The standard logic of the division of labor between Moscow and Beijing in Central Asia holds that Russia is responsible for security and China is in charge of the economy. Following that narrative, it can be asserted that neither power suffered losses during this month’s tumultuous events in Kazakhstan. The transition from a duumvirate (with former President Nursultan Nazarbayev as a separate center of power) to a political system united around President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev will not reduce Kazakhstan’s interest in Chinese goods and investment. It is possible for Beijing to enhance its image as a benevolent investor if it participates in repairing the damage inflicted by violent actors and assists in the revival of an economy stricken by COVID-19.
The rapid withdrawal of the 2,030-strong contingent sent by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) should not lead to the conclusion that the big political game would have taken place without this Russian-led military bloc. CSTO peacekeepers were focused on restoring the function of strategic facilities, thereby freeing the local special services to quell the unrest. Simultaneously, the CSTO presence demonstrated that Tokayev is the national leader, recognized by Kazakhstan’s closest allies in the post-Soviet space, thereby eliminating the atmosphere of chaos and uncertainty among Kazakhstan’s military, police, and special services.
Thus, Russia has strengthened its reputation as a “security provider.” The deployment of the Moscow-led peacekeepers played a crucial role in halting countrywide violence. Tokayev’s tactical victory against part of the Nazarbayev clan did not occur without Moscow’s involvement. Thus, Russia’s role can be understood more broadly as a guarantor of intra-elite transition.
However, does this imply that China and Russia must be satisfied with each other? Does the favorable outcome indicate a strengthening of the China-Russia entente? It is difficult to answer these questions as only Russia was an active player in recent events; China adopted a wait-and-see approach. The problem lies in whether Beijing will accept such a role in the future.
The rapid disintegration of an outwardly strong state apparatus, during which law enforcement disappeared from the Almaty streets in a matter of minutes, has demonstrated the risks China may face in other Central Asian countries. The division of the field into security and commerce is arbitrary; the economically based protests in Kazakhstan were intertwined with elite contradictions and widespread problems of the political system. Both the Kazakhstan crisis and its resolution lay primarily in the course of elite politics, where China appears to be an outsider.
Beijing’s long-standing policy of non-interference, as well as the belief that a solid economic presence will automatically lead to a favorable image and increased voice in local politics, are some of the reasons China must contend with a limited political role. With China’s growth, the strategy might alter; however, influence operations cannot be supported immediately by diplomatic, intelligence, and expert resources.
Recently, many regional policy trends – from Lithuania’s growing ties with Taiwan to ongoing events in Kazakhstan – have been viewed in Beijing solely through the prism of its global confrontation with Washington. This drastically obscures the picture on the ground, leaving China’s framing devoid of key details. Consequently, the political dynamics can be heavily distorted, leading Beijing to commit errors and leave itself politically vulnerable.
Xi Jinping’s verbal message to Tokayev appeared only a day after the Russian-led troops had begun operating in Kazakhstan. Presumably, Beijing chose this form of communication in a bid to get the latest information on the changes at the top, ideally from Tokayev himself. But against the background of a tense situation, China’s Ambassador Zhang Xiao met only with Kazakh Acting Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi, which, perhaps, at lower level than Beijing had anticipated.
Xi’s message was silent on the CSTO operation. Yet, it included criticism of color revolutions and strong words against any forces that wished to “undermine Sino-Kazakh friendship and interfere with cooperation between the two countries.” The latter is rather strange, since anti-Chinese motives, although undoubtedly present in Kazakhstani public opinion, were practically a non-factor during the January protests.
According to local experts, over the past two years, Chinese diplomats in Central Asia have mostly asked questions regarding the role of NGOs and American and Turkish leverage in political processes. In addition to this general political bias, China’s poor understanding of internal power shifts is visible with respect to Kazakhstan. This can partially be explained by limited access to first-hand information. Since the start of the pandemic, Chinese diplomats have locked themselves in a diplomatic compound, with a minimum of external contacts. Furthermore, the opportunity to communicate with pundits was affected by the arrest and trial of the leading Kazakhstan sinologist, Konstantin Syroezhkin, who was accused of passing secret information to China.
As my contacts in Kazakhstan indicate, PRC Embassy officials have often preferred to contact loyal figures who only mirror the Chinese narrative but provide no knowledge of the actual situation in their country. We can assume that cables were sent to Beijing concerning the effectiveness of Chinese soft power, and occasional anti-Chinese demonstrations were attributed solely to U.S. interference.
Hence, it was predictable that the Chinese response to Kazakhstan’s recent unrest was reactive, lagging behind the swift pace of events, and certainly less informed than the Russian one. The crisis has highlighted the fact that unlike Russia, with its strong and long-standing ties with the political, military, and business elite, China remains in a certain information vacuum in Kazakhstan, rendering Beijing unable to predict power processes in a state with which it shares a 1,782-kilometer border.
Meanwhile, political volatility remains, due to the uncertainty of the course of reforms that Tokayev will now undertake, as well as how bargaining with Nazarbayev’s circle will proceed. Russia may certainly possess sensitive information that gives it an advantage in Central Asia. Still, Moscow can hardly be expected to share this information with China, especially if it is obtained through high-level contacts.
One area of great concern for China is Kazakhstan strengthening its ties with the Turkic states, and this foreign policy vector will only intensify. At the time of the crisis, an extraordinary virtual meeting of the Organization of Turkic States was held with Tokayev’s participation. That is a reason for Xi Jinping to reflect on how Beijing should strengthen its diplomatic capabilities in the region, taking into account, among other things, the Xinjiang factor.
In the history of Chinese diplomacy, many cases exist in which fragmented information or political bias subsequently caused embarrassment to Beijing. For example, during the attempted coup in the USSR in August 1991, PRC Ambassador Yu Hongliang was the only member of the diplomatic corps who officially visited Acting President Gennady Yanayev in the Kremlin and expressed support toward him and the anti-Gorbachev clique. Immediately after the signing of the Belovezh Agreements on December 8, 1991, which signaled the formal end of the USSR, China’s Premier Li Peng described the situation as “great chaos and collapse,” which did not occur without “the intervention of foreign forces.”
Indeed, now that China is celebrating 30 years of diplomatic relations with the post-Soviet states, Beijing does not recall these relationships as being the result of a foreign conspiracy. However, given the increasingly complex international environment, the question inevitably arises as to whether Beijing has an adequate response to the new “great chaos.” From this perspective, in China’s relations with Russia, there can be both a desire for more synergy and ill-concealed jealousy.
Recent events in Kazakhstan have become a cause for an in-depth discussion in Chinese expert circles. One of the top and knowledgeable analysts cited Friedrich Engels’ statement about the politics of imperial Russia: “To be legitimist and revolutionist, conservative and liberal, orthodox and ‘advanced’, all in one breath, is permitted to Russia, and to Russia alone. Imagine the contempt with which such a Russian diplomat looks down upon the ‘cultured’ West.”
Writing earlier about politics in the post-COVID-19 era, Yuan Peng, president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), emphasized Russia’s ability to take advantage of the chaos in order to strategize future moves. From this, it may be inferred that China does not yet have such skill, nor the proper instruments.
In any case, it is clear that in an era of global transformation, the Sino-Russian division of labor in Central Asia, and the siloing of security and economic interests, is outdated. It is not a question of a fracture in China-Russia relations. The general picture, with its many half-tones, is forcing Moscow and Beijing to look for a new model of interaction, and in some cases, to act independently of each other.