DUSHANBE, October 18, 2021, Asia-Plus – Radio Liberty says that in a remote stretch of land near the Wakhan Corridor not far from Tajikistan’s mountainous border with northeastern Afghanistan, China's regional ambitions are adjusting to a new reality on the ground.

Next to an old Soviet outpost believed to have existed for at least the past five years, Chinese troops have reportedly controlled this strategic location from a collection of buildings and lookout towers as part of Beijing's nascent but growing hard-power footprint in the region that is focused on security in neighboring Afghanistan.

Though both the Chinese and Tajik governments officially deny the existence of the base and Chinese personnel, a visit by an RFE/RL journalist near the compound and the surrounding area saw Beijing’s first military footprint in Central Asia in full swing as it finds itself at a crossroads following the Taliban’s August takeover of Afghanistan.

Through interviews with current and former officials in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, details provided by people living near China’s unofficial military base, expert analysis, and observations by an RFE/RL journalist in the area, an image emerges of a rising China slowly shifting its role into security matters in the region.

RFE/RL notes that details about the Chinese military site, such as its funding and ownership, are unclear, as is the exact nature of China’s mission along the Tajik-Afghan border.

But local residents reportedly describe regular sightings of military drones flying overhead and the presence of surveillance equipment.  While RFE/RL could not independently corroborate which country operates the drones, their use points to a growing monitoring role at the facilities.

Two locals who had visited the facilities on multiple occasions and spoke to RFE/RL under condition of anonymity said the site consisted of Chinese, Afghan, and Tajik personnel and that an arrangement allowed for information to be gathered and shared among all three parties.

But the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul has disrupted this cooperation, according to a Tajik government source who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

RFE/R says that according to the official, the Afghan contingent has not been replaced since the fall of the Western-backed government in Kabul on August 15.  Afghan troops had previously rotated out every two months, but the facilities now only consist of Chinese and Tajik personnel. 

This reportedly presents another wrinkle for Beijing as it looks to solidify its presence in Tajikistan and adjust to the shifting situation in Afghanistan, particularly how willing and able the Taliban is to cooperate on counterterrorism.

Beijing has forged a pragmatic and, at times, tense working relationship with the Taliban over the decades, and RFE/RL reported earlier this month -- citing Afghan and Tajik military sources -- that the Taliban relocated Uyghur fighters from an area near Afghanistan's 76-kilometer border with China.

While the Chinese deployment in Tajikistan represents a strategic and symbolic step by Beijing toward playing a bigger part in the region's security matters, it is reportedly a modest presence in a remote area located more than 132 kilometers from Murgab, the administrative center of eponymous district in the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO).

But the unofficial base is part of a wider expansion of Chinese economic and political influence across Central and South Asia in recent years under the guise of President Xi Jinping’s signature, multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, of which the Tajik government has become an enthusiastic partner, according to RFE/RL.

China has moved to expand its military links to the region as well, conducting bilateral military exercises with Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan and forming in 2001 the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) -- a Beijing-led security bloc that also includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

China's stepped-up security presence is driven in part by a desire to protect its investments and by Beijing's view that Central Asia can act as a bulwark against extremism in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR).