Vivek Y. Kelkar, Mumbai
Russia sent troops to Kazakhstan to crush an uprising. What does this mean for China? If you’re keen to know the future of Moscow’s relationship with Beijing, Central Asia is the critical region to watch.
On January 6, Russia’s so-called peacekeeping troops arrived in Kazakhstan’s capital, Nur-Sultan, at the request of the country’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Given Russia’s determination to keep Ukraine on the boil, Western news analysts viewed this chiefly as a sideshow; they assumed the Kremlin hoped quickly to neutralize the distraction in Central Asia so better to concentrate on playing roulette in Ukraine.
But the Kremlin might have more urgent reasons to play the angles in Kazakhstan and send a message across what it believes to be its sphere of influence. In recent years, China’s investment in Central Asia has given Moscow cause to worry about its traditional hold over the region. Kazakhstan, the largest and wealthiest Central Asian country, has been vocal in its appreciation for Chinese initiatives. These countries are emerging as key to the geopolitical power balance: They are inherently far more significant than many in the West realize.
The Romanov Czars and then the Soviet empire ruled what is now landlocked Kazakhstan and the other nation-states of Central Asia—Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Russia is linked to these countries by several significant treaties, such as the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance among Moscow and the constituents of the former Soviet empire in Central Asia. The latter is the treaty Russia invoked when it sent troops to Kazakhstan. Notably, Putin did not appeal to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes China, Pakistan, and India.
Since 2015, Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan have been joined in an integrated single market by the Eurasian Economic Union. Moldova, Uzbekistan, and Cuba are observers. Much like the European Union, the EEU encourages the free movement of goods and services; it provides for common macroeconomic policies as well as shared transport, industry, agriculture, energy, trade, customs, competition, and antitrust regulation.
But China has been quietly building both influence and diplomatic ties to the region over the past decade, and there is no doubt this is causing Moscow anxiety.
Kazakhstan and its neighbors, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan are huge oil and gas producers with some of the world’s biggest gas reserves. For China, they are also critical sources of minerals and vital cogs in the Belt-and-Road Initiative.
Ironically, the site of last week’s riots—the Mangistau region in eastern Kazakhstan, on the shores of the Caspian Sea—is rich in oil and gas. But for locals, the cost of gas was rising. Butane and propane, particularly, both derivatives of natural gas, were becoming more expensive, because like much of Kazakhstan, the region lacks downstream processing facilities. Thus, it imports most of its petrochemicals from Russia, even as it exports fossil fuels.
The country is wealthy in minerals: It is the world’s largest uranium exporter. It’s the land bridge that links China’s Xinjiang province to the Caspian Sea, and thereby onward to Russia, the Baltics, and Europe through the Europe-China rail freight network.
China invested in oil, gas, and BRI infrastructure in Kazakhstan. It transformed Tajikistan’s export sector from one based on raw minerals and ores by investing in industries such as cement and cement manufacturing plants. Chinese investment turned Uzbekistan into a textile exporter. Turkmenistan and other countries in the region rely on Chinese pipelines and investment in oil and gas. The biggest beneficiary of these export initiatives is, of course, China.
In 1997, China made its first foray into Central Asia, in Kazakhstan. Central Asian countries, especially Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, were keen to maximize their natural resource wealth and found in Beijing a willing partner. The China National Petroleum Corporation bought a 60 percent stake in one of Kazakhstan’s biggest gas companies, Aktobe Munai Gas, and signed an agreement for the oil and gas pipeline network that eventually covered the region through Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Over the decades, China made crucial investments in oil and gas companies throughout the region, often buying majority stakes and gaining effective management control.
In September 2013 in Nur-Sultan (then called Astana), China’s supremo, Xi Jinping, and Kazakhstan’s then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev together pressed a button that symbolically opened a 700-mile pipeline route meant to take oil and natural gas from the shores of the Caspian Sea to China’s coast via neighboring Turkmenistan. China and Kazakhstan built the pipeline together; today, it transports more than 20 percent of China’s gas requirements. The Caspian Sea, whose shores connect Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan and Iran, has also become a key link in China’s trade with Iran and further down to the Persian Gulf.
China has invested US$30 billion in Kazakhstan. A further 56 projects backed by China, together worth US$25 billion, will be completed over the next two years. China is Kazakhstan’s largest trading partner, importing not just oil and gas but copper, uranium, iron ore, and grain products. On the anvil are even more investments from China, including a carbon black plant in Aktobe, power plants in Almaty and west Kazakhstan, LPG gas pipelines, and investments in synthetic fiber.
These investments are crucial to feeding China’s economic engine, and thus China holds stability in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries to be of paramount importance. Indeed, Kazakhs were alarmed in 2020 by the publication in the state-controlled Chinese media titled “Why is “Kazakhstan” eager to return to China?” It suggested that Kazakhstan was historically part of China and noted that even though “Kazakhstan believes that China has invaded them many times, they don’t seem to complain too much about it.”
Kazakhstan’s inhabitants are not always as agreeable about China’s influence as this editorial hopefully suggested. For instance, tensions over river water output from Kazakhstan into China have recently inflamed local passions, with Kazakh locals claiming the Chinese are pumping more than their fair share. Though Kazakhstan has maintained somewhat stringent control over the number of Chinese workers allowed in the country, there has been rising disquiet about low levels of local employment in highly visible petrochemical and infrastructure projects. Locales with Chinese investment have been the sites of unrest, although most of the ire has been directed towards Kazakh politicians for their corruption and inability to improve conditions beyond the large cities. Central Asian rulers have had difficulty persuading their fellow citizens that the benefits of Chinese investment will trickle down—as recent riots over Kazakhstan’s fuel prices so clearly demonstrate.
Over the past three decades, China and Russia have often given the impression of having a tacit understanding about Central Asia. Russia, despite publicly insisting that Kazakhstan and its Central Asian neighbors fell under its sphere of influence, permitted Beijing to invest in the region. Moscow quietly acquiesced, for example, to Kazakhstan’s so-called multi-vector foreign policy, a strategy it advanced in the early 1990s so better to keep options open with both China and the West.
Russia kept Kazakhstan and the Central Asian nations under its security umbrella through the CSTO, which played the role of security guarantor in the region, while China took responsibility for investment. Kazakhstan’s membership in the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union was meant to enhance Moscow’s influence through its leverage over trade and tariffs.
Russia supported the regimes that ruled with an iron hand over the Central Asian states and ruthlessly quashed any hint of the radical religious discourse emerging from Afghanistan, from China’s Xinjiang, and from Iran. It insisted upon a role in regional trade agreements, even those involving China, despite China’s preference for direct bilateral discussions on trade and economics. The EEU has guaranteed Russia’s influence on policies. In joint commissions and BRI-EEU working groups, Moscow and Beijing engage first, before the other members of the group, especially when tariffs and trade are discussed. Moscow has cleverly used this strategy to maintain leverage over Chinese investments in the region.
Beijing’s rise, however, as the dominant economic force on Russia’s borders could not but discomfit the Kremlin. In a 2018 paper, for example, the Russian International Affairs Council noted that Chinese investments in Central Asia might be so successful that China would have no need to invest in Siberia or Russia’s far east.
Kazakhstan’s former President Nursultan Nazarbayev has criticized what he called the “politicization” of the EEU and often resisted Russian attempts to negotiate trade and investment policy with China, arguing that his country had to follow a multi-vector foreign policy. In August 2014, Nazarbayev threatened to leave the EEU, but he was subtly warned by Putin that Kazakhstan, like Crimea and Ukraine, would do well not to cross its northern neighbor.
In June 2020, The Astana Times, a mouthpiece for the Kazakhstan government, plumped for China overtly, extolling the “global significance” of the Belt and Road Initiative, praising the “deep thought” of the Chinese leadership, expressing gratitude to China for “choosing our capital” to announce its initiatives, and promising Kazakhstan’s unswerving commitment to “reviving the Great Silk Road through the adoption of the role of a trade and infrastructure hub for the entire Eurasian continent by Central Asia.”
The Kremlin surely noticed statements like these and similar ones from Kazakh politicians.
The Kremlin would have noticed the military omens, too. Kazakhstan remains dependent upon Russia for arms and security, much like its counterparts in Central Asia. The CSTO permits Russia to intervene directly in the region.
But disconcertingly for Moscow, Beijing has quietly made military inroads into the region, too. China has begun building bases across the region, starting with Tajikistan. These may prove critical for China should it need to secure its massive economic investments and the BRI from pockets of local resistance or a regional Islamic resurgence. Beijing is particularly sensitive to the latter prospect, given Xinjiang province’s proximity to Central Asia.
Now Nazarbayev—once widely seen as shrewd for playing off Moscow and Beijing—is said to have left the country “for medical reasons.” His successor has welcomed Russian troops to maintain law and order. If anyone in Kazakhstan hoped to keep walking the tightrope between Moscow and Beijing, the sight of Russian troops in Nur Sultan probably brought that fantasy to a close.
As for China, Xi Jinping has welcomed Tokayev’s strongman tactics to suppress dissent while remaining quiet about the presence of Russian troops. China’s mouthpiece, The Global Times, has carefully emphasized that Kazakhstan’s unrest won’t affect Beijing’s investments. China, it explained, has diversified its sources of natural gas. The Global Times stressed that China was crucial to Kazakhstan’s economic future, quoting one Yang Jin, an associate research fellow at the Institute of Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences: “The China-Central Asia Gas Pipeline involves the core interests of Kazakhstan and is one of its economic lifeblood.” It was, perhaps, a subtle message to Tokayev.
If you’re keen to know the future of Moscow’s relationship with Beijing, Central Asia is the critical region to watch. China would do well to keep in mind the admonition offered by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on January 7: “Once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave.”
Vivek Y. Kelkar is the co-founder and editor of the Cosmopolitan Globalist.