to the report, local sources have witnessed Chinese soldiers purchasing goods and phone credit since 2017 at a nearby market. A Chinese soldier told the Post's investigator: "Remember, […] You never saw us here."1
Though, Chinese military presence abroad is not unique to Tajikistan. Since 2017, the People's Republic of China (PRC) has also constructed an operational military base in Djibouti, expanding its influence in the Horn of Africa – and has increased its presence in the South China Sea. China's external operations appear to be increasing, especially in the Central and Southern Asian region.
This introductory article will explore and contextualise the apparent expansion of China's military presence abroad, indicating a move away from the PRC's core principle of 'non-interference'. It will question whether this phenomenon has developed in tandem with China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in order to protect Chinese commercial and economic interests abroad.
One Belt One Road in Central Asia
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), previously known as ‘The Silk Road Economic Belt’ or the ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR), is a great illustration of the scope and size of Chinese ambitions abroad. The project, which aims to engender greater connectivity between China and the world, envisages a series of transportation networks which will traverse the Eurasian heartland towards Europe. Its total scope imagines global transportation connections via land, sea, air, and electronic means (a.k.a. the digital silk road). Here, we focus specifically on three economic corridors (EC’s) of the BRI, namely: (1) The New Eurasian Land Bridge Economic Corridor, (2) the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and the China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor.
China’s ambition to operate overland through Central Asia – a region long overlooked as the vast and distant ‘heartland’ of the world – carries the possibility of major economic benefits for China. As a simple illustration, the average transport time from Shanghai to the Polish port of Gdansk by sea freighter is between thirty and thirty-three days. By rail transport, however, the already operational China-Poland connection takes between nine and fourteen days. Evidently, the Eurasian overland routes have the potential to decrease transportation time and costs for the PRC substantially.
Consequently, China’s Western Xinjiang province, historically the country’s remote ‘back door’ bordering on the former Soviet ‘Stans’, is transforming into the CCP’s front gates. Generally, the BRI signifies the development of infrastructure and new foreign investment projects, which, not only further develops and globalises Chinese economy, but also warrants greater security initiatives beyond China’s borders to protect its trade and communication routes.
China’s flexible approach to non-interference:
Interestingly, since the 1950s, Chinese governance has adhered to a strict ‘non-interference’ policy, as part of the ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence’. In theory, this entails that China will refrain from intervening in the foreign affairs of other nations which stands in contrast to other regional and international power players such as the US, UN, EU, Russia, or even Turkey. In recent years, however, China’s strict adherence to its non-interference principle has unravelled, as its interests abroad have expanded.
While the 2015 National Security Law and Anti-Terrorism Law already permits China to partake in counter-terrorism operations abroad, this trend is no more apparent than in China’s 2019 White Paper: ‘China’s National Defence in the New Era’. The paper emphasises the need to strengthen the Chinese military and develop its overseas capacity in order to promote world peace and stability. Chinese policy aims to realise a strategy where soft-power instruments, such as successful economic trade and investment (e.g. the BRI), eases recipients towards an increased Chinese presence, eventually opening up the possibility for other modes of influence.
For example, the establishment of a Chinese military base in Djibouti, the first of its kind, marks a turning point in Chinese foreign policy and security. Initially, the Djibouti base was stated to be a facility to support Chinese logistics and provide assistance in combating piracy in the Gulf of Aden. However, the CPP aims to have developed the PLA into a full-fledged military force by 2050 and we can expect that, not too far into the future, the Chinese military in Djibouti will fulfil other tasks such as extraditing nationals from hostile environments and take part in combat operations.
In short, Chinese security and military developments appear to coincide with its strategic interests in need of protection, the Djibouti Base being an example of defending Chinese interests in the turbulent Horn of Africa region. Now we can explore the case of the military presence in South-East Tajikistan.
A military base in the mountains
The base in Tajikistan, located approximately 30 kilometres away from the Chinese border and about thirteen kilometres from the Tajik-Afghan Border, is located deep within the Pamir mountain range. Chinese officials have explained how its security presence in Tajikistan extends into Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, but is simply there for training and logistical purposes, not military occupation. However, given the increased likeliness of US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, in relation to China’s operations against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, it is plausible that this base serves an alternative purpose.
Uyghurs, TIP and China’s perceived threat
In Xinjiang, the Strike Hard Campaign continues to control the repressed Uyghur population by means of mass surveillance. Human Rights Watch reports almost a million ‘vanished’ Uyghurs while others are being continuously monitored and harassed by Chinese authorities. Aimen Dean, former Al-Qaeda operative and MI6 informant, has warned that that the repressive policies implemented against the Islamist community of the Uyghurs may effectively increase radicalisation within and against China – mainly by returning Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) militants, a prominent force in the Syrian civil war – rather than combat it.
Indeed, throughout China’s war on the ‘three evil forces’ (terrorism, separatism, and extremism), it has operated on the existence of a ‘direct threat’ towards China. Now that the US is moving forward with its withdrawal from Afghanistan, China increasingly fears that Afghanistan could become a potential ‘springboard of terrorism’ into the PRC. Dean has echoed this fear and has advocated dialogue between the Uyghurs and Beijing to prevent a mass insurgency targeting China and Chinese assets abroad.
The Research Project
A few things have become clear over the past years. Firstly, Chinese expansionism is manifesting itself heavily in Africa, the South China Sea and now also into Central- and South Asia. Secondly, subsequent to Chinese expansion through soft-power instruments, it seems that China is dead set on protecting its foreign investments. The Tajikistan Case presented here is indicative of a larger trend of China pivoting slowly into the Eurasian Heartland as part of its defensive strategies against terrorist threats coming from neighbouring countries.
Now that China is expanding Westward, it is stepping out into possible inhospitable environments which may prove more sinophobic than anticipated. As a result, if China is to protect its strategic interests in Eurasia, it may be compelled to increase its military presence as well.
This article is a publication of the Dyami Early Warning for International Security (DEWIS) Working Group, as part of the ‘Defending Chinese Strategic Interests in the Eurasian Heartland’ research project led by Anton Witchell-Chibber and Bob Rehorst.
For source references, please download the PDF version.
About the Author:
Bob Rehorst is a Global Security Analyst at Dyami. He has extensive field experience in the Levant-Middle East region, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. He holds a Graduate Degree in Conflict Studies and Human Rights, and an Undergraduate Degree in Cultural Anthropology, both from Utrecht University. Bob specializes in geopolitics, conflict development and global crises.