Kazakhstan Unrests and China Role in Central Asia security

Following the Kazakhstan unrests in early ۲۰۲۲ which erupted as a result of the liquefied gas, used by Kazakh cars, price doubling and leading to violent political and social demands in Almaty, two powerful neighbors of Kazakhstan, that is Russia and China, one in practice another orally, backed the country’s government against the unrests.
20 February 2022
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Somayyeh Mokhtari

Following the Kazakhstan unrests in early 2022 which erupted as a result of the liquefied gas, used by Kazakh cars,  price doubling and leading to violent political and social demands in Almaty, two powerful neighbors of Kazakhstan, that is Russia and China, one in practice another orally, backed the country’s government against the unrests. At the request of Tokayev, the Kazakh president, who had called the country’s mayhem a result of terrorist groups’ attacks, Putin deployed forces and military equipment in the form of the CSTO collective security treaty, along with other member states, and shortly managed to bring the protests under control and restore calm and stability to the country. China’s president instead, sent an oral message of solidarity with the Kazakh government in calming the unrests and condemned any foreign interference for creating color revolutions in Kazakhstan and stood by watching Russia’s actions in the country.

 According to the Kazakh president at the China and Central Asia Countries Meeting, China has so far invested $40 billion in Central Asia, almost $20 billion of which invested in Kazakhstan. Beijing has invested heavily in Kazakhstan’s oil, gas, uranium, transportation and transit and holds 24% of oil and 13% of gas in this country. China has $20 billion of annual trade exchange with this country (in the first 11 months of 2021, about $17 billion). The Central Asia’s natural gas pipeline, China-Kazakhstan’s oil pipeline and China-Russia crude oil pipeline run through Kazakhstan and the ambitious One Road, One Belt Initiative goes through this vast country. Therefore, apart from Russia which has traditionally had political, economic, strategic and geostrategic interests in Kazakhstan, this country’s eastern neighbor too pursues huge trade and economic interests in Kazakhstan. Also, the stability and security of Kazakhstan is of importance not only economically, but due to neighborhood with the autonomous Xinjiang province and the possibility of spread of unrests to this province that is incompatible with China. However, Beijing and Moscow’s reactions to the protests and unrest in Kazakhstan were different and it was Russia that took the initiative, due to its traditional presence in this region, and restored calm to the country, though not clear for how long.

But the question is if other powers, China included, are satisfied with restoration of calm to Kazakhstan? With $55 billion investment in Kazakhstan, the US openly aired its unhappiness with the Russian presence in this country, and also  the EU’s High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs stressed guarantee for security of civilians, and called for détente and stability of the country, but after a while, the EU parliament passed a resolution asking the world community to conduct an investigation into the massacre of civilians and reports of the Kazakhstan’s events, and asked the World Bank, the European Foreign Policy Service and the European Bank for Reconstruction to put on hold their programs until the government there improves human rights. It has to be mentioned that the EU has so far invested $160 billion in Kazakhstan.

 In contrast, China, in an open message, backed the Kazakh government’s actions in quenching the protests and the CSTO forces presence in the country and condemned any foreign interference aimed at a color revolution in the country. Following this position and China watching the Russian military presence in Kazakhstan, many said of Beijing happiness with the Russian presence in Kazakhstan to restore stability, and that China by accepting an economic role in the region has exploited the region’s stability without taking responsibility. In fact, some are of the opinion that there is an unwritten division of economic and security work between China and Russia in Central Asia. Central Asian people do not favor China, a matter well realized by the Chinese elite. The protests staged in 2016 against the Kazakh agricultural lands being rented and bought by the Chinese led to the enactment of an act banning sale and renting out of agricultural land to the foreigners, a matter until then not prohibited. Therefore, China is fully aware that it should not interfere in this country’s military and security affairs and should focus on softly advancing its economic goals, though the people of this region have a negative look towards China’s economic activity. 

 Will China acquiesce to a mere economic role? Fast collapse of an administrative apparatus , apparently strong and in the richest, most stable and advanced country of Central Asia, during which the law enforcement disappeared within hours from the Almaty streets shows fragility of security and stability in Kazakhstan and the other Central Asian countries. The economic problems, political demands, and conflict among the Kazakh elite are not limited to this country, and other Central Asian countries are prone to falling prey to such unrests. However, at a meeting with 5 Central Asian states which was held simultaneous with the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations, the Chinese president offered a variety of proposals in terms of economy, trade, transportation, energy, tourism (creating tourism platforms for promoting Central Asian tourism ), border control, and creating cultural and scientific centers and also stressed the increase of trade up to $70 billion with Central Asian countries by 2030, as well as opening his country’s borders on the goods produced in Central Asia. This is while since the outbreak of coronavirus, the Chinese borders have been restricted to Central Asian countries and the China-Europe transit route is the only active path.

 Xi’s promises and the Kazakh president, Tokayev’s trip to China at the invitation of the Chinese president to attend China’s inaugural ceremonies of the Winter Olympics, which was his first trip following the Almaty protests, sent the message China’s interests have remained intact and remain so in the short term. Despite warning alarms sounded by the Kazakhstan unrests for China, Beijing is still stressing continuation of investment and expansion of trade with central Asia. This strategy arises from two Chinese policies, first, China believes that by helping Central Asian countries and boosting trade and investment it secures not only its own economic and trade interests ,but  fosters these countries’ progress and economic development, resulting in the people dissatisfaction with their governments  dwindling and security and stability getting improved. This policy is generalizable to prevention of extremism, drugs trafficking and acts of terrorism. To China, many of the people who join the extremist and terrorist groups and drugs gangs do it due to economic reasons and social injustice, something China strongly believes in its Xinjiang province neighboring Central Asia. In the short and mid-term China cannot play a role in Central Asia’s security and has to move along the new security path created after the recent developments in the region.   

 Somayyeh Mokhtari, Expert of Eurasian Issues

    (The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)

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