A general view shows the town of Khorog, Tajikistan. (photo credit: REUTERS/SHAMIL ZHUMATOV)
An investigative report by The Washington Post recently revealed that Chinese troops have been stationed for at least three years on Tajikistan’s southeastern border, less than 30 km. from Pakistani-administered Kashmir, across the narrow strip of northeastern Afghanistan known as the Wakhan Corridor, which extends to China and separates Tajikistan from Pakistan and Gilgit-Baltistan.
While neither Beijing nor Dushanbe have acknowledged China’s military presence alongside the panhandle, the objective of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) base seems to be to prevent jihadi Uighur militants returning from Syria and elsewhere to re-enter China’s restive Xinjiang province.
India has unsuccessfully sought for more than 15 years to establish its own military base in Tajikistan. The PLA base in Tajikistan constitutes a severe setback for New Delhi’s ambition to increase its strategic footprint in Central Asia.
Washington Post investigators saw one of the military compounds and interacted with uniformed Chinese troops in Murghab, the closest market and some 137 km. from the base. The soldiers reportedly wore the insignia of the Xinjiang units of the PLA. In 2016, Chinese mine-resistant armored vehicles bearing the logo of China’s paramilitary forces were photographed patrolling Baza’i Gonbad in the Wakhan Corridor itself.
Seeking not run afoul of Russian sensitivities as Moscow is Dushanbe’s main security provider, China’s forces in Tajikistan could plausibly be composed of paramilitaries under PLA command or perhaps PLA troops out of standard uniform. Given the 2016 terrorist attack on China’s embassy in Kyrgyzstan by a Uighur suicide bomber allied with the Syrian jihadi organization Jabhat al-Nusra, a former al-Qaeda affiliate, Beijing faces a credible threat as Central Asian and Uighur jihadis exit Syria.
China’s military presence in Tajikistan, in addition to its already outsized role in the land-locked country’s economy, poses a strategic challenge to New Delhi as Tajikistan is India’s gateway to Central Asia. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s failure to improve on the lackluster results of his predecessor Manmohan Singh’s diplomacy in Tajikistan raises questions about India’s capacity to maintain strategic partnerships across Eurasia.
TAJIKISTAN IS India’s closest Central Asian neighbor, with the distance between Dushanbe and New Delhi being almost the same as between New Delhi and Mumbai. Moreover, Tajikistan’s proximity to Pakistani-administered Kashmir would makes the country an invaluable strategic asset for India if New Delhi could establish an air base on Tajik soil capable of conducting reconnaissance and combat operations.
In this regard, India’s air base at Farkhor, Tajikistan, its only foreign airbase, is sorely deficient. India began operating the Farkhor base in May 2002, with Russian acquiescence, to support Indian relief and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. However, with no active Indian combat squadrons at Farkhor, the airbase does not provide India with an alternative attack route against Pakistan or the ability to affect militant operations in Kashmir.
The base’s main function is to transport India’s relief and reconstruction supplies into Afghanistan. India airlifts resources to Tajikistan’s Ayni air force base located 15 km. from Dushanbe and then transports material approximately 150 km. to Farkhor, where it is then trucked to Afghanistan.
The Ayni airbase has been the key to India’s strategic footprint in Tajikistan. India’s interest in the Ayni base began 19 years ago with the February 2000 Subrahmanyam Committee report, which investigated the intelligence failure that led to the 1999 Kargil War. This is according to Ambassador Phunchok Stobdan, a senior fellow for Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) and the visionary spirit behind India’s 2012 “Connect Central Asia” policy.
The Ayni airbase, also called Gissar and originally used by the Soviets during the 1980s, was abandoned after the USSR withdrew from Afghanistan. During the Manmohan Singh era, India contributed technical assistance and $70 million to renovate the airbase between 2004 and 2010. India’s Border Roads Organization (BRO), directed by India’s Army Corps of Engineers, extended the main runway, built a control tower and constructed three hangars capable of housing squadrons of MiG-29 bombers used by the Indian Air Force. In September 2010, a Tajik Defense Ministry spokesman also confirmed to the press that the Ayni airbase had state-of-the-art navigational and defense technology and a runway extended to 3,200 meters to accommodate all types of aircraft.
NONETHELESS, there are no reports of Indian combat aircraft ever having been stationed at the base. Although the BRO began the Ayni renovations in 2004, the Manmohan Singh government seems never to have developed a coherent vision of how to use the base or leverage its position with the Tajik government.
Russia’s 201st Motor Rifle Division (MRD), Moscow’s largest military contingent abroad prior to its Syria deployment, is stationed in Dushanbe and two other Tajik cities. In December 2010, Tajikistan announced that Russia was the only country under consideration to use the Ayni airbase in the future. Although India continues to maintain approximately 150 personnel at the air base, New Delhi has been effectively closed out of Ayni.
Despite a decade-long opportunity, provided by the US regional presence, for India to develop an expanded role in Central Asia, it did not project any significant military or economic power in the region. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Tajikistan during his highly-touted 2015 tour of the five Central Asian republics resulted in no tangible gain for India in Tajikistan. It is quite possible that Modi’s visit coincided with the onset of Chinese operations in southern Tajikistan and the Wakhan Corridor.
New Delhi still seeks to develop an expanded combat presence at Ayni, and will need to incentivize Moscow as well as Dushanbe. During his October 2018 visit to Tajikistan, Indian President Ram Nath Kovind visited the Ayni air base. With the United States planning to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, China and Pakistan are well placed to prevent India from projecting any hard power in Central Asia. China’s active military presence in Tajikistan thus constitutes a severe strategic setback for India.
Unless New Delhi can entice Russia to engage India as a strategic counter-balance to growing Chinese influence in Central Asia, it will watch from the sidelines as the Beijing-Moscow partnership defines the security architecture and commercial trade routes of the new Eurasia.
Dr. Micha’el Tanchum is a Fellow at the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at Hebrew University and an affiliated scholar with the Centre for Strategic Studies at Baskent University in Ankara, Turkey (Baskent-SAM). Follow @michaeltanchum. This article originally appeared in South Asian Monitor.
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