On the 23rd of June 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Tajik President Rahmon met during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in which China pledged to increase security cooperation between the two countries. In particular, China wants to put an end to the illegal drug trade and prevent the diffusion of terrorist networks across the Tajikistan-China border.
The call for closer security cooperation is not the first one to be made. Indeed, cooperation between the two countries began a couple of months after the end of the Tajikistan Civil War in 1997. In 1998, China signed a solidarity agreement with countries from Central Asia, including Tajikistan and Russia, to demonstrate its commitment to combating illegal drug trade in the region. China concurrently managed to strengthen Tajikistan’s institutions in order to give the state the power it needs to combat illegal drug trade. Mainly, China’s strategy has been aimed at strengthening Rahmon’s hold on power since he is willingly engaging in security cooperation with China. In order to do so, China put en emphasis on economic development by expanding trade agreements between the two countries and by increasingly investing in Tajikistan’s economy, giving Rahmon the necessary incentive to expand security cooperation.
All these efforts proved to be useful. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) and SCO have praised the Tajik Drug Control Agency as one of the best performers in Rahmon’s government, and they are keeping up their efforts to combat drug trafficking. In November 2014, 38 drug manufacturers and dealers were arrested for attempting to ship 181 kilograms of narcotics across the China-Tajikistan border.
China has been concerned by Tajikistan’s stability since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Being a neighboring country to the Xinjiang region that is seeking autonomy from Beijing, any type of political instability in Tajikistan can give birth to terrorist organizations that would help the Uyghur population of Xinjiang in their struggle for independence. China’s concern over border security with Tajikistan was also mixed with a territorial rift between the two countries that China quickly sought to use as a tactical compromise. Even though China had legal claims to one-third of Tajikistan’s territory, it accepted a Tajik offer of 4 percent of the land it had initially claimed. Such a deal largely improved Rahmon’s image domestically and thus strengthened Rahmon’s hold on power, to the benefit of China.
In order to thwart terrorist threats that would help the Uygur seek autonomy, China has assisted Tajikistan’s military power. Rahmon’s rhetoric puts an emphasis on combating Islamic terrorist organizations such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Hizb ut Tahrir (“the Party of Liberation”) and the Islamic State.
In return for all the provided Chinese assistance, the Tajik President has played an important role in legitimizing China’s counter-terrorism justification for its repression in Xinjiang. In 2011, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan took part in China counterterrorism exercises in Xinjiang, thus depicting Uyghur separatism not only as a national threat for China, but also as a regional threat. Such joint counter-terrorism efforts were extended with Tajikistan in February 2016 when Tajikistan’s Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda revealed that China was planning to establish a joint counterterrorism center in Dushanbe.
Although relations between China and the Tajik President Rahmon in particular seem and are at ease, some Tajik politicians may not approve of some of China’s authoritarian practices in bilateral negotiations. Indeed, in January 2016, Chinese authorities executed a Tajik national convicted for drug trafficking, although the Tajik Foreign Ministry vehemently opposed this execution. 16 Tajik citizens are still in China’s prison systems, four of whom are sentenced to death while five others are serving life terms.