Kazakhstan: China's New Territorial Dispute?

The territorial dispute that isn't becomes a real thing in Kazakhstan.

An article entitled Why Is Kazakhstan Eager To Get Back to China? appeared recently on the Chinese website Sohu.com and provoked a shit storm of fury in Kazakhstan, where a large portion of the population, apparently, actually do not wish to be a part of the People’s Republic.

The article reportedly puts forward a rather interesting redub of history, where the Kazakh tribes of old kowtowed before the Chinese emperor and what is now the modern country of Kazakhstan was a part of China. Apparently, this is why the people of Kazakhstan today “do not have too many complaints” about being invaded by China,” according to the author.

This story ignited a fire in Kazakhstan which quickly burned its way up to the upper echelons of government. Yesterday, Chinese Ambassador Zhang Deguang was summoned to Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry for a formal browbeating — a regular event around the world these days — where he was informed that the article “does not correspond to the spirit of the eternal multilateral strategic partnership stressed in the joint statement" which was signed between China and Kazakhstan in 2019 to broaden ties between the countries.

Reality check part 1: Some idiot posting a story on the internet is not indicative of any government’s opinion or intentions. It’s not even like it was published on the Global Times and could, kinda sorta, be interpreted as representative of deeper levels of Communist Party thought.

Reality check part 2: The story was published on a Chinese website for a Chinese audience who apparently enjoy reading stories about how the world loves China, wants to be part of China, and welcomes the Belt and Road with open arms. This is a very normal genre of media in China, and should be viewed as a form of satirical entertainment rather than being something to take seriously. It’s an example of nationalistic dribble, not fact-based journalism, which all countries have to some degree.

Reality check part 3: The mass public interpretation of the story and the resulting discontent renders reality checks part 1 and part 2 irrelevant.

This is the absolute worst thing that could happen for the Belt and Road (BRI) in Kazakhstan. While I strongly feel that this is a matter of misinterpretation or the intentional de-contextualizing of a story to fuel a political position, it does bring to the surface a very real underlying fear in Kazakhstan: that China is coming.

As I’ve traveled through Kazakhstan talking with people about China and the Belt and Road, one of the most common perceptions that I’ve heard is that China is going to try to take over the country: that they are going to buy up all the land, move in their people, out-compete the local businesses, and claim the place for themselves.

At the macro level these fears are also evident, as anti-China protests have become a repeated occurrence in Kazakhstan, as the people have taken to the streets to protest a potential change in immigration policy that would allow visa-free entry for Chinese citizens, changes to national property laws that would allow foreigners to buy land, and, in 2019, widespread protests against all things China.

What’s interesting is that the government of Kazakhstan has given into the demands of such demonstrations before, such as during the land rights protests — and this was during the time of Nazarbayev, who ruled the country for nearly 30 years with something approaching an iron fist. In point, regardless of what fuels it, public sentiment in regards to China’s activities in Kazakhstan matters.

What’s also disturbing in this story is that it meshes nicely with the rhetoric that Beijing often uses to justify their claims of Taiwan, the South China Sea, Tibet, Arunachal Pradesh, Aksai Chin, etc: we’re not invading, we’re just reclaiming what was already ours.

Many of China’s disputed territorial claims are debatable, due to the country’s long and varied history, different political iterations, and vacillating geographic reach. Some claims have merit, while others are about as ridiculous as Greece claiming Egypt because Alexander the Great conquered it in the fourth century BC.

The people of Kazakhstan hear the noise from Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tibet. When we mix the story in question through the decontextualizing blender of social media and the megaphones of existing fears and politics we have something small and insignificant that is now having a very real impact on Sino-Kazakh relations and the future of the Belt and Road in Central Asia.

The Sohu.com story has become a tributary of additional anti-China sentiment in Kazakhstan that flows into the fear and anger that is boiling over China’s anti-terrorism campaign in Xinjiang, which has reportedly seen upwards of 1.8 million ethnic Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslims herded into what amounts to internment camps. While the Chinese authorities do little to try to hide the existence of these camps — they even issued a white paper about them in the English language — they say that they are designed as vocational centers to provision ethnic minorities with employable skills. However, from piles of testimony from people who have family members interned (or disappeared) or those who have gotten out of the camps and escaped China, it’s pretty clear that admittance to these centers is not optional.

How this resonates in Kazakhstan is very direct and rational: If China can do that to our people on the other side of that line then why wouldn’t they do it to us here if they could? I don’t believe there’s a way forward for China’s Belt and Road in Kazakhstan until the camp program in Xinjiang is thoroughly abolished.

“My impression is that Chinese authorities don't always understand that all the questions are connected and that Xinjiang cannot be separate from Huawei, from the Belt and Road, and it has a cost for everything else that China is doing, as much as China tries to keep that as a separate silo. It can't be done,” said Bruno Maçães, the author of Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order. “I hope that there's a change in the Xinjiang policy, as China realizes it's paying a very high cost.”

However, we also need to acknowledge that for Kazakhstan’s Nurly Zhol and other economic diversification programs to work, China is ultimately needed.

China is a major investor in Kazakhstan, in both the natural resource and transport / industrial sectors. To date, China has invested in 55 projects in Kazakhstan amounting to US$27.6 billion. While China is a relatively big supporter of Kazakhstan’s nascent non-oil sector, owning a 49% share in the Khorgos Gateway dry port and being the driving force behind the International Center for Boundary Cooperation bi-national duty-free zone that extends across the Kazakh-China border, around half of China’s investments are in oil and gas projects. However, roughly a third of the China-backed projects completed to date will produce high value-added products — small numbers, but it’s a start. China is also Kazakhstan’s top export destination ($5.86B).

Read more: Khorgos: New Silk Road Documentary

In best case scenario, Kazakhstan’s role in the coming era of globalization is to be a central station in the middle of Eurasia where countries from all arms of the compass meet. But, as of now, Kazakhstan is still heavily resource dependent, with it’s top exports reading like the table of contents of a book about raw commodities: crude petroleum, refined copper, petroleum gas, ferroalloys, and radioactive chemicals. This is an incredibly precarious position to be in, as the recent record plunge of the tenge indicates. In order to diversify from oil and gas dependency they need to build new economic sectors from scratch, and to do this they need a multi-national approach which more than likely won’t happen without China and the Belt and Road initiative.

Read more: The Central Station Of The New Silk Road Has Emerged

The trick is balancing Chinese influence against those of Russia and the West — Nazarbayev’s multi-vector strategy. In a way, public opposition to China provides an adequate check to ensure Beijing is not able to step in and exert too much influence. In another way, it hampers Kazakhstan’s ability to become a great thoroughfare of nations — it’s rightful position on the New Silk Road.

More to come on this story soon.