Sunday, July 21, 2024

China constructs secret Tajikistan military base amid fears of Taliban

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Concern over Tajikistan’s 800-mile border with Afghanistan has escalated since the Taliban’s return to power in 2021.

China is also providing ammunition and technology to Tajikistan as part of its broader plans to “create an advanced line of defence,” said Mr Mollojonov. “But also there could be some other long-term unknown, not openly stated goals and plans.”

Beijing was the first to recognise an ambassador appointed by the Taliban, and has sought to build ties with the militant group in charge of Afghanistan.

But Beijing is increasing its presence in this corner of the world, because it wants to keep a tight lid on Uyghur Muslims in the far west region of Xinjiang – who have staged many anti-government demonstrations – so the ruling Communist Party can continue its economic expansion plans into Central Asia and Europe.

For Tajikistan, closer ties to China has also meant adopting the same “counter-terrorism” policy framework that Beijing instituted against the Uyghurs, which included locking upwards of one million people in “re-education” camps.

Tajik authorities outlawed the hijab last month, the latest in a range of 35 faith-related acts, aimed at “protecting national cultural values” and “preventing superstition and extremism”.

Police have also reportedly forcibly shaved off men’s long beards – considered a sign of “extremist” views.

Hundreds of mosques have been shut, teachings delivered by imams must fall within state-issued guidelines and minors are not allowed to enter places of worship without permission. Parents sending their children to study religion abroad are also penalised.

The government even issued a 367-page manual of acceptable outfits for women, detailing garment style, length and colour.

Security forces have violently dispersed protests over the reforms, and some women continue to defy the authorities by wearing hijabs.

Many have also chosen to go abroad to seek greater economic opportunity and religious freedom, though that puts migrants at risk of being targeted for recruitment by various extremist groups.

For Emomali Rahmon, the lifelong Tajik president, this is as much about keeping his grip on power as it is about sidling up to China.

Whether any of these policies have any impact on “counter-terrorism” concerns remains to be seen, especially as such restrictions are likely to backfire in Tajikistan, a country steeped in Islam in both fabric and identity.

Tajikistan seeks “good relations with our neighbours – with our bear friend and our dragon friend”, said Rustam Azizi, research director of Tahlil, a Tajik-based NGO that studies a range of domestic and foreign policy issues.

Links with Iran

Tajikistan has also made it a point to highlight links to Iran given a shared Persian heritage.

Two years ago, Tehran opened a drone factory in Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe – its first such facility abroad. The plant is reportedly focused on assembly, and supplies the Tajik army.

It is a delicate balance. On many levels, it is important for the country to cast away past Soviet influences and re-establish its Tajik identity. But Dushanbe also does not want to be isolated by the West if it is perceived as being too close to Tehran.

“The best option would be the preservation of the current status quo where nobody controls [Tajikistan],” said Mr Mollojonov. So for Tajikistan “not just to have Russian domination or Chinese domination, but to have its ‘multi-vector’ foreign policy.”

For many in Tajikistan, it looks like the “dragon” is very much in the ascendancy.

On his recent visit, Mr Xi inaugurated Chinese-funded government facilities in Dushanbe, including a presidential palace and a new parliament building, modelled on the US Capitol in Washington.

The whole project cost more than £300 million, according to AidData, a research lab at the College of William & Mary in the United States that tracks such spending.

China’s presence in Tajikistan has increased exponentially over the last decade, becoming the largest source of foreign investment.

At one point, China accounted for more than 60 per cent of Dushanbe’s external public debt; a figure that has recently fallen to about 40 per cent after much criticism.

Beijing has also secured numerous mining rights, as Tajikistan lacks the infrastructure and expertise to develop the industry in a country which is more than 90 per cent mountainous.

Sentiments about greater Chinese influence are mixed in Ayni, a remote town in the north where the main traffic comes from sluggish cows.

For Mihirgul Noibova, it has meant booming business at the canteen she used to run.

Chinese people working on a massive road project – the same one that now connects Ayni to Dushanbe about 90 miles away – frequented her small restaurant so frequently that she was able to save enough to construct a large house for her family.

“I built this thanks to the Chinese,” said Ms Noibova, 56, gesturing to her multi-storey green and white house, flanked by towering mountains.

When Chinese investment first started flowing into Tajikistan, many workers were brought in from China. While the Chinese are still typically brought in for senior management positions, Tajiks say that there is now more work available than before at junior levels, or in blue-collar jobs.

Environmental concerns

Almost all, however, said they were worried about the long-term impact on their health and the surrounding environment.

“There are maybe 300 trucks passing each day here,” said a shopkeeper in downtown Ayni. “They’re creating so much dust, and I’m concerned about this, because there are no regulations.”

Entire villages, too, have disappeared in order to make space for expanding Chinese mining interests in Ayni.

The village of Kumarg, just next to the main mining site, is now an eerie ghost town. At the entrance, a guard blocks access to the empty houses.

It was home to about 60 households but were all reportedly paid to move away about a year ago when mining activity expanded.

All across Tajikistan, there are reminders of a fast-growing Chinese presence – from electric power boxes outside the national museum in Dushanbe to rubbish bins labelled with Chinese characters rather than Tajik words in public parks.

Vendors at the city’s main market sell Chinese noodles and sweets. One shopkeeper even runs a small-scale unofficial exchange service – Chinese customers come in and transfer him renminbi on a Chinese digital wallet app, and he hands them cash in Tajik somoni.

There has been so much Beijing-backed construction – complete with the red propaganda banners that would normally adorn building sites in China – that Dushanbe feels and looks much like a newly-developing Chinese city.

Ms Noibova benefitted from a Chinese-funded road connecting Dushanbe to towns in the far north, such as Khujand, sandwiched between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. It has cut down travel time from one day to a few hours.

Such infrastructure showcases Chinese prowess – some parts of the road have a gradient as steep as 12 per cent, and are carved directly into the mountainside. A series of tunnels along the way burrow through stone and protect from rock falls.

But it also highlights a growing dependency on China in trade and technical expertise.

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