DN - Defence Notes

China is maintaining a secret military base in Tajikistan

22nd February 2019 - 16:54 GMT | by Gordon Arthur in Hong Kong

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China has been running a secretive military base in Tajikistan, just 14km from the Wakhan Corridor and the border with Afghanistan, for at least the past three years. This claim was made by The Washington Post in an article published on 18 February.

The base is strategically sited in Tajik territory just to the west of China’s border, an ideal location for monitoring who is moving through the narrow Wakhan Corridor, a narrow sliver of land in northeast Afghanistan that separates Tajikistan and Pakistan and abuts China’s Xinjiang Province.

The Kyzylrabat outpost covering an area of seven hectares is approximately 17km from the Chinese border.

Satellite imagery shows a military base, built just northeast of a smaller existing facility, containing three main structures that are each two storeys high. There is a layered perimeter fence and 15 spaced guard towers, as well as a helipad. In addition there is an observation tower offering 360°views and a radar. An array of solar panels plus generator buildings provides power.

The US newspaper observed Chinese military personnel in the small town of Murghab in Tajikistan, shopping for supplies to take back to their base. Photos of Chinese uniformed personnel showed they bore collar insignia of the People’s Armed Police (PAP).

Tajikistan has denied that any Chinese base exists within its borders, nor that there are ‘any talks whatsoever’ to set one up.

Nevertheless, the evidence is incontrovertible that China has security personnel based there. Indeed, the existence of any troops on foreign soil in this area is an extremely sensitive issue for China.

For example, China categorically states that there have been ‘no Chinese military personnel of any kind on Afghan soil at any time’. This was asserted by Ministry of National Defense (MND) spokesman Col Wu Qian as recently as August 2018.

Yet in November 2016, photos emerged of Chinese VP11 MRAP-type vehicles plus EQ2050 4x4 tactical vehicles conducting security operations inside Afghan territory.

Shortly afterwards, the MND would only admit that ‘the law enforcement authorities of the two sides have conducted joint law enforcement operations in border areas to fight against terrorism’.

At that time the MND was technically correct in saying that no military personnel were in Afghanistan, because the PAP did not fall under the chain of command of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). There was thus a blurry line between what was military and what was law enforcement.

However, these semantics do not hold true now, since the PAP was moved directly under the authority of the Central Military Commission in December 2017. The armed police, of the type based at this outpost in Tajikistan, are now clearly under the control of the Chinese military.

Despite a number of credible reports of Chinese and Afghan troops operating together in northeast Afghanistan, Sediq Sediqi, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Internal Affairs, denied any Chinese troops were patrolling in his country.

In January 2018, there were renewed reports that China was going to build a military base for the Afghan military in the rugged province of Badakshan, which borders China. At a meeting between the two sides the previous month, officials said they would ‘deepen pragmatic cooperation in various fields including antiterrorism operations, and push forward the state and military relations between the two countries’.

China was to build the base, supply weapons, uniforms and equipment for Afghan personnel.

In August 2018, the South China Morning Post confirmed that China was helping Afghanistan establish a mountain brigade and training camp in Badakhshan. The Afghan Embassy in Beijing note, however, that ‘there will be no Chinese military personnel of any kind on Afghan soil at any time’.

On the contrary, a source told the Hong Kong-based newspaper: ‘Construction of the base has started, and China will send at least one battalion of troops [around 500 troops], along with weapons and equipment, to be stationed there and provide training to their Afghan counterparts.’

For its part, the Chinese MND commented: ‘The Chinese side is willing to work with Afghanistan to maintain peace and stability in the two countries and also in the region. The report about China’s deployment of troops in Afghanistan does not accord with the facts.’

The border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan is porous, allowing nefarious elements to cross freely. China is extremely concerned about Muslim Uighurs with terrorist training and combat experience returning to China after fighting in places like Syria and Afghanistan.

Indeed, it is so concerned about the loyalty of its Muslim population that it has incarcerated an estimated one million Uighurs in concentration camps in Xinjiang.

The area is also close to the Karakorum Highway that connects Xinjiang with northern Pakistan, a linchpin in the strategically important but also very vulnerable China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Even while the US talks about exiting Afghanistan, China clearly remains poised to protect its interests in that region.

Tajikistan also played a critical role as a springboard for US actions against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, and coalition supplies continued to be funnelled through there in ongoing operations.

China’s first overseas military base was established in Djibouti, with the site in the Horn of Africa officially opening on 1 August 2017.

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