On Wednesday, shrouded in opaqueness and confusion, Tajikistan’s ruling regime ceded 1000km of the country’s Pamir Mountains region to China. The move generated only sparse media interest and was regarded in some quarters as nothing more than a corrupt dictatorship settling an old land-dispute with its powerful neighbour. However the true significance may be far deeper, revealing worrying signs about the Chinese government’s attitude to continued geographical expansion.
The precise facts of the transfer are still unclear, including exactly what has been handed over, how many people live there and what the change of sovereignty will mean to them. It is known that the final agreement relates to a disputed border and a deal struck some twelve years ago but that is where any consensus seems to end. Whilst the Tajik dictatorship is boasting of success, claiming that China originally sought almost twenty times as much land, opposition groups are objecting that the country’s territorial integrity and constitution have been debased. China, meanwhile is professing to have acted in accordance with international law, ironically a concept its leaders have ignored or openly dismissed countless times in the past. Interestingly, no one knows precisely what Tajikistan (or more accurately the Tajik political elite) got in return for the land, but owing to strong economic links between Beijing and Dushanbe, finance surely came into play. All uncertainties accounted for, when placing this affair in a broader regional context, it could have serious implications for South and South East Asian politics.
Of course the Chinese government’s land-grabbing is nothing new. It hardly needs to be reiterated how desperate the power-that-be in Beijing are to keep hold of occupied territories such as Tibet, East Turkestan and Inner Mongolia where systematic repression and cultural destruction have long been utilised to maintain control; but this is the first time in decades that China (as a state) has actually expanded its borders.
That is especially ominous considering the recently escalating tensions surrounding Chinese claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea. In 2010 territorial maritime spats with Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia were ratcheted up by provocative Chinese naval exercises and bizarre stunts including a submarine crew placing of a Chinese flag on a disputed sea bed. It was uncertain at the time whether these were simply displays of military bravado or the early throes of a concerted effort to tangibly increase geographic control, but this week’s acquisition of Tajik territory gives emphasis to the latter. Poignantly the barren, sparsely-populated and inhospitable nature of the Pamir Mountains suggest that the very principle of territorial expansion appeals to China’s leaders, creating a hugely precarious situation not only in the South China Sea but across the continent.
Perhaps the two most dangerous flashpoints will be Taiwan – regarded by China’s leadership as an integral part of Chines6e territory that should ultimately be reclaimed; and the China-India border where territorial disputes between the two countries led to military clashes as recently as 1987. These on-going issues will only be exacerbated by the China-India economic race and the anticipated breakdown in China-Taiwan relations should the pro-independence Democratic People’s Party win next year’s elections. Combine such factors with a Chinese-government desire for wider territorial control and you could have a recipe for political disaster.
Of course, it would be reckless to suggest that drums of war are beating but the ‘Tajik deal’ is China’s latest move in a pursuit of expansionist politics that will almost undoubtedly cause some degree turmoil in the region over the coming year. Who said the age of the empire was dead?