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Adil Kaukenov: Relations between China and Kazakhstan under new geopolitical conditions

“China gives special importance to Kazakhstan, which at the moment, has become a key element for Beijing in its policies regarding the whole of Central Asia,” said Adil Kaukenov, a political scientist (Kazakhstan, Astana), in an article written exclusively for the CABAR.

The cooperation between Kazakhstan and China is very deep and diverse, which is due in no small part to the geographical factor, the need for mutual economic partnership and a high level of political cooperation, namely in the field of strategic partnership.
With such a complex nature of relations, the Kazakh-Chinese relations, on the one hand, have a high level of stability, on the other hand, they are exposed to various levels of factors of both bilateral and global format. The Eurasian Union, the Ukrainian crisis, the confrontation between Russia and the West, the terrorist threat and others have an impact on the complex of the Kazakh-Chinese cooperation.
Geography determines being
The factor of geographical location, perhaps, is the most obvious of all the factors affecting the relations between Kazakhstan and China, but, at the same time, it remains one of the most in-depth and influential based on a number of reasons.
First of all, the entire Central Asian region is of importance to China’s national interests. It is worth noting that China’s foreign policy has a clearly defined geographical priority, namely, the countries bordering China are the most important for the development of relations.
This is an understandable pragmatism: a belt of friendly states around the borders of any country makes it possible to maintain stability and not to participate in the border conflict. China, which is one of the leading trading nations, is interested in it like no other. It is evident that trade and investment do not like the roar of cannons. However, in light of recent events, it is clear that no matter how paradoxical, but achieving the harmony with one’s neighbors is a rather difficult task.
In the East, Beijing has a number of problems such as the Taiwan issue, the disputed Diaoyu /Senkaku Islands, Spratly archipelago, etc. Moreover, recent developments on the world stage clearly indicate that the geopolitical competition in the Asia-Pacific region is becoming increasingly fierce.
All of last year, under the banner of tightening rhetoric and provocations, the whole region faced tension – where military ships, using water cannons, tried to push the opposing side from the disputed areas. This is a very disturbing trend.
By the way, in the Asia-Pacific region, according to the Deputy Minister of Defense, Mr. Work, the United States intend to place 60% of its armed forces in 2020. Why would they build new military bases in key locations in the region?
Note that China has reacted quite harshly for this remark. Chinese experts emphasize that the US desire to change the balance in the Asia-Pacific region may lead to serious consequences.
But Central Asia is also of particular importance for Beijing, as it borders one of the most volatile regions of China: Xinjiang (XUAR). In this region where multiple terrorist attacks and inter-ethnic clashes occured, China is interested in stability in Central Asia, as the region’s instability could easily spill over into Xinjiang where violence is barely contained. After all, it is clear that in the case of the chaos in the region, such destructive forces as a terrorist organization “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” will take advantage of this opportunity to get into the region, and out of the region – to all the surrounding countries.
Kazakhstan, in this way, has a special role as it is one of the key states in the Central Asian region. Another regional key player is Uzbekistan, but it has no common border with China, so Kazakhstan is the focus of much attention in Beijing. This allows developing border trade, creating special zones, such as an international center for cross-border cooperation “Khorgos” (ICBC “Khorgos”), and investing in joint infrastructure facilities as roads and railways. But most importantly, the geopolitical interest of Beijing in peace on the western borders creates a favorable background for political relations between Kazakhstan and China.
The issue of common water
However, the geographical proximity dictates a list of problems. One of these most painful points is the problem of trans-boundary rivers. First of all, it is a problem of using the Chinese side tributaries of the rivers Irtysh and Ili. The rapid development of Xinjiang, an increase in its population, industrial and agricultural projects, naturally, causes the need for water. But the problem is that in Kazakhstan, in the basin of only the Irtysh River, there are about 2.5 million people, and there are a number of major cities such as Pavlodar, Ust-Kamenogorsk and Semipalatinsk.

Therefore, any plans for the construction of China’s waterworks or water drainage for reclamation of farmland cause understandable concern in Kazakhstan about the shallowing of rivers and reservoirs, which they feed. The death of the Aral Sea has demonstrated all citizens of Kazakhstan what the consequences of inattention to the shallowing of rivers could be.

But in addition to shallowing, there is a question about water quality, or to be more precise, the question about the pollution of trans-boundary rivers. It’s no secret that in China, due to the rapid development of the industry, there were serious problems with the environment. Man-made disasters can be a threat to the ecology of trans-boundary rivers. The most illustrative case happened in November 2005, when as a result of an accident at a chemical plant in northeast China’s Province Jilin, a tributary of the Amur River – Songhua River – was contaminated with benzene substances, which gave rise to a threat to environmental safety of settlements not only in China, but also in Russia. It is not surprising that Astana raises the issue of water at the highest level.

It should be noted that the problem of water resources is a global trend. Some experts predict that in the near future, drinking water will be one of the main resources for which not only local, but also regional conflicts would arise. In Central Asia, dispues about water, in principle, have become chronic. In this regard, the high level of the Kazakh-Chinese relations helps smooth out the sharpness of contradictions. There is a joint commission, measurements are being made, and ecological posts are being built. Also, during his visit to Kazakhstan in September 2013, Chinese leader Xi Jinping pledged that China will not use water resources to the detriment of Kazakhstan.

In general, the two countries do not translate the problem of common rivers into a deeply complicated matter, as this may interfere with another plane of cooperation – economic.

Economy at the forefront

Economic cooperation between Kazakhstan and China already has a fully shaped platform and has shown a tendency to intensify. So, if in 2013, according to Kazakhstan, the trade turnover totaled 22.5 billion USD, by 2015, the countries are planning to reach $ 40 billion USD. It should be noted that according to the Chinese data, during the same period, the turnover amounted to 28.5 billion USD.

Officials explain such a difference in the turnover by differences in the methodology of calculation, but some experts believe that the Chinese data also cover the “hidden trade,” which the Kazakh authorities do not take into account.

In any case, the figures are significant. In addition to increasing the number, Kazakhstan sets the task to improve the quality of trade for itself, i.e., is to increase the proportion of processed products.

But, of course, the energy cooperation is one of the locomotives. This is understandable, the energy in itself combines two components: economic and geopolitical.

The economic component is simple. China needs energy and is willing to buy it anywhere. Obviously, the closer the energy resources are, the lower the cost of its transportation, and hence the rates are more optimal. In addition, the energy sector allows China to deepen cooperation with a strategically important country, while gaining tangible benefits, as energy is a highly profitable industry.

The geopolitical component is the need to create a safe way to get energy resources. From the Middle East, China gets oil via tankers that pass through the Strait of Malacca, which the United States, its geopolitical competitor, can easily override. But even apart from the Strait of Malacca, sea transportation can become unsafe in case of worsening geopolitical struggle. If we recall the classical theory of geopolitics, the US and its Western allies are classic “sea powers,” while China is rather the “Rimland” if not part of the “Heartland,” i.e., for the most part, it is a land power.

Therefore, China is investing heavily in the Kazakhstani oil and gas deposits and pipelines, as well as transportation projects that will help it gain access to Azerbaijani and Iranian oil through Central Asia.

In addition, China is investing heavily in Kazakhstan, to which Astana, amid the global financial crisis, looks more than favorably. Since China is today one of the world’s largest investors, Kazakhstan is trying to use this situation.

However, such a close interaction gave rise to another problem. Kazakhstan industry simply cannot compete with Chinese industry, and therefore it could not get back on its feet after the collapse of the 1990s. In this regard, Kazakhstan’s accession to the Eurasian Union had a certain logic, on the one hand, to rely on a similar, but larger Russian market, on the other hand, due to the unification of customs barriers, to give more opportunities to Kazakhstan industrialists.

These expectations to some extent were justified: Kazakhstan’s accession to the Eurasian Union had a direct impact on economic cooperation with China. Moreover, at the meeting of Prime Ministers of the two countries Karim Massimov and Li Keqiang on December 14th, 2014, in Astana, it was announced that China would move a series of productions to the territory of Kazakhstan, first of all, the production of steel, glass and cement. This move is connected, to a large extent, with the desire of China not to stay away from the economic processes in the Eurasian Union. However, China is not a passive participant in the events in the region, especially taking into account that the events on the world stage, in particular, the Ukrainian crisis, have a major impact on the key actor in the Union – Russia. Beijing has de facto supported Moscow in its standoff with the West.

The winds of global change
The geopolitical storm had a direct impact on China’s vision of a Eurasian Union. Prior to the conflict in Ukraine and the sanctions standoff, the Chinese press was rather critical of prospects of the Union and pointed to the damage to Chinese manufacturers made by tariff barriers.
However, after the deterioration of relations between Russia and the West, there was a massive improvement in relations between Moscow and Beijing. In this context, an interesting trend should be noted in Russian-Chinese relations. In addition to high-profile contracts “Force of Siberia,” which, incidentally, as a result of falling energy prices, seem to be more optimistic than many skeptics expected. I would like to point out other aspects: namely, an agreement for the construction of a bridge across the river of Xiaoqing, discussion on deliveries to China of the newest missile defense systems S-400 “Triumph” (which are not deployed in all Russian military units), an agreement on the modernization of the RD-93C, the establishment of a joint long-range wide-body airplane, a helicopter joint construction project, the project of supplying a batch of Russian fighter plances of 4 ++ generation Su-35.
The Russian Ambassador to China Andrei Denisov very clearly spoke about the motivation to strengthen cooperation in an interview with a Chinese newspaper “Global Times,” which was released on January 19th, 2015. He responded to the question from Chinese Internet users about whether China should help Russia: “To those who think that Russia should not be supported, let’s ask a question: Do they agree with the fact that it would be good for China to stay alone in communication with the United States? This issue has, as we say, a geopolitical dimension. I am willing to ask Russian experts who say, “Why do we need China? We do not need to develop relations with China …”
These geopolitical and civilizational places of faults form a new reality. This process did not start today. Remember the popular work of Huntington “Clash of Civilizations.” But today, the contours of a new geopolitical reality have become visible more than ever.
And in this reality, the Chinese press started to very positively assess the Eurasian Union, in the first place, noting its usefulness for China, as a space in which there will be political stability and common rules of the game. Moreover, China has proposed to enhance the interaction between the Eurasian Union and the Chinese integration projects in Central Asia, thus, to establish cooperation with the SCO, as well as to consider the opportunities of the EEU in participation in the Chinese mega-project “Silk Road Economic Belt.”
Actually the “Silk Road Economic Belt” is already well correlated with the development program of “Nurly Jol” (Shining Path), launched by the President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2014, development of transport and infrastructure facilities, increase in transit and logistical capacity laid in both. Thus, there is a possibility of implementing some Kazakh projects through a regional project of the Silk Road.
Thus, Kazakhstan and China continue to strengthen their cooperation in all areas. The platform of this relationship has developed over the years of independence, accumulating a serious stabilization potential that even now, in the midst of crises in international relations and trade barriers of the Eurasian Union, has not had a negative effect. Rather, it has given positive dynamics in the development of the relationship. That is why China gives a special importance to Kazakhstan, which at the moment, has become a key element for Beijing in its policy regarding the entire Central Asia.
Adil Kaukenov, political scientist
Opinion of the author may not necessarily represent those of CABAR