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Beijing watches civil unrest in Kazakhstan cautiously

 |  Today Headlines

Beijing watches civil unrest in Kazakhstan cautiously

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TAIPEI — China has a lot to lose if the violence in Kazakhstan continues or turns into a civil war. For now, however, Beijing is largely sitting on the sidelines as Moscow, an ideological ally with whom it shares many goals in Central Asia, handles the more delicate task of quelling dissent in its oil-rich neighbor.

For the second time in six months, China is facing military unrest on its western border. And, like when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in August last year, Beijing is taking a wait-and-see approach, avoiding playing a leading role in a complex and uncertain geopolitical landscape where it lacks experience.

Here the stakes are much higher. China’s approximately 1,100-mile border with Kazakhstan is much longer than its narrow 47-mile border with Afghanistan, and the presence of a large ethnic Kazakh population in the Xinjiang region in northwestern China. China raises the specter of an overflow of sentiment.

Kazakhstan is also more critical of Beijing’s strategic ambitions in the region. When Chinese leader Xi Jinping first unveiled a first iteration of his sprawling infrastructure network, the Belt and Road Initiative, in 2013, he did so in the capital of Kazakhstan, then known as Astana.

Despite this, China’s response has been relatively low-key as Russia, the traditional hegemon in Central Asia, steps in to crush a wave of protests in a crucial link to Beijing’s attempts to project its economic and political might into the world. west across Eurasia.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and then Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2013.


Photo:

XINHUA / ZUMA PRESS

Xi offered verbal support to his counterpart, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, according to China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency on Friday, saying he “resolutely opposes outside forces deliberately creating unrest and inciting to a “color revolution” in Kazakhstan ”, referring to the demonstrations that erupted, including in Central Asia, in the early 2000s.

Xi praised Tokayev for being decisive and “taking strong action at critical times,” although he did not say whether those laudable steps included the invitation for Russian military intervention.

Wang Wenbin, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said Friday that “China supports all efforts which will help the Kazakh authorities to restore calm as soon as possible”, refraining from any commitment to intervene. The day before, Mr. Wang had called the unrest “an internal affair” of Kazakhstan.

While Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin have spoken of the threat to the authoritarian leader of Kazakhstan, this has yet to be made public. This has led analysts such as Sergey Radchenko, an expert on Russian and Chinese foreign and security policies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, to suspect that China and Russia do not have a clear consultative mechanism to resolve. crises like these.

“China has been completely excluded from this,” he said.

During the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last year, China and Russia scrambled to step up security efforts in the region, although there too it was Russia that sent greater military support in the region. China, meanwhile, has focused its efforts on summoning Central Asian countries to a dialogue through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Beijing-based security organization in the region that includes Russia among his members.

Beijing watches civil unrest in Kazakhstan cautiously

 |  Today Headlines

Oil pumps from the Uzen oil and gas field in Kazakhstan. Chinese companies account for around 17% of the oil extracted from Kazakhstan.


Photo:

PAVEL MIKHEYEV / REUTERS

Now Russia has chosen to act through another regional body, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which has dispatched to Kazakhstan a military unit made up almost entirely of Russian troops. China is not a member.

Despite China’s reluctance, the eruption of protests and Russian intervention risk causing unrest in Beijing. Kazakhstan sits just across the border from the resource-rich but troubled Xinjiang region of China, where authorities have waged a campaign of forced assimilation against Turkish Muslim minority groups that they say aims to eradicate religious extremism.

Beijing is keenly aware of the potential for foreign political and ideological influence in Xinjiang, and is likely alarmed at the rate at which anti-government sentiments have increased in Kazakhstan, political analysts have said. Ethnic Kazakhs, among the minority groups targeted in Xinjiang’s assimilation campaign, frequently cross the border.

Moscow and Beijing have been squabbling for influence in the region since the early days of the Mao Zedong era, when Chinese leaders feared the Soviet Union would attempt to annex Xinjiang. More recently, Xi made Kazakhstan a central node of the trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, his flagship foreign policy effort.

Niva Yau, senior researcher at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, said Russia’s actions could prove worrying for Beijing, which has likely already been caught off guard by the unrest.

“The danger for China is that Russia controls such an important transit and trade route,” she said. For China, Ms. Yau added, “the whole point of the Belt and Road [in the region] was a diversification away from great powers like Russia.

According to Ms. Yau, the worst-case scenario for Beijing would be for Moscow to take advantage of the situation to push Kazakhstan to allow the Eurasian Economic Union, a trade bloc of former Soviet states favored by Moscow to counterbalance the European Union, to impose tariffs. on oil and gas coming from and passing through Kazakhstan. Such a measure, which would apply to supplies from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to China, would aim to increase Russia’s influence over China’s energy purchases in Central Asia, she said. declared.

Beijing watches civil unrest in Kazakhstan cautiously

 |  Today Headlines

A cross-border road truck bound for Kazakhstan leaving China. The two countries share a border of approximately 1,100 miles.


Photo:

XINHUA / ZUMA PRESS

Chinese companies account for around 17% of the oil extracted from Kazakhstan, compared to 3% by Russian companies and 30% by US companies, according to 2019 estimates from the Carnegie Moscow Center. In 2020, Kazakhstan’s total trade with China was $ 21 billion, compared to $ 10 billion with Russia and $ 2 billion with the United States, according to figures from Carnegie.

Chinese state media have so far downplayed the likelihood of any disruption to Chinese projects in the country, while touting the ability of China and Russia to work together. “Russia and China will not allow the United States and the West to push Kazakhstan into long-term turmoil,” Hu Xijin, a prominent nationalist expert, wrote on Twitter.

China and Russia share many of the same goals in their mutual backyard, and Beijing could look to a Moscow-led intervention, however shocking at first, some analysts say. Both countries are eager to see US influence in the region diminish and are concerned about any spread of Islamic fundamentalism that could increase the prospect of terrorist activity.

“To some extent, Beijing recognizes that some support is needed to stabilize the situation,” said Raffaello Pantucci, senior researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “The Russians who stabilize the tillers may not be a bad result. “

After days of protests over fuel prices and declining living standards that turned into violent rallies and looting in some of Kazakhstan’s largest cities, health officials said 160 people have died. Photo: Pavel Mikheyev / Reuters

More generally, Western officials and defense experts believe Russia and China are collaborating more closely than they have in decades, especially on defense issues.

“People have been predicting the collapse of Sino-Russian relations in Central Asia for 20 years,” said Mr. Radchenko of Johns Hopkins. But “the fact that they gave each other freedom to maneuver over fundamental interests served to strengthen their relationship.”

For the most part, Russia has succeeded in retaining its historic role as guarantor of security in the states that make up the former Soviet Union. Meanwhile, Beijing has generally avoided any challenge to Russia’s dominance in the security arena, even though Chinese paramilitary forces have operated in Tajikistan, near the border with Afghanistan in recent years.

Meanwhile, Moscow has quietly tolerated China to increase its influence in the region through its investments in trade and infrastructure.

“It’s a matter of stability for now, but once that is achieved, the two powers can rekindle the competition for influence economically,” said Alessandro Arduino, a researcher at the National University of Singapore. In this area, he said, China has the upper hand.

Write to Chao Deng at Chao.Deng@wsj.com

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