By Alexandros Petersen
In the last week of October, China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) completed the longest tunnel in Tajikistan, better connecting the country’s capital with its northern regions by reportedly cutting almost 10 hours off of an already grueling journey through spectacular mountains. The inauguration of the new Sharistan Tunnel makes this “the shortest route between Asia and Europe”, announced Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon. The 3.25 mile tunnel replaces a crumbling Iranian-built tunnel, an ill-fated “gift” upon Tajikistan’s independence. At an opening ceremony, President Rahmon praised CRBC workers for their ingenuity in building the company’s longest tunnel project outside of China. He also awarded the project manager with Tajikistan’s Order of Friendship. Chinese Ambassador to Tajikistan Fan Xianrong was on hand to praise the project as a symbol of the close relationship between the two countries.
The connection was badly needed. Back in May, we drove through the old tunnel. As many travelers before us have remarked, one feels a certain relief at still being alive upon exit. During the winter the tunnel is flooded and impassable, effectively cutting off Dushanbe from the northern part of the country. In the Spring and Summer months, it is still awash with water, pouring through cracks in the ceiling and walls, collecting in ominously large puddles on the ground. It is perhaps then not a surprise that the tunnel’s concrete is not just cracked, but lying about in large fragments, dropping unexpectedly from the ceiling and collecting in piles of rubble along the way. It doesn’t help that apart from car headlights, there is no illumination in this crumbling subterranean cocoon. Hapless workers can occasionally be glimpsed through the darkness. Their job: to shovel the rubble to one side or another. One can only imagine the backup in case of a flat tire along the way. Some years ago, it is said, drivers stuck in immovable traffic in the tunnel’s depth neglected to turn their engines off, resulting in numerous deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning.
This sort of adventure is now a thing of the past. Unlike the United States and its allies in Afghanistan that have merely announced the inauguration of a ‘New Silk Road’ across Central Asia, China is methodically putting into place various pieces of transport infrastructure that connect its western neighbors to its burgeoning border province of Xinjiang. Further Chinese-built projects are slated for Tajikistan, including a northeast-southwest railway and new roads in the remote and restive Gorno-Badakhshan region abutting Chinese territory. A new border post and customs house is already complete on the Chinese side of the border. But, at what cost to Tajikistan?
If Chinese companies, with Chinese government loans are the only builders active in Tajikistan, will Dushanbe be able to maintain independence of policy? It will have few options for international partners once the U.S. combat troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is complete, after 2014. Its cultural partner Iran is isolated by sanctions. Dushanbe just agreed to an extension for Russian forces on its territory, but this represents its paucity of options, between the two leading members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Will Tajikistan represent the archetypal Central Asian state: split between Chinese economic dominance and Russian “security” provision? Its recently announced oil and gas finds may present a way out, unless of course these are scooped up by Chinese energy companies also active in nearby Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.
Some years ago Stephen Benson of CSIS came up with a novel vision for understanding the central importance of Eurasia: the MAGAI™ Construct. As part of it, he argued that Tajikistan represents a geographical locus of the continent and should be afforded far more attention by Western policymakers. In the years since, it seems that only policymakers in Beijing have understood the logic behind his vision.