In a deal that was met with little fanfare, Tajikistan last month agreed to carry out regular anti-terrorism drills with Chinese security forces on its territory.
After all, Tajik and Chinese personnel have conducted bilateral military exercises in the past, including three since 2015.
But the deal agreed in late November formalizes the growing military cooperation between the two countries and provides a glimpse into Beijing's evolving ambitions for Tajikistan and its Central Asian neighbors.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February sent geopolitical shockwaves around Central Asia and has altered long-standing assumptions about the balance of power in the region, experts say. The Tajik-China agreement, they say, is another small step taken by Central Asian nations to distance themselves from traditional ally Moscow.
"Dushanbe is doing this with China to diversify away from its reliance on Russia," Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told RFE/RL. "The big question is whether Russia is OK with that."
Amid eroding Russian economic power in Central Asia accelerated by international sanctions against Moscow and added tensions over the war in Ukraine, Central Asian leaders -- predominantly Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon -- have looked to woo new partners and deepen pre-existing ties with other powers.
The result has been a flurry of diplomatic inroads with Europe, including a visit to Central Asia by European Council President Charles Michel in October and European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell in November. Both Toqaev and his Uzbek counterpart, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, also went to Paris to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron on separate occasions in November.
In addition to the West, the outreach has targeted Turkey, the Middle East, and perhaps most crucially China.
On his first trip abroad since the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited Kazakhstan in September before attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan, where he met with a visibly humbled Russian President Vladimir Putin -- their first face-to-face meeting since Moscow invaded Ukraine.
"It's a window of opportunity for players like Europe, Turkey, and Iran, but also for Central Asian countries looking to diversify," said Umarov. "But there's still lots of sensitivity here [in Central Asia]. The region has never been in the middle of two fires like it is now."
According to Umarov, the region is currently navigating between its desire to branch out from its historic ties to Russia while looking to avoid a strong backlash from Moscow in response.
"The red lines are constantly shifting, but the main thing for Russia is that the West's security presence doesn't make a comeback," he said, referring to the nearly 20-year, U.S.-led war in neighboring Afghanistan. "Russia doesn't want Central Asia to look [to the] West."
This makes growing ties with China -- such as the recent counterterrorism agreement with Tajikistan -- more palatable for the Kremlin, observers say.
China has been a growing economic force in Central Asia for decades, and many countries in the region, such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, owe billions of dollars to Beijing.
Beijing has moved to expand its security cooperation with the region in recent years, with Tajikistan becoming a focal point. China has long-standing concerns over terrorism spreading in the region from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan that all border its western Xinjiang Province.
Although Tajikistan officially denies its existence, Chinese security forces operate a security base along the Tajik-Afghan border with their Tajik counterparts. Beijing is also renovating old Soviet border outposts and building new border checks along Tajikistan's lengthy Afghan border.
In October 2021, Dushanbe also announced that China would fund and construct new facilities for a Tajik special rapid response unit in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO).
According to the November agreement, Chinese and Tajik forces will hold drills every two years to improve coordination and the tactical skills of their antiterrorism units. The published text of the deal also states that the timing, location, and scale of the exercises are to be kept secret.
"The conventional wisdom about a division of labor where China is the big bank and Russia is the big gun in Eurasia has been out of touch for quite some time," Bradley Jardine, a fellow at the Wilson Center's Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, told RFE/RL.
But while Beijing's security footprint continues to expand in the region, it remains limited in its scope and has a growing degree of overlap with Russia's own security interests for Central Asia.
"Unlike Russia, China's drills tend to be smaller-scale, involving internal security services acting in scenarios such as raiding terrorist encampments in the mountains or countering Islamists attacking towns in Xinjiang," Jardine said. "[This] shows how domestically oriented China's regional foreign policy remains."
The View From Beijing
While China is well positioned to grow its political, economic, and military influence in Central Asia as Moscow finds its credibility damaged, Beijing's gain is not necessarily seen as coming at Moscow's expense.
"I think the amount of attention paid to a potential rivalry with Russia and China is often overblown when it comes to security in Central Asia," said Umarov of the Carnegie Endowment For International Peace.
Beijing and Moscow reaffirmed their relationship in February by declaring a "no limits" partnership. Those ties have been tested amid the war in Ukraine and appear to have endured, in large part, owing to a shared animosity toward the West.
"Russia can accept China's growing security presence in [Central Asia], and the Kremlin understands that in many ways this is an inevitable process beyond its control," Umarov added.
Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at London's Royal United Services Institute and at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, says that while the Ukraine war has provided an opportunity for Central Asia to expand partnerships with many countries, Moscow's invasion hasn't upended Beijing's calculus for Central Asia and dealing with Russia in the region.
"This has been a year of major changes, but in Chinese terms things have not changed that dramatically," he told RFE/RL. "Tajikistan's difficult-to-police border with Afghanistan has been a constant source of concern for them, and it's something they want to deal with themselves."
Amid a tumultuous year for the region that has seen unrest and Russian intervention in Kazakhstan in January, conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, continued instability in GBAO, and protests followed by a crackdown in Uzbekistan's Karakalpakstan Republic, Beijing has offered support to local governments but kept its distance amid the crises.
Pantucci says that while China is worried about instability, it is reluctant to become an arbiter for the region's problems.
"There is an unwillingness to get dragged into local problems and a desire to keep some distance and deal with whoever comes out on top," he said. "What do they gain by diving into it?"