A new Chinese “super” observation station for climate and environmental monitoring has opened in Tajikistan, as China aims to advance in a developing technological arena and improve its green credentials in Central and South Asia.
The station -- located in Shahritus, a town in southwestern Tajikistan near the meeting point of the country's borders with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan -- was first mentioned by China’s Xinhua news agency on June 16, but Tajik media has not reported about it.
It is part of a growing constellation of stations in countries along Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that are run by or partnered with Lanzhou University.
It is the latest addition to a growing network of LiDAR (light, detection, and ranging) systems stretching across a major corridor of the BRI that is subject to extreme weather and is intertwined with Beijing’s broader technological ambitions.
But the station’s location and the Tajik government’s close cooperation with Beijing has also raised questions about whether it could be used for surveillance and security purposes.
While its full scope is unclear, Bradley Jardine, managing director of the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, told RFE/RL that stations like those in Shahritus “rely on weather satellites -- possibly similar in nature to the object that had recently run errant across the United States.”
Earlier this year, a high-altitude Chinese balloon that Beijing said was strictly for climate purposes flew over Alaska, western Canada, and much of the United States before being shot down by the U.S. Air Force. U.S. officials said it carried large amounts of equipment used to spy on sensitive areas. The Canadian military also said it was used for surveillance.
"There could be surveillance capabilities on the Tajik border,” Jardine said.
LiDAR systems help scientists to accurately map and examine natural and manmade environments, features that are a key component of smart, autonomous, and electric vehicles -- a sector where China is an emerging global leader.
Jardine told RFE/RL that “bold projects” such as the LiDAR network are primarily designed to allow China to refine its domestic technology, hone its edge in the autonomous- and electric-vehicle space, and help improve its environmental record abroad.
“As China positions itself to become dominant in the future global automotive industry, there are a large number of state grants available for refining the technology, and research institutes like Lanzhou are on the cutting edge,” Jardine said.
LiDAR And Beyond
The LiDAR network begins in the northwestern Chinese city of Lanzhou and extends across Xinjiang Province to Pakistan, Tajikistan, Iran, Israel, and Algeria -- consisting of more than 20 stations.
Huang Jianping, a professor at Lanzhou University working on the project, told Xinhua that the station provides comprehensive data for dust, pollutants, and weather in key areas of Central Asia and that the station can help warn about extreme weather conditions, as well as provide data about climate change.
The new facility in Tajikistan is in one of the hottest areas of the country, and Lanzhou University’s team -- which has been building the network of stations since 2016 -- says the location will help the laser-generated 3D maps of climate-impacted regions.
But while China says the new station in Tajikistan has clear environmental dimensions to its work, it comes amid a growing list of dual-use or secretive Chinese projects in the Central Asian country.
Lanzhou University has clear links to China’s defense industry and, according to a 2019 report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), it is among at least 68 other Chinese universities that are “officially described as parts of the defense system or [which] are supervised by China’s defense industry agency, the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense.”
China has also financed, built, and in some cases helped operate surveillance and security outposts and facilities in Tajikistan along its long and porous border with Afghanistan. One such facility is operated near Shaymak and is part of a broader joint Chinese-Tajik venture to renovate and modernize old Soviet-era patrols near Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor that borders a small stretch of Xinjiang Province.
Dushanbe also approved the construction of a Chinese-funded police outpost near the country’s border with Afghanistan in 2021.
Beijing remains concerned that Islamist militants in Afghanistan could enter China or destabilize the region -- and much of its security footprint in Tajikistan is believed to be related to this issue.
China also opened an observation station on Tajikistan’s Lake Sarez in 2021 for environmental research and “international disaster reduction and prevention,” according to the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
While little information is available about its work, some analysts have noted that the facility could also be used for surveillance and monitoring beyond its environmental goals.
How the new station in Shahritus will fit in with this trend -- if at all -- is unknown.
Jardine adds that China’s security focus has largely been concentrated in the Pamir Mountains and the Wakhan Corridor, whereas the new station is located in a different part of the country “where there are less immediate security imperatives for China.”