China and Tajikistan share a 477-kilometre border between Tajikistan’s Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast and China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, with only one, high-altitude border crossing over the Kulma Pass. Under Soviet rule, the Soviet Socialist Tajik Republic, the borders of which were drawn in the 1920s, had limited relations with China, even though ethnic ties existed; Persian-speaking communities have been living in Xinjiang and Uyghur communities live in contemporary Tajikistan.
In those years, the border between China and Tajikistan was sealed. Only in the late 1980s did cross-border trade start to take off and gradually increase. Although diplomatic relations between the Republic of Tajikistan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) were established on 4 January 1992, during the Tajik Civil War (1992–97), interactions were limited. Bilateral relations gradually intensified in the aftermath of the war, as investment, loans, and personal interactions picked up speed from the mid-2000s. The two countries interacted, first, under the umbrella of the Shanghai Five, and later under the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
In 2006, the Tajik Government received its first big loans from the Chinese Government and the first large projects undertaken by Chinese companies commenced. One project was the rehabilitation of an essential road connecting Tajikistan’s capital city, Dushanbe, with the northern region of the country; another two entailed the construction of power transmission lines and were undertaken by the Chinese company Tebian Electric Apparatus (TBEA). In 2007, the Chinese company Zijin Mining obtained a mining concession and acquired 75% of a goldmine in Tajikistan’s northern Sughd region.
Bilateral interactions gained momentum in the 2010s with the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as the Chinese Government provided more incentives to encourage Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and private actors to venture into Tajikistan. According to an interview conducted with the secretary of the Federation of Overseas Chinese in Tajikistan in September 2020, there are about 400 Chinese state and private companies active in Tajikistan today (the Tajik President mentioned a figure of 350 companies in 2019). The Chinese actors active in Tajikistan are very diverse, and it is particularly difficult to assess the number of small-scale Chinese businesses as some of their activities have resulted from networked migration, as they branched out after leaving the Chinese company that originally brought them to the country.
Many, mainly male, Chinese migrant workers reside seasonally in Tajikistan, leaving for the Chinese New Year and returning after. While Covid-19 has had a significant impact on the regular flows of people between the two countries, the Chinese and Tajik governments have attempted to safeguard the continuation of Chinese-led projects during the pandemic—for instance, by facilitating airfares for specific categories of employees of Chinese SOEs.
In Tajikistan, China’s BRI is more often referred to by its Russian name (Odin Poyas, Odin Put’) than in Tajik (Yak Kamarband, Yak Roh), but in daily parlance, neither concept is frequently used. According to Chinese media, Tajikistan was one of the first countries to join the BRI. Today, there are numerous bilateral agreements. In 2015, the two governments signed the ‘Memorandum of Understanding on the Preparation of the Outline of China–Tajikistan Cooperation Plan’, including newly pledged projects the media labelled BRI investments. There are also various agreements between Tajik actors and Chinese provincial administrations, in line with the decentralised character of the BRI and the fact the Chinese overseas presence is impacted by networked migration. In 2017, the two national governments forged a comprehensive strategic partnership. Tajikistan also joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as a founding member in 2015.
Trade: Trade between China and Tajikistan is highly unbalanced. Chinese goods have come to dominate Tajik consumer markets. Most of the few commodities traded from Tajikistan to China are primary (raw) products, such as animal skins, cotton, and silk. There is little value added within Tajikistan.
China Customs statistics provide some insights into this highly unbalanced trade. The bilateral trade volume reached 1.08 billion USD in 2020, of which exports from China to Tajikistan made up 1.01 billion USD. The total trade volume was significantly lower than in 2019 (when it reached 1.67 billion USD), probably because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The border post at Kulma was closed for some time, but trade continued through third countries. In general, a significant amount of the goods imported from China enter Tajikistan through third countries, primarily Kyrgyzstan.
Investment: According to World Bank and official Tajik data, Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) in Tajikistan was worth 262.3 million USD in 2019—that is, almost 75% of all FDI received by Tajikistan in that year. Investment is concentrated in manufacturing, transport, communication, construction, and mining. Cumulatively, between 2007 and 2019, Chinese state-owned and private companies invested 2.87 billion USD, accounting for 29% of the total FDI from 63 countries. For comparison, Russian investment (the second largest after China) was 1.63 billion USD over the same period. For large development projects such as road construction, Chinese companies often successfully compete in tenders of major international financial institutions such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB) or the Islamic Development Bank. In several cases, Chinese SOEs have taken the lead and subcontracted private Chinese companies for the work.
The mining sector is one of the most prominent sectors receiving Chinese investment. Over the past decades, Chinese companies have become dominant in this sector, reviving the exploration of old (Soviet) mines, or taking over concession rights from other foreign companies. Decisions to grant new mining concessions to Chinese companies, such as the rights granted to China’s Kashgar Xinyi Dadi Mining Investment Company to develop the Yakjilva silver deposit in the autonomous region of Gorno Badakhshan in 2019, are locally controversial, even though some of those mines (including the Yakjilva mine, as well as the Pakrut goldmine to be discussed below) were previously under foreign control.
The Pakrut goldmine in the district of Vahdat has attracted local media attention in recent years. The operating company, locally known as LLC Pakrut, obtained the licence for trial mining and exploration in 2004. The licence covered a large area that was at the time owned by Kryso, a company controlled by a well-connected businessman from New Zealand who used his connections with elites related to the Tajik presidential family to set up and maintain his business. When Kryso faced financial problems in 2008, it was saved by Chinese capital. In 2012, the company was officially renamed and formally taken over by China Nonferrous Gold Limited, the controlling shareholder of which is China Nonferrous Metals International Mining Company Limited, a subsidiary of the state-owned China Nonferrous Metals Mining (Group) Company Limited.
In 2019, an investment by China Machinery Engineering Corporation in Tajikistan’s elite-controlled and troubled aluminium plant Talco was announced, adding to China’s economic clout in Tajikistan. The plant, built under Soviet rule, has long been a domestic asset yet is also a marker of the extreme local socioeconomic inequality, providing few benefits for the population. Chinese companies have also become involved in the completion of the Roghun Dam—a key Tajik Government project (and, like the aluminium plant, locally represented as key to the success of the domestic economy), in which a large consortium of diverse foreign engineering companies have been involved for many years.
In the 2010s, Chinese companies also started to invest in Tajikistan’s agricultural sector. The first Chinese agribusiness entered Tajikistan in 2012 and is known in the country as Sinzyan Inkhai. The company involved Huangfangqu Industrial Group, a Chinese SOE from Henan Province, and a private company named Yin Yin Hai Seeds, and cooperated with a Xinjiang-based company for its irrigation system. The company was split in 2014 and today it is the state-owned farm Huangfanqu that continues to engage in plant breeding and marketing and cotton production in Tajikistan. The investment by Sinzyan Inkhai was followed by other larger agribusinesses. In 2013, Lihua Cotton set up a 70%–owned subsidiary in Tajikistan, known locally as Vodii Zarrin (Golden Valley) and in China as Jingu. In 2014, the state-owned Xinjiang Zhongtai Group set up Zhongtai Xin Silu Textile Industry Company, known in Tajikistan as Djuntai (referred to as Zhongtai below). Both agribusinesses have been referred to as Chinese in local parlance despite their official status as joint ventures. They benefited from substantial loans from the Agricultural Bank of China in recent years, as well as the China Development Bank, and their operations were connected around 2017–18, when Zhongtai became a shareholder of the Tajik subsidiary of Lihua Cotton—a fact that is hardly known in Tajikistan and beyond. These two large agribusinesses partner with high-level Tajik elites and engage in cotton production, procurement from local farmers, and processing.
Aid and Other Finance: Loans from Chinese policy banks to Tajikistan have declined over the past years and the last major loan was pledged in 2014. Nevertheless, grants and aid, including projects such as the rebuilding of Tajikistan’s parliament building, are ongoing.
The presence and importance of China and Chinese actors in Tajikistan have gradually evolved since the 2000s. The first significant loans from the Chinese Government through the Export–Import Bank of China (China Eximbank) totalled 603 million USD and were obtained in 2006. As mentioned above, these were provided for infrastructure rehabilitation and the construction of power transmission lines in different parts of the country.
China Eximbank has since remained Tajikistan’s most important creditor, providing large loans to the Tajik state budget. Of all foreign governments, the Chinese provided the most aid to Tajikistan in 2020: 21 million USD—that is, 37.5% of all aid received (directly transferred) in that year. The most recent grant under China Aid was for the construction, contracted to a Chinese company, of a new building for Tajikistan’s national parliament—a project that started in 2020. Through China Aid, the Chinese Government is also supporting the capital city’s public transport network (for instance, by providing buses, which could be seen on the streets of Dushanbe in 2012 and 2021). Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Chinese Government’s ‘health diplomacy’ has become part of its engagement with Tajikistan through the provision of medical supplies and vaccines.
In 2020, finance for public investment projects provided by the Chinese Government ranked fourth (after the ADB, World Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development), and was worth almost 480 million USD (around 14% of the total). In 2021, debt owed to China (mainly to China Eximbank) totalled 1.2 billion USD— about 37%p.14 of the country’s total public external debt. Significantly, whereas Chinese loans remain substantial, China’s share of Tajikistan’s overall debt has decreased over the past few years (from 53.6% in 2016 to 35.6% in 2020).
In addition to loans from China Eximbank, there are additional bilateral agreements between local and other Chinese banks. The Tajik Amonatbank and Agroinvestbank each received loans, from the Chinese Development Bank and the Agricultural Bank of China (ABC), respectively. Agroinvestbank went bankrupt in 2020 and reportedly still owes a substantial debt to the ABC (at the time of writing, Agroinvestbank is in the process of liquidation and rebranding).
As China’s role in and interactions with Tajikistan have evolved, concerns have emerged around issues of sovereignty, corruption, debt, labour, and the environment.
Military Presence and the Islamic Threat Narrative: An article in The Washington Post in 2019 about the establishment of a Chinese military base in Tajikistan’s eastern Gorno Badakhshan region received significant attention internationally. Neither China nor Tajikistan acknowledged the existence of the base or the presence of Chinese troops in Tajikistan, and public and media discussion of the issue was silenced in Tajikistan. However, international media has continued to track the development of the base.
In October 2021, the construction of another Chinese-funded base, also in the Badakhshan region, close to Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan, was approved by the Tajik Parliament. While media reported that the base would be manned by Tajik troops, China’s increasing military presence and involvement in defence showcase the Chinese Government’s concerns about stability in Afghanistan and the situation in Xinjiang.
Despite the geographical proximity with Xinjiang and even though the situation of Uyghurs in Tajikistan has increasingly gained international attention, the mass internment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China’s northwest does not receive any attention in Tajikistan’s state-controlled media. In 2020, a group of lawyers urged the International Criminal Court to investigate the alleged forced repatriation of Uyghurs from Tajikistan to China.
Strikingly, alongside the silence over the situation in Xinjiang, the Islamic threat narrative—mainly concerning the potential radicalisation of Tajik individuals—plays an important role in Tajikistan’s national politics. In 2015, the Tajik Government banned the Islamic Renaissance Party (the only meaningful opposition party). Mosque attendance and expressions of religion in the public realm (such as wearing beards in educational and state institutions) are discouraged and sometimes even forbidden. The probability of radicalisation among Tajik individuals as well the potential implications of the conflict in Afghanistan are instrumentalised by the Tajik Government to gain international support (from the United States and European donors as well as China and Russia) and suppress opposition parties. The threat narrative also plays a role in bilateral relations between China and Tajikistan, as it does in the two countries’ engagement in the SCO, legitimising bilateral defence interactions. China and Tajikistan have undertaken a few joint military drills in recent years and the Chinese Government has provided arms to Tajikistan. As such, the Chinese Government has been active in strengthening Tajikistan’s defence system, in various ways.
Sovereignty: The physical presence of the Chinese military raises concern in Tajikistan and adds to existing anxieties about sovereignty. Chinese companies have become active in Tajikistan’s core industries, producing and trading commodities considered to be strategically important, as mentioned above, including cotton, aluminium, and minerals. Territorial sovereignty is at the core of debates about the growing power of Chinese actors in Tajikistan. These discussions are grounded in the idea that the Tajik Government is selling out land and resources, and were heightened when it ceded 1,000 square kilometres of land along the border to China in 2012. Some external observers and segments of Tajik society associated the move with debt, also considering that the ceded land is rich in mineral deposits, but there is no evidence to back this assumption. This land transfer ended a border dispute between China and Tajikistan that dated back to the late nineteenth century—a time when modern-day Tajikistan and the PRC did not yet exist. The border shift boosted fears that the Tajik Government would cede more land to China in the future—a concern that was augmented by the fact that the ratification of the territorial change happened at the same time as the first large land acquisition by a Chinese company (mentioned earlier). International media triggered anxiety as journalists stated that this acquisition involved thousands of Chinese farmers, which would settle in Tajikistan. However, these statements have proven incorrect. The few large Chinese agribusinesses in Tajikistan mainly lease land from large local landowners. More importantly, most of their staff is local. Fears of further shifts have continued in Tajik media in recent years, partially triggered by statements regarding the border lands in Chinese media.
Social Control: Chinese companies have developed a strong presence in Tajikistan’s telecommunications market. Huawei has become the main player and has supplied all the technology for Dushanbe’s ‘Safe City’ project, providing, among other technology, traffic cameras. The project reportedly involved an investment of around 18 million USD—a sum that is to be paid back with money obtained through traffic penalties.
Debt and Investment: Debt has increasingly been an issue of concern, and discussions of ‘debt traps’ and ‘debt swaps’ often feature in international as well as local circles. The growing imbalance in trade and investment and the significant amount of loans and aid concern Tajik civil society. Questions are often raised about how Tajikistan will repay its outstanding debt, and what the Chinese Government will demand in return.
As mentioned above, in 2019, more than 40% of Tajikistan’s public debt was owed to China. The Tajik state (despite being ruled by a wealthy regime) lacks the capital to rehabilitate various sectors of the economy and has depended on injections of foreign capital since the country’s independence in 1991. The reliance on foreign capital has become structural.
Discussions of debt are often grounded in controversies related to mining concessions. In 2018, Tajik media reported that the government would transfer rights to explore and develop gold deposits at the Upper Kumarg and Eastern Duoba mines to the Chinese company TBEA. Rights to the mines were granted in return for TBEA’s help in obtaining finance from Chinese banks for the construction of the 400 MW Dushanbe 2 thermal power plant (according to a Chinese source dated 2012, this was agreed on at the start of the project, and included three mines). It appears the China Eximbank loan for the power plant was connected to the expected proceeds of the goldmines, which would be used to repay the loan.
Labour and Personal Interactions: Labour is a core issue in relations between China and Tajikistan, particularly because Tajikistan is one of the most remittance-dependent economies in the world. In 2013, remittances equalled almost 50% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). The reliance on outbound labour migration results in a fragile and dependent economy and is often raised as an issue in response to the import of Chinese labour. In this context, allocations of farmland to Chinese companies (which are most often joint ventures with local elites) become particularly controversial because a large part of the Tajik labour force engages in outbound labour migration due to the lack of decently paid local jobs. Indeed, particularly in earlier years, debates about Chinese companies and labour concerned the expectation that Chinese companies would bring in their own labour force and employ few locals. However, the Tajik Government justifies Chinese investment with the claim it creates badly needed employment in the domestic economy—a claim supported by research on the ground revealing that Chinese companies increasingly and to a large extent employ Tajik workers. Localisation of the labour force, as well as development in the vocational training of local labourers, points to an evolution in the Chinese approach. Significantly, little attention is given to individual Chinese labour migrants in Tajikistan, with local as well as international media primarily addressing concerns about local workers and labour conditions.
The Tajik Government sets quotas for foreign labour immigration each year, per country, but exceptions can be made for projects deemed strategic or essential for the economy. In addition, there are expectations that companies, once established, will gradually replace their foreign labour force with locals (to around 80%). Observations of the increase in male Chinese labourers in Tajikistan have also resulted in debates about Chinese–Tajik marriages and personal interactions and are often associated with a growth in sex work.
Environmental Issues: Public discourse on Chinese industrial activity and land-use practices in Tajikistan holds that Chinese companies have had significant negative impacts on soil and air quality. According to some lawyers as well as officials from the Tajik state’s environmental protection agency, the industrial activities of Chinese actors have a positive impact of increasing awareness about environmental concerns within local society. Allegations of water or air pollution often lack evidence. The low capacity of the Tajik state—for instance, its environmental protection agency—makes it difficult to assess the impacts of Chinese companies on the environment.
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Cover Photo: Tajikistan. Credit: (CC) Kalpak Travel.