Beijing is taking steps to consolidate its sphere of influence, including from its close ally Russia, with Chinese leader Xi Jinping delivering the strong message during an official visit to Kazakhstan.
Xi told officials that China is keen to maintain ties with Kazakhstan and opposes any interference in the Central Asian country.
“Regardless of how the international situation changes, we will continue to strongly support Kazakhstan in protecting its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the reforms you have implemented to ensure stability and development, and we will firmly oppose any interference of any forces in internal affairs Your country,” Xi said, according to a readout from the Kazakh President’s office.
Experts believe the Chinese Communist Party leader’s public warning is aimed at Russia, which has traditionally fought for control of the region.
“Xi’s visit to Kazakhstan can be taken as a sign that Beijing sees Kazakhstan as a friend – and Russia should do nothing to hurt Beijing’s friend,” said Professor Mark Katz, a senior foreign policy expert at George Mason University the South China Morning Post spoke to Xi ahead of his state visit to Kazakhstan.
Russia helps Kazakhs with “bandits”
Beijing’s warning comes after widespread civil unrest rocked Kazakhstan in January and February, sparking unrest in major cities. The unrest has resulted in 10,000 people being arrested and hundreds killed or injured after government crackdowns.
Kazakh authorities asked Russia for help, claiming the unrest was sparked by an unknown foreign power.
“The militants have not laid down their arms; They continue to commit crimes or are preparing to do so,” President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said in a televised address. “Those who do not surrender will be destroyed. I gave orders to law enforcement and the army to kill without warning.”
Government forces – backed by Russia – are still busy dealing with suspected domestic or foreign “bandits”.
“We were dealing with armed and trained bandits from home and abroad. It’s with bandits and terrorists. Therefore they must be destroyed. And that will happen shortly,” Tokayev added. He also said he ordered a nationwide communications blackout.
According to the authorities, Russian-backed forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) were not involved in any of the Kazakh security operations.
Strategically vital for Russia and China
Russia and China view Kazakhstan as a key ally because of its shared land borders, also as a potential strategic weak point. In addition, the country is rich in raw materials and economically tied to Russia and China.
For example, China has invested billions in Kazakhstan through Belt and Road Initiative projects in technology and finance.
Eytan Goldstein, an East Asia expert, said the Central Asian country is an important link for China to the Caspian Sea and beyond.
“Hence China’s eagerness to invest in Kazakhstan and promote its Belt and Road Initiative,” she wrote in the Harvard International Review.
Meanwhile, Russia is heavily involved in Kazakhstan’s energy industry with oil and gas pipelines connected to Russia. There are also significant bilateral commitments in the areas of defense and infrastructure development.
Currently, 80 percent of Kazakhstan’s oil exports are routed through the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, in which Russia holds a 31 percent stake.
Kazakhs play a balancing act
The power tug-of-war means several Central Asian leaders, including Tokayev, have maintained ties with both Russia and China to balance any risk.
Such is the case with Kazakh President Tokayev, who, despite turning to Russia to shore up his rule in January, has remained silent on the Ukrainian military conflict and has not shown open support for Russia.
In June, at the St. Petersburg International Forum, Tokayev refused to recognize what he called “quasi-state entities” in Ukraine’s Donbass region, The Moscow Times reported.
Kazakhstan has also decided not to help Russia circumvent global economic sanctions imposed by developed countries and has also banned Russian military propaganda symbols in the country.
At the same time, the Kazakh government has become more involved with China in recent months.
In June, Kazakhstan and China became “eternal comprehensive strategic partners,” agreeing to cooperate on finance, energy, manufacturing, 5G, artificial intelligence and green energy.