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Tajiks Nervous About Chinese Ties

The growing friendship between China and Tajikistan provokes unease in some quarters of this tiny Central Asian republic.
By Vladimir Davlatov
Tajikistan and China have been working more closely together than ever as the tenth anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries approaches, but questions are being raised in many minds over whether this friendship could turn sour for Dushanbe.



A visit by Tajikistan president Imomali Rakhmonov to China from May 16-19 underlined the neighbouring states' growing affinity, with agreements drawn up to improve political and economic ties and to join forces in fighting international terrorism, drugs and crime.



But more controversial - and perhaps ominious for the future - was the compromise reached over an ongoing dispute over 28,000 sq km of land in the eastern Pamirs which belonged to Tajikistan but had been claimed by Beijing.



Officials announced that the standoff had been resolved on a "mutually beneficial basis", with approximately 1,000 sq km of the territory to be given to China, and the rest remaining with Tajikistan.



The authorities here insisted that the land given away was of no significance to Tajikistan. "It is a mountainous area where no one lives at all, and so it did not have great interest for the republic," Zafar Saidov, the president's press secretary told reporters.



But it did give rise to disgruntled talk of the country's leadership freely giving away Tajik land, or even selling it for financial inducements. In Kyrgyzstan, there were protests by parliamentary deputies and public demonstrations when a similar agreement was reached.



Another factor likely to affect future relations between the world's most populous nation and its tiny neighbour is that guards from Tajikistan's traditional ally Russia are soon to leave the Central Asian state's border with China. This will see the mountainous Murgab area protected by local authorities alone.



With Tajikistan yet to recover from many years of civil war, analysts here believe their country is not in any position to do this adequately. This means that control of Tajik-Chinese frontier could eventually fall to Beijing.



The Tajiks should also be wary of Beijing on the issue of trade. Improved transport and communication links - the construction of a road linking Dushanbe with China topping the list of planned projects - are likely to dramatically increase commerce.



This will be very much welcomed here. The local economy was devastated by the civil war and drought. Around 500,000 people - about 12.5 per cent of the population - leave the country every year in search of seasonal work. Tajikistan is making a slow recovery, but the per capita GDP is still lower than any of the other former Soviet republics.



Some fear, however, that trade with China will result in one-way traffic, with cheap Chinese-made goods flooding the country.



All these developments have been viewed by some as an attempt by Beijing to check any future efforts by the United States to increase its influence in the region. Not that the US has been able to get very far in Tajikistan - given its ties with Russia and China - during its war in Afghanistan, turning instead to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan for support.



According to one Tajik analyst, who asked not to be named, Dushanbe's growing ties with Beijng simply play into the latter's hands. "All the conditions have been created for possible Chinese expansion in Tajikistan," he said.



For Tajikistan, a state that only declared independence a decade ago, the support of a large power like China is obviously attractive. But have enough questions been raised about where this could ultimately lead?



Vladimir Davlatov is the pseudonym of a journalist in Tajikistan

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