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Tajikistan Arms Its Soldiers With Chinese Rifles

November 5, 2021
The Type 56-2 assault rifle. Via Tajikistan state media.

This year produced incontrovertible evidence that Central Asia’s poorest country–that’s not Afghanistan–is a net recipient of weapons from its superpower neighbor. Long dismissed as having a token army thanks to a near-permanent Russian base garrisoned by some 5,500 mechanized troops it turns out Tajikistan possesses the means for not just protecting itself but asserting its sovereign will. This should have been obvious when Tajik troops overran a border town along the border with Kyrgyzstan in late April. But it wasn’t until July that a general mobilization took place followed by large-scale exercises with the Russians. Ever since the Taliban swept into Kabul on August 15 the joint exercises have continued and gotten bigger.

The resulting media coverage of these activities, which served as domestic propaganda and a stern signal to the region that Dushanbe isn’t messing around, is revealing how incomplete public knowledge of the Tajikistan military is. It turns out the landlocked country maintains a large amount of functioning Soviet vintage equipment, a sizable air force, and a vast arsenal supplied by China. An earlier assumption regarding the equipment of Tajikistan’s soldiers is now proven correct; indeed, they do carry Chinese-made rifles. The cheapest ones available at that.

As violence gripped Afghanistan from June until July the government of Tajikistan mustered the armed forces in a national campaign to display its readiness. Tajikistan suffered a civil war in the 1990s pitting the government versus Islamists who had the support of ex-mujahideen from Afghanistan. Dushanbe has always been concerned about the infiltration of Islamists across its long and rugged border to foment either an uprising or separatism. As footage of Tajik soldiers girded for battle was broadcast by state-owned media throughout July it showed the Chinese-made Type 56, a dated copy of the original Soviet AK-47, has supplanted older Kalashnikovs as a standard rifle. Tajik soldiers carried both the Type 56-1, notable for its metal underfolding stock, and the Type 56-2 that had a sidefolding stock whose grip is encased with reddish-brown bakelite. Bakelite is a composite material used in a lot of former Eastern Bloc small arms.

Via Tajikistan state media.

The fastest method for identifying a Chinese-made Type 56 assault rifle is to check its front sights above the muzzle. On a regular Soviet or Warsaw Pact vintage AK-47 these are crescent shaped. The Chinese made theirs circular. During a military parade on September 9 to mark the country’s independence entire formations carried Type 56-1/2 rifles rather than the AK-74. This choice of a cheaper rifle might be the result of Chinese diplomacy rather than actual procurement decisions since there are better alternatives to the Type 56 available at fair prices. Beijing and Dushanbe have built a firm alliance over three decades and the importance of protecting Tajikistan is tied not just to China’s own concerns over terrorist infiltration but the greater OBOR geopolitical project. Time and again China has shown it’s a generous benefactor to its friends and can supply everything needed by states who maintain small armies.

Other Chinese small arms issued to Tajikistan’s soldiers include the Type 69 rocket launcher, the Type 67 light machine gun, along with all three Chinese-made heavy machine guns chambered for 12.7x108mm ammunition–the Type 77, the Type 85, and the Type 89. Tajikistan’s ground forces and the police and border guards are well supplied with Chinese-made vehicles too such as the Dongfeng EQ2050, which is considered a copy of the AM General HMMWV, and the Baoji Tiger. Chinese-made small arms are deemed inexpensive but their effectiveness is often overlooked. The Type 56 assault rifle might be outdated (China offers a new modular firearm chambered for the same ammo) but other infantry weapons proved their mettle in many inhospitable places. Some Chinese-made infantry weapons are even more sophisticated than similar models used by NATO but Tajikistan didn’t bother purchasing these.

As with the rest of Central Asia the country’s inherited weapons stockpile from the Soviet Union is kept in working order. Other units of the ground forces carry AK-74’s and newer AK-74M’s with an all black finish and polymer furniture. Aside from rifles the Soviet infantry weapons still in service are leftover AK-47’s and AKMs, Dragunov marksman rifles, the PKM light machine gun, the DShK heavy machine gun, the NSV heavy machine gun, the KPV 14.5x114mm heavy machine gun, the AGS-17 automatic grenade launcher, the SPG-9 recoilless rifle, and the ZSU-23-2 anti-aircraft gun.

A complete list of Asian and Eurasian countries that manufacture AK-47/AKM copies includes: Azerbaijan, China, Iran, India, Pakistan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia, Turkey, and Vietnam.

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