by Paull Randt
There is a specter haunting Central Asia—the specter of China.
When I arrived in Kazakhstan last October on a Fulbright grant, I was curious about how China’s emergence as a global power looks to neighboring countries, where China’s rise presents even more urgent questions than it does for Americans. I found that many Kazakhs, from taxi drivers to CEOs, were eager to share their thoughts about this very issue. Some are sanguine about the prospects of Chinese investment in their country, but many more are afraid—afraid that China sees Kazakhstan as empty space into which it can expand.
A nation rich in natural resources, Kazakhstan is often considered the prize of the “New Great Game”—the notional post-Cold War contest between Russia, China, and the USA to establish (or re-establish) influence in Central Asia. For years, Kazakhstan has balanced the interests of these three competitor countries by pursuing a foreign policy it christened “multi-vectorism.”
But as Georgiy Voloshin suggests in the current edition of The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, growing political and social instability in Kazakhstan threaten to upset the multi-vector balance. Voloshin posits that China might become the dominant “vector” for Kazakhstan as a result of its rising economic influence. But based on my observations, Beijing can only play this role over the loud, and possibly violent, objections of many in Kazakhstan.
To be sure, Kazakhstan and China have enjoyed increasingly close relations in the last two decades. The two countries have conducted joint counter-terrorism exercises and appear to see eye-to-eye about how to deal with Islamic extremism. Furthermore, in 2011 China surpassed Russia as Kazakhstan’s largest trade partner. Kazakhs enjoy cheap Chinese goods, and China’s Yutong Bus Company supplies the municipal transport fleets for Kazakhstan’s major cities. China has also invested prodigiously in infrastructural links to Kazakhstan, including constructing oil and gas pipelines and major new roads.
So far, however, the lengthening of Beijing’s shadow across the steppe has lacked a corresponding “charm offensive,” giving rise to anxiety amongst Kazakhs about their potential absorption into China. This fear may in fact be fervent enough to curtail the growth of Chinese influence. Few other issues have elicited such demonstrable hostility from the Kazakh public as the threat of Chinese domination.
In 2010, thousands of Almaty residents protested their government’s alleged offer to Beijing of one million hectares of farmland on a long-term lease. Although this represents less than 0.5% of the country’s territory, Kazakhs saw the deal as a precedential breach through which a flood of Chinese laborers could pour. One opposition politician calculated that 15 million Chinese could fit on the proposed parcel of land. Kazakhstan has a population of only 17 million.
Though other rumors haven’t yet elicited corresponding protests, uneasy rumors are ubiquitous. At the bazaars, in shared taxis and over drinks, people tell me that China now directly controls over 50% of Kazakhstan’s natural resource wealth through opaque corporate structures and manipulation of public officials. Similarly, Kazakhs of all stripes see intermarriage between Chinese men and Kazakh women as a method for literally breeding the Central Asian nation out of existence.
A young Kazakh professional in the oil industry described the problem to me in simple terms: “There are a lot of them, few of us, and we have a lot of space.”
While sometimes melodramatic, Kazakhs’ fears are not entirely unfounded. Hard-line Chinese nationalist occasionally assert that any lands or peoples once part of the Chinese Empire still belong to China. According to this rhetoric, large parts of contemporary Kazakhstan annexed by the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century should be under Beijing’s rule. Moreover, because of a small Kazakh population in western China, Beijing already includes Kazakhs on the list of China’s recognized minority nationalities. By faulty reasoning, some Chinese therefore believe all Kazakhs are subjects of the Middle Kingdom. These arguments echo Beijing’s strategies for validating sovereignty over Tibet and Xinjiang.
Kazakhstan’s leadership goes out of its way to make its behavior hard to predict. One foreign policy analyst told me that there have been “two or three doctrines since multi-vectorism, but these are secret.” Outsiders have few ways of knowing along which vector the government will lead the country next, but one thing is clear: if Astana’s policies reflect popular sentiment to any significant extent, Kazakhstan will hold China at arm’s length. By the logic of multi-vectorism, this means China’s rise may actually propel Kazakhstan into the arms of Moscow or the West.
About the Author
Paull Randt is a Fulbright scholar in Almaty, Kazakhstan. He holds a Masters degree in Political Science from the University of Cambridge and speaks Russian and Chinese.