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Tajikistan Approves Construction Of New Chinese-Funded Base As Beijing's Security Presence In Central Asia Grows

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The proposal to transfer ownership of the base to China was presented by Tajik President Emomali Rahmon (right) to Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe during his trip to Tajikistan earlier this year.

DUSHANBE -- Tajikistan has approved the construction of a new Chinese-funded base near the country’s border with Afghanistan as Tajik officials warn of growing threats emanating from its southern neighbor.*

In a separate development, the Tajik government has offered to transfer full control of a preexisting Chinese military base in the country to Beijing and waive any future rent in exchange for military aid from China, according to a communique sent from the Chinese Embassy in Dushanbe to Tajikistan’s Foreign Ministry and seen by RFE/RL’s Tajik Service.

The two developments paint a picture of a growing Chinese military footprint in the Central Asian country as Beijing and its neighbors in the region turn their attention toward an increasingly tenuous security situation in Afghanistan since the Taliban's mid-August takeover.

"This decision to build such a facility is one of only a few known examples for China around the world," Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at London's Royal United Services Institute, told RFE/RL. "The fact that we keep seeing this activity in Tajikistan shows the level of Chinese concern towards Afghanistan and the region."

China already operates a military base in Tajikistan in the Murghab region near the Afghan border in a remote stretch close to the Wakhan Corridor. The collection of facilities and outposts is believed to have been in operation for at least five years and was the subject of a recent investigation by RFE/RL that showed Chinese personnel taking on a growing role in the area.

Both the Chinese and Tajik governments have officially denied the base’s existence and few details about its ownership and operation are known. The documents seen by RFE/RL's Tajik Service say that Chinese personnel are operating at the base in Tajikistan, but that it currently is owned by Dushanbe.

According to the documents, the proposal to transfer ownership of the base to China was presented by Tajik President Emomali Rahmon to Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe when he visited the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, in July.

"This highlights how Central Asia is going to be a major focus of Chinese attention," said Pantucci. "Going forward, Beijing may struggle to avoid getting itself entangled in regional security problems."

The documents do not state if Beijing has agreed to the proposal put forward by the Tajik side, but they summarize an offer put forward by Rahmon in which China would provide increased funding to build up Tajik military points along the border with Afghanistan in exchange for Dushanbe transferring full control of the existing facilities to China and not charging any basing fees.

“For China, security on its border is crucial and is part of its core interests in Central Asia,” Temur Umarov, an expert on China in Central Asia at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told RFE/RL. “Expanding its security presence in Tajikistan is the most effective tool that it possesses right now.”

Construction of the new facility was approved in Tajikistan's lower house of parliament on October 27 as lawmakers voted on the agreement reached between Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry and China’s Public Security Ministry.

Tajik First Deputy Interior Minister Abdurahmon Alamshozoda said the facility would be located in the village of Vakhon in the country’s remote Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province and that the base would be owned by the country’s Rapid Reaction Group -- special forces that operate under the purview of the Interior Ministry. Lawmakers said regular Tajik troops would also be present at the facility.

Tajik lawmaker Tolibkhon Azimzoda said in parliament that the new base would be built with Chinese funding and that the total cost would be about $10 million, which he tied to a worsening security situation in Afghanistan since the Taliban toppled the Western-backed government.

Azimzoda told RFE/RL’s Tajik Service that Chinese personnel would not be stationed at the new facility.

“The construction comes amid the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan and growing security threats along the country's border,” Azimzoda said.

The exact function of the new base is unknown, although lawmakers said it would carry out policing duties focused on combating organized crime and that the facility would have “special equipment for the Interpol information system” installed from China.

Beijing is navigating a delicate security situation in the region since the Taliban takeover. China has a pragmatic working relationship with the group, but it remains to be seen how closely the Taliban will cooperate on counterterrorism issues with Chinese authorities.

For years, China has sounded the alarm about Uyghur extremists potentially using Afghanistan as a staging ground for attacks on Chinese targets in the region or in its western Xinjiang Province.

While the full scope of the threat posed by Uyghur militants is disputed, with many analysts saying the fighters lack coordination and numbers to launch attacks, the prospect of terrorist threats spreading from Afghanistan are a central concern for Chinese policymakers.

“Developments like this were coming, but the instability in Afghanistan has accelerated things,” Umarov said. “In the future, we might see Chinese military and intelligence cooperation intensify across the region.”

The Chinese Embassy in Dushanbe did not respond to a request by RFE/RL’s Tajik Service for comment about the proposal allegedly put forward by Rahmon.

*CLARIFICATION: This story has been amended to clarify that Tajik officials say only Tajik troops will be stationed at the Chinese-funded base.
Written and reported by Reid Standish in Prague based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Tajik Service in Dushanbe.
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