After the riots: how important is Kazakhstan for China?

Status: 01/20/2022 2:42 p.m

When unrest broke out in Kazakhstan, Beijing quickly pledged support to the government. In fact, stability in the region seems so important that China has no objection to Russia sending in the military and expanding its influence.

By Benjamin Eyssel, ARD Studio Beijing

In September 2013, Xi Jinping visited Nazarbayev University in the Kazakh capital of Nursultan, then known as Astana: his speech marked the start of China’s huge international infrastructure project, known in German as the “New Silk Road”.

Benjamin Eyssel
ARD-Studio Peking

At that time, Xi had only been in office for a few months as head of state of the People’s Republic. At the time, no one could have guessed how powerful he would be and how big the “New Silk Road” project would become. But what was already clear back then: Kazakhstan is an important neighboring country of China.

Kazakhstan as an important energy supplier

Wang Yiwei is Professor of International Studies at Renmin University in Beijing. He says Kazakhstan is important to China as a link between land and sea, between Asia and Europe. But also as an energy supplier. In the past, the People’s Republic mainly imported oil from the Middle East, but now China also needs a lot of natural gas.

An estimated 20 percent of this natural gas comes from Kazakhstan or is at least routed through the neighboring country to the west. China also obtains other mineral resources from the ex-Soviet republic. Chinese corporations have invested a lot of money in Kazakhstan.

Message of support from Beijing

This is probably one of the reasons why China’s head of state and party leader Xi sent a message of support to Kazakh leader Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on January 7, which was published by the Chinese news agency Xinhua. China is resisting foreign forces trying to destabilize Kazakhstan. Xi Jinping also pledged Chinese support to the country.

Spokesman for the State and Party leadership Wang Wenbin: “China has seen that Kazakhstan has taken a number of measures to counter violent and terrorist activities. China resists outside forces inciting violence. As a brother, neighbor and strategic partner, China will strive to offer any necessary assistance to help Kazakhstan get rid of these difficulties.”

Development into a major political and military power

President Tokayev had already ordered the Kazakh armed units to shoot at militant demonstrators. It was also already clear that Russia would send troops as part of the CSTO military alliance. China’s offered support doesn’t mean a military operation in Kazakhstan anyway, says foreign policy expert Wang Yiwei from Renmin University:

“China has a strong economy to offer, such as investment through the ‘New Silk Road’. If the Chinese government offers help, then the Kazakh government must first say what it needs.”

For decades, this seemed to have been the classic division in Central Asia: Russia keeps order and China takes care of the economy. But in recent years China has become more self-confident, the country has invested heavily in its military and is increasingly becoming a major political and military power. This suggests that China could have a problem with Russia expanding its power in the region.

Foreign policy expert Wang Yiwei from Renmin University speaks of strategic and political trust between China and Russia regarding the Kazakhstan region.

Increase in strategic competition

Independent security analyst and China expert Adam Ni, editor of the China Neican newsletter, says: “In recent years we have seen how strategic competition between China and the US has increased. And that creates a context for how China thinks in Central Asia . Russia, on the other hand, is China’s partner. Both countries have an interest in limiting US influence in Central Asia.”

Foreign policy expert Wang from China’s state Renmin University takes a similar view: “Russia is China’s largest neighboring country. The two countries form a strategic coordination partnership. Strategic and political trust is therefore great.” If Russia gains more influence in the region, that is not generally a bad thing and better than if Western influence increases. “I also don’t think that China wanted to influence the political situation in Kazakhstan,” Wang said.

Stability and security in the border region

Adam Ni sees another reason why the Chinese government had nothing against a Russian military operation in Kazakhstan: the stability and security of the Chinese border region. Kazakhstan borders directly on the Chinese region of Xinjiang, which is home to more than a million ethnic Kazakhs in addition to the mostly Muslim Uyghurs. The concern is that a democratic revolution could cause instability across the region or the unrest could spread to neighboring Xinjiang.

Russia has expanded its influence in Central Asia in recent weeks. China can live with that – at least for the moment. Because the relationship between the two countries has not been called into question by recent events.

After the riots – how important is Kazakhstan for China?

Benjamin Eyssel, ARD Beijing, 20.1.2022 ยท 09:20

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