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As part of a deal that was met with little pomp, Tajikistan last month agreed to conduct regular counterterrorism exercises with Chinese security forces on its territory.

Tajik and Chinese personnel have held bilateral military exercises before, including three since 2015. But the agreement made in late November formalizes growing military cooperation between the two countries and gives a glimpse of Beijing's growing ambitions for Tajikistan and its Central Asian neighbors.

According to experts, the war in Ukraine caused a geopolitical shock in Central Asia and changed long-standing perceptions of the balance of power in the region. They said the Tajik-Chinese agreement is another small step taken by Central Asian countries to distance themselves from Moscow's traditional ally.

"Dushanbe is doing this with China to diversify its activities and abandon its dependence on Russia," Temur Umarov, a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Radio Azattyk. "The big question is whether Russia agrees with this."

With Russia's economic power in Central Asia waning, accelerated by international sanctions against Moscow and heightened tensions over the war in Ukraine, Central Asian leaders, mainly Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon, have sought to win new partners and deepen pre-existing ties with other powers.

The result was a flurry of diplomatic contacts with Europe, including a visit to Central Asia by European Council President Charles Michel in October and European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrel in November. Both Tokayev and his Uzbek counterpart Shavkat Mirziyoyev also traveled to Paris to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron.

In addition to the West, the coverage was aimed at Turkey, the Middle East, and perhaps primarily at China.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited Kazakhstan in September before attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan.

"It's a window of opportunity for players like Europe, Turkey and Iran, as well as Central Asian countries looking to diversify," Umarov said. "But there are still a lot of sensitivities here [in Central Asia]. This region has never been in the middle of two fires like it is now."

Red lines

According to Umarov, the region is currently balancing between a desire to sever its historical ties with Russia and a desire to avoid a sharp backlash from Moscow.

"The red lines are constantly shifting, but the main thing for Russia is that the Western security presence does not return," he said, referring to the nearly 20-year U.S.-led war in neighboring Afghanistan. "Russia doesn't want Central Asia to look [to] the West.

That makes growing ties with China, such as the recent counterterrorism agreement with Tajikistan, more attractive to the Kremlin, observers say.

China has been a growing economic force in Central Asia for decades, and many countries in the region, such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, owe billions of dollars to Beijing.

In recent years, Beijing has taken steps to expand its security cooperation with the region, with Tajikistan becoming a focal point. China has long been concerned about terrorism spreading in the region from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan, which border its western Xinjiang province.

Although officially denied by Tajikistan, Chinese security forces have a security base along the Tajik-Afghan border with their Tajik counterparts. Beijing is also repairing old Soviet-era border outposts and building new border checkpoints along the long Tajik-Afghan border.

Dushanbe also announced in October 2021 that China would finance and build new facilities for the Tajik Special Rapid Response Unit in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO).

According to the November agreement, Chinese and Tajik forces will hold exercises every two years to improve the coordination and tactical skills of their counterterrorism units. The published text of the deal also states that the timing, location and scope of the exercises are kept secret.

But while Beijing's influence on security in the region continues to expand, it remains limited in scope and increasingly overlaps with Russia's own security interests in Central Asia.

Central Asia trapped between China and the West

As part of a deal that was met with little pomp, Tajikistan last month agreed to conduct regular counterterrorism exercises with Chinese security forces on its territory.

Tajik and Chinese personnel have held bilateral military exercises before, including three since 2015. But the agreement made in late November formalizes growing military cooperation between the two countries and gives a glimpse of Beijing's growing ambitions for Tajikistan and its Central Asian neighbors.

According to experts, the war in Ukraine caused a geopolitical shock in Central Asia and changed long-standing perceptions of the balance of power in the region. They said the Tajik-Chinese agreement is another small step taken by Central Asian countries to distance themselves from Moscow's traditional ally.

"Dushanbe is doing this with China to diversify its activities and abandon its dependence on Russia," Temur Umarov, a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Radio Azattyk. "The big question is whether Russia agrees with this."

With Russia's economic power in Central Asia waning, accelerated by international sanctions against Moscow and heightened tensions over the war in Ukraine, Central Asian leaders, mainly Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon, have sought to win new partners and deepen pre-existing ties with other powers.

The result was a flurry of diplomatic contacts with Europe, including a visit to Central Asia by European Council President Charles Michel in October and European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrel in November. Both Tokayev and his Uzbek counterpart Shavkat Mirziyoyev also traveled to Paris to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron.

In addition to the West, the coverage was aimed at Turkey, the Middle East, and perhaps primarily at China.

In his first overseas trip since the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited Kazakhstan in September before attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan.

Red lines

According to Umarov, the region is currently balancing between a desire to sever its historical ties with Russia and a desire to avoid a sharp backlash from Moscow.

"The red lines are constantly shifting, but the main thing for Russia is that the Western security presence does not return," he said, referring to the nearly 20-year U.S.-led war in neighboring Afghanistan. "Russia doesn't want Central Asia to look [to] the West.

That makes growing ties with China, such as the recent counterterrorism agreement with Tajikistan, more attractive to the Kremlin, observers say.

China has been a growing economic force in Central Asia for decades, and many countries in the region, such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, owe billions of dollars to Beijing.

In recent years, Beijing has taken steps to expand its security cooperation with the region, with Tajikistan becoming a focal point. China has long been concerned about terrorism spreading in the region from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan, which border its western Xinjiang province.

Although officially denied by Tajikistan, Chinese security forces have a security base along the Tajik-Afghan border with their Tajik counterparts. Beijing is also repairing old Soviet-era border outposts and building new border checkpoints along the long Tajik-Afghan border.

Dushanbe also announced in October 2021 that China would finance and build new facilities for the Tajik Special Rapid Response Unit in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO).

According to the November agreement, Chinese and Tajik forces will hold exercises every two years to improve the coordination and tactical skills of their counterterrorism units. The published text of the deal also states that the timing, location and scope of the exercises are kept secret.

But while Beijing's influence on security in the region continues to expand, it remains limited in scope and increasingly overlaps with Russia's own security interests in Central Asia.

View from Beijing

While China is well positioned to increase its political, economic and military influence in Central Asia, Beijing's benefit is not necessarily perceived as an achievement at Moscow's expense.

Beijing and Moscow reaffirmed their relationship in February, announcing an unrestricted partnership. These ties were tested during the war in Ukraine and appear to have survived largely due to a shared distaste for the West.

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