Trading Places: The Rise of China in Kazakhstan

Image: Richard Hagues via Flickr

The power dynamic in Central Asia is shifting due to Kazakhstan’s changing economic and cultural relations with both Russia and China. Historically, Kazakhstan has maintained close ties with Russia, underlined by substantial trade and cultural affinity. However, due to the war in Ukraine, Kazakhstan is moving away from long-standing Russian influence, and instead is turning their attention towards China. The burgeoning economic relationship marked by the high level of trade between Kazakhstan and China has led to an effort to strengthen cultural ties between the two nations, marking a change in the orientation of cultural policy, which has traditionally been more aligned with Russia. Nonetheless, the attempts to improve cultural ties between Kazakhstan and China have observed limited success.

Kazakhstan and Russia have long been close allies due to their shared border, common history and language, and economic cooperation. Following the invasion of Ukraine, Russia increased trade with Central Asia, especially with Kazakhstan, to maintain the inflow of necessary imports after the West imposed sanctions. However, despite these economic interactions, Russia’s war in Ukraine has damaged political relations. The Kazakh government demonstrated their disapproval of Russia’s invasion when vowing to strengthen energy supplies in Europe. This move came at a critical juncture when Russia was aiming to use their significant role in supplying energy to Europe to gain leverage and curb support for Ukraine. Kazakhstan’s decision is indicative of their ability to exert economic power independently of Russia and their evolving role on the global stage.

Moreover, China and Kazakhstan have developed a significant trade relationship, largely influenced by their geographical proximity and complementary economic needs. In 2013, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) launched the New Silk Road Economic Belt as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For China, Kazakhstan is a vital part of this project due to its geographical positioning between Europe and Asia. Moreover, China’s fast-growing economy necessitates a wealth of natural resources, which can strategically be found in bordering Kazakhstan. In 2021, Kazakhstan exported $10.6B worth of goods to China, the primary products being refined copper and crude petroleum. In turn, Kazakhstan benefits from China’s strong global economic position and the influx of Chinese investments, which contribute to its economic development and infrastructure group. 

However, there is an uneasy disparity between the Kazakh government’s encouragement of economic cooperation and the population’s hostility towards China. There are apprehensions among the Kazakh population about the potential exploitation of Kazakh natural resources, and that Chinese investment could render Kazakhstan dependent on their eastern neighbour. A more sensitive issue is the treatment of ethnic Kazakhs in China’s Uyghur camps. These concerns have manifested in a series of demonstrations in Kazakhstan, with twenty-three separate protests, motivated by anti-Chinese sentiments, between January and June 2021 alone.

Despite these internal pressures, Astana does not criticise Beijing publicly. A prominent human rights lawyer in Kazakhstan stated; “Our government doesn’t want to spoil relations with China. Chinese investment is important, and any information or activism that can damage that is extremely sensitive to the Kazakh government.” 

In this way, the Kazakh government puts its desire to sustain and nurture the economic benefits derived from Chinese investment above the placation of domestic demands, such as the protection of citizens from Chinese Uyghur camps. Interestingly, secret negotiations with Beijing have secured the release of some Kazakhs, indicating that the Kazakh government does not disregard their citizens entirely. However, the lack of transparency and public acknowledgement of these efforts undermines the significance of these negotiations and highlights the diplomatic power of Chinese investment and the Belt and Road Initiative.

Contrary to common fears and misconceptions amongst the Kazakh population, the BRI has not caused a worrying ‘debt trap’ for Kazakhstan. In 2020, China was Kazakhstan’s fifth largest creditor, and overall, their debt to China has decreased. Furthermore, Kazakhstan’s ‘Bright Path’  five-year development program has been aligned to the BRI, which demonstrates the strengthening of cooperative ties between the two countries.   

However, despite these economic benefits, Kazakh public opinion towards China remains largely unfavourable, exemplified by the frequent protests against increasing Chinese economic activity in Kazakhstan. Beijing, recognising the need for public support to expand its political-economic ties and increase investment in Kazakhstan, is seeking to improve its image amongst the Kazakh people. One of Beijing’s key strategies has been the promotion of cultural exchange through the establishment of numerous Confucius Institutes, which provide linguistic and cultural education in Kazakhstan.

Kazakh politicians have also acknowledged the importance of learning Mandarin, which highlights their support for fortifying cultural ties in the context of Kazakhstan’s evolving relationship with China. In 2016, Dariga Nazarbayeva stated that “China is our friend, our trading partner and the biggest investor in the economy of our country… in the near future, we will all need to know Chinese.” She argues that all Kazakh children should learn Chinese as well as Kazakh, Russian, and English. Nazarbayeva’s advocacy for studying Mandarin emphasises that China’s economic role in the country is a driving factor for the promotion of Chinese culture.

Moreover, the growing economic relationship has sparked a notable enthusiasm amongst the Kazakh population for studying Chinese. This interest is endorsed by Kazakh businesses, which recognise the importance of learning Mandarin as bilateral trade between the two nations reached a record high of US $24B in 2022. The enthusiasm for learning Mandarin was evident in 2020 when Kazakhstan had one of the highest figures of students studying abroad in China, at around 15,000. Notably, studying in China does significantly alter the perception of Chinese presence in Central Asia. A study involving interviews with Kazakh students who had studied in China found that those with first-hand experience in China tend to reject claims of a Chinese threat to Kazakhstan, and instead are in favour of Chinese investment. They are wary of becoming too economically dependent on the PRC, although admit that governmental mismanagement, and not Chinese motivations, is the root of any overdependence. However, despite the positive shift in perception amongst students and the business community, the issue of wider anti-Chinese sentiment amongst the Kazakh population has not diminished.

Notwithstanding the efforts to incite support for China from both the Kazakh and Chinese governments, anti-Chinese sentiment in Kazakhstan seems unlikely to subside. Cultural initiatives and educational exchanges have had some impact, particularly amongst the younger generation and those who have studied in China, but these measures have only partially addressed the wider hostile sentiment. Sinophobia is deep-rooted in Central Asia due to widespread Soviet propaganda during the Sino-Soviet split, and historical disputes about the Xinjiang region.

Nevertheless, in spite of the persistence of Sinophobia across Central Asia, the Kazakh government welcomes economic cooperation with China. Astana and Beijing have formed political relations on the foundation of their economic interests, which will not be swayed by public opinion. This is most evident in the Kazakh government’s muted response to domestic opposition to the treatment of ethnic Kazakhs in Chinese Uyghur camps. Astana’s reluctance to publicly criticise Beijing shows the extent to which the Kazakh government prioritises prosperous economic relations with China, even if it means sidelining humanitarian considerations. Furthermore, Sino-Kazakh relations are only likely to get stronger considering Russia’s weakening position on the geopolitical stage. Beijing is taking advantage of Russia’s fading influence in Kazakhstan to assert their economic dominance, and Kazakhstan is embracing China as it seeks alternatives to its historical reliance on Russia.