NEAR SHAYMAK, Tajikistan — Two miles above sea level in the inhospitable highlands of Central Asia, there’s a new power watching over an old passage into Afghanistan: China.
For at least three years, Chinese troops have quietly monitored this choke point in Tajikistan just beyond China’s western frontier, according to interviews, analysis of satellite images and photographs, and firsthand observations by a Washington Post journalist.
While veiled in secrecy, the outpost of about two dozen buildings and lookout towers illustrates how the footprint of Chinese hard power has been expanding alongside the country’s swelling economic reach.
Tajikistan — awash in Chinese investment — joins the list of Chinese military sites that includes Djibouti in the strategic Horn of Africa and man-made islands in the South China Sea, in the heart of Southeast Asia.
Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s economic ambitions over the past seven years have brought a wave of major investment projects, from the resource-rich Caspian Sea to Cambodia’s coastline.
The modest facility in Tajikistan — which offers a springboard into Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor a few miles away — has not been publicly acknowledged by any government.
But its presence is rich in significance and symbolism.
At a moment when the United States might consider a pact that would pull American troops out of Afghanistan, China appears to be tiptoeing into a volatile region critical to its security and its continental ambitions.
Already, the retreat of old powers and arrival of the new are on display in Tajikistan, a tiny, impoverished country that served as a gateway into Afghanistan for U.S. units in the early phases of the 2001 invasion.
During a recent trip along the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, The Post saw one of the military compounds and encountered a group of uniformed Chinese troops shopping in a Tajik town, the nearest market to their base. They bore the collar insignia of a unit from Xinjiang, the Chinese territory where authorities have detained an estimated 1 million Uighurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority.
The crackdowns against the Uighurs have been internationally condemned as a violation of human rights, but the Chinese government says they are part of a campaign to insulate its restive far west from Islamic extremism seeping in from Central Asia.
“We’ve been here three, four years,” a soldier who gave his surname as Ma said in a brief conversation while his Chinese comrades, guided by a Tajik interpreter, bought snacks and topped up their mobile SIM cards in Murghab, a sprawl of low-rises about 85 miles north of the base.
When asked whether his unit had intercepted anyone crossing from Afghanistan, Ma smiled.
“You should be aware of our government’s policies about secrecy,” he said. “But I can say: It’s been pretty quiet.”
Scarce public information
Details about China’s activities at the facilities, some of which bear the Chinese and Tajik emblems, are not made public. Also unclear are the arrangements over their funding, construction and ownership. Satellite imagery shows what appear to be two clusters of buildings, barracks and training grounds, about 10 miles apart near the mouth of the Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip of territory in northeastern Afghanistan.
The Post separately spoke to members of a German mountaineering expedition who said they were interrogated in 2016 by Chinese troops patrolling the Afghan corridor, near the settlement of Baza’i Gonbad. Photos provided by Steffan Graupner, the expedition leader, showed Chinese mine-resistant armored vehicles and equipment embossed with the country’s paramilitary logo. Taken together, the findings add weight to a growing number of reports that China, despite public denials, has been conducting security operations inside Afghanistan.
China’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment and directed questions to the Defense Ministry, which did not respond to requests for comment.
In a statement, Tajikistan’s Foreign Ministry said there are “no People’s Republic of China military bases on the territory of the Republic of Tajikistan,” nor “any talks whatsoever” to establish one.
Analysts say the Chinese encountered by The Post may be paramilitary units under the command of the central military leadership but technically distinct from the People’s Liberation Army, China’s main war-fighting force.
US officials say they are aware of the Chinese deployment but do not have a clear understanding of its operations. They say they do not object to the Chinese presence because the United States also believes that a porous Afghan-Tajik border could pose a security risk.
China’s encroachment into Afghanistan is “fascinating but not surprising — and should be welcomed by Washington,” said Ely Ratner, executive vice president at the Center for a New American Security, who was a deputy national security adviser to then-Vice President Joe Biden.
“We can and should foist more responsibility for Afghanistan on China,” Ratner said. “They don’t want a target on their back, but they’ve been free-riding on US dollars and lives for security.”
Despite harboring concerns about militants in Afghanistan for decades, China has been loath to be seen as siding with any party in the conflict, much less to put boots on the ground.
Instead, China’s state-owned companies and banks have inked infrastructure deals, mining concessions and loans across Central and South Asia, the poor and turbulent belt that makes up its backyard. Its diplomats, who have robust ties with Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban, have talked up China’s role as a regional peace broker — never a peacekeeper.
But China’s global posture is changing under Xi, who has shed the country’s long-standing isolationism and spoken loftily about restoring its great-power status.
People’s Liberation Army (PLA) strategists increasingly advocate for pushing beyond the Chinese mainland with deployments that follow in the wake of the country’s expanding “haiwailiyi,” or interests abroad, said Andrew Scobell, a Chinese security expert at the Rand Corp.
“China’s peaceful rise has encountered a complicated and severe situation,” Major Li Dong wrote in a 2016 journal article as part of a PLA assessment of China’s overseas military strategy. He pinpointed the Central Asian frontier as one of three top flash points along with the Korean Peninsula and the East and South China seas.
China’s deployments abroad lack strength and “flexibility,” Li wrote. “China should push the construction of its overseas military presence gradually.”
A rugged chessboard
In 2017, China unveiled a naval base in Djibouti that gave it a foothold in the Middle East and Africa. It steadily installed infrastructure — and later, weaponry — in the contested South China Sea. A recent Pentagon report predicted a PLA base could appear soon in Pakistan — a prospect China has denied.
Beijing’s moves have been similarly opaque in the rugged mountains spanning Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China: the same chessboard where czarist Russia and the British Empire vied for influence 150 years ago.
There will be “no Chinese military personnel of any kind on Afghan soil at any time,” Col. Wu Qian, the Defense Ministry’s spokesman, told reporters in August.
In private, the Chinese tell a slightly different story.
In late 2017, the Development Research Center, an influential think tank under China’s cabinet, invited a handful of Russian researchers to its central Beijing offices. In what was billed as a private seminar, the Chinese explained why China had a security presence in Tajikistan that extended into the Afghans’ Wakhan Corridor, according to Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a Russian participant.
The Chinese researchers took pains to describe the outpost as built for training and logistical purposes — not a military occupation. They also sought to gauge Russia’s reaction with questions: How would Moscow view China’s move into its traditional sphere of influence? Would it be more palatable if China deployed private mercenaries instead of uniformed men?
“They wanted to know what Russia’s red lines were,” said Gabuev, who has held similar conversations with scholars working under the Chinese intelligence agency. “They don’t want Russia blindsided.”
In the 1990s, a Uighur separatist group, calling itself the East Turkestan Independence Movement, rose in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban and threatened attacks against China. Although Western officials and analysts question the ETIM’s ability to carry out significant attacks, it heralded the beginning of an extremist threat facing China.
Since 2014, hundreds, or most likely thousands, of Uighurs have left China for Syria, and Chinese officials, like their Western counterparts, have warned about the prospect of fighters there decamping for Central Asia as they lose territory. In 2016, the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan was targeted in a suicide bombing that Kyrgyz authorities attributed to the al-Nusra Front in Syria.
‘You never saw us here’
To make the days-long overland journey across Tajikistan, from the capital, Dushanbe, to the remote canyon held by Chinese soldiers, is to witness a landscape altered by an even more irrepressible force than the troops: Chinese money.
In the west, Chinese-built coal-fired plants loom over the skyline, providing electricity and heat to the capital’s residents. In the east, Chinese-funded hospitals and schools rise from the hardscrabble countryside. In the south, Chinese-financed tracks circumvent a crucial Soviet-era railway that had been shut down by Tajikistan’s neighbor, Uzbekistan. Stitching it all together are Chinese-bored tunnels and Chinese-laid asphalt that cut hours off trips along the country’s winding east-west highway.
The projects reflect Tajikistan’s strategic position in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, an ambitious infrastructure investment plan to pull the Eurasian land mass into its economic embrace. China, through a single state bank, held more than half of Tajikistan’s external debt as of 2016, up from none in 2006, according to 2017 Tajik Finance Ministry data.
In the soft-power stakes, the United States and Russia both appear to be losing relative ground to China, which provides scholarships for undergraduate Tajiks and military academy training for up-and-coming defense officials.
Susan M. Elliott, former U.S. ambassador to Tajikistan, said China’s generous aid and funding should be applauded but viewed with skepticism. In the past year, a handful of countries that have taken Chinese investments have reconsidered BRI deals amid allegations of corruption and low feasibility.
“If someone’s offering money to build roads and help put power lines up, it’s hard to turn that down when you have no alternative,” Elliott said. “This is a strategic and important part of the world, and we need to continue our strong partnerships with Tajikistan and other countries in the region.”
In many ways, the shifting geopolitical currents play out on the windy streets of Murghab, established as an army outpost in the 1890s by Russian Cossacks.
These days, it is Chinese troops who are dropping by in their unassuming minivans to pick up provisions.
Aiperi Bainazarova, a part-time manager at the only hotel in town, said locals believed there were scores, maybe hundreds, of Chinese troops who stayed on base. They mostly come to town to buy phone credit. Sometimes they buy hundreds of kilograms of yak meat at the price of 30 somoni — about $3 — a kilo, she said.
“It helps the economy,” said Bainazarova, 21, an ethnic Kyrgyz who studied on a Chinese government scholarship in Shanghai.
Despite the Chinese government’s insistence on keeping things secret, its troops’ periodic visits to Murghab’s bazaar, a row of shipping containers converted into storefronts, are anything but.
Safarmo Toshmamadov, a 53-year-old ethnic Pamir shopkeeper, said they have come to her for maybe three years. Some attempt a few words of Russian — although they always come accompanied by Tajik interpreters, she said.
“We don’t think about them, and they don’t bother us,” Toshmamadov said, shrugging. “They buy my water and snacks. It’s good.”
One afternoon outside Toshmamadov’s store, a Post reporter saw Ma, the Chinese soldier, who was initially surprised to encounter another Chinese speaker.
He spoke guardedly but affably about his deployment, which he explained was secret.
“You should know our government’s standard policies around revealing information,” he said. “So don’t tell your friends.”
When asked to pose for a photo together, Ma recoiled.
“Remember,” he said, walking away. “You never saw us here.”
Anton Troianovski in Moscow, Yuan Wang in Beijing and Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report published in Washington Post, Feb 18, 2019.
Gerry Shih is China Correspondent of The Washington Post