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Monday Morning Webinar on Understanding China’s Growing Military Footprints in Central Asia

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  • January 17, 2022
    Monday Morning Meeting

    Col. Deepak Kumar, Research Fellow and Coordinator, Europe and Eurasia Centre, MP-IDSA, spoke on the topic “Understanding China’s Growing Military Footprints in Central Asia” at the Monday Morning Webinar held on 17 January 2022. The webinar was moderated by Mr. Vishal Chandra, Research Fellow, South Asia Centre, MP-IDSA.

    Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy, Director General, MP-IDSA; Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Bipin Bakshi (Retd.), Deputy Director General, MP-IDSA; the panellists and scholars and members of the Institute participated in the webinar.

    Executive Summary

    China in recent years has increased its military presence in the Central Asian region by conducting joint military exercises, arms trade and building military infrastructure. Chinese military footprint is expanding in the so-called weaker Central Asian nations. Those with a relatively stronger economy and security structures have resisted Chinese overtures in their own manner. China’s increased military presence has an impact not only on the Central Asian region but also on the neighbouring regions. Russia is observant of the steps taken by China and India too is aware of the increased military presence.

    Detailed Report

    The Monday Morning Webinar began with Mr. Vishal Chandra, the moderator, referring to reports about the Chinese military presence in eastern Tajikistan, close to the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan. The Corridor is strategically located between Tajikistan to the north, China to the east, and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) to the south. The reports though denied by the Tajik Government, but assuming the Chinese have some military presence there, it has to be seen either as a part of the Sino-Russian collaboration or the Sino-Russian competition. Referring to the diversity of Central Asia, he observed that there is a Turkic Central Asia, a Persian Central Asia, and then there is a Russian Central Asia. Historically, it included parts of southern Russia, the Xinjiang Region (western China), and northern Afghanistan.

    Col. Deepak Kumar, the speaker, began his presentation by referring to China establishing its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017 and Chinese troops’ presence in Tajikistan. He pointed to the popular narrative of Russia being the security provider and China the economic provider in Central Asia. When it comes to Central Asia, China sees two main threats: possible spill-over of radical Islam into its restive Xinjiang Region and threat to its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure. According to the speaker, Chinese military footprints are visible in four areas: arms assistance, military training and exercise, military bases and private security companies.

    While focusing on arms assistance, data was shared by the speaker from the year 1991–2018 on arms imports by the Central Asian Republics from Russia and China. Overall Russia leads in arms supplies, however, there is a gradual increase in arms imports from China in the last five years particularly by Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In Turkmenistan, China has overtaken Russia as the second largest arms supplier after Turkey. According to data sourced from Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), China has supplied more than $60 billion to Central Asia since 1991. 97 per cent of Chinese sales and assistance happened after 2014. From 2010–2014, Chinese arms to Central Asia comprised about 0.5 per cent of Central Asian arms imports, whereas from 2015–2019 China provided 18 per cent of the region’s arms. Russian arms supply in the last 10 years has been consistently about 60 per cent. Imports from China are increasing particularly in the field of technology such as drones and missiles.

    As far as military exercises are concerned the speaker stated that from 2014 to 2019, China held 10 bilateral exercises with Central Asia. In 2016, China and Tajikistan held an exercise in the Gorno-Badakhshan region that borders Afghanistan, in which 10,000 personnel were involved. China in the same year formed a Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) with Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan for counter terrorism, mainly because China felt that the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) was not aligning to its agenda. China has conducted nearly same numbers of bilateral and multilateral exercises as Russia, with 60 per cent of the exercises involving the People’s Armed Police (PAP) and not the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). In 2019, for Cooperation Series Exercises, Chinese PAP interoperated with the armies of the Central Asian countries. Essentially, China wants the PAP to be its military front in Central Asia.

    Speaking about military bases and infrastructure, the speaker brought out that until 2016, only Russia had its military presence in Central Asia, however in October 2016, China constructed 11 border outposts and a training centre for border guards in Tajikistan. A separate border outpost in the Shamyak village in Murgab District was also constructed in 2016. Another military base financed by China will be constructed in Tajikistan as per a recent agreement for about $10 million but no Chinese personnel will be stationed in that base. There is also a Chinese electronic warfare facility in Tajikistan, which was used to monitor the Western forces in Afghanistan. Lately, Chinese Institutes have begun training courses for Central Asian officers including language classes and offer a higher stipend than Russia.

    The speaker further spoke about Private Security Companies and mentioned that Chinese state-owned organisations like the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps are remodelling their scope to include security services for the BRI. The future role of training Central Asian paramilitaries and officers is also under consideration. Many Chinese private security companies are present in Central Asia.

    The speaker elaborated on the consequences of the Chinese military presence in the region. Chinese security outreach is linked to its expanding national interest and PLA and PAP are being used for protecting Chinese interests. China, according to the speaker, will use the military for its national interest but in the short term would not be directly involved in any confrontations in Central Asia. China is trying to establish a strategic foothold in areas where Russian technology is lacking and is ready to supply the needed technologies. Chinese military education will have a significant impact on the composition of the military leadership in Central Asia.

    The presence of troops near Wakhan, which is situated close to Gilgit-Baltistan, has implications for India. Chinese electronic warfare facilities could be used to monitor Indian military activity in the neighbourhood. 

    In the short-term, the Russia–China bonhomie can be expected to continue. Rather than Russia’s arms exports, China presently is slicing from the arms exports share of other countries like Ukraine, Turkey, Spain and France. In the long run, it may eat up Russian space for arms trade which could cause friction between the two. 

    India has strong connections with Central Asia including military exercises and visits from senior military leaders to India. India has increased its outreach in the region including visits by the Indian Foreign Minister to Central Asia and hosting of Third India–Central Dialogue.

    The speaker concluded by stating that there is evidence of growing Chinese influence in Central Asian security and at present it is calibrated to keep Russian sensitivities in mind. In future, China might not defer to Russia and perhaps even develop its own initiatives and ignore Russia.

    Questions and Comments

    Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy, Director General, MP-IDSA stated that historically, China used to be strictly against foreign bases. Exports were generally part of the Chinese matrix. Even in the 1950s and 1960s, the Chinese did send a large number of arms and ammunition to the Afro-Asian countries. Chinese views have changed and can be predicated on their realisation of the enormous economic stakes as the world’s biggest trading power. It would like some security for its investments like the BRI.

    He also brought to the fore that the PAP is a part of the PLA so two features should be kept in mind. Firstly, as the PLA was demobilised in the past, many joined the PAP. Secondly, there is no distinction between the operational training, military craft, etc., and weapons allocated to the PAP and the PLA.

     He made the point that China in Wakhan is extremely worried about any malicious insidious outpours coming out of Afghanistan into their soft underbelly. There is also an increase in the role and importance of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) after the recent Kazakhstan protests. It is certainly back in the reckoning.

    He also mentioned that Chinese Policy in Xinjiang has always been predicated on the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which is also the group sanctioned by the United States.

    Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Bipin Bakshi (Retd.), Deputy Director General, MP-IDSA said that the route from Tajikistan to Xinjiang is the only route from where anything can come into China. China is trying to stabilise and prevent the entry of terror organisations into Xinjiang. Chinese military’s entry into this narrow zone with a narrow purpose may not constitute a major military development. It is doubtful whether electronic warfare elements deployed in eastern Tajikistan  have the capabilities to cross the Pamir Knot and track Indian military movement. He also asked if there is space for Indian private security companies to enter into this zone of the CARs.

    Dr. Rajorshi Roy, Associate Fellow, MP-IDSA made the point that though Chinese military expansion is visible, Russia is still the ‘go-to’ country when it comes to the SOS for regime stability. Russia is the actor the countries could rely on and CSTO is a Russian-led organisation. There exists a convergence of interests between Russia and China when it comes to the West. There is competition but also cooperation. There is a plan to strike a balance between each actor to maximise economic gains and maintain their scope for strategic autonomy.

    He said that the potential of trilateral India, Russia and Central Asia defence cooperation has been talked about and asked what could be the contours of this trilateral partnership?

    Dr.Swasti Rao, Associate Fellow, MP-IDSA said that Europe is working on gas supplies with Turkmenistan and vice-versa. She asked about the ways for these countries to diversify energy security and their link to Europe.

    Ms. Anandita Bhada, Research Analyst, MP-IDSA asked whether India offers any defence courses for the Central Asian defence personnel? If yes, can it help in further improving the India–Central Asia relations?  

    Mr. Jason Wahlang, Research Analyst, MP-IDSA stated that the short-term bonhomie between Russia and China is evident. He asked the speaker to elucidate on the possible situation in the long run, particularly since China is heavily investing in its military presence in Tajikistan, which is also a CSTO member.

    He also said that QCCM was established in pre-Taliban Afghanistan but the current crisis in Afghanistan has led to a Taliban-led Afghanistan. He asked as to how this impacts the QCCM?

    Col Deepak Kumar, the speaker, gave detailed and insightful replies in response to comments and questions received from the panellists and participants.

    Report prepared by Mr Jason Wahlang, Research Analyst, Europe and Eurasia Centre, MP-IDSA.