Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 75

Kazakh Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev traveled to Beijing April 11-13 for a wide range of talks with top Chinese officials on energy, transportation, communications, trade, and trans-border rivers issues, a long-running sticking point in bilateral relations.

Considering the complexity of problems in relations with Beijing, despite the invariable protestations of friendship at bilateral summit talks, the Foreign Ministry of Kazakhstan apparently had good reasons to postpone the visit to China, originally scheduled to take place from February 26 to March 1. Tokayev’s trip included advance work ahead of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s upcoming visit to Beijing, planned for this autumn. According to some observers Tokayev succeeded in eliminating several major hurdles on the road to the Beijing summit. The Kazakh foreign minister wrested a pledge from the chairman of the Chinese State Council, Weng Ziabao, to work “in a constructive manner” on the settlement of problems involving the Irtysh and Ili trans-border rivers “taking into account the long-term interests of the two states and the importance of keeping the ecological balance and using water resources rationally for the benefit of the peoples of the two countries” (Izvestiya Kazakhstan, April 14). For many years Astana has been nervous about Chinese plans to build dams to divert the waters of the Irtysh River for irrigation purposes, which could cause devastating water shortages in three wheat-growing regions along the river in Kazakhstan.

Tokayev and Chinese Foreign Minister Lee Zhaoxin stated that Kazakhstan and China have no differences in the political sphere, and they take similar stances on international issues. One member of the State Council of China, Tang Ziaxiuan, went even further, saying that China’s policy towards Kazakhstan as a key state in Central Asia is based on “the long-term strategic interests of China and not on an ad hoc approach” (Izvestiya Kazakhstan, April 14).

The Kazakh Ministry of Economy and Mineral Resources recently announced plans to export electricity to China. Beijing and Astana are reportedly contemplating the construction of a hydroelectric power station in the coal-producing town of Yekibastuz in North Kazakhstan on the Irtysh River. The power station, with the projected ability to deliver 7,200 megawatts of electricity to China, is designed to become the most powerful electricity-generating installation in the Commonwealth of Independent States. Experts fear that the coal-fired power station may turn into an environmental disaster for the region, although the largely foreign-owned coal-producing companies of Yekibastuz seem to welcome the project. What attracts China seems to be low transport costs for coal, yet the coal contains a high level of poisonous substances and gives off heavy amounts of coal dust. Yekibastuz, with a high incidence of cancer, is among the most polluted cities of Kazakhstan. While the power station’s economic benefits for Kazakhstan are highly questionable, the country would acquire another environmental headache if the project were built (Novoye pokoleniye, March 31).

The decision to export electricity to China comes at a time when Kazakhstan itself is facing the grim prospect of electric power shortages in the western and southern parts of the country in the next five or ten years. West Kazakhstan and Aktobe regions entirely depend on high-priced Russian supplies of electricity. But Astana is keen on upgrading its power network with Chinese help, irrespective of the environmental and political costs of the dubious enterprise.

Another problem relates to migration. Civic movements in Kazakhstan have long voiced concern over the uncontrolled inflow of Chinese into the country under the guise of labor migration. Some estimates say that over 100,000 illegal Chinese immigrants currently live in Kazakhstan and seek Kazakh citizenship. China expert Aisha Kozhabekova believes that it is no longer possible to stem the tide of the Chinese migrants; therefore, the government must adopt a policy to integrate the Chinese already settled in Kazakhstan into Kazakh society. They should encourage cultural and ethnic assimilation, and employ the Chinese as a cheap labor source in agriculture and other sectors where the workforce is scarce (Sayasat, January 30).

Migration from China was one of the issues discussed during Tokayev’s visit to Beijing. The Kazakh foreign minister expressed concern over the prospect of the Chinese population in border areas reaching 300 million in the next 15 years. “But despite some fears, there is no alternative to cooperation with China. It is a matter of national security for Kazakhstan,” he told journalists somewhat evasively (Kazakhstan TV, April 13).

China, hungry for new energy resources, places a priority on building a gas pipeline from Kazakhstan and an extension of the Atasu-Alashankou oil pipeline, as well as a planned high-voltage power line from North Kazakhstan. The Kazakh government has earmarked 50 billion tenge for the reconstruction of Aktogay-Dostyk railway line on the border with China and mapped out the development program for a Dostyk railway station, which should facilitate increasing the volume of cargo shipments to China. Tokayev was probably right when he said that a strategic partnership with China is more than just words on paper.