China’s Expansionist Policy Toward Kazakhstan Takes a New Turn

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 209

Chinese President Hu Jintao and Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2009. (Xinhua)

In a bid to expand its presence in Central Asia in geopolitical competition with the US and Russia, China seems determined to use every available means ranging from the energy sector to intensifying its military cooperation within the framework of bilateral “strategic partnership” programs. One of the new areas of cooperation between China and Kazakhstan includes joint environmentally friendly energy projects.

On November 11, Kairat Kelimbetov, the head of the state-controlled Samruk Kazyna National Welfare Foundation of Kazakhstan and Liu Shen Da, the Director of the Chinese Datang Overseas Investment Company, signed a joint memorandum on cooperation in the development of renewable energy projects. Since 2008, Datang Investment Company has considered the possibility of constructing wind power stations in Kazakhstan. The Chinese lost no time over the last two years. They installed masts on the Shelek mountain corridor in Almaty region and brought in turbines and practically completed a considerable part of the work. According to Samruk Kazyna National Welfare sources, Datang Investment Company is currently working on a coal gasification project in Kazakhstan and on equipping power stations with gas generators. Officials from Samruk Kazyna believe that apart from its environmental advantages, clean energy technology developed in cooperation with China will help create jobs and opens up new investment prospects (Panorama, November12).

In recent years, China has made a significant shift from major pipeline projects to more diverse forms of cooperation with Kazakhstan, including the acceleration of trans-border trade and environmental projects, and in the banking sector. In November 2010, Kazakh entrepreneurs were invited to the International Central Asian Exhibition of Export-Oriented Goods which took place in Yining, Xingjiang Uighur Autonomous Republic (XUAR). Kazakh companies signed with their Chinese partners business contracts amounting to 90 million tenge ($600 000). Although the sum is comparatively small, the political importance of trade in Uighur and Kazakh-populated regions bordering with Kazakhstan is hard to overestimate for China.

Jia Jin Li, the Chairman of the All-China Committee of the People’s Political Consultative Council, in an interview with the Kazakh press said that last year XUAR’s GDP grew by 14 percent year-on-year. In the same period the per capita income in Xingjiang increased by 11.9 percent. Chinese educational authorities this year increased the quota for students from Kazakhstan by 200 (Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, November 9).

According to China’s General Customs Board, the bilateral trade volume with Kazakhstan from January to September this year reached $14.7 billion, or a 51.8 percent increase year-on-year. Kazakhstan has been flooded with cheap and poor quality Chinese goods. China’s trade expansion in Kazakhstan seems to be a part of a long-term economic policy aimed at gaining a firm foothold in the fierce competition with other players in Central Asia, mainly Russia and the US. The total volume of Chinese financial activities in Central Asia, including direct investments, credit money and acquired assets has already reached $18 billion (Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, April 27).

On the surface, the current state of trade and political relations with China, including the military partnership, closer cooperation within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) seem to be favorable for Kazakhstan. But it is an open secret that each member-state within these organizations pursues its own interests, often conflicting with those of other partners. The 2002 agreement signed on the demarcation of the 1,780 kilometers border between China and Kazakhstan helped China to raise its security and stem Uighur separatism in Xingjiang close to Almaty region in Kazakhstan with its sizable Uighur population and any possible incursion of extremist militants from Central Asia. For the purpose of its own security, China regularly initiates joint military exercises with its partners within the SCO, most recently in September the SCO Peace Mission 2010 was staged in Kazakhstan with a clear anti-terrorist dimension.

China expert Konstantin Syroyezhkin in Kazakhstan’s Institute of Strategic Studies points out the hidden dangers resulting from a short-sighted approach to relations with China. Syroyezhkin warns that the rapid development of road infrastructure in Central Asia with Chinese participation may be used by China for the deployment of its troops in Central Asia in case of a serious conflict threatening the security or strategic interests of China. Given the growing presence of China in Central Asia, Syroyezhkin does not rule out the direct involvement of China in settling future conflicts in the region (Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, November 9).

Also, with the tacit approval from the authorities, Chinese researchers openly demonstrate their claims on some border regions of Kazakhstan, “disputed territories’ in Chinese terminology, according to Syroyezhkin, including a vast territory of 0.5 million square meters from the actual Chinese border up to the southern shores of the Lake Balkhash in central Kazakhstan, as indicated on a map printed as a supplement to school textbooks in Shanghai in 2002 (Panorama, November 12).

Among other stumbling blocks between China and Kazakhstan are the long-disputed problems of trans-border rivers, and the growing number of illegal migrants from China. Kazakhstan is increasingly feeling uneasy about the relentless rise of its eastern neighbor.