By Justin Cheung
For China and Russia, Central Asia has long been viewed as a unique opportunity for trade and geopolitical expansion. However, both Russian and Chinese involvement in Central Asia has historically faced hurdles due to the tremendous distance that separates the steppes from the Russian heartland and from China’s more populated Eastern shores. In the last several decades, however, a shift in the foreign policy of these two nations has redefined the role of Central Asia on the global stage.
On one hand, Chinese policy has seen the development of the much hyped “One Belt, One Road” policy of Xi Jinping – a plan to build and extend new Chinese trade routes through Central Asia, the Caucasus, and into Europe. Kazakhstan, in particular, is an important economic corridor for the One Belt, One Road. Furthermore, Kazakhstan’s role as the preeminent Central Asian military power means that the construction of a Sino-Kazakh cooperative security architecture is likely at the top of Beijing’s policy priorities. Such an agreement would provide important protection for its economic routes and ensure the presence of a critical buffer against any threats of Russian encroachment. This plan is beginning to take shape, best evidenced by October 2015 talks between Kazakhstan and China over bilateral security. On a superficial level, this highlights a blossoming military partnership between the two nations. On a more critical level for China, successful diplomacy in Kazakhstan has implications in the solidification of important power projection into the heart of Central Asia, an expansion of its sphere of influence which would be untenable without regional Kazakh support.
On the other hand, Russia’s relationship with Kazakhstan is uniquely defined by deeply engrained Soviet influences. This has meant recent diplomacy between the two nations has been to Russia’s benefit. In recent years, Russia has looked to Central Asia as a viable economic option to assuage some of its financial woes imposed by western sanctions and the volatility of global markets. Most noteworthy, the formation of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which includes Kazakhstan, has been a key pillar of Russian policy in the region and insures both a relatively stable diplomatic and economic relationship with Central Asia’s largest economy. Moscow hopes to maintain active defense agreements closely linked to the former Soviet Republics against the growing threats it faces from myriad forces abroad. This has been evidenced by a recent “gift” from Moscow to Astana of Russian S-300 missile defense systems.
While it is safe to say that Kazakhstan has maintained both stable and friendly relationships with its two powerful neighbors, recent events foreshadow an imminent Russia-China power play for Kazakh influence that will likely reshape the intricacies of the region’s geopolitical balance.
A shooting in the Kazakh city of Aktobe on June 5th has raised concerns about President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev’s ability to quell growing resentment his administration faces. The shooting came at a time of social upheaval for Kazakhstan. Recent protests over land reform legislation, which began in April, highlight a surprisingly outspoken resistance to some of the Nazarbayev administration’s policy choices. The Aktobe shooting has served to confirm Nazarbayev’s fears that the protests, whether they are actually linked to the shooting or not, have evolved into open violence in what had been a relatively stable autocracy. The extent of the popular discontent has visibly worried Nazarbayev. In a recent speech he warns of a color revolution in Kazakhstan, a deeply rooted fear among the heads of state of many former Soviet republics.
The threat of instability in Kazakhstan has arisen at a critical moment for her two largest neighbors: China and Russia, both of which have been investing heavily in the region for security and economic purposes. Both stand to lose tremendously should the current autocratic structure under Nazarbayev collapse. While this is unlikely given the tremendous political capital that Nazarbayev has and continues to wield, concerns still remain over the 76 year old president’s longevity and the question of succession in a post-Nazarbayev world. As seen recently with the death of Islam Karimov, the former president of Uzbekistan, regime change (or even the threat of it) in a region with an abundance of “lifetime presidents” presents as an opportunity to gain political leverage but also as a threat to existing partnerships. This will mean that in the coming months, both China and Russia will be shaping their Central Asian policies with a heightened sense of prudence and opportunism.
The political instability which has led to evident worrying on the part of Nazarbayev presents itself as a keyhole for both China and Russia to further their leverage in Kazakhstan. Simply put, it is likely that Nazarbayev will seek to consolidate his power and in doing so may seek increasingly close partnerships with strong neighbors both to support his administrative grasp and also to deter challenges to his authority. This diplomatic opportunity is likely to widen the stage of a 21st century Sino-Russian Great Game as both nations vie for the opportunity to expand their geopolitical influence.
For Chinese diplomacy in particular, the specter of Soviet rule still hovering in the region has long undermined many attempts to effectively make tangible strategic and economic gains in Kazakhstan. This makes the instability in Astana particularly crucial for China’s concerted efforts at economic growth and power projection. Prying Kazakhstan from Russian influence may not necessarily be the ultimate goal of Chinese Central Asia policy, but a weakening of the Kremlin’s grasp in Kazakhstan will undoubtedly be a welcome sign for China’s rapidly developing commercial interests in the region.
Both Russia and China have recently struggled with economic downturns and, to combat them, have implemented economic plans whose success relies heavily on the cooperation of the Central Asian states. A diplomatic victory in Kazakhstan brings with it the promise of a renewed and robust role in reshaping regional and global markets. Thus, it is safe to say that Russia and China will be watching the events in Kazakhstan, as well as each other, very carefully.
Justin Cheung is a student in Stony Brook University’s 8 Year BE/MD Engineering Scholars for Medicine Program. During the summer of 2016 he was a research fellow at the National Institutes of Health's Vaccine Research Center. He has been published in Soft Matter and ACS Macro Letters and has also written previously for The Diplomat’s “China Power” section, focusing on the role of railroads in Chinese power projection in Central Asia. His interests include public health policy, cross-strait relations, and shifting power balances in East and Central Asia.