Kazakhstan crisis shows Russia still trumps Chinese power in Central Asia

For years, Russia and China have had an unspoken division of labor in the Central Asian region both of which consider their strategic backyards: Moscow provided security oversight while Beijing helped develop economies of the region.

This month’s uprising in Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s largest economy, reaffirmed that Moscow’s security primacy remains unchallenged, despite China’s growing military might and Beijing’s recent attempts to expand its own security footprint.

Russia sent thousands of troops to Kazakhstan hours after President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s request on January 5. By then, the immediate crisis was over and Mr. Tokayev’s grip on the country was no longer in jeopardy.

China has invested tens of billions of dollars in Kazakhstan and the rest of Central Asia, much of it in the oil, gas and minerals sector, over the past decade. The region is crucial for Beijing’s global ambitions: it was during a visit to Kazakhstan in 2013 that President Xi Jinping announced the precursor of his signature “Belt and Road” initiative. Of all the leaders in Central Asia, Tokayev has the greatest personal affinity with China: speaking Mandarin, he began his career as a Soviet diplomat in Beijing.

Russian military vehicles bound for Kazakhstan waited to be loaded onto planes at an airfield in Russia on Friday.


RU-RTR Russian television / Associated press

Yet China, for now at least, lacks the military or intelligence capabilities to protect its regional allies when they need it. “China lacks the kind of tools that Russia has, like airborne troops who speak a language the locals understand and who are ready to fly and help,” said Alexander Gabuev, a Chinese expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “These Russian paratroopers are defending the economic interests of China,” he added. “They protect a secular, pragmatic and friendly regime led by a fluent Chinese-speaking Sinologist.”

Yet this overt deployment of Russian troops to Kazakhstan has also highlighted new risks for Beijing and may end up spurring China to compete with Russia on regional security in the years to come, Chinese expert Dean Cheng said. to the Heritage Foundation think tank.

“The Chinese are certainly going to have to start reassessing the vulnerability of their economic investments,” he said. “Before, they had the economic assets and could play them and probably influence local governments in their favor. Now, they must think of a security aspect that can weigh against this: Chinese investments now operate at the discretion of Russian military forces.

Beijing’s security assistance to Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries will likely be limited to areas where China excels at home, such as surveillance technologies, facial recognition systems, and screening equipment. communications that could nip future events in the bud.

“China is ready to work with Kazakhstan to strengthen cooperation between law enforcement and security services, strengthen bilateral cooperation against external interference, maintain the political system of the two countries and the security of power. policy, prevent and thwart any attempt to incite “color revolutions,” ”Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Monday.

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

Kazakhstan, alongside the small Central Asian states of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, is joined with Russia, Belarus and Armenia in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the post-Soviet version of the Warsaw Pact under the auspices of which Mr. Tokayev ensured the Russian military intervention.

Another regional group, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes Central Asian states, Russia and China, does not have a similar military framework, although its members exchange intelligence and conduct joint training against terrorism.

In recent years, China has deployed its People’s Armed Police to remote areas of Tajikistan that link Afghanistan to its western region of Xinjiang, and has increased the supply of arms to several countries in Central Asia. Russia has a much larger military presence in Tajikistan, especially since the Taliban took control of Kabul last August, and maintains troops in Kyrgyzstan as well.

Although all of the Central Asian states are to varying degrees suspicious of Russia, their former colonial power, China is generally viewed with even greater distrust. While no Central Asian government has dared to openly criticize Beijing for its crackdown on Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in Xinjiang, it is an issue that resonates with public opinion, especially in Kazakhstan.

The country is home to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uyghurs who have migrated from China since the 19th century and have also resettled more than 100,000 ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang over the past three decades. In recent years, there have been several protests against Xinjiang outside Chinese diplomatic missions in Kazakhstan.

These concerns among public opinion are likely to limit the degree of clear security cooperation between Kazakhstan and China in the future, said George Voloshin, Kazakhstan-born analyst at consultancy Aperio Intelligence.

“China has a controversial image in Kazakhstan. With Russia there is a difficult past and the nationalist discourse that has been present for the past 30 years, but the overall attitude towards Russia remains more positive, ”Voloshin said. “People understand what to expect from Russia. When it comes to China, the people have much greater fears. “

What is happening in Kazakhstan?

Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at yaroslav.trofimov@wsj.com

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