Since its inception in 2013, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been conceived through two main contrasting paradigms. One is the Chinese vision of the project, rhetorically built upon the ideals of win-win relationships, people-to-people connectivity and, most importantly, non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs. The other is the Western vision, which broadly regards the initiative as a covert Chinese scheme to expand the country’s global influence, economically coerce developing states into predatory loan agreements, and become the world’s preeminent global power. However, whilst mostly ignored by both sides’ academic and journalistic circles, a third vision of the Belt and Road does exist: it is the often brushed aside perspective of the 138 countries actually participating in the BRI.
In fact, when it comes to great power geopolitics, it is imperative to recall that smaller national players not only do exist, but also have a voice and an agency of their own. Indeed, such agency shapes the approaches and objectives of the BRI to a much larger extent than usually assumed. A prime example in this regard is Kazakhstan, which refers to itself as the “buckle” of the BRI. The Central Asian nation plays a pivotal role in the geopolitical ambitions of China, being at the same time a crucial thoroughfare for Chinese overland trade towards Europe, a substantial provider of China’s growing energy needs, and a quiet supporter of China’s security policy in neighbouring Xinjiang. Indeed, Kazakhstan is conscious of its central role for Chinese foreign policy, and as such it has not hesitated to leverage it for its economic and political benefit. This can be seen by examining the last three decades of Chinese investments in Kazakhstan, alongside the evolution of Sino-Kazakh economic, political and power relations.
Chinese investments in Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan has been the recipient of substantial Chinese investments since its independence in 1991, as an industrialising China searched for secure and convenient energy sources near its borders. Most of this early investment, carried out by Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) with the negotiated support of both governments, targeted Kazakhstan’s hydrocarbon sector, with the Chinese company “China National Petroleum Corporation” (CNPC) completing most of the acquisitions. The magnitude of Chinese investment in the sector quickly attracted local and international attention, as both international researchers and local oil businessmen denounced Kazakhstan’s apparent dependency and China’s “takeover” of the Kazakh energy industry. However, this ignored many complexities in Kazakhstan, as was demonstrated by CNPC’s attempted acquisition of the Canadian oil company PetroKazakhstan. In 2005, CNPC emerged victorious from a ferocious bidding war for the company, paying US$4.18 billion for 100% of the shares. However, it was then forced by the Kazakh Parliament (on the grounds of “national interest”) to transfer 33% of its recently-acquired shares to the Kazakh national oil company Kazmunaigaz. This example emphatically displays the willingness and capacity of the Kazakh government to directly push back against the Chinese SOEs’ interests in case of contrasting benefits, with the Chinese state apparently incapable or unwilling to react. In essence, it demonstrates that the Kazakh state has had agency in this relationship since its outset.
The volume of Chinese investments in Kazakhstan further increased after the 2013 inauguration of the BRI in Astana. The sectoral focus of these investments shifted, as infrastructure development and “International Capacity Cooperation” in manufacturing and agriculture became the new focus of Chinese involvement in the country. Once again, accusations of dependency, exploitation and imperialism surfaced in local and international media, as the BRI financing methods and policy objectives were framed as externally-driven by Beijing’s agenda. Yet, a closer analysis of the situation in the country reveals quite a different story. In connection to the unfolding of the BRI, Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev announced in 2014 the “Nurly Zhol” (“Bright Path”) domestic economic stimulus program, dedicating over US$9 billion to develop and modernise domestic infrastructure. Contrary to popular belief, such spending was not financed through Chinese development banks, but through Kazakh domestic and international lending. Again, it seems apparent that Kazakhstan is more than able and willing to not only stand up to China when needed, but also to complement its initiatives on an equal footing, without risking to enter into dynamics of dependency.
Sino-Kazakh economic, political and power relations
In examining the history of Chinese investments in Kazakhstan, it becomes hard to sustain the position that the Central Asian nation is at the mercy of Chinese scheming, especially given Kazakhstan’s clear autonomy in policy formulation and implementation. However, a broader analysis of Sino-Kazakh relations is needed in order to effectively assess whether Kazakhstan acts dependently or independently of Chinese influence.
A good place to start this examination is Kazakhstan’s “multi-vector” foreign policy, conducted with the aim of balancing and compensating relations with foreign powers, especially Russia, China and the EU. Such balancing can be observed in the levels of trade and foreign investment, where no power holds a substantial advantage over the others. It is similarly observable in the multilateral institutional arrangements of the Kazakh state, which prides itself of being part of the BRI, the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), whilst also having entered a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with the EU. As such, it can be seen that Kazakhstan’s adherence to the BRI was indeed a matter of active choice among a larger set of international interests, rather than an externally-imposed foreign process. This can be further confirmed by the apparent equality of Sino-Kazakh economic cooperation, given that the Kazakh government seems to have invested a relatively similar magnitude of domestic financing and political capital in BRI-connected efforts.
Another point to be made in relation to Kazakh autonomy concerns the nature of Sino-Kazakh power relations. Indeed, much has been recently written on the development and modernisation of the Chinese military, and on the presumed geopolitical contest between Russia and China over Central Asian supremacy. However, in the case of Sino-Kazakh relations, these issues seem to be of a red-herring nature. First of all, Russia remains the predominant international partner of Kazakhstan in every field outside of economics, as the two nations are still tightly-interconnected in the spheres of politics, culture and military cooperation. Second, such predominance gives no space to China to “bully” other nations in the region to submission, given also the more pressing issues China is having to face in the South China Sea, on the Indian border and, especially, in neighbouring Xinjiang. Third, as explained above, Kazakhstan is not an isolated actor, but rather a significant agent in a number of multilateral global alliances, making it a hard target to forcefully or diplomatically coerce.
Moreover, much has been written about China’s soft power initiatives in the country. Under the umbrella of the “people-to-people connectivity” rhetoric, China has sponsored numerous higher education initiatives in the country, has established four Confucius Institutes (in Almaty, Nursultan, Aktobe, and Karaganda), and has increased the number of scholarships available for Kazakh students to study in Chinese universities. Whilst again conceived in the West as co-opting mechanisms, these initiatives have been quite well-received by both the Kazakh government and Kazakh academia, which expects these programs to have substantial pragmatic outcomes in terms of revenue generation, employment linkages and access to education. However, reactions have been quite different among the general public, which has been fiercely protesting “Chinese incursion” in the country’s affairs for the better part of the last ten years.
Kazakhstan’s diversity of actors and agency
This diversity of reactions to Chinese influence in the country is, indeed, an expression of a broader issue in the assessment of Kazakhstan’s autonomy vis-a-vis Chinese influence. Given Kazakhstan’s authoritarian, non-transparent political system, it is hard to suitably determine agency and representation, especially when different political groups (the political elite, the business lobbies, and the general public) have contrasting opinions. This is why, whilst clearly showing independent agency from a statist perspective, Kazakhstan’s autonomy from Chinese influence is not as apparent from an individual point of view, as the general public does not seemingly have a say in the dynamics of the Sino-Kazakh relationship.
However, recent Kazakh political events seem to be leading to a potential resolution of these dichotomic perspectives, as mass protests have been strong-arming an alignment of government actions with public sentiment. In 2016, protests led to the Kazakh Parliament delaying a seemingly “pro-Chinese” land law reform, which would have allowed foreigners to rent land for up to 25 years rather than 10; later, in 2019, another string of protests drove the government to publish a complete list of the 55 future Chinese-directed projects in the country, in an attempt to address long-standing issues of transparency inside of the Kazakh state. Hence, it can be seen how recent political events in Kazakhstan, by approaching the government’s and the public’s perspectives towards Chinese influence, may further reinforce the state’s autonomy and agency inside of the BRI context.
In a recent publication, Kazakh researcher Assel Bitaborova wrote: “China’s engagement in the region is not a one-way road but rather a process of constant negotiation and bargaining in which Central Asian states are not passive bystanders but proactive agents working to affect the course of the ‘game’.” (Bitaborova, 2018, p. 151, emphasis added). Such a statement perfectly sums up the independent, autonomous role that Kazakhstan has been playing in receiving, negotiating and deploying the BRI on its territory. The Kazakh state, indeed, stands as a representation of the often-forgotten agency of the participating nations of the BRI, and as such it should be a reminder to go beyond the simplistic, dualistic “China versus West” visions of the project, in order to understand it in a fuller, more nuanced manner.
Ferdinando Cinotto is an MPhil candidate in Development Studies at the University of Cambridge, Jesus College. His research focuses on Chinese investment policies in Africa and Central Asia, alongside their linkages to domestic industrial development. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Development Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Follow him on Twitter @ferdicinotto.