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What Kazakhstan’s Crisis Means For China

Former Kazakh President Nazarbaev (left) is seen with presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China (right) at a military parade. (File photo)
Former Kazakh President Nazarbaev (left) is seen with presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China (right) at a military parade. (File photo)

As an unprecedented wave of protests swept Kazakhstan and spiraled into violent unrest, China remained largely muted about the crisis unfolding in the Central Asian country with which it shares a 1,782 kilometer border, saying it was an internal affair that it hoped would soon stabilize.

It wasn’t until Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev gave a defiant, menacing speech on January 7 in which he blamed the violence on alleged “terrorists” trained abroad and said security forces were given a shoot to kill order to suppress protests that Beijing finally weighed in, with Chinese President Xi Jinping offering his support for Toqaev’s efforts to put down what Beijing deemed a “color revolution” in Kazakhstan.

“At a key moment you took resolutely effective measures, quickly restoring calm,” Xi told Toqaev, according to a readout of their conversation published by Chinese state media. “China opposes any foreign forces to plot 'color revolution' in Kazakhstan.”

While China has thrown its support behind the embattled Toqaev, analysts say Beijing’s reaction toward the fast-changing crisis in its oil-rich neighbor points to its measured approach to the region as a whole, where China has rigorously pursued its economic goals and often found itself navigating the interests of another one of Central Asia’s influential neighbors: Russia.

In the face of unrest that has taken on evolving dimensions, from popular protests sparked by fuel prices and long-simmering political resentment, to violent riots and infighting within Kazakhstan’s political elites, as well as intervention by Russian troops, Beijing has moved cautiously and walked a supportive but somewhat distant line behind Toqaev and the Kremlin.

People look for their detained relatives at a detention center in Shymkent on January 10.
People look for their detained relatives at a detention center in Shymkent on January 10.

“China understands that it doesn’t have the power to influence the situation in the same way as Russia and it also doesn't want to get too entwined,” Temur Umarov, an expert on China in Central Asia at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told RFE/RL. “Beijing has a pragmatic approach towards this crisis and, for them, the most important thing that they want is to see Kazakhstan become stable again.”

A Crisis Next Door

Central Asia -- and Kazakhstan in particular -- has seen an expansion of Chinese influence in recent years, with Beijing fostering deep economic ties with its neighbors.

In Kazakhstan, China has invested tens of billions of dollars, primarily into its lucrative energy sector, and used the country as a launching-pad for the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi’s signature infrastructure and foreign policy project.

But despite its strategic interests and growing influence in the country, Beijing has largely observed events at a distance, such as the arrival -- at Toqaev’s request -- of Russian troops in Kazakhstan under the guise of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

While Russian forces in Kazakhstan have focused on securing airports and other strategic sites instead of suppressing protests, Moscow’s intervention to prop up Toqaev is seen as part of a longer-term play by Russian President Vladimir Putin to build even deeper loyalty to the Kremlin and boost Russia’s influence across the region, potentially at the expense of China.

Beijing and Moscow have increasingly warm ties with one another, but Central Asia -- where Chinese investment and security interests have begun to erode Russian influence -- has been seen as a potential area of competition between the two countries.

Umarov says that while the swift intervention of Russian forces in Kazakhstan may have caught China off guard, Moscow’s moves are not seen as unwelcome by Beijing.

“This idea of a rivalry between Russia and China in Central Asia is overestimated right now,” Umarov said. “If the CSTO mission can be successful and support Kazakh forces, then China doesn’t have a problem with this.”

Part of that acceptance may be that the arrival of Russian troops has officially taken place through the CSTO at the Kazakh government’s request, rather than a unilateral move by the Kremlin.

Belarusian troops arrive at an airfield in Kazakhstan as part of the CSTO mission on January 8.
Belarusian troops arrive at an airfield in Kazakhstan as part of the CSTO mission on January 8.

Kazakhstan has a large ethnic Russian population concentrated along its northern border with Russia and the arrival of Russian forces in the country has led several observers to draw parallels with past military interventions by Moscow, such as its 2014 annexation of Crimea. While much is yet to be seen, the CSTO has said its mission has a limited time frame and, so far, Russian forces have seemingly played a minimal role.

“If Moscow intervened on the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians, that would ring alarm bells in Beijing,” Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at London's Royal United Services Institute, told RFE/RL. “But the justification for the mission is that Toqaev went to Putin for help. China can live with that so long as it delivers stability at the end of the day.”

The View From Beijing

The reaction inside China to events in Kazakhstan has been quiet, but slowly coalesced around supporting the Kazakh regime in the face of alleged and unnamed foreign threats.

Initial comment on the unrest came from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on January 6 that events in Kazakhstan were an internal affair and that Beijing hoped for order to be restored.

Early coverage in China’s tightly-controlled state media was measured and focused narrowly on the status of Chinese investment in Kazakhstan, primarily in the energy sector.

But that changed following Xi’s January 7 talks with Toqaev.

Since then, coverage has shifted to Chinese offers of economic assistance to the Kazakh government and the threats posed by terrorism in the country, which the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a China-led regional security bloc, said it was ready to help Kazakhstan oppose.

There is no indication that the crisis in Kazakhstan has any external origin, but those remarkable claims have been echoed by several Chinese commentators.

Zhu Yongbiao, a professor for the Research Center for the Belt and Road Initiative at Lanzhou University, told the state-run Global Times that the SCO could help Kazakhstan deal with foreign threats, while Pan Guang, the director of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies Center at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, warned about the risks of terrorism to the Chinese news site

“Will terrorist organizations such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement be encouraged by the Kazakh riots? The situation is indeed unpredictable,” Pan said, referring to a Uyghur extremist group that Beijing blames for attacks in its western Xinjiang Province.

Stability Now, Then What?

As protests in Kazakhstan turned violent, with some saying they had been hijacked by organized groups, Toqaev blamed the crisis on foreign elements and called demonstrators “a band of international terrorists.” This language has since been adopted by Russia and later Beijing.

“Initially, China was quite silent about what was going on,” said Pantucci. “Only after this narrative of foreign interference was locked in publicly by Toqaev and then by Russia did Beijing start to run with it as well.”

A similar level of apprehension has been extended to what appears to be a battle for control raging within the Kazakh government between Toqaev and forces loyal to Nursultan Nazarbaev, the country’s former long-time president who still maintains sweeping authority.

In a bid to consolidate power, Toqaev has since removed Nazarbaev from his position as head of the influential Security Council and moved against other Nazarbaev loyalists. Nazarbaev’s spokesman claimed on January 8 that the former president had voluntarily given up his council seat to Toqaev.

On January 8, Karim Masimov, the former head of the National Security Committee, Kazakhstan’s domestic intelligence agency, was detained on suspicion of high treason. Several other officials were also detained, the security agency said in a statement.

According to the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Umarov, Beijing has “no desire to be involved in elite infighting” in Kazakhstan and only made its positions clearer after the Kremlin had thrown its support behind Toqaev and the beleaguered president signaled he intended to stay in power.

“China was able to wait and see,” Umarov said. “Beijing knows that whoever would be in power would have to work with China because it’s too powerful economically to be ignored.”

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

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China In Eurasia
Reid Standish

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