China’s growth is a topic that causes contradictory assessments around the world. Someone is afraid of Chinese expansion, mainly because they see more formidable ambitions and a huge human flow behind the development of the country. Some believe that China’s development can become comprehensive, have a positive impact on other countries, provide a new breath of globalization and bring East and West together.

Approximately the same dilemma is facing Kazakhstan, which has one of the longest common land borders with China and very close relations with it. At the same time, the Kazakh leadership almost never voices its fears or suspicions about Pax Sinica (as it often does, for example, with regard to another close neighbor – Moscow and the “Russian world”). In public and at the very top, the selfless love and gratitude of the Middle Kingdom from the Kazakh political class is expressed for supporting strategic initiatives and “assistance” in the implementation of economic programs. But at the bottom, there are sometimes exaggerated suspicions and fears among the population about China, which by and large remains unknown in the popular culture of Kazakhstan and in its consciousness (unlike Russia).

What can such a dichotomy lead to? How can we reduce these two relations to a more balanced axis? What is expected from the new leadership of the country, President Tokayev, who will soon pay his official visit to Beijing?

Why they love China in Kazakhstan

China has quickly strengthened as the main economic partner of Kazakhstan. The dynamic and constructive interaction between Kazakhstan and China coincided with the period of economic recovery of the People’s Republic of China and the growth of energy prices. China reached its peak of prosperity after the proclamation in Kazakhstan in 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping of his strategic intentions to build the Silk Road Economic Belt across the Eurasian continent and allocate unprecedented funds for infrastructure modernization. The key country on the continental vector of the Chinese “Path to the West” was Kazakhstan, for which the crisis in relations with the traditional metropolis in the person of Russia and the detachment of the world hegemon-the United States from the peripheral region of Central Asia for them aggravated the situation and made China the most preferable subject for cooperation.

Established by Beijing, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank with a capital of 100 billion US dollars and the Silk Road Fund in the amount of 50 billion US dollars, along with the EXIM Bank of China available for “politically expedient” projects of the Chinese government – these financial instruments have become a truly inexhaustible klondike for inexperienced post-Soviet leaders who drew their “political and economic inspiration and ingenious design of reforms” from endless sources of China. According to Kazakh Invest, in the period from the beginning of 2005 to February 1, 2017, the inflow of direct investment from China to the economy of Kazakhstan amounted to $13.9 billion. At the same time, the total volume of China’s investments in the economy of the Republic of Kazakhstan exceeded $42.8 billion, the volume of lending-more than $50 billion.

With the support of Chinese investments and assistance from Chinese oil corporations, the oil and gas transport infrastructure of the region was diversified, actually oriented to the new capacious and wealthy Chinese energy market. What the Soviet Union failed to do in its time in the project of “turning the Siberian rivers” to Central Asia, China figuratively managed to do by “turning the oil rivers” of Kazakhstan to the East. In addition, Chinese companies were allowed to develop oil and gas fields and the production capacities of local refineries, becoming priority partners in oil production, in its processing, in transportation, and even in oil trading. In Kazakhstan, the share of China in such projects today, according to some estimates, reaches over 30%. By participating in the modernization of such large refiners as the plants in Atyrau and Shymkent, Chinese companies have managed to create a model of relatively cheap production of light oil products of the high international standard Euro-5, Euro-6 from extracted oil resources in the fields of Kazakhstan, but oriented to the growing markets of China.

It is also worth noting the large-scale goals of the two countries, announced at the signing of the well-known industrial agreement of the Prime Ministers of China and Kazakhstan on the transfer and creation of new 51 Chinese enterprises to Kazakhstan. At the moment, 55 such projects are already expected with a total investment portfolio of 27.7 billion US dollars. It should be noted that among the enterprises created with the help of China (and these are all newly created factories, and not “old factories transferred from China”, as many adherents of Sinophobia speculate on this), there are both successful “cases” and problematic ones that are not counted either economically or “socio-politically”. The latter, of course, cause distrust and fear among the population. Unfortunately, the government of Kazakhstan adheres to the strategy of “closeness of the agreements concluded with China”, the backstage nature of negotiations and intentions for cooperation (even for the expert community), which, of course, leads to misunderstanding and indignation on the part of the majority of the people.

Why is China not loved?

Sinophobia has already manifested itself in Kazakhstan during land rallies a few years ago. The development of the agricultural sector with the help of Chinese producers naturally provides for their participation in land use in one form or another, which causes concern on the part of the population of Kazakhstan, who is personally convinced of the growing presence of China in their lives, encountering Chinese goods everywhere, working side by side with Chinese workers, living in the same area with the inhabitants of the Celestial Empire, but separated from them by cultural and language barriers.

In the public mindset today, the former euphoria of opportunities brought to the domestic “self-employed”, for example, “shuttle trade” or the possibility of” earning money ” at Chinese enterprises that arise here and there, has been replaced by fears and labor conflicts at joint ventures, concerns about the ruthless exploitation of land and resources by Chinese entrepreneurs and, in general, concerns about the prospects for preserving the economic sovereignty of Kazakhstan.

In addition, Sinophobia, which is very common among the population, is also actively replicated by videos on social networks of unknown origin about the “peculiarities of the Chinese way of life” and the cruelty of treatment of co-religionists and tribesmen from China in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. International media and public activists-fighters for human rights, spread the facts of discrimination against the population of this region bordering with Kazakhstan. At the highest level, a number of important states for Kazakhstan express their rejection of the infringement of the rights of Chinese citizens.

It is obvious that the rapidly growing share of China in the total volume of the country’s external debt, which is almost a third, is a rather risky step. In this situation, the general optimistic vision of the prospects for cooperation held by the former leadership of the country is gradually being replaced by a rather critical attitude towards the sincerity of the intentions of the “benefactors from the East”. So far, the official leadership of Kazakhstan expresses restraint and neutrality in assessing what is happening, but this does not reduce, but on the contrary increases the degree of public tension about “resonant and sensitive” topics for the Kazakh population, increasing distrust between society and the authorities.

The US-China “trade war” unfolding before our eyes may create more direct threats to the economy of Kazakhstan, which is already dependent on Chinese investment and is focused on transit benefits from China’s trade with the West.

China and Kazakhstan’s multi-vector approach

Close relations with Beijing threaten to disrupt the traditional balance of Kazakhstan’s multi-vector foreign policy. Recent discussions among a number of experts that unfolded around an article by the head of the foreign policy center of the Douglas & Sarah Allison Foundation, Luke Coffey, entitled ” Can Kazakhstan Be America’s New Partner in Central Asia?” — “Can Kazakhstan become a new partner of America in Central Asia?”, they talk about the challenges of Kazakhstan’s multi-vector policy in the conditions of increasingly persistent influence of external players. If Kazakhstan has partially successfully managed to maintain good relations with the West and Russia even in the context of the sanctions regime, then the “trade war” unfolding before our eyes between the two economic giants of the United States and China may create more direct threats to the economy of Kazakhstan, which is already dependent on Chinese investment and is focused on transit benefits from China’s trade with the West.

The new president of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a well-known international specialist who knows China well and firsthand, is facing a serious dilemma of adjusting the course for bilateral cooperation on the basis of pragmatism and mutual benefit without the previous emotional friendly background, taking into account the need to maintain a balancing balance of relations with other “great friends” of Kazakhstan. But how can this be implemented in practice?

It is obvious that today Kazakhstan needs not an abstract, but a multi-vector foreign policy strategy focusing on solving specific problems. In the Chinese direction, these are, of course, such topics as: the diversification of external borrowings from China and their “point”, calculating nature in order to avoid the country falling into a “debt pit”; the resolution of the entire complex of issues with tribesmen from China who have not fully resolved issues with obtaining citizenship of Kazakhstan; the tasks of a clear regulation of the visa regime, the problems of Chinese labor migration and the activities of existing and under construction enterprises with Chinese participation in Kazakhstan; stimulating the growth and promotion of products of Kazakh enterprises to the Chinese markets; activating cargo transportation through the territory of Kazakhstan and increasing their Kazakh content along the Silk Road Economic Corridor, both in the direction of China and from it to other regions; solving the problems of transboundary water regulation and the optimal model of land and subsurface use of enterprises with Chinese participation; preventing the aggravation of the challenges associated with the” three evils ” in the context of the SCO activities, and others.

It is quite obvious that the new leadership of the country will not simply balance the influence of external forces on the track of a multi-vector foreign policy in the conditions of increasing international turbulence, especially in a situation when an ambitious and strong China is close, seriously and for a long time…

Published by the Center for the Study of China with the author’s permission.

Number of shows: 923