The Kazakh crisis demonstrates an uneasiness in the relationship of convenience between China and Russia.


In an explosion of popular discontent, triggered by the hike of price in liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) against the government in a number of cities in Kazakhstan starting from 3 January,  President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a career diplomat handpicked by former President Nursultan Nazarbayev was forced to declare a nationwide state of emergency on 5th, invoke security provisions of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and invite Russian forces on the 7th for his political survival as the mobs went berserk and damaged many government buildings. With the presence of Russian troops, the order was restored by 7 January, but after the loss of 164 lives and several thousand injured and imprisoned. In a CSTO virtual summit on 10 January, Tokayev claimed that it was a coup d’état from within by the “terrorists and thugs” backed by hostile foreign forces. China as a major economic player in Kazakhstan, watched the development nervously and sent a “verbal message” on 7th that supported security crackdown and denounced intervention by foreign forces for provoking unrest and instigating “colour revolutions” in Kazakhstan. Why is China concerned about developments in Kazakhstan?

At the outset, it demonstrates an uneasiness in the relationship of convenience between China and Russia. Russia is very much aware of economic inroads China has made in the Central Asian Republics (CARs). In the last 30 years, China has replaced Russia as one of the most important economic players in the region. According to China’s Diplomacy in the New Era website, China’s trade at the beginning of the establishment of diplomatic relations with the CARs was only US$460 million, which in 2020 reached US$38.6 billion, and is expected to exceed US$40 billion in 2021. It could be gleaned that the increase is 100 times compared to the beginning of the establishment of diplomatic relations. As of now, China is the largest trading partner of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, the second largest trading partner of Kazakhstan and the third largest trading partner of Tajikistan. China has maintained a trade surplus with the CARs; in 2019, it was US$5.78 billion according Liu Huaqin in a paper entitled “Current Situation and Prospects of Economic and Trade Cooperation between China and Central Asian Countries”. The drivers behind this growth have been energy exports and other natural resources from the region including those from Russia.

Second, Russia is competing with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan for a share in China’s huge energy market. China has built A, B and C lines of the Central Asian natural gas pipeline, the Sino-Kazakhstan crude oil pipeline, the Sino-Russian crude oil pipeline, and the Sino-Myanmar oil and gas pipeline for its energy security. According to a report in the Global Times , by March 2020, China-Central Asia natural gas pipeline delivered 304.6 billion cubic meters of natural gas to China. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have been at the centre of this diversification strategy. The first investment China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) made in Kazakhstan was in 1997, when it purchased a 60.34% in AktobeMunaiGas. The CNPC AktobeMunaiGas (CNPC AMG) now owns five oilfields, two gas fields and one oil exploration block in Kazakhstan. Since then, CNPC has signed six more deals. Since all A, B, and C pipelines run through Kazakhstan, the disruption may affect China’s energy supplies. Therefore, the line D of the China-Central Asia Gas Pipeline, which is still under construction, will not pass through Kazakhstan and will enter China via Wuqia county in Xinjiang. Since Russia fears China taking undue advantage of its economic leverages in Kazakhstan and other CARs, therefore, by way of the Eurasian Economic Union that envisages to establish a unified market like the European Union, will give it a say in controlling and setting prices of the oil and gas trade between China and the CARs.

Third, China’s Belt and Road Initiative projects in Kazakhstan could also be perceived by Russia as security risks. Russia continues to use Soviet era Baikonur space station in Kazakhstan; one of Russia’s missile test sites, Kapustin Yar is partially located in Kazakhstan; besides Russia is also engaged in oil exploration and uranium mining in Kazakhstan. China too has been engaged in uranium mining in Kazakhstan; in summer of 2021, China’s CGNPC acquired for $435 million a 49% stake in a Kazatomprom. This is important as China wishes to quadruple its current nuclear power generation by 2035 in the face of its zero-carbon emission declared for 2060. China’s strategic depth in Kazakhstan could be gauged by the kind of investment it has undertaken there by way of its Belt and Road Initiative. Quoting Chinese Embassy in Kazakhstan, South China Morning Post reported amidst protests in Kazakhstan that between 2005 and 2020, China invested US$19.2 billion in the country, and 56 China-backed projects worth nearly US$24.5 billion are due to finish by the year 2023. Therefore, Russia’s willingness to use military force to defend its position in its backyard is understandable not only from the perspective of “colour revolution” where both China and Russia have unanimity of thought, but also from China’s inroads in the region.

Finally, the most feared thing by China is perhaps the “colour revolution” and mass protests in countries adjoining Xinjiang, especially Kazakhstan, where 224,713 Uyghurs are believed to reside, largest outside Xinjiang. An equally large number of Kazakhs numbering 326,000 reside inside Xinjiang. As of now, Kazakhstan’s position on Xinjiang has been somewhat ambiguous, however, there have been anti-China protests by Uyghurs and Kazakhs inside Kazakhstan intermittently as were witnessed in September 2021. Therefore, China is sensitive to disturbances in CARs like Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan and Tajikistan bordering Xinjiang. It is apprehensive of the domino effect these will have in tandem with the so-called forces of “three evils”, i.e., terrorism, separatism and religious extremism. From the history of general public outbursts in the CARs, it becomes clear that the binary of rural-urban divide, usurpation of power and wealth by the authoritarian rulers and their families, exploitation of national resources by outsiders, and the problematic leadership transition have been the root cause of such protests. Some of these reasons were responsible for the very collapse of the Soviet Union, which undoubtedly have been looked into by the leadership in China. Added to these, the pandemic fatigue, rocketing inflation and unemployment figures have exacerbated the situation. Though the demonstrations have been put down, however, as long as inherent structural issues are not addressed, similar outbursts cannot be ruled out in future.

B.R. Deepak is Professor, Center of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.