(This article by Iskander Akylbayev, the executive director of the Kazakhstan Council on International Relations, and Brian Y.S. Wong, the founding editor in chief of the Oxford Political Review, was published on May 4 on foreignpolicy.com. )
How the self-styled “Asian Geneva” successfully navigated among Russia, China, and the West—at least for now, Iskander Akylbayev and Brian Y.S. Wong write in an opinion piece published this week in Foreign Policy magazine.
Kazakhstan has always lived in an interesting neighborhood. Since the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991, the country of 18 million that ranks ninth-largest in area in the world has maneuvered its way between geopolitical heavyweights China and Russia, while also seeking to foster partnerships with the United States and the European Union.
Kazakhstan’s story highlights that for medium-sized countries, a pragmatic foreign policy that keeps all relevant parties happy could be the key to thriving. Despite being landlocked, Kazakhstan has found its niche in connecting trade and commerce from the eastern coastal regions of China with the lucrative, oil-rich regions of Central Asia, as well as the sprawling Siberian steppe to the north.
So what are Kazakhstan’s tricks, and how might they be replicated elsewhere?
Russia and China have long been the custodians of power in Central Asia. Kazakhstan is among the three states in the world that share borders with both, the other two being Mongolia and North Korea. From Kazakhstan’s perspective, both China and Russia have generally adhered to an established division of labor in Central Asia: Moscow primarily acts as the security guarantor, with its nuclear umbrella and military technology projected across the vast majority of Central Asia, while Beijing has taken up the goal of consolidating economic networks and interests in the region.
Yet that status quo has recently come into question as China has become more assertive in its regional security policy. In 2016, it signed an agreement with Tajikistan on counterterrorism, which enabled it to monitor the Tajik-Afghan border for insurgency and security risks. Alongside Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan, China also set up a counterterrorism cooperation initiative headquartered in Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang region. Increasingly, China has played an outsized role in the regional arms market as well—a sphere of influence traditionally viewed as Russia’s. Over the past eight years, China has significantly ramped up arms transfers to the region, gifting Kazakhstan 30 heavy-duty trucks and 30 large-load trailers worth $3.2 million in 2015 and selling the country eight Chinese Y-8 transport planes in 2018. A report last year revealed a significant increase in Beijing’s proportion of Central Asia’s military hardware, from 1.5 percent from 2010 to 2014 to 18 percent between 2015 and 2020.
On the trade side, China and Russia are both among Kazakhstan’s largest trading partners and have sought to deepen bilateral ties through security agreements and multilateral mechanisms, including the Eurasian Economic Union, a critical part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian vision for Russian regional influence, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Belt and Road Initiative on the Chinese side. Despite their divergences, both China and Russia share the view that Kazakhstan must not be co-opted into the American sphere of influence.
For its part, the Kazakh government strategically hedges between Russia, China, and actors beyond. Although the governments of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev and new President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev increasingly sought economic support from China and Russia alike, they also tried to retain close ties with the West as a means of offsetting the geopolitical ambitions of both of its neighbors. For example, the government has long been wary of taking explicit sides in unravelling relations between the United States and China, indeed courting former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in February 2020, to deepen strategic relations between the United States and Central Asian states under the “C5+1” framework.
A milestone on this front was the announcement of a new U.S. strategy for Central Asia (valid until 2025). Although the “new” U.S. vision for the region was not all that new, it was noteworthy for its resolve to consolidate the United States’ cooperative relationship with Kazakhstan. Such statements foreshadow increasing U.S. interest in the broader region, but also Kazakhstan’s role as a regional enabler of a continued U.S. presence there. Kazakhstan is widely viewed as a primary advocate of a gradual yet complete American withdrawal from the region, and it has sought to consolidate its own presence in the country with a combination of scholarships and supplies of critical commodities, such as wheat flour.