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The Underappreciated China-Kazakhstan Partnership

Richard Weitz
March 1, 2012
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 One thing any visitor to Kazakhstan notices is how prominent China has become to Kazakhstani thinking. Kazakhstan’s goals regarding China include obtaining assistance in promoting Kazakhstan’s national independence, territorial integrity, and economic development. Since these objectives align well with the PRC’s own goals, Chinese-Kazakhstani relations have been generally good. China’s growing economic and security presence in Central Asia may elevate the partnership to a higher level in coming years, especially if NATO forces disengage from the region as they withdraw their combat forces from Afghanistan.

Under President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been in office since Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991, Kazakhstan has remained committed to a “multi-vector” foreign policy that seeks to maintain good relations with all countries with important economic, political, or other roles in Eurasia. China has assumed an increasingly significant role in this framework as a balancer to Russia and the West as well as partner in promoting Kazakhstan’s economic development. The two countries have enjoyed some of the highest growth rates in the world, making the further growth of their bilateral economic ties inevitable.

Chinese goals regarding Kazakhstan have included securing Astana’s support in suppressing anti-Beijing Uighur nationalists and countering terrorist threats to the PRC, granting Chinese firms access to Kazakhstan’s energy resources as well as opportunities to trade with and invest in Kazakhstan. The Chinese leadership has been especially eager to help Kazakhstan’s develop its transportation and other economic infrastructure, which enhances the country’s capacity to serve as a transit state for Chinese economic activities in other Central Asian states and beyond. Other considerations affecting Beijing’s policies toward Kazakhstan is the PRC leadership’s desire to cultivate Beijing’s image as a benign international actor seeking “win-win” outcomes in foreign engagements as well as securing Astana’s diplomatic support regarding the status of Taiwan, Tibet, and other issues of foreign policy concern to Chinese leaders. Finally, Chinese strategists would like Kazakhstan to help Beijing balance the presence of the other great powers active in Central Asia, including India and the United States.

One unique factor differentiating China’s relations with Kazakhstan from those with the other Central Asian countries is their large overlapping ethnic groups. About 180,000 ethnic Uighurs reside in eastern Kazakhstan. In addition, as many as one million ethnic Kazakhs live in China, especially in Xinjiang.  In line with Chinese preferences, Central Asian governments regularly profess solidarity with Beijing’s counterterrorist concerns, which center on the Uighur-based East Turkestan Islamic Movement. Kazakhstani authorities, while allowing Uighurs to practice limited degrees of political activity, do not permit Uighurs to engage in unauthorized activities in China and have deported Uighurs accused of terrorism by the Chinese.  Joint Kazakhstani-Chinese declarations also normally include a clause affirming the mainland’s position regarding Taiwan—that Beijing is the only legitimate government of China and that Taiwan is an inseparable part of Chinese territory.

The Chinese government has supplied Kazakhstan with defense equipment, military training, and intelligence information regarding terrorist threats. The National Security Committee of Kazakhstan and the PRC Public Security Ministry regularly conduct joint anti-terrorist exercises in border regions. Kazakhstani and Chinese law enforcement agencies also collaborate against trafficking in narcotics and weapons. China’s defense academies now enroll Kazakhstani military personnel in their classes. 

Much Chinese-Kazakhstani security cooperation occurs within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), of which both countries are founding members. A major military exercise, “Peace Mission 2010,” occurred in September 2010 in southern Kazakhstan. The Chinese used the opportunity to develop defense relations with their Kazakhstani host. The Chinese media remarked that Kazakhstan’s allowing Chinese bombers to conduct mock  bombings of its territory demonstrated “great trust” in a foreign country.

Although security considerations initially dominated China’s policies toward Kazakhstan and its other newly independent Central Asian neighbors, economic and especially energy concerns have become increasingly important. Thanks to its energy riches, Kazakhstan has become China's most important economic partner in Central Asia. China has been Kazakhstan's second-largest trade partner since 2009 and its biggest export destination since 2010.  Bilateral economic ties should expand further given that both countries regularly enjoy some of the world’s fastest growth rates and China’s growing demand for Kazakhstani’s rising exports of oil and gas.

Chinese energy firms have invested billions of dollars in oil projects in Kazakhstan and aim to increase that total.  Major oil and gas pipelines link the two countries. During the past two decades, China and Kazakhstan have been developing the infrastructure needed to expand economic ties—creating border posts, energy pipelines, and east-west roads and railways.
Yet, much additional progress is needed in this area to achieve the higher levels of bilateral commerce sought in both Astana and Beijing. In addition to the underdeveloped economic infrastructure connecting the two sides, other impediments to expanded commercial exchanges include unsupportive visa policies, special regulations on Chinese consumer products, corrupt commercial practices in both countries, and Kazakhstan’s non-membership in the World Trade Organization.

Kazakhstan’s close economic ties with Russia have constrained its ties with China. On the one hand, much Russia-China trade go through Kazakhstan.  On the other hand, Russia has sought to prevent the newly implemented Russia-Kazakhstan-Belarus Customs Union from serving as a backdoor for the smuggling of cheap Chinese goods into Russia by pressing Kazakhstan to tighten controls at the Kazakhstani-Chinese border.  Some Kazakhstanis complain that they can no longer buy cheap Chinese imports but must now spend more to buy often inferior quality goods from Russia and Belarus.

Vladimir Putin’s proposed Eurasian Union, which the Kazakhstani government has said they would join, could erect further economic and perhaps other barriers between China and Kazakhstan. The continuing dominance of Russian culture, the Russian media, and the Russian language has limited Chinese influence in Kazakhstan. Chinese is not one of the languages supported by the government’s trilateral (Kazakh-Russian-English) language competency program. Nonetheless, Russians do not consider China’s presence in Central Asia a threat to their core interests since they share many important goals for the region.

As for the United States, Washington has a few concerns about the burgeoning Sino-Kazakhstani partnership. Some American investors worry about their ability to compete with Chinese firms that enjoy much greater support from their home governments. There is also unease that Kazakhstan’s leaders will seek to imitate China’s economic and political system rather than the more liberal development models advocated by Western governments. But the three countries share such common goals as curbing regional terrorism, preventing further nuclear proliferation, and expanding both the volume of Kazakhstan’s energy production and the diversity of the routes through which it is exported.

Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. His current research includes regional security developments relating to Europe, Eurasia, and East Asia as well as U.S. foreign, defense, homeland security, and WMD nonproliferation policies.

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