Even though China has long preferred a “softer” involvement in Central Asia without direct interferences in political and security affairs, Beijing reached an important juncture in its approach to the situation in the region. Recent upheavals in Kazakhstan exposed China’s ignorance of political processes and inter-clan constellations of Central Asia. It became evident that for China to become the largest economic player and the main source of development for the region, capital alone will not be enough.
Violent protests, triggered by the liquefied petroleum gas price hike, broke out across Kazakhstan in early January of 2022. The first demonstrations began on January 2 in the small oil-rich town of Zhanaozen. These protests quickly spread across the country with Almaty, the financial capital of Kazakhstan, turning into a battlefield between protesters and security forces. The protesters captured key administrative offices, including the Almaty airport, while President Tokayev enforced a nationwide internet blackout and authorized a shoot-to-kill order to quell the unrest.
Amidst the rumors of power struggle between the incumbent president Tokayev and the former president Nazarbayev, the former called for the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to send peacekeepers to Kazakhstan. For the first time in its history CSTO acquiesced to such a request and deployed troops to its member-state. As the situation stabilized, and the internet blackout was over, horrifying facts began to flood. The January protests left hundreds killed and thousands injured, although the real numbers still have not been confirmed.
While there are many lessons to be learned, one of the things that these protests revealed is that China’s wait-and-see approach may not work anymore in Central Asia. The orthodox perceptions assign the role of “a security guarantor” in Central Asia to Russia and the role of “an economic guarantor” to China. However, as Igor Denisov rightfully noted, such a split is completely arbitrary: Kazakhstan’s economically based protests were deeply rooted in elite politics, where China has far less political leverage than Russia.
It is highly unlikely that China is not interested in elite politics and protecting its investments abroad. As of now, Beijing relied fully on national governments to protect Chinese businesses in Central Asia. However, such a model has long been malfunctioning. For instance, in the past few years, there were more than two dozen violent anti-Chinese protests in Kyrgyzstan. In 2019, anti-Chinese protests at one of the mines in Kyrgyzstan forced Chinese Zhong Ji Mining to fully halt its operations, while a year later anti-Chinese protests in Kyrgyzstan thwarted the prospects of a US$280 million Sino-Kyrgyz logistics hub.
That said, despite a long history of growing anti-Chinese sentiments in Central Asia, the January unrest in Kazakhstan still caught Beijing by surprise. Not only was Beijing uninformed, but Beijing lacked the expertise on the ground to pragmatically assess the situation. This was particularly evident in a verbal message delivered by Xi Jinping to Tokayev on January 7. While expressing condolences to Tokayev, President Xi stressed that China firmly opposes “color revolution” in the country that attempt to harm “China-Kazakhstan friendship and disrupt the cooperation between the two countries.”
Not only did this message come through late – by that time the Russian-led troops had already arrived in Almaty. But most importantly the message seemed to miss the point. While the protests in April 2016 and in September 2019 had strong anti-Chinese sentiments, the protests of 2022 had little to do with China and Sinophobia. This time, the motivating factors were tied to long simmering anger over corruption, nepotism, rising inequality, and economic hardships in the country.
We may only guess now but the arrest of Karim Massimov, the head of the National Security Committee of Kazakhstan and a high-profile figure in Kazakh politics, might have also sent shivers down the spine of those responsible for the Central Asian vector in Beijing. Massimov, who speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese, was viewed as a good friend of China. Now Massimov is in jail facing trial on charges of state treason.
In light of these developments, the statement issued by the Taliban appears to be even more utopian. The Taliban’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Fazilrabi Zahin published a statement that its government is "closely monitoring the situation in Kazakhstan” and "urges both the government and protestors to resolve issues through talks and peaceful means, and to return calm and stability to the country." China is already at a crossroads on how it should approach Afghanistan. Akin to Russia, Beijing also sought out the role of mediator in Afghanistan, and as in Central Asia Beijing sought to do that in a more subtle way as well.
Accordingly, it looks like these developments in greater Central Asia will foster some “soul-searching” in China. However, this does not assume Sino-Russian antagonisms. Instead, the unrest in Kazakhstan laid the ground for Sino-Russian reassessment of their engagement in the region, including a more granular understanding of Central Asian political intricacies.
What is clear though is that Russia still has an upper hand in Central Asian politics. Up until now it appeared that China was emerging as a much stronger player in Central Asia. However, the events in Kazakhstan demonstrated that significant economic presence may not be enough. The Kremlin showcased that Moscow still navigates well through the complexities of elite politics of Central Asia – something that China is still lacking.