Why the Kazakhstan intervention benefits China as well as Russia

·5 min read

Russia's involvement in Kazakhstan is a reminder for Beijing that it is still reliant on Moscow to secure its interests in Central Asia.

But experts said China would benefit from the Russian action to quell the unrest and had no intention of taking a bigger share of responsibility for the security of the region which forms its southwestern backyard.

Some 2,500 troops under the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) alliance arrived in Kazakhstan last week to help quell the worst violence in the 30 years since the country's independence from the former Soviet Union.

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The CSTO's first intervention since its formation in 2002 was seen as a geopolitical triumph for Russia in Central Asia, as tensions with Washington mounted over its thousands of troops massed on the border with Ukraine.

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said on Tuesday "the main mission of the CSTO peacekeeping forces has been successfully completed" and their withdrawal would occur within 10 days.

The CSTO engagement was also backed by Beijing, which has expanded its influence in Central Asia in recent years, building strong economic ties in the region through its Belt and Road Initiative.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Monday that China was also seeking deeper coordination and cooperation with Russia against terrorism and foreign interference in the region.

Wang said the focus should be on cooperation between the CSTO and the China-Russia led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), whose members include Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and most recently Iran.

Since its inception in 2001, the SCO has focused on regional security issues - primarily counterterrorism - with intelligence sharing and military cooperation between member states.

Experts said the Russian deployment showed the rise of the Kremlin's role as primary guarantor of security for the Central Asian countries, while China's support highlighted the common goal of the two powers - a regional stability that benefits them both.

"Russia's influence in the security of Central Asia has always been much bigger than China's," said Yang Shu, an expert on the region's affairs, based at Lanzhou University before his retirement.

"Russia's position in maintaining the security of Central Asia has improved, the role of CSTO also improved. A win in the battle tells more than anything."

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While the SCO vowed last weekend to intervene in the Kazakhstan unrest if necessary, Yang said the bloc's options were limited compared with those of the CSTO.

"It is not realistic to expect too much of China's role in the security affairs of Central Asia, as the SCO lacks the toolbox to directly intervene. Nor does it have any provision allowing it to send troops into member states," Yang said.

He added that China had been strengthening anti-terrorism cooperation with Central Asian countries separately in recent years, conducting bilateral military exercises in addition to the SCO's annual Peace Mission counterterrorism drills.

But Beijing would be happy with Russia's engagement in Kazakhstan, Yang said. "There is no good for China to see a neighbouring country in unrest."

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The two powers traditionally have divided their spheres of interest in the area, with China responsible for economic matters and Russia focusing on security.

Chinese investment has now surpassed Russia's in almost all Central Asian countries and the region has been largely dependent on China for its economic growth in recent years.

According to data from China's Ministry of Commerce, direct foreign investment in the five Central Asian countries reached US$14.7 billion in 2018 - 1.2 per cent of all Chinese investment in Asia and 40 per cent higher than 2013's US$8.9 billion.

China invested US$19.2 billion in Kazakhstan between 2005-2020, according to its embassy in the country, with some 56 China-backed projects worth nearly US$24.5 billion due for completion by 2023.

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Danil Bochkov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, said Beijing's support for the CSTO's intervention in Kazakhstan showed the integrity of Russia-China relations and their division of economic and security responsibilities.

Zhu Yongbiao, a Central Asia affairs expert at Lanzhou University, said China was acting from its own regional economic and security considerations in its response to Russia's military engagement in Kazakhstan.

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But he said there could be uncertain prospects for future cooperation, with Moscow wary of Beijing's expanding influence in the region, and it remained to be seen whether Russia would accept China's proposal to coordinate between the SCO and CTSO.

"Will it continue to reject China's involvement in security issues in Central Asia, as it fears the expansion of China's influence there?"

Yang Jin, an associate research fellow at the Chinese Academy for Social Sciences' Institute of Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies, said China had no intention of expanding its military presence in Central Asia, and Chinese business expansion in the region was also not a headache for Russia.

"The economic cooperation has brought prosperity to the region, which is welcomed by regional countries and Russia will not reject [that], as it is unwilling to see [it come] from other powers," Yang said.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.