While the general perception of China being recklessly expansionist still exists, the fact remains that every belligerent Chinese move has some kind of a geo-strategic connection. Take the latest Chinese claim on Tajikistan for example. A Chinese historian wrote an article claiming that Tajikistan’s Pamir region is a part of the Chinese territory.
Official Chinese outlets have been frequently republishing this article to stake claim over the Pamir region. However, what seems like a brash Chinese move to take over 45 per cent of Tajik territory is Beijing’s fallback plan, if and when, India starts an onslaught in China occupied Ladakh (Aksai Chin). But China faces many obstacles in this fallback plan, the biggest of them being Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Tajik and Russian media outlets have been angry with China’s latest claims in the Pamir region. Dushanbe bureau of Radio Ozodi- the most trusted news source within Tajikistan. feels China’s latest claims have an India connection. It reported, “Perhaps this is due to an armed clash in Ladakh, on the border between the PRC and India, during which at least 20 Indian soldiers were killed. The Indian media write that China shares borders with 14 states and has territorial claims to all its neighbors, and sometimes even returns to the already resolved problems to declare a new diplomatic victory.”
On the other hand, Russian media has reported about how the Tajik Foreign Ministry has asked China to desist from publishing “provocative” articles about the China-Tajikistan border. Moreover, Russian outlets themselves seem to think that with its claim on Pamir, China is testing the waters for future border disputes.
While China claims the entire Pamir region, we must not lose track of the fact that Beijing has been meeting an increasingly assertive New Delhi on the diplomatic table and a still more assertive soldier at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – the de facto Sino-India border in Eastern Ladakh.
China is also perturbed by the renewed vigour with which India has been asserting its territorial claim on Aksai Chin and Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). Last year, India’s Union Home Minister Amit Shah himself declared in India’s Parliament that PoK and Aksai Chin are part of India. He said, “Jaan de denge iske liye! (We will sacrifice our lives for it) When I say J&K it also includes PoK. The boundary of J&K as mentioned in our constitution includes PoK and Aksai Chin.”
Later, the Modi government again avowed its territorial claims by releasing a political map which showed Aksai Chin in India’s Union Territory of Ladakh. Within China, many interpreted it as New Delhi’s geopolitical ambitions to reclaim the territory that it had lost during the 1962 Sino-India war.
Owing to this, the global opinion has turned sharply in India’s favour over the past few months. China itself fears an Indian onslaught in Aksai Chin in case there is any escalation in military tensions.
In this context, Tajikistan comes into the picture. China has been increasing its physical hold on the debt-trapped country over the past few years. In 2017, Tajikistan joined the BRI. 350 Chinese companies operate in this Central Asian country. Dushanbe owes half of its foreign debt to China which forms around 35.9 per cent of Tajikistan’s GDP.
Tajikistan lost 1,158 square kilometres of its ‘disputed’ territory to China in 2011, in exchange for Beijing writing off a part of Tajik debt. Last year, Washington Post revealed the presence of Chinese troops in Tajikistan’s South-eastern border abutting Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor.
China has many things to achieve out of the increased presence or even total sovereignty in the Pamir region. It gives China easy access into Afghanistan, which might come in handy any time soon.
It also helps China expand its influence into Central Asia. The passes in the Pamir region form a gateway into Central Asia. And as such, both China and Pakistan have been trying to align Tajikistan with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – a part of Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
But most importantly, acquiring control of Pamir region- the roof of the world helps Chinese troops fallback when things get down to the wire in Aksai Chin. From the Tajik highlands, it will be easier for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to defend their positions in Aksai Chin.
However, there are many obstacles to China’s full-blown fallback plan. Firstly, Russia isn’t going to take expanding Chinese influence in Central Asia lightly. The Chinese claim on the Pamir region has invited Russia’s attention.
Moscow believes Central Asia is its privileged “sphere of influence” and strategic backyard because of the reason that the five Central Asian Republics- Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan were born out of the Soviet Union disintegration. Today, these Central Asian Republics remain very close to Moscow and have strong people-to-people ties with Russia.
Now evidently, China is trying to eat into the Russian “sphere of influence” by claiming almost of Tajikistan. Tajikistan is the smallest Republic in the region, but strategically crucial being the gateway into Central Asia. Moreover, Dushanbe is the most vulnerable to Chinese influence because of its debt-crippled economy.
Russia might take China’s misadventures into Tajikistan very seriously and it also comes as a realisation that Chinese expansionism isn’t going to stop. Neither is Moscow indifferent about the fact that recently China dared to stake a claim on Vladivostok- a Russian Far East city.
There is a high chance that Russia might give China a dose of its own medicine if the latter doesn’t stop pushing the envelope in Tajikistan.
As for India, it has an airbase near the Tajik town of Farkhor. India’s first military base outside its territory, currently the Farkhor airbase aids India’s relief and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. India must move to augment military presence to interdict any Chinese fallback plan, if and when, matters escalate in Aksai Chin.
Hence, the conclusion of this is very simple- Tajikistan is becoming the centre of geopolitics tussles between India and China. Beijing wants an escape route, but Russia is in no mood to give it an easy pass.