Sino-Kazakh Relations: A Nascent Strategic Partnership

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 21

While the Chinese authorities make a point of honoring the establishment of cordial relations with all five Central Asian states, Kazakhstan enjoys a unique status. Since 2005 the China-Kazakhstan partnership has been termed a “strategic” one, the highest of diplomatic epithets, confirming that Astana is considered a major political ally by Beijing in the post-Soviet space, and all the more so at a time when the Kazakh government is displaying balanced and diversified policies in the face of Moscow’s heavy-handed presence. However, despite this obvious confluence of political will, strategic cooperation remains tentative: while the Sino-Kazakh economic partnership functions well, the strategic alliance continues to be impeded due to differences of opinion and of interests, and, on the Kazakh side, uncertainty about the long-term ambitions of its Chinese neighbor toward the region as a whole.

The Driving Force of the China-Kazakhstan Partnership: Economic Cooperation and Energy

The Sino-Kazakhstani privileged partnership is based on a multifaceted economic reality: China-Kazakhstan trade represents more than two-thirds of all trade between China and Central Asia, and this trade is booming, having tripled between 2002 and 2005. According to experts from Kazakhstan, bilateral trade is expected to reach 15 billion dollars in 2008 (, June 24). In the years to come, this trade will be further strengthened by Astana’s entry to the World Trade Organization (WTO), since this will enable Chinese companies to invest further in Kazakhstan. For Astana, the future of economic relations with China can only be a bilateral one: Chinese economic activity in the multilateral context of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is considerably greater in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan than in Kazakhstan.

Energy stakes make up a key element in the China-Kazakhstan partnership. The Chinese strategy for the purchase of oil fields is influenced by Beijing’s late arrival to the Kazakh market, and thus China can only acquire sites of relatively marginal importance. In spite of this handicap, China has invested in fields in the Aktobe region and near the Caspian Sea (AktobeMunayGas and the offshore Darkhan site) in order to establish some presence the energy sector of Central Asia. China is also involved in more isolated fields that are advantageous due to their location along the route of the Sino-Kazakh pipeline (North Buzachi, North Kumkol, and Karazhanbas). In less than a decade, Chinese companies have successfully entrenched themselves in the Kazakh energy market (in 2006, China was managing approximately 24 percent of Kazakh oil production), mainly by accepting the Kazakh authorities’ requirement that the state firm KazMunayGas be associated with all activities.

The general Chinese strategy is to connect all acquired fields along the Sino-Kazakh pipeline (presently under construction), which will connect the shores of the Caspian to the Dostyk/Alashankou border post. The first section, which links the Kenkiyak field to Atyrau, became operational in 2003; and the second section, connecting the pumping station and railway terminal in Atasu, in the Karaganda region, to the Dostyk/Alashankou station was opened in May 2006. The third and last section, which runs through central Kazakhstan, is to be completed in 2011, thereby increasing the pipeline’s global export capacity to 20 million tonnes per year. The pipeline will thus secure about 5 percent of the total volume of Chinese oil imports, a figure that could double after work is completed to increase the flows.

China is also interested in the Kazakh gas market. In spite of a challenging regional situation, Sino-Central Asian gas projects will be finalized in the years to come as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have agreed to jointly sell their gas resources. In 2006, the Kazakh authorities signed an initial gas pipeline construction agreement with the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). In July 2008, Beijing and KazMunayGas signed a second agreement for construction and operation of the Kazakh section of the natural gas pipeline (Interfax China, August 4). Beginning on the right bank of the Amu-Daria, it will cover only 180 kilometers on Turkmen soil before crossing the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan border, and will run for more than 500 kilometers across Uzbekistan and for nearly 1,300 km across Kazakhstan before reaching Xinjiang via Shymkent and Khorgos. Scheduled to be operational by the end of 2009, it will have a capacity of 30 billion cubic metres (bcm) per annum, with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan each supplying a third [1]. The overall cost of the project will be seven billion dollars, a demonstration that Beijing has no hesitation in raising the stakes when it comes to energy matters. But the prospect of China-Kazakhstan gas cooperation is not limited to these 10 bcm: the possibility of extending the pipeline’s capacity so that it can carry a share of production from the immense site of Karachaganak has been mentioned regularly, causing concern for Gazprom.

Beijing also has great interest in Kazakhstan’s considerable uranium resources and hydroelectric potential. But this economic relationship is not based solely on the export of raw materials from Kazakhstan to China. In August 2007, during a visit by Hu Jintao to Astana, a program for bilateral cooperation in economic sectors not related to raw materials was signed, complemented by a Memorandum of Cooperation for the following three years (2008-2010) [2]. In April 2008, this program was launched at the Chinese-Kazakh businessmen’s forum by Kazakhstan Prime Minister Karim Masimov. The stakes are considerable for the Kazakh economy, since it must be careful to avoid over-specializing in the export of raw materials and must maximize the growth of its technology acquisitions from China.

Limited Military Collaboration

While economic relations are developing rapidly, military cooperation between both countries remains more tentative. Officially, the Sino-Kazakh strategic partnership signed in 2005 makes provision for the development of military cooperation. In addition, the new military doctrine that Kazakhstan adopted in 2007 signals a high level of interest in developing its strategic partnership with China.

There is also a declared interest to develop Sino-Kazakh military cooperation in the multilateral framework of the SCO. However, in order to avoid becoming a supranational organization that impinges on the sovereignty of its members, the SCO has not developed a military structure. Unlike the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) of the CIS, the SCO does not, for example, become involved in the sale of military equipment to member states. The SCO does not conceive of itself as a military defense alliance like NATO, nor does it seek to create military units or a multilateral police force. So, although the SCO does engage in many issues relating to security, they are mostly confined to declarations of intention. Despite the discourse promulgated by the General Secretary and the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), there is an obvious lack of coordination among member states, not to mention a limited desire to exchange information, extremely minimal financial means, and a weak bureaucratic structure. In the key sector of the fight against terrorism, RATS could not be said to be a kind of regional Interpol.

Collaboration between the Chinese and Kazakh armies takes place principally during the multilateral operations organized by the SCO and the CSTO, such as the Peace Mission undertaken in Cheliabinsk in summer 2007 [3]. Nevertheless, the Kazakh authorities openly continue to give priority to the Russian-dominated CSTO of the CIS, and Russia does not want China to acquire any of its advanced military material. Even though Astana has since 1997 received more than 50 million RMBs of Chinese aid in communications technology and jeeps, and hopes to obtain free transfers of decommissioned military assets from China, it still continues to buy most of its weaponry from Russia. Moreover, most of Kazakhstan’s military cadres are trained in Russian academies: from the 1990s until 2005, Beijing trained no more than a total of 15 Kazakh officers. Considering relations between Kazakhstan and China, this exchange is minimal, but because of their poor level of proficiency in Chinese, training larger numbers of Kazakh officers in China is difficult. Moreover, Astana’s military modernization program is designed to meet Russian criteria and to improve prospects of interoperability with NATO in line with the Planning and Review Process, which leaves little room for China.

On the bilateral level, some information suggests that the Kazakhstan National Security Service has stepped up the monitoring of Uyghur militants based in Kazakhstan and has increased intelligence exchanges with China on this issue. It also seems that the Kazakhstan Defense Ministry is particularly interested in the Chinese Special Forces, who are trained for antiterrorist operations [4], even though Russia’s FSB also provides Astana with specialized training in this area. Sino-Kazakh strategic cooperation seems destined to increase in the sector of cross-border security as well. Indeed, since 2008 both countries have undertaken joint operations to counter drug traffickers, who cross the border clandestinely, especially at Usharalsk in the Almaty region. Within the next few years, both countries hope establish a bilateral system for border control to facilitate cooperation between Chinese and Kazakh custom officers. Although the China-Kazakhstan border posts are not the main point of passage for opium coming from Afghanistan (which mostly passes through Tajikistan and Turkmenistan), large amounts of acetic anhydride, the chemical precursor used to turn opium into heroin, are trafficked across the China-Kazakhstan border [5].

Kazakh experts specializing in relations with China express reservations, and even scepticism, about the real scope of military cooperation. A survey conducted by Adil Kaukenov, the director of the China Center at the Institute for World Economics and Politics in Almaty, revealed that only 20 percent of surveyed experts are convinced that Beijing will become a major player in Central Asian security. This is compared to the 44 percent who think that Beijing will not be able to achieve anything, at least in the short term [6]. Kaukenov’s survey also reveals that most Kazakhstani experts consider that, in the case of serious political destabilization in the country, the only partner that would be really willing to accept the political and financial burden of a military intervention—and that also would have the material means to do so—is Russia [7]. They believe it is improbable that there will be any attempt made by the Chinese armed forces to establish themselves in Central Asia under the auspices of the RATS, widely seen as an empty shell with virtually no efficacy [8]. Several experts have also expressed direct concern about Chinese military power. For instance, although there is no information available on this issue, many of them expressed their belief that the Chinese secret services are already well established in Central Asia [9].

When the security aims are clearly defined, as in the case of the fight against drug trafficking, the cooperation between China and Kazakhstan is clearly more effective, since it is more concrete and the security organs of both sides demand it. In more traditional military sectors, however, it seems that Kazakhstani officers are still very tentative about cooperating with Chinese military personnel. However, military cooperation between the two countries, though still minimal, is destined to have a major long-term impact: with the military sector being by definition one of the most sensitive domains of national security, military contacts between China and Kazakhstan, which are still in their infancy, are facilitating the development of doctrinal dialogue and the mutual discovery of foreign military traditions. In the years to come, this is bound to facilitate increased understanding between Chinese and Kazakh security structures.

The Ambiguities of the Sino-Kazakh Partnership within the SCO

Beijing and Astana are in agreement as to the security threats that weigh on their countries. The Kazakh authorities, for example, are appreciative of Chinese concern regarding the Islamist threat in Central Asia, in particular the development of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT) in Uzbekistan and southern Kyrgyzstan. Both countries also supported the common SCO declaration, made during the Dushanbe summit held at the end of August 2008, to strengthen ties with Afghanistan, rightly perceived to be the greatest threat to stability in the region. Nevertheless, although Kazakh diplomatic circles have agreed to adopt China’s expression “the three evils” (separatism, extremism, terrorism) in jointly issued statements, a number of Kazakh politicians and experts speaking off the record express concern about Beijing’s approach toward the Uyghur question. For instance, Venera Galiamova at the Institute for World Economics and Politics states that the Chinese refusal to listen to any autonomist demands, even cultural ones, can only help radical separatism take root [10]. Konstantin Syroezhkin, one of the leading Sinologists in Kazakhstan, draws attention to the fact that the national minorities of Xinjiang are mostly unable to gain access to higher education, whereas the Hanizication of the local economy and administration is developing fast, providing potential fuel to numerous interethnic conflicts [11]. He believes that Chinese policy is leading the Uyghurs to interpret Islam as an ideology of national liberation [12].

Although a unity of opinion generally prevails in the SCO, this has been partially undermined by Moscow’s recognition of South Ossetia’s and Abkhazia’s independence. The Russo-Georgian crisis has had the unintended effect of exposing the intrinsic weakness of the SCO, which, despite the apparent discourse of unity, sometimes must deal with the contradictory national interests of its members. For instance, even though the Chinese authorities have always denounced American interference in post-Soviet space, they have refused to support Moscow on the sensitive question of separatism, since this would compromise their position on Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang (China Brief, September 3). Kazakhstan, for its part, has remained rather silent on this issue. Astana seems to have understood Moscow’s lesson and has reconsidered the privileged relations it has hitherto maintained with Tbilisi. Kazakhstan, for instance, has announced that it will abandon projects to build a grain terminal in the Georgian port of Poti and oil refineries in Batumi, which is doubly bad news for an already weakened Georgian economy. The conflict seems thus to have reduced the flexibility of Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states vis-à-vis Russia. It may well leave its mark in the Central Asian capitals and could make them more hesitant about defying Moscow.

Other bilateral and multilateral issues also present problems. The question of cross-border water resources alone is a major consideration of Sino-Kazakh relations. Many Kazakh experts believe that China’s attitude on this issue is indicative of the low regard in which it holds Astana’s legitimate ecological and industrial concerns (China Brief, May 16, 2007). Bektas Mukhamedzhanov, the director of the International Institute for Modern Policy in Almaty, an officially recognized center of expertise for the SCO, has regularly raised this issue of cross-border rivers and portable water management during meetings devoted to such questions, but has had no visible success in convincing Chinese authorities [13]. Kazakh authorities have not hesitated to criticize Beijing’s refusal to fast track the collective management of water. Yet, Tashkent, Bishkek and Dushanbe, who have themselves been unable to present a unified position, all emphasize that this issue could lead to an interstate conflict.

It is also worth recalling that attempts to expand the SCO’s mandate, particularly in the economic domain, generally produce disagreements, with China on one side and Russia and Kazakhstan on the other. In 2002, Beijing proposed that the SCO be made into a free-trade zone. Encompassing 1.5 billion individuals, it would be the largest free-trade zone in the world. Nevertheless, like Moscow, Astana has expressed concerns about such a prospect. It argues that free-trade zones can only work when the countries involved have the same economic levels, much as the countries of Central Asia. Instead, the Kazakh authorities emphasize the need to develop economic ties in specific sectors (for example, the implementation of a transport corridor between China and the Caspian Sea via Russia and Central Asia, export agreements for electric energy, the development of structures designed to coordinate trade, and the transit of hydrocarbons between SCO member states). Nonetheless, given the discrepancy between Kazakhstan and China in terms of development and growth, leaders in Astana fear that Kazakhstan could be transformed into a Chinese economic protectorate.

Lastly, the question of opening the SCO to new states is also problematic. Though Astana and Beijing agree that admitting Iran would undermine their relations with the United States, and that neither India nor Pakistan ought to be able to join the SCO without having first joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Kazakhstan is, by contrast to Beijing, opposed to enlargement more generally. Granting membership to new regional powers would no doubt lead to the development of an internal hierarchy between “large” and “small” members, which would in turn reduce the role of Kazakhstan, currently the SCO’s third largest power.


Sino-Kazakh strategic cooperation has many challenges ahead, principally due to the historical lack of relations between the Chinese and Central Asian worlds, and also due to the continuing predominance of Russia, which is making good use of its historical legacy to shore up its military partnership with Kazakhstan. Nevertheless, even though advances in Sino-Kazakh military cooperation are limited in concrete terms, not to mention their diverging views on the role of the SCO, China has managed to impose itself on the Kazakhstan worldview, a feat it has achieved in less than two decades. The dynamism of economic relations between the two countries, as well as their shared awareness concerning common threats, will most likely strengthen the idea that a strategic partnership between Astana and Beijing is a necessity.


1. “Kazakhstan”, Country Brief Analysis, Energy Information Administration,
2. Gulzharan Khadzhieva, “Kazakhstan i Kitaj: strategicheskie podkhody k ekonomicheskomu sotrudnichestvu” [Kazakhstan and China: strategic approaches to economic cooperation], in Marlène Laruelle, Sébastien Peyrouse (eds.), Tsentral’naja Azija-Kitaj: ot geopolitiki k partnerstvu [Central Asia – China: from geopolitics to partnership], Almaty: KISI, 2008.
3. R. N. McDermott, “The Rising Dragon. SCO Peace Mission 2007,” Jamestown Occasional Paper, Jamestown Foundation, October 2007.
4. R. N. McDermott, “Kazakhstan’s Emerging Security Ties With China,” Central Asia and Caucasus Analyst, 05 September 2007,, consulted 20 October 2008.
5. “Precursor Control on Central Asia’s Borders with China,” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, Vienna, no date of publication.
6. Venera F. Galiamova, Adil S. Kaukenov, “Aktual’nye voprosy razvitiia kazakhstansko-kitaiskikh otnoshenii” [Current Questions concerning the Development of Sino-Kazakhstani Relations], Kazakhstan v global’nykh protsessakh, no. 1, 2006, p. 107.
7. Askar Abdrakhmanov, Adil Kaukenov, “Otnosheniia Kitaia i stran Tsentral’noi Azii glazami kazakhstanskikh ekspertov” [The View of Kazakhstani Experts on the Relations between China and the Countries of Central Asia], Kazakhstan v global’nykh protsessakh, no. 3, 2007, pp. 119-129.
8. Venera F. Galiamova, Adil S. Kaukenov, “Aktual’nye voprosy razvitiia kazakhstansko-kitaiskikh otnoshenii”, op. cit., p. 117.
9. Interviews with Kazakhstani experts on China, Almaty, February-March 2008.
10. Venera F. Galiamova, “Etnicheskii separatizm v Sin’tsziane: sostoianie problemy i perspektivy” [Ethnic Separatism in Xinjiang: State of the Problem and Outlook], Kazakhstan-Spektr, no. 1, 2004, pp. 9-15.
11. Konstantin L. Syroezhkin, Problemy sovremennogo Kitaia i bezopasnost’ v Tsentral’noi Azii [Problems of Contemporary China and Security in Central Asia], Almaty: KISI, 2006, p. 141.
12. Konstantin L. Syroezhkin, Mify i real’nost’ etnicheskogo separatizma v Kitae i bezopasnost’ Tsentral’noi Azii [Myths and Realities of Ethnic Separatism in China and Security in Central Asia], Almaty: Dajk-Press, 2003, p. 299.
13. Interview with Bektas Mukhamedzhanov, Almaty, March 5, 2008.