Kazakhstan Is a Prize Coveted by China

While the world focuses on Ukraine and Taiwan, China makes inroads in Kazakhstan
May 24, 2022 Updated: May 24, 2022

Commentary

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan opened the door for increased Chinese pressure on Kazakhstan.

Communist China continues to make news in its outreach and attempts to corrupt various countries around the world. The purpose of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, also known as “One Belt, One Road”) is to change the dynamics of the world economy in favor of Beijing through a series of bilateral agreements with targeted countries that possess the resources and raw materials needed to fuel China’s industries.

To date, China has engaged in BRI-related investments in over 138 countries worldwide. The Russo-Ukrainian war brought to public attention that Chinese investments in Ukraine had turned the country into a BRI gateway to Europe.

The People’s Liberation Army and Navy (PLA/PLAN) are the flipsides of the BRI, with the PLAN, in particular, pursuing overseas bases ostensibly aimed at “protecting China’s sea lanes and commercial shipping.” The Chinese have operated a base on the Horn of Africa in Djibouti since 2017. There is much speculation that a Chinese logistics base will be opened in the Azores. And shocking the world, Beijing recently concluded a security agreement with the Solomon Islands that many observers believe could lead to a PLA/PLAN presence there.

But what about Chinese actions closer to home? While others fret about China and the United States clashing over the fate of Taiwan, the Spider Dragon’s pol-mil web is being woven tighter and tighter around many countries, even next door in Kazakhstan.

DOUNIAMAG-KAZAKHSTAN-TURKMENISTAN-RUSSIA-CHINA-TRADE
Workers load a shipping crate in the seaport of Aktau, Kazakhstan, on Aug. 14, 2018. (Talant Kusain/AFP via Getty Images)

China’s atheistic communist regime brooks no nonsense with Islam, even among its own citizenry of “foreign” descent (non-Han Chinese.) In particular, this applies to Kazakhs and other Muslims in the Xinjiang region. The Muslim-majority Kazakhstan government in Astana even intervened on behalf of Kazakhs from the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture being detained in detention/reeducation/concentration camps run by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Xinjiang in 2018.

The CCP’s ongoing persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang—and Uyghurs in particular—and the search for better economic opportunities have convinced many Kazakhs living there to emigrate to Kazakhstan in recent years.

Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked country, with approximately 19.2 million people. It was the last of the “-stans” to declare its independence after the fall of the USSR in 1991. Authoritarian roots run deep among its 131 ethnicities.

Kazakhstan has enormous oil and gas reserves, as reported by World Atlas: “Kazakhstan’s oil reserves are estimated to be the 11th largest in the world … [and] has more than 80 trillion cubic feet of proven natural gas.” In addition, the country has the second-largest proven uranium reserves in the world.

The Kazakh government has encouraged foreign development of its natural resources, with the Americans, Russians, Chinese, and others competing for these resources with the free-wheeling (and corrupt) Kazakhs. The result for the Kazakhs has been the creation of a well-developed economy and the subsequent modernization of its cities, including Astana (now called Nursultan). Check out some of the spectacular pictures of Astana’s and Almaty’s city architecture here and here. According to the World Bank, Kazakhstan’s gross domestic product was $170 billion in 2020.

In April 2018, Kazakhstan announced that it would permit the United States and NATO to use Caspian ports to supply forces in Afghanistan. The agreement enabled “NATO forces to substantially increase use of the existing Caspian Trade Corridor, by shipping through the Aktau and Kuryk ports on the Caspian Sea, completely bypassing Russia,” according to Breitbart News. The Kazakhs were keen to maintain a U.S. presence in the region to offset its aggressive neighbors in Moscow and Beijing.

Neither the Russians nor the Chinese were happy with that Kazakh decision. Both feared that Aktau and Kuryk would be turned into American military bases over time. China, in particular, was concerned because Kazakhstan and the “Caspian Corridor” are smack dab in the middle of the CCP’s grandiose New Silk Road, which is part of the BRI. And the CCP has been feverishly pursuing joint investment in Kazakhstan for years.

China has invested $27 billion in more than 50 joint industrial projects in Kazakhstan. It is no surprise that the main fields of cooperation are in the oil and gas, chemical, energy, mining, metallurgical, agricultural, and machine-building sectors. Resource-poor China is eager to access Kazakhstan’s natural resources—on the cheap, if at all possible, via BRI investments.

Epoch Times Photo
The KTZE-Khorgos Gateway Dry Port, a logistics hub on the Kazakh side of the Kazakhstan-Chinese border, is seen on April 15, 2019. (Abduaziz Madyarov/AFP via Getty Images)

However, Chinese concerns about American encroachment in Central Asia were premature. The debacle of the Biden administration’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan instantly created a geopolitical vacuum in Central Asia that the communist Chinese have been only too happy to fill.

The PLA Air Force sent aircraft almost immediately to Bagram after the United States abandoned the air base there. And according to an article by U.S. News and World Report, “The Chinese military is currently conducting a feasibility study about the effect of sending workers, soldiers and other staff related to its foreign economic investment program known as the Belt and Road Initiative in the coming years to Bagram.”

Note once again that where the BRI goes, the PLA follows!

The absence of a U.S. presence in Central Asia puts the squeeze on Kazakhstan, too, and the CCP is quickly putting on the squeeze.

On April 26, CCP mouthpiece People’s Daily trumpeted the news that Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and Chinese Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe publicly agreed to “strengthen military cooperation”: “Tokayev said Kazakhstan attaches great importance to the military cooperation with China and hopes that the two militaries will continue to strengthen practical cooperation in peacekeeping operations, joint exercises, personnel training, military technology and other fields.”

Will this lead to at least a token presence of the PLA in Kazakhstan? The pattern seems clear.

Hmmm. Military cooperation and improved readiness against what common threats?

The Chinese regime is persecuting Muslims (and Kazakhs) in Xinjiang. Will they cooperate on “joint anti-terrorist” operations aimed at Muslims? Not likely!

Is the common threat Russia? Russia is embroiled in a war in Ukraine, and besides, the Chinese and Russians are allies these days after the public announcement of their joint partnership agreement in February.

What about the United States? While there’s no secret that the CCP considers the United States to be its main geopolitical adversary, that view is not held in Astana. The United States has pulled out of Central Asia, and the Kazakhs don’t perceive America as a “common threat.”

On the contrary, Kazakhstan would prefer improved relations with and increased investments from the United States as a counterweight to Russia and China. But it seems clear that Kazakhstan is hedging its bets with “increase military cooperation” with China.

Concluding Thoughts

Kazakhstan’s natural resources—especially oil, natural gas, and uranium—are coveted by energy-poor China and others. As a result, the country is embroiled in a continuing geopolitical conflict and competition for access to and control of those resources in a remote corner of the world about which most Americans have only the slightest clue.

Rest assured, the deleterious effects of the hasty U.S. flight from Afghanistan have only just started being felt in Astana/Nursultan and other Central Asian capitals. The door is now open even wider for CCP exploitation via BRI investments in the region. And the CCP couldn’t be happier.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Stu Cvrk
Stu Cvrk retired as a captain after serving 30 years in the U.S. Navy in a variety of active and reserve capacities, with considerable operational experience in the Middle East and the Western Pacific. Through education and experience as an oceanographer and systems analyst, Cvrk is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, where he received a classical liberal education that serves as the key foundation for his political commentary.