Kazakhstan: Putting out the fuse

Uwe Hoering www.beltandroad.blog 11. Januar 2022

The situation in Kazakhstan these days is rather obscure: Popular discontent and/or prelude to a ‘colour revolution’ and/or “foreign terrorists” and/or internal coup and/or ….? One thing, however, is clear: After Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan and other countries, they show once again how vulnerable China is. And the fossil economy plays a key role: Oil and gas remain explosive.

The crucial importance of Kazakhstan for China is shown by the fact itself that President Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road Initiative in Kazakhstan’s capital, then called Astana, in autumn 2013. The ninth largest country in the world in terms of area, with its majority Muslim population, is centrally located between Russia, other Islamic countries in the south and China, with which it shares a long border in the province of Xinjiang. It has considerable reserves of raw materials – and it has gained a certain independence from Moscow after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Reasons enough for Beijing to make it one of its most important energy suppliers and also to invest billions through rail links to Europe and the West-East Gas Pipeline.

Other building blocks in China’s efforts to reduce its energy dependence on domestic coal are the Power of Siberia gas pipeline with Russia, which came on stream in 2019, and the oil and gas pipelines that run through Myanmar to the Indian Ocean, whose strategic importance continues to grow as a result of the turmoil in Kazakhstan. Australia and the USA, both of which Beijing is at loggerheads with on economic and political issues, are now also among the important suppliers. Last year, China signed a long-term agreement to deliver Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from the US as part of the deal to balance their trade.

And Beijing is relentless in its search for more sources: A Siberian counterpart to the Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea pipeline is Power of Siberia 2, also from Gazprom, to pump 50 billion cubic metres of natural gas a year to northern China – though probably not until 2030 at the earliest. And coincidences do happen: A delegation from the Cooperation Council of the oil-rich Gulf States is visiting Beijing just as the turbulence in Kazakhstan is taking place, in order to win new customers. But Beijing has also reached a long-term agreement on economic and security cooperation with Tehran, the arch-enemy of the visitors from the Gulf states, which also provides for the supply of – logo! – oil and gas.

Entry of the big gun

With the mobilisation of CSTO, the Collective Security Organisation, the autocrats in Moscow and Kazakhstan are once again opting for the brachial solution. Russia is thus getting its big boot in the door again in the self-confident neighbouring country. At least in the short term, military presence is far more effective in exerting influence than, for example, support programmes for Russian, with which Moscow is also trying to score points in the country with a strong Russian-Christian minority.

Beijing too explicitly supports the position of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev with a statement by Xi Jinping disseminated by the state news agency Xinhua, the ‘Security Cooperation’ initiated by China, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), also offers an intervention in view of the ‘foreign interference’. Beijing would also like to see stability, not only because of the energy supply. Whether the fear of the “three evils” in the region – terrorism, religious fundamentalism and separatism – or of “colour revolutions” prevails or is justified is a moot point here – in any case, it is influential and determines the course of action. But because of the division of labour that so far exists, according to which China is the ‘bank’ that finances economic projects, Moscow the ‘big gun’ that is supposed to provide stability conducive to business, the Chinese government leaves the partner to take the lead – at least as long as the Russian bear demonstrates that it can guarantee stability.

This finely balanced structure of vested interests and spheres of influence is in danger of being destabilised by the protests that apparently started in early January with strikes in the oil industry. The developments are being closely watched in neighbouring countries like Kyrgyzstan, which has experience with overthrowing governments. Many people there also understand the intervention of the CSTO troops as a warning that they could be threatened with something similar if they revolt. It is becoming clear that stable authoritarian regimes can only exist at the price of a spiral of repression, in which China – nolens volens – may also have to participate.

Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)

See also: Tony Louthan, A ‘Bright Path’ Forward or a Grim Dead End? The Political Impact of the Belt and Road Initiative in Kazakhstan. Foreign Policy Research Institute / Asia Program, January 2022

See also: Saodat Olimova and Muzaffar Olimov, Security Policy in the Context of the “New Silk Road”: The Case of Tajikistan. Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, Dossier ‘The New Silk Roads‘, October 2021

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