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Rashid Abdullo: “Tajikistan and China: strategic partnership or lack of alternatives?”

“One of the basic and integral objective risks for Central Asia is the lack of alternatives to their intense relations with China,” said Rashid Abdullo, an independent expert (Dushanbe, Tajikistan), in an article written exclusively for CABAR.
Start of relations with China after independence
Today, along with Russia and the United States, China is a world power that has a serious impact on the development of modern Central Asia. The Government of the People’s Republic of China was among the first to recognize the independence of post-Soviet states of Central Asia and established diplomatic relations with them, having opened its embassies in all the capital cities of the region. With the acquisition by the former Soviet Central Asian republics of the status of independent states, the transition of their relations with China to a new level became possible. Central to this was the mutual interest of each of the countries in the region to cooperate with China.
Becoming independent, the former Soviet republics of Central Asia faced the need to build as soon as possible, their sovereign stable national statehood, as a necessary condition to ensure their own national security and overcome the socio-economic difficulties generated by perestroika and collapse of the USSR.
The inner aspect of solving this problem was and continues to be associated with the strengthening of political and socio-economic foundations of independent states, as well as the consolidation of their national identity.
As for the external dimension, its essence is in the consistent implementation of a multi-vector foreign policy. The essence of it consists of the post-Soviet states building wide and varied relations with the outside world, especially with all the world’s poles, which are in fact independent civilizational spaces. For the Central Asian states, since independence to the present day, Russia, China, the US and its Western allies, and the Islamic world are such independent civilizational spaces.
The above mentioned poles-spaces have political, financial and economic opportunities that could be involved to address challenges in Central Asian states, their political and economic problems. Simultaneous focus on the all-pole spaces allows not falling into the over-reliance on one of them, which inevitably causes restrictions to some extent, and even the actual loss of national sovereignty and independence.
It should be emphasized that immediately after independence, the focus on China had not been one of the top priorities for any of the post-Soviet states of Central Asia
For the opposition forces that were ruling in the political life of Tajikistan on the eve of independence, both secular and religious, the first priority was the orientation to the Islamic Republic of Iran, in both its guises – national and Islamic. They both believed that the linguistic, cultural and civilizational (Islamic) commonness of the two countries is a sufficient basis for building successful Tajik-Iranian political and economic relations. The US and its Western allies considered Tajikistan a purely pro-communist country and did not have any slightest desire to give serious support for it. The problem was compounded by the fact that the government itself manifested a negative attitude to the idea and the possibility of the development of relations with the West.
Russia’s relations with Tajikistan at that time demonstrated two approaches – liberal politicians and their opponents. The position of liberal politicians, who before the first elections to the State Duma in December 1993, enjoyed full political power, practically coincided with that of Western countries. Unlike the Liberals, their opponents, known as statists, included most of the leadership of the security forces of Russia. They were inclined to cooperate with the new authorities in Tajikistan and gave them assistance. However, their capacity to do something was seriously limited by the political influence of the liberals. In addition, the economic situation in Russia was extremely difficult, and they were hardly in a position to provide any significant financial support for Tajikistan, weakened by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the civil war.
Mutual wariness on the verge of hostility prevented the establishment and development of extensive cooperation with rich Islamic states. Islamic states perceive the new leadership of the country as pro-communist, i.e., in their understanding, it is anti-Islamic, and they preferred not to rush to develop long-term economic relations with the Republic. Tajik authorities themselves treated Islamic states with no less prejudice, believing, not without reason, that they not only provided shelter to Tajik opposition, but also provided them with all possible assistance.
Influential international organizations also have little desire to establish constructive cooperation with the Tajik authorities, exactly for the same reasons as the Western countries, which had a decisive influence on their actions and attitudes toward certain countries.
Therefore, the leadership of the country that came to power in November 1992 in the midst of the Civil War had no choice but to make a bet on the development of relations with China.
Emomali Rahmon (then Rakhmonov), elected in November 1992, made his first foreign visit in China in March 1993. From a political point of view, the visit was quite successful. Pragmatic Chinese leaders paid Emomali Rahmon a warm welcome. On March 9, 1993, he and the head of China, Jiang Zemin, signed a joint communique on the principles of formation of the Tajik-Chinese relations in Beijing. Of highest importantance was the fact that the leaders of China, who were rapidly gaining world economic power and political weight, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, made it clear that they considered Tajikistan a worthy member of the international community, that its new government was quite legitimate and that they intended to liaise with the closest relations. However, the visit showed the fact that, at that time, the Chinese side did not strive to broaden the development of economic relations with Tajikistan (just like with other countries in the region) in the form and in the amounts desired by Tajikistan. It was quite satisfied with status quo.
At that time, the countries of Central Asia were interesting for China as a market for its goods and as a kind of “donor,” capable of giving impetus to the development of its western regions. At that time when the focus of the Chinese leadership, in the course of economic transformation of the country, was focused on the coastal areas, the production of goods for Central Asian countries and, accordingly, the reverse monetary and commodity flows had contributed to the development of the provinces adjacent to the borders of post-Soviet Central Asia. Just like the trade with Russia and its financial and commodity resources, the Chinese leadership had managed to give a powerful boost to the provinces bordering Russian regions.
In this situation, the Chinese did not feel any real need to engage in a substantive dialogue with the governments of the Central Asian states on economic issues. For China, everything was developing in the best way. Besides, perhaps, the level and nature of China’s development in early 1990s had not yet actualized the need to have an access to the resources of the region, associated with the need to invest large amounts of money in post-Soviet Central Asia.
Intensification of Cooperation in View of the Growing Interest of China
Further, during the 1990s, the development of the Chinese economy reached the level that made the access to hydrocarbon and other important resources of Central Asia attractive. To a great extent due to updating problems of China’s own economic security and its growing economy, Central Asia has become necessary not only as a market for their goods and services, but also as a reliable source of raw materials (ores and concentrates of non-ferrous metals, as well as the metals themselves – aluminum, copper, etc.) and energy (oil, gas, electricity) resources available in the countries of Central Asia.
Modification of China’s position on the issue of significantly important economic relations with the countries of Central Asia was caused by two serious factors. The first of them which became a reality after the events of September 11, 2001, was a solid US military presence and its NATO allies in Central Asia in the form of military bases – in Kyrgyzstan (Manas), Uzbekistan (Khanabad and Termez), Tajikistan (at the airport of Dushanbe). Another component was the direct involvement of American and Western European troops in the implementation of various joint programs with the countries of the region. The second was the “color revolutions” in the CIS countries – “pink” revolution in Georgia in 2003, “orange” revolution in Ukraine in 2004, “Tulip” revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005, as well as well-known events in Andijan, Uzbekistan, in the same year.
Under these circumstances, the Chinese leadership has found it useful to intensify its support for the actions of governments of the Central Asian republics, to ensure socio-economic stability and, thereby, political stability in their countries. It came from a simple calculation – political stability in the territories to the west of the Chinese border will fully serve the objective of ensuring political stability, and hence the security of its own western regions. In economic terms, the help and support is provided in the form of assistance in the implementation of economic programs and projects in each of the countries of Central Asia.
For Tajikistan, a decisive move of China to assist in the implementation of the Central Asian countries’ plans, programs and projects of economic development had turned into its credit and investment activity. The peak for it began in 2006, 2009 and 2014.

In 2006, Tajik-Chinese investment agreements for the rehabilitation of the Dushanbe-Khujand-Chanak highway were signed and began to be implemented, including the construction of the Shahristan tunnel, the construction of a power line-500 “South-North”, the power line “Khatlon-Lolazor”, and the construction of the tunnel Shar- Shar with a length of 223 km. Discussions were held converning the possibility of building a hydroelectric power station on the river Zarafshan. In general, the Chinese financing of these projects reached the sum of nearly  1 billion US dollars
In 2009, Tajikistan and China signed an agreement on construction of HPP “Nurabad-1” ($ 560 million.), CHP in Dushanbe ($ 400 million.), a cement plant with a capacity of 1mln.t. a year, additional work on power lines “Lolazor- Khatlon” and “North-South,” and the reconstruction of the road Dushanbe-Dangara. These arrangements also reached the sum of slightly more than 1 billion US dollars.
In 2014, Tajikistan and China signed various agreements, under which China will provide loans and grants of up to $ 6 billion. Approximately 3.5 billion of this amount will be spent for the construction of 400 km of the Tajik section of the fourth gas pipeline Central Asia-China. Practical implementation of the project started in September 2014. Today, the participation of Chinese companies in mining is very noticeable, particularly in the gold mining industry of the country.
A similar situation – a significant part of Chinese companies, investors, etc. – can be seen in the economies of the other republics of Central Asia.
What makes the cooperation with China so attractive to its Central Asian neighbors?
From an economic point of view, the attractiveness of China to the Central Asian states is determined by its financial solvency. With free trillions of dollars, China is not restricted in choosing the fields of their application.
This is determined by the fact that the Chinese never reject right away the economic projects proposed by the central Asian countries that need China’s financial support. However, they are based on the principle – in any project, you can always find attractive aspects, real or potential.
Positive cooperation with China is based on the fact that decisions are made on economic cooperation projects which are guided by pragmatic results, not short-term emotions, and they are linked to political, ideological, and other conditions obviously unacceptable for Central Asia. Having made a decision, the Chinese quickly start its implementation. If, for some reason, the execution of a decision already made becomes impossible, it finds the ways to compensate the damage occurring for the other party, for example, by implementing an alternative project. This was the case with Tajikistan, where the Chinese implemented a project of construction of a large thermal power station in Dushanbe as an alternative to the frozen project of construction of hydroelectric power station on the river Zarafshan, due to the negative attitude of Uzbekistan to it.
Central Asian states initially treated and continue to treat China as a world power that is able to balance the influence over the other two world powers – Russia and the United States, and, if necessary, dampen the possible political pressure on their part. China has confirmed that it may be a reliable political ally. After the events in Andijan in May 2005, when the US and its allies have imposed sanctions on Uzbekistan, China supported Uzbekistan politically, morally and financially.
The Central Asian states consider China as a reliable ally in the fight against the forces that may be considered not only by the leadership of these countries, but also by the Chinese leadership as destructive, regardless of the ideas or political views they advocate – Islamist, liberal-democratic, separatist, etc. These forces are contained. So it was, when Beijing was practically the only one who has expressed support for the actions of the Tajik government in Khorog events in July 2012.
Who Worries About China’s Presence in Tajikistan?
China’s growing presence in Central Asia causes nervousness among both its strategic competitors in the region and the residents within the region itself.
Strategic competitors are concerned not just by the massive presence of China in Central Asia, but also by the growing desire of the ruling political elites of the region to search for active support from Beijing in the event of serious problems for themselves.
Not being able to compete with China in offering their services, they have to expand the campaign to convince the public in Central Asia that multilateral and extensive development of relations with China is harmful and dangerous for their countries. The arguments are based on the fact that the Chinese tend to economically enslave the countries in the region, claim their territory, carry out creeping expansion, create China-towns, etc.
On the ground, these arguments find their audience. The latter is adding their fears and concerns to them. Moreover, the Chinese are actively feared only in the countries of the region that border on China. Criticism against China from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan has not been heard.
In the historical memory of Tajiks, China was never present as an existential threat. However, people in the country believe that not everything in a relationship with China is smooth. Fears were expressed in some media. All the fears and accusations are based on the following: there is a Chinese expansion. It is expressed in a steady increase in the number of Chinese citizens working in various fields of economics – trade in consumer goods, infrastructure projects in agriculture, where they work on farms. Starting with renting relatively small plots of land, they tend to rent land in the tens of thousands of hectares. Chinese use harmful chemicals, causing irreparable damage to farmland. For the sake of their business interests, Chinese entrepreneurs are actively bribing local officials. They are reluctant to hire local residents. Due to the influx of foreigners, employment and housing in Tajikistan has become a serious problem for the indigenous population. There is a growing number of mixed marriages – Tajik women marry Chinese, including non-Muslims. Poverty is the main reason for these marriages. For wealthy Chinese, it is a chance to receive the Tajik citizenship in five years.
I must say that at the end of the perestroika era and the beginning of the 1990s, when the borders were opened, there was almost the same attitude to Afghans who came and settled on the territory of Tajikistan.
Concerns about the risks associated with the development of relations between the countries of Central Asia and China are due primarily to the emotional reaction on the part of the indigenous people of the region to the changes taking place around. One such change is a thing of the past – for many decades, massive presence of Russians and Russian-speaking ethnic groups, to whom local people have become accustomed. The local population has to somehow adapt to the presence of new ethnic groups. This process is complex and requires breaking the established and emerging new model of international relations.
Objective Risks in Relations
However, there are not only emotional risks posed by the rapid development of multilateral Central Asia-China relations. There are risks of a more objective nature. One of the basic and integral objective risks for Central Asia is the lack of alternatives to their intense relations with China. This lack of options creates conditions for the formation of one-sided dependence of Central Asian countries on relations with China and on the country as such.
This lack of alternatives to the development of relations with China for the countries in the region, engaged in the export of hydrocarbons which is the basis of their welfare and well-being, is determined by the fact that these relationships allow them to significantly diversify not only markets for their hydrocarbons and other raw materials and products, but also to find an access to the big outside world. Moreover, the development of relations with China is, in fact, the only real opportunity to reduce their dependence on Russia with regard to the delivery of their hydrocarbons to external markets. After all, the export of raw resources of Central Asia to markets outside the CIS, for the most part, is implemented through Russian territory and via Russian transport and communication infrastructure and other features. All other options, except for those that arise in connection with the development of relations with China, are a palliative, not more. But this only possible real diversification of markets and access to the large outer world through the development of relations with China inevitably poses Central Asian states in dependence on these opportunities and on the country providing this opportunity.
For Tajikistan, not rich in resources, the export of the latter would allow it to catch up in development to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and there is no other option in providing reliable and large volumes to fund Tajik road projects as well as projects in the field of construction of power generation plants, enterprises producing construction materials, etc., than the development of relations with China.
The dependence of social stability of the Central Asian countries on the level and nature of the relationship with their large eastern neighbor also becomes more apparent. In the countries of the region, rapid social stratification is taking place. The poor, cheap Chinese goods allow to make ends meet. Second, Chinese goods look no different from the corresponding more expensive and inaccessible to the poor commodities produced somewhere else. This, to some extent, alleviates the symptoms of social inequality, which is important for maintaining its own political stability.
Do not forget that the existence of many thousands, if not tens of thousands of traders who traveled between Central Asian countries and China also depended on Chinese goods. Today, this international small “shuttle” business is almost non-existent. But many thousands, tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of people throughout the region continue to earn for living, bringing Chinese goods from wholesale markets to the most distant corners of their countries, resell them directly in their shops, stores, markets, or are simply engaged in street peddling. This kind of work contributes not only to employment, but also keeps the population from any radical protest actions.
It is noticed that when China, due to some circumstances, such as holidays, closes its borders for a few days, consequently, slowing trade flows, there are immediately negative shifts in the local currency.
Such a high level of the lack of options for the relations of Central Asia and China, as well as the dependence of social and economic stability on the nature of the relationship with the neighbor-giant, makes the position of these countries quite vulnerable. However, the current reality is that a possibility of overcoming this vulnerability is not visible at the moment. Participation in the EAEC proposed to the countries in the region does not solve the problem, because, potentially reducing the intensity of relations with China greatly enhances the lack of an alternative development of relations with Russia. There is not a solution to the issue in focusing on the Western world, due to its surrealistic nature.
To some extent, the level of two option-less orientations – Russia and China, could be reduced by the countries of Central Asia through the development of a broader and deeper relationship with Iran, Pakistan, the rich Arab Gulf states. But people in the countries of the region are very careful about it.
Despite the fact that there is no real alternative to the broad development of economic relations with China in the countries of Central Asia today, they should try to follow the multi-vector course not only in purely political, but also in economic relations with the outside world, in order not to become overly dependent on China.
The example of Russia with its excessive focus on the West over the past – nearly a quarter century – should serve as a lesson for all of them. Russia’s current problems are directly caused by this circumstance. This multi-vector can and should be formed by complementing the development of relations with China by the relations with the rapidly developing countries of Southeast Asia, India, Pakistan, as well as with the countries on both shores of the Persian Gulf. This is especially important for Tajikistan.
Of course, there is a need for regional cooperation, but it seems to date, due to the existing contradictions within the countries of Central Asia, that is still a utopia.
Rashid Abdullo, an independent expert
The opinion of the author may not necessarily represent the opinion of CABAR