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Theorists and analysts of Central Asian affairs from the West often see China's role primarily as that of potential suppressor of democratic forces and a drag on the capacity for independent action of the region's states. A less blunt-edged view reveals that Kazakhstan's relations with neighboring China extend well beyond the confines of such a narrow ideological frame.
RUINS OF EMPIRE
The collapse of the Soviet Union and its centrally planned economy left newly independent Kazakhstan in a precarious position. Unemployment was widespread, living standards fell abruptly, and state owned stores were empty. I well remember standing in line for hours to buy nothing more than a loaf of bread.
The process of carving out an independent state from the wreck of the Soviet system led to economic disaster. What goods were available were expensive; state-owned enterprises went bankrupt by the handful, their products unable to compete in the nascent market.
Many goods that people needed or wanted were in short supply. Imported products, especially those from the West, were quite expensive for most people.
Then help started to arrive from a completely unexpected direction: Chinese-made goods, inexpensive although often of lower quality than Western products. This trade played an important role in helping satisfy swelling consumer demand, as well as contributing to the country's internal stability and the development of independent institutions in the early years.
Thanks to investments in the national economy made by the West (mainly into the oil extracting industry) and to the growth of international trade, living standards gradually began to improve. The country began to prosper thanks to its own independence.
In the late 1980s I often listened to Chinese state radio. At the time I was unable to understand the English broadcasts of the BBC and Voice of America, and the Russian-language broadcasts on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty were constantly jammed by the Soviet regime. Chinese radio was also prohibited, though less obviously, in the Soviet Union.
China Radio International broadcast in Russian as well as Kazakh. I often listened in the early hours of the morning. Its programs were clearly anti-Soviet in orientation, though that anti-Sovietism was of a special kind and differed from Western broadcasters in the nature of its propaganda and the political information provided. By listening to those programs I began to realize that the end of Russia's rule in Kazakhstan was inevitable.
There were many cloudy days in Chinese-Russian relations during the decades when both were under communist governments. Border conflicts led to armed clashes in 1969, both in the Far East and on the Kazakh-Xinjiang border. Disagreements flared over China's military incursion into Vietnam in the late 1970s; later, Chinese-trained fighters in Afghanistan and Angola saw combat against Soviet or Cuban troops deployed to those Cold War conflict zones.
Relations between China and Russia advanced considerably after 1991, of course. But not so deeply in some strategically important areas as may appear.
If Russian policy toward the former Soviet Central Asian republics is seen by many in the region as a kind of restoration of empire, China has no interest in seeing such a development. In several key spheres, the interests of Moscow and Beijing in the region diverge widely.
Trade, for instance, remains an area of competition and potential conflict. Many Chinese-made products enjoy a dominant position in the markets of Kazakhstan and the other Central Asian countries. The clear tendency is for further strengthening in the positions of Chinese products, and the Kremlin is not at all happy with this development.
Alexander Cooley, a political analyst at Columbia University, said that last year, for the first time, China's net trade with the Central Asian region exceeded that of Russia, and the trend is likely to persist in the coming years.
Russia's stature in this region is vulnerable for other reasons only loosely connected with the economic well-being of local people. In the past, Russian authorities and troops committed many bloody crimes against the peoples of Central Asia. During the forced collectivization in the early 1930s, by some estimates, up to 40 percent of Kazakhs died as a consequence of artificially manipulated famine.
Bitter memories widespread among the population will strongly interfere with the full restoration of Russian influence until Russia fully democratizes its political system – one result of which in the long term would inevitably be a renunciation of a policy aimed at imperial-style domination of the former Soviet states.
In the history of relations between Kazakhstan and China, somber events of this kind are not found.
THE ENERGY EQUATION
The reality that, in nearly 20 years since the opening of the region's national markets, the West could not put an end to the Russian state-controlled Gazprom's (OGZPY) monopoly over the export of Central Asian natural gas speaks volumes concerning the real state of affairs.
But China did put an end to the monopoly: the Kazakhstan-China pipeline, completed in 2009, opened the first gas export pipeline for Kazakh gas that does not go through Russia.
The line, which links the gas transportation networks of South Kazakhstan and China, forms part of the longer Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan-China pipeline. In the future, additional pipelines will join western Kazakh gas deposits with the China pipeline, increasing the volume of gas delivered to China.
The Turkmenistan-China system is set to deliver 40 billion cubic meters of gas annually when it reaches full capacity in 2013. China's total annual demand for gas is currently around 100 billion cubic meters.
The construction of these pipelines, along with that of the U.S.-backed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which is partly supplied by Kazakh oil and also bypasses Russia, substantially raised Kazakhstan's freedom of action.
BEIJING AND DEMOCRACY IN CENTRAL ASIA
The processes described above will contribute to the growing well-being of Kazakhstan's people. One result will be growth in the size of the middle class, and since a strong middle class is a basis for the stable development of democracy, one further important result will be a stronger democratic system in Kazakhstan.
Trade between Kazakhstan and China plays an important role in nourishing the well-being of Kazakhs, if only because most Chinese-made goods are inexpensive and affordable to rising numbers of Kazakhs.
"In the long term we need [China]," says Adil Kaukenov, a Kazakh political analyst and deputy head of the Institute of Economic Strategies.
The growing links between the two country's economies are not viewed in a positive light by all Kazakhs. Among the general public, fears of illegal immigration from China can be heard. Murat Auezov, Kazakhstan's first ambassador to China, believes that this problem is potentially "the biggest threat" for Kazakhstan. No less important than building oil and gas pipelines is to begin a process to legalize the presence of Chinese migrants, he says.
Some unofficial estimates put the number of legal and illegal Chinese migrants at 300,000 to 500,000.
Despite such fears, it looks likely that the political maneuvering space for China vis-a-vis Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states will remain constrained for some time. Any attempt by China – perhaps in concert with Russia – significantly to step up its political sway in the region would be met by widespread resistance from the public.
At any rate, China has not displayed any aggressive aspirations in the former Soviet republics, unlike Russia in recent years.
BALANCE OF FORCES
Whether or not this was their intention, the actions of the Western powers and of China in Kazakhstan complement each other, at the same time creating a counterbalance to the intensified growth of Russian influence. If not for this counterweight, Moscow's policies would likely contribute to destabilizing the situation throughout Central Asia, not just in Kazakhstan alone.
Finding a balancing point between these external influences – the West (simply put, the NATO states and Japan), China, and Russia – is the optimal path for Kazakhstan to satisfy its own international interests and an important condition for the effective development of democracy in the country.
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