Kazakh crisis: Russian intervention sidelines Beijing
by Emanuele Scimia

China is the main economic player in Central Asia, but Russia remains the dominant military power. However, over time Beijing may no longer be able to outsource its trade and energy security in the region to Moscow. Many Kazakhs see the Chinese as invaders and blast China for its repression in Xinjiang.

Rome (AsiaNews) – In view of recent events in Kazakhstan, cautious words have come from China suggesting that Beijing does not want to (or cannot) play an active role in the Central Asian country’s current crisis. “What is happening in Kazakhstan is its domestic affairs. We believe that the Kazakh authorities can properly resolve the issue,” said yesterday a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry.

The absence of any reference to the deployment of troops from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) is a sign of China’s unease towards Russia’s direct intervention.

Troops arrived today in Kazakhstan to help President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev quell anti-government protests. This was sparked by the start of unrest last Sunday, which spread across the country in the wake of a rise in the cost of living.

In addition to lower liquid gas prices, protesters also began to demand political changes in a nation dominated by elites linked to former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the strongman who ruled the nation since it became independent following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

CSTO autocracies like Russia, Tajikistan and Belarus (along with Kazakhstan, the other two members of the grouping are Kyrgyzstan and Armenia) fear that the Kazakh crisis may inspire riots at home.

The deployment of Russian troops to Tokayev ’s rescue confirms Moscow’s role as security kingpin in the region, despite the fact that China is now the real economic power in Central Asia. In the growing Sino-Russian geopolitical cooperation, the Kremlin has accepted to be China’s junior partner, but not in what it considers its Central Asian sphere of influence. At least formally, Beijing has not questioned this “division of influence”.

Since the 2013 launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi Jinping's infrastructure plan to turn China into the world’s economic hub, Chinese investments in Central Asia have outstripped Russia’s.

Despite a gradual decline in recent years, China has invested almost US$ 9 billion in hydrocarbon- and mineral-rich Kazakhstan (data from the China Global Investment Tracker). However, Beijing’s interests in the region risk creating friction with the Kremlin.

The pipeline carrying Turkmen gas to Xinjiang, in northwestern China, crosses Kazakh territory – Turkmenistan is China’s main supplier of natural gas. Beijing can be expected to continue to outsource its trade and energy security in Central Asia to Russian weapons, a situation that seems however unsustainable in the medium- to long-term.

Future territorial claims may also come in the way. In 2014 Putin said that Kazakhstan was an artificial creation of Nazarbayev; for their part, Chinese nationalist groups argue that traditionally China has exercised control over Kazakh territory.

Russia and China appear not to have quickly found common ground to deal with the Kazakh issue. Tokayev turned to Moscow and the CSTO, certainly not the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The latter is run together by the Chinese and the Russians, but is still a political forum rather than a Eurasian security mechanism.

In staying away from the SCO, Tokayev may have also taken into account Kazakh discontent vis-à-vis China. Beijing has been accused of sending more than a million Turkic-speaking Muslims from Xinjiang, Kazakhs included, to concentration camps that the Chinese authorities have described as “vocational training centres”.

In recent years protests have been reported in Kazakhstan against the growing presence of Chinese companies, considered major polluters of the territory. Nazarbayev, the first target of the recent riots, is seen as the main culprit for “selling out” the country to Beijing.