BEIJING: An independent think tank has said that China’s military is ramping up its security presence in Tajikistan with troop deplo­y­ments amid fears that militants based in nearby Afghanistan could strike at western China.

The International Crisis Group said in a report that China has deployed soldiers and built a “counter-terrorism centre” in Tajikistan near the three-way border of Tajikistan, China and Afghanistan.

China has repeatedly warned about ethnic Uighur militants who have left their homeland in western China to join extremist groups such as the Turkistan Islamic Party, a predominantly Uighur group that has bases in Syria and Afghanistan and is allied with Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The Chinese defence ministry did not immediately respond to a fax seeking comment. Although the troop deployments are reported to be within a short distance from China’s western border, they could represent a new milestone for a Chinese military that has increasingly ventured abroad in recent years.

In a message primarily aimed at China, the US-led coalition in Afghanistan said in February that it conducted air strikes against militant camps in the country’s north, near the Tajik and Chinese borders, to “reassure neighbours” that the area would not be a safe haven for terrorists who want to carry out cross-border attacks.

China has encouraged Central Asian countries to play a bigger role in regional affairs as part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, an eight-nation group dominated by China and Russia.

Apart from stepping up security cooperation, China has funneled significant economic investment into Central Asia, a critical hub in President Xi Jinping’s Belt-and-Road infrastructure initiative connecting the Eurasian continent.

Published in Dawn, March 16th, 2018