Accessibility links

Breaking News

China In Eurasia

The first "super" observation station for climate and environment outside China began operations in Shahritus, Tajikistan, earlier this month.

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.

A sign marks an entrance for Shahritus, an arid region of Tajikistan known for its high temperatures close to the country’s borders with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.
A sign marks an entrance for Shahritus, an arid region of Tajikistan known for its high temperatures close to the country’s borders with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.

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.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon looks on at the roundtable during the China-Central Asia Summit in Xi'an, China, on May 19.
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon looks on at the roundtable during the China-Central Asia Summit in Xi'an, China, on May 19.

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.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang (front right) walks with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko (left) in Beijing on June 25, the day China said it "supports Russia in safeguarding national stability and delivering development and prosperity."

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China's resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

I'm RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here's what I'm following right now.

What The Wagner Rebellion Means For Xi

The dust is still settling on the weekend mutiny launched by Yevgeny Prigozhin and his private Wagner mercenary group that shook Russia and exposed new cracks in Russian President Vladimir Putin's power at home.

But what does it mean for China and its leader, Xi Jinping, who has been Moscow's -- and Putin's -- strongest supporter since the February 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine?

Finding Perspective: As Wagner forces seized a major Russian military hub and ordered an armed march on Moscow on June 24, Chinese officials were silent. Chinese state media provided straight, factual coverage as events unfolded on the ground and, unsurprisingly, offered no sympathy for Prigozhin or Wagner, and instead largely echoed rhetoric from Putin's speech about the need for law, order, and stability.

It wasn't until Sunday, June 25 -- after the convoy to Moscow was turned around following a deal brokered by Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka between Putin and Prigozhin -- that Beijing broke its silence.

"This is a matter of Russia's domestic affairs," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "China supports Russia in safeguarding national stability and delivering development and prosperity."

That same day, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko flew to Beijing for what was said to be a scheduled meeting, where he met with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang.

"Under the strategic guidance of President Xi Jinping and President Vladimir Putin, the Chinese-Russian political trust has continued to deepen," Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu said following the meeting.

Why It Matters: Xi now has to balance continuing support for Putin with hedging for the possibility that the Russian leader's time in power could be cut short.

Xi's partnership with Putin is based on a cocktail of ideology and pragmatism, and several Chinese scholars have argued that Prighozin's rebellion could limit the pragmatic appeal of the Kremlin.

Yu Jianrong, a prominent Chinese public intellectual, posted a video to his more than 7 million Weibo followers of Russians in Rostov-on-Don reacting angrily to police moving into the city, where he suggested there was some level of public support for Wagner: "I really don't know what's going on in this country," he wrote.

Meanwhile, Yu Sui, a professor at the China Center for Contemporary World Studies, told the China Daily newspaper the mutiny "undoubtedly rings an alarm bell for Russia" and that the episode reminded him of "the Chinese saying about feeding a tiger and then inviting trouble."

Shen Dingli, a Shanghai-based international relations scholar, told the Guardian that he believed the events would lead to Russia's increased dependence on China and that Beijing would take "a more cautious stance on Russia."

As Minxin Pei, a professor at Claremont McKenna College, wrote in a recent piece for Bloomberg, the invasion and Putin's actions since have provided Xi with a steady stream of lessons "too precious not to learn" when it comes maintaining support of the military, the absence of private armies, and keeping less personalistic control of the state.

When it comes to Prigohzin's rebellion, Mei writes, it's "a reminder to Xi that nationalism is a double-edged sword."

Expert Corner: Taiwan's Prague Moment

Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu recently made his second visit to Prague, where he spoke at a conference and sat front row to watch a speech by Czech President Petr Pavel, marking the first time a Taiwanese minister and European head of state shared a room together.

You can read my full report here, but I've chosen some notable passages by both Wu and Pavel:

Wu on China and Russia: "What we are witnessing is that the two authoritarian forces are collaborating with each other, trading ever more with each other, and feeding more into the hunger for expansion."

Wu on Europe's role: "In order for Taiwan to stay strong and resilient and to have the courage to continue the policy of maintaining the status quo, we do need support from our European friends."

Pavel on how Europe should engage with China: "We should do it the same way that China does to us. Let's not create dependencies. Let's do business and let's cooperate when it is beneficial to both sides -- but let's keep in mind that China's long-term interests and values are not compatible with ours."

Do you have a question about China's growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at or reply directly to this e-mail and I'll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.

Three more stories from Eurasia

1. A Softer Line From Brussels?

The European Union Council summit is set to take place later this week and, according to a leaked draft of the post-summit statement obtained by RFE/RL, the council is still juggling how best to handle its complex economic and geopolitical relationship with China.

The Details: The leaked draft mostly focuses on economic measures, reaffirming the 27-country bloc's "multifaceted policy approach toward China" and that "despite their different political and economic systems, the European Union and China have a shared interest in pursuing constructive and stable relations."

The document seen by RFE/RL for the June 29-30 meetings says the EU will continue with its de-risking plans and keep diversifying away from dependencies on China in critical industries, but it clarified that Brussels "does not intend to decouple or to turn inward."

After apparently walking back some tougher past rhetoric on the economic front, the draft also appears to adopt stronger language on Taiwan.

While reaffirming the bloc's "One-China policy," it states: "The East and South China Seas are of strategic importance for regional and global prosperity and security. The European Union is concerned about growing tensions in the Taiwan Strait. The European Council opposes any unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion."

2. The Latest On Montenegro's Chinese-Built and Finances Highway

Montenegro will end a deal with Western banks that protected it from increased debt on a controversial Chinese loan for nearly $1 billion used to build a highway, my colleague Lela Scepanovic from RFE/RL's Balkan Service reports.

What You Need To Know: The move is the latest chapter in the saga of Montenegro's controversial highway -- which was built by the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) and financed by the Export-Import Bank of China with an immense loan -- and created long-term economic risk by saddling the country with debts to Beijing that once totaled more than a third of the state budget.

In exiting the deal that converted its dollar debt to the Chinese bank into euros, the country's finance ministry said on June 14 that it "earned approximately $64 million" after reverting to the recently strengthened dollar.

The ministry said it will use that money to help make its next debt payment to China in January.

3. The 11th Sanctions Package

The EU adopted its 11th sanctions package on June 23 and for the first time added companies registered in China to its list of entities aiding Russia's war in Ukraine, although it limited the number at the last minute.

What It Means: The new sanctions package looked to hit third parties from circumventing existing restrictions, especially products like semiconductors and radio equipment given their potential military applications.

The EU list added companies registered in China -- specifically, Hong Kong -- Uzbekistan, the United Arab Emirates, Syria, and Armenia.

Eight Chinese companies were named in a draft document seen by RFE/RL, but five were removed after the Chinese government made a commitment to put pressure on them, according to a Reuters report.

Their removal may have stemmed from a reluctance within the EU to avoid aggravating ties with Beijing.

Across The Supercontinent

Kazakh Crosshairs: Bekzat Maksutkhan, the head of Naghyz Atajurt, an unregistered advocacy group in Kazakhstan that works with families who have relatives missing in China's vast repression system in Xinjiang, says he was questioned and fined by Kazakh authorities on June 19, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reports.

Kazakh authorities have moved to silence activism around the treatment of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang in recent years, and Maksutkhan is one of the few still working on the issue inside the country.

One More? Russian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksei Overchuk said in an interview that talks between the Eurasian Economic Union -- which comprises Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia -- and Iran are in their final stages and could lead to a free trade agreement by the end of the year.

Chemical Central: According to leaked Hungarian government documents obtained by Direkt36, China is aiming to transport a significant part of its chemical production destined for Europe by rail to Hungary.

The plan, which is backed by the Hungarian government and in the later stages of negotiations, would look to supply Europe's battery factories and other industrial plants from Hungarian chemical trade hubs.

Middle Corridor: Kazakh Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov and his Georgian counterpart, Irakli Garibashvili, held new talks about increasing oil transit through Black Sea ports and building more infrastructure along the Middle Corridor that brings good to and from China and Europe, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reports.

One Thing To Watch

Russia's war in Ukraine saw a flurry of sanctions unleashed on Moscow by the United States and its allies. But could the same be done for China after an invasion of Taiwan?

According to a new study by the Atlantic Council and Rhodium Group, the answer is yes in theory, but getting there may be too many obstacles to overcome.

Washington and its allies would face tough choices in deciding how far to go in pressuring Beijing, struggle to find unity among partners, and have to deal with a China that has more tools than Russia in being able to cushion the blow.

According to the study, sanctions against Chinese industry would likely be narrowly targeted at specific companies and industries where China is highly dependent on G7 countries but where the United States and its allies rely little on Chinese exports. One example mentioned is China's aerospace sector, which is heavily dependent on foreign-sourced engines and avionics.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your inbox every other Wednesday.

Load more

About The Newsletter

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this biweekly dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

To subscribe, click here.