China’s Relations With Kazakhstan Are Warming, But To What End?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 43

Since Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev made an official visit to China in May, the number of exchanges between the two countries has increased remarkably. Never have bilateral relations been so close and so warm. On June 17, just a few days after his official visit to Beijing, President Nazarbayev used his trip to Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, to shake hands with his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao. In official accounts of the meeting, the Kazakh press pointed out that the neighbors have expressed their readiness to join efforts in fighting terrorism, drug trafficking, and religious extremism within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Yegemen Kazakstan, June 17). Nothing was said in these carefully worded comments about the existing political and economic differences between the two states. How would the Muslim population of Kazakhstan react if China chooses to crack down on ethnic Uighurs in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region under the guise of fighting religious extremists? Has China abandoned its long-standing claims for territory along its border with East Kazakhstan? The situation remains ambiguous.

On June 20 a Chinese Communist Party delegation, headed by Politburo member Li Chanchun, arrived in Almaty at the invitation of Kazakhstan’s “Otani” party. Since President Nazarbayev is the chairman of Otani, this visit was considered to be a continuation of the recent top-level contacts. On the first day of the visit, Nazarbayev received the delegation for talks focused on economic relations, extremism, and terrorism. Subsequent meetings between the Chinese communists and the deputy chairman of Otani, Aleksandr Pavlov, did not produce any sensational results. This dialogue focused on improving inter-party relations (Dala men kala, June 25).

Otani and the Chinese Communist Party have much in common, beginning with their ideological affinity. Despite its often-reiterated democratic slogans, Otani has won the unenviable reputation of being Kazakhstan’s most despotic political organization of the post-communist era, which cannot tolerate any degree of pluralism or any kind of multiparty system. Otani’s statements resonated with the Chinese communists. In an interview with to the Otani party newspaper, delegate Chao Jichen said that in China, “Only the Communist Party is capable of governing the people.” He then added, “As for the parties in opposition, I don’t think they can meet the expectations of the people” (Dala men kala, June 25). Otan also has never been enthusiastic about NATO’s eastward enlargement or the American military presence in nearby Uzbekistan. The new geopolitical situation has been reluctantly accepted as the inevitable outcome of the fall of the Soviet empire.

There are other indications of improving bilateral relations. Last year China stepped up its humanitarian aid to residents across the Kazakh frontier, following earthquakes and mudslides. Beijing also intensified China’s technical assistance for training and equipping Kazakhstan’s military and customs officers. Unlike the turbulent border between China and Uzbekistan, not a single shot has been fired across the Kazakh-Chinese border all these years.

Yet, China remains an enigma to Kazakhstan’s political experts. When the Shanghai Institute of International Studies and its Kazakh counterpart attended a joint conference on June 29 in Almaty, some participants declared that the true motives behind Beijing’s sudden rapprochement with the Central Asian states, particularly Kazakhstan, are fear of the American air bases deployed in Uzbekistan and Russia’s weakening position in the region. According to the director of the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies, Baiken Ashimov, China approaches its relations with Kazakhstan from a geopolitical perspective, stressing the political aspects over the economic, although China is also courting Central Asia because its own energy resources are dwindling (Khabar TV, June 29).

Experts believe that by 2010 China will have to import half of its oil needs. The annual consumption of oil in China is expected to rise to 400 million tons by 2020. China’s combination of rapid economic growth and urbanization may produce a worker exodus to neighboring countries, including Kazakhstan. Despite restrictive regulations on internal migration, some 12 million Chinese are already moving from villages to overpopulated cities every year (Megapolis, June 24). This bodes ill for Kazakhstan with its rich natural resources and vast swathes of scarcely populated territory five times the size of France. As the Chinese foreign minister commented to members of the Kazakhstan parliament, “We have 130 people per square kilometer, whereas you have only five” (Ak Zhol Kazakstan, June 11). Whether this observation was a casual remark or a veiled threat remains to be seen.