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Kazakhstan: A waning Russia and a rising China?

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

By Channon Heenan

On 19th May 2023, President Xi Jinping held the first in-person China-Central Asia summit in Xi’an, China. The summit aimed to enhance regional and economic co-operation between the countries of central Asia and China and was widely seen as an opportunity to strengthen ties. Xi Jinping promised to renew infrastructure, deepen trade links and enhance security co-operation in a region that has long been seen as Russia’s backyard. The timing of the summit was intriguing, as it seemed to come at a time when Russia’s own power in the region is waning as a result of the Russo-Ukrainian war and central Asian nations are searching for new sources of investment.

Russo-Kazakh Relations

The most exemplar shift in policy in Central Asia from a Russian hegemony to a Chinese trajectory is that of Kazakhstan. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin has kept Kazakhstan well within its orbit as Kazakhstan plays a key part of all the regional organisations headed by Russia (such as the Collective Security Treaty Organisation.) Russia wields a significant amount of soft power in the country, and Russian culture permeates throughout. This central Asian nation is an important ally for Moscow, especially as relations with the West have plummeted and sanctions have threatened to put the Russian economy in dire straits.

The Kremlin needs a friendly Kazakhstan— it cannot afford for its backyard to become too independent. Indeed, the call by Kazakh President Tokayev for assistance from the Russia-led CSTO in January 2022 to quell an eruption of nationwide unrest has been seen by many as the ultimate act of allegiance to Moscow, showing a submissive Kazakhstan dependent on its neighbour who is all too happy to dominate the relationship if it helps Moscow retain a key partner.

The Russo-Kazakh Predicament

However, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Kazakh policy towards Russia has changed drastically. Rather than being dependent on Russia for security matters and allowing Russian domination, Astana has pursued a more independent, multi-vector foreign policy. Kazakhstan has adhered to Western sanctions, which, while not supporting the measures, has not provided Russia with the get-out-of-jail card it so desired by not facilitating a way to circumvent the sanctions. Astana has also refused to recognise the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, a move that sparked furore in Moscow.

The reasoning behind this change in policy direction is two-fold. Firstly, Russia’s disastrous conduct of the war in Ukraine has starved it of much of its political and military clout in the former Soviet republic, and as such the Russian army is no longer as indomitable as it may once have been. Therefore, the threat of any militaristic counter-measures that could be taken by Russia to a change in Kazakh attitudes has reduced. Secondly, because of this weakening, Kazakhstan can direct more attention to China as a partner in trade and security to encourage more investment, but they have to tread lightly as far as moving away from Moscow is concerned, considering Russia’s willingness to take military action against post-Soviet states that strive too far from its orbit.

A Blossoming Partnership

Since the launch of the Belt and Road initiative in 2013, which aims to link Europe with China and everywhere in between in a new silk road to increase trade and transport links, a wave of Chinese investment has flooded into Kazakhstan, and in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine the current is stronger than ever, with China pouring billions into the central Asian country, and Xi Jinping first paying a visit in September 2022 then inviting Kazakhstan to the Central Asian Summit in Xi’an, China in May 2023.

There exists a myriad of reasons why Xi Jinping wishes to entice Astana into the Chinese sphere of influence, the most important of these being an expansive Chinese economic policy. Due to rapidly expanding domestic energy needs, China has been investing largely in Kazakh energy resources, especially oil – as such China needs a stable Kazakhstan well within its own orbit to ensure it has a steady supply of energy. Kazakhstan, in pursuit of foreign investment following the implementation of its multi-vector foreign policy and a reduction in Russian investment, has bolstered this policy, evidenced by the $24 billion of trade between the two nations in 2022, only $2 billion behind trade between Kazakhstan and Russia. Further, the economic power of China can be seen in its lion’s share of Kazakh exports, claiming the title of Kazakhstan’s largest buyer of exports in 2021, and second only to Russia as a source of imports.

Kazakhstan does not plan to stop its economic shift towards China there, with President Tokayev highlighting this renewed Chinese focus by making a promise to target $40 billion in annual two-way trade between the two nations, up from over $31 billion in 2022. In terms of oil, from January 2023, 1.5 million tonnes of oil will be shipped through the Middle Corridor transport route to China – and up to 6 million tonnes annually in the long run which will help to reduce Kazakh dependency on the Caspian Pipeline Consortium going through Russia, a pipeline the Russian side tends to stop when Astana steps out of line.

China has signalled a shift in attitude towards Russia as far as Kazakhstan is concerned, with Xi Jinping remarking during the state visit to Astana in September 2022 that China would ‘oppose the interference of any forces’ in the internal affairs of Kazakhstan, a remark that sounds like a warning to Moscow to not destabilise a key energy and trade partner of Beijing, for a destabilised Kazakhstan would threaten both Chinese security and energy imports.

While Russia has become less of a military player in the region as its interests are focussed elsewhere, it is worth noting that Xi Jinping pledged Chinese support to enhance the region’s law enforcement and defence capabilities at the China-Central Asia summit, to ‘prevent colour revolutions.’ This is a move that, combined with Chinese investment flooding into Kazakhstan and the predicted shift to the Middle Corridor, as well as the thinly veiled warning to Russia not to meddle in Kazakh internal affairs, appears to be quite the bid to become the new strongman in Russia’s backyard.

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