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Observer Now, Beneficiary Later: China and the Unrest in Kazakhstan

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Observer Now, Beneficiary Later: China and the Unrest in Kazakhstan

China’s interests in Kazakhstan appear unaffected. As the Kazakhstani regime seeks economic growth and may tighten repression, Beijing’s importance could grow.

Observer Now, Beneficiary Later: China and the Unrest in Kazakhstan
Credit: Depositphotos

After a tumultuous week across Kazakhstan in early January, the situation has stabilized. Kazakhstani security forces, with the help of troops from Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) allies, put an end to both the peaceful protests and the violent riots that followed them. The political elite around President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev strengthened its hand in an accelerated intra-elite struggle that was intertwined with the unrest, forcing several loyalists around former president Nursultan Nazarbayev out of their posts.

While events were confined to Kazakhstan and stemmed from domestic issues, they also had an international dimension. Russia received predominant attention, which focused on the dispatch of around 2,500 CSTO troops. Even after their withdrawal, the Kremlin is said to have proved its effectiveness and gained considerable leverage over Kazakhstan.

This has left considerations about Kazakhstan’s other powerful neighbor – China – at the sidelines. The absence of the China factor is all the more striking as the increasing Chinese stakes and leverage in Central Asia, and particularly Kazakhstan, have taken center stage in debates ever since its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was announced in the capital of Kazakhstan in 2013. Kazakhstan has since been a linchpin in the megaproject. As unrest has shaken Kazakhstan and political power within the country is shifting, some effects on China-Kazakhstan relations are inevitable.

Ties between the two states have focused on the economy. A first wave of Chinese investments, prior to around 2014, was overwhelmingly dedicated to the energy sector. Today, around 20 percent of China’s gas imports come from and through Kazakhstan. Another major area has been transport. Volumes of rail cargo – mostly transiting Kazakhstan between China and Europe – have increased impressively each year. An often overlooked but increasingly central pillar of the BRI in Kazakhstan, representing a second wave of investments picking up from 2016, is manufacturing and heavy industry. Kazakhstan and China concluded agreements to shift production capacity out of China and help Kazakhstan diversify its economy. Fifty-five joint projects worth $28 billion are foreseen and have been partially implemented in metallurgy, engineering, chemicals, and other sectors.

Neither pipelines nor railways have been affected by the unrest, the Kazakhstani ambassador to China has declared, citing their remoteness from major population centers. The Chengdu-based New Silk Road Intermodal (NSRI) confirmed that operations in Dostyk and Altynkol/Khorgos – the two major cargo terminals at the China-Kazakhstan border – were running smoothly. Air traffic, for which Almaty airport is a major hub, suffered temporary delays and disruptions, and some oil companies were temporarily forced to cut production. To date, however, there have been no reports about potential harm or disruptions to Chinese businesses or citizens in Kazakhstan.

As the period of unrest was short, did not entail long strikes, and was focused on (but not limited to) the country’s west and Almaty, economic effects were temporary and minimal. It pushed up prices for oil and uranium, though. In the long run and depending on further political and economic events in Kazakhstan, including reform efforts, the events of January 2022 are likely to affect the investment climate.

The major reason why Chinese projects were unharmed lies in the fact that the protests did not have a xenophobic or explicitly Sinophobic dimension. This is remarkable since China-skepticism in Kazakhstan is widespread, building on China’s potential economic domination and treatment of Muslims – including ethnic Kazakhs – in its Xinjiang region. Kazakh nationalist sentiment is generally considered on the rise. In 2020, southern Kazakhstan witnessed deadly clashes between Kazakhs and members of the Dungan minority, which is of Chinese origin. However, slogans in that vein did not appear in January 2022 and protesters appear not to have been mobilized by such considerations.

At the political and inter-governmental level, Chinese officials have voiced concerns about the unrest in Kazakhstan, but to a limited extent and in line with Beijing’s official policy of non-interference. As a first official reaction, on January 6, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared the protests an internal Kazakhstani affair. On 7 January, Xi Jinping sent a verbal message to Tokayev. Xi praised Tokayev for his reaction, and offered assistance against “color revolutions,” echoing the Kazakhstani government’s framing of the unrest as having been instigated by external powers.

As such, China did not get involved, particularly not with troops. Igor Denisov, writing for The Diplomat, raised another important factor in this regard: China may lack in-depth understanding of intra-elite dynamics and intelligence on events in Kazakhstan, particularly compared to Russia. Chinese isolationism during the pandemic – including among its diplomats abroad – has only contributed to this gap. Accordingly, Beijing is likely to have been taken by surprise both by the unrest and the elite reshuffling in Kazakhstan, adding inability to its unwillingness to get involved. Had border security been compromised, though, China may have militarized and closed its border with Kazakhstan, possibly also citing strict COVID-19 rules.

CSTO troops’ role in helping to stabilize the situation was likely in line with Beijing’s interests, and Chinese officials may have been informed prior. Russia’s involvement in Kazakhstan came at the request of its government and not a result of the Kremlin’s adventurism and unpredictability, which are not viewed favorably in Beijing. While its intervention strengthened Russia’s standing as a security guarantor in the region, lasting and one-sided Kazakhstani dependence on its northern neighbor is unlikely to be a result of it.

Stability is Beijing’s key interest in Kazakhstan, in order to maintain supply chains, uphold uninterrupted trade flows and cargo transit, and to secure China’s western border. Further support for Kazakhstan’s regime is likely to occur in the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an initiative driven by China, in the form of joint exercises, training, and law enforcement cooperation. The member states of the CSTO and the SCO are largely united in their authoritarian style of rule and in their definition of and opposition to terrorism, separatism, and violent extremism.

The growing influence of Tokayev and his loyalists at the expense of the old elite around Nazarbayev is unlikely to be opposed by Beijing, if this power struggle is not overtly disruptive, which would threaten stability and Chinese investments. As such, Beijing is unlikely to have a strong preference for a particular Kazakhstani leader, and may lack the necessary intelligence to be a factor in these shifts to begin with. To Beijing, it does not matter too much who is in charge, as long as someone is in charge. Given his international experience and Chinese language skills, Tokayev is likely to be a welcome interlocutor for Beijing.

Some (albeit unlikely) alternative governments may pose risks for Chinese interests if they were to build on China-skepticism and Kazakh nationalism. However, by and large, any Kazakhstani government is set to maintain good relations with China. Trade ties with all neighbors, economic diversification, and attracting investments are key to economic growth and to satisfying popular demands in Kazakhstan, which is key to mitigating the risk of further unrest. In this, the regime only succeeds if reforms are genuine, and serious address the issue of inequality.

China is poised to maintain and may even increase its crucial position in Kazakhstan in order to foster the country’s economic development. The Chinese development model – and Chinese investments – offer the biggest promise for Kazakhstan’s economic modernization. Russia or an increasingly reluctant and distant West offer little in that regard. Chinese commentators have indicated the prospect of Chinese economic assistance to Kazakhstan following the unrest. In that, Beijing would pursue its logic of “stability through development.” While immediate assistance through loans or investments is unlikely and not warranted, the Kazakhstani government may refer to Beijing’s offer of support at a later point in time.

Were the Tokayev regime to increase repression to quell the potential for further dissent and protests, Russia and China would be obvious partners. Surveillance technology developed and applied in China could be tempting and an element of the diffusion of authoritarian norms and tools. A Chinese commentator with the Global Times has even explicitly suggested applying Beijing’s experience in Xinjiang to Kazakhstan. Boosting the use of technological tools would build on their already-rising use in recent years, particularly through the pandemic. As early as 2019, Tokayev instructed the government to follow the Chinese model of digitalization. This has included the use of facial recognition, biometric identification, AI, and video surveillance in cooperation with Chinese tech companies. Through such technologies, China’s “Digital Silk Road” entails a significant political component.

To sum up, unrest in Kazakhstan has appeared to mostly lack a China-related dimension, as political and economic ties between the two governments were maintained and the old order restored. As a nationalist turn in Kazakhstan or a reorientation of its foreign and economic policy are currently unlikely, China will remain an important – and as Western states and companies may become more hesitant to engage with Nur-Sultan even an inevitable – partner for the Kazakhstani government. Accordingly, even though Kazakhstan will remain adamant about not being overly dependent on its neighbor to the east, China’s importance may only grow.