As the war in Afghanistan continues to disappear from the media, Central Asia once more becomes a black hole for news coverage. Sparsely populated and far-removed from the oceanic arteries of global commerce, it seems a region ripe for forgetting, once the Taliban are out of the headlines. But that would be a strategic mistake.
Central Asia is resource-rich, and wedged between the West’s most powerful competitors, Russia and China. Once center-stage in the Anglo-Russian rivalry of the ‘Great Game’ of the late 19th century, Central Asia is reemerging as a focal-point in global geopolitics. This time, the peoples of the region are not content to become pawns in great-power competition. The leading Central Asian state, Kazakhstan, has eyes on becoming a regional and global player.
Landlocked and caught between superpowers, Kazakhstan MIGHT seem geographically cursed, but its location also offers opportunities. Once host to the ancient Silk Road, the overland caravan highway that brought Chinese goods westward and siphoned Western currency reserves off to the Far East — history rhymes even if it doesn’t repeat itself — Kazakhstan is reestablishing itself as a vital link in global commerce.
China’s interest in reviving the route has made Kazakhstan a centerpiece of the Belt-Road Initiative, the ‘buckle’ of the Silk Road Economic Belt. Kazakhstan has increased its economic ties with China, and China has invested heavily in Kazakh transportation capacity. The Kazakhs have put up their own money as well, with a $9 billion infrastructure plan, Nurly Zhol, announced in 2014.
One result of this spending has been the Khorgos-Eastern Gate Corridor. On the Sino-Kazakh border, the railway hub has become the biggest dryport in the world, taking goods from China to European markets in half the time of maritime routes; the high transit costs, however, mean that only the highest-value Chinese goods will cross Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, investments have been made to move resources from west to east, with a pipeline built to supply Kazakh oil to service China’s insatiable energy demands.
In Kazakhstan’s energy industry, the China National Petroleum Corporation has eclipsed Russia’s Gazprom. Kazakhstan is eager to assert its independence from its former overlord, and commercial relations with China may serve to counter Russian influence. Culture is another means to do this. The government has promoted the Kazakh language in education over once-dominant Russian, and plans to Westernize the Kazakh language with a new Latin-based alphabet to replace its Cyrillic one,as post-Ottoman Turkey did. Already, Russian culture warriors fear another defection from the Russosphere.
Kazakhstan does not, however, seek to alienate Russia, and instead maintains a working relationship. Kazakhstan cooperates with Moscow where it can, and took the initiative in in forming the Eurasian Economic Union, a single-market and customs union that also includes Belarus, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. The landlocked republic’s needs its 7,000-kilometer border with Russia to stay open, to serve as a gateway to the outside world. But Kazakhstan now balks at Moscow’s vision of Brussels-style ‘ever-closer union’, and eschews political integration in favor of more-strictly economic relationship.
While Russia can easily open its market to Kazakhstan, the Russian market is comparable in size to Italy’s, and cannot sustain investments as China’s can. Some have spoken of what Anna Kireeva, of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, calls ‘a division-of-labor’ in the region, whereby ‘China can provide economic and Russia can provide political and security [influence]’. It is a concept not without issues. Kireeva notes the possibility that ‘sooner-or-later China would also like to provide… security and political benefits’. Until then, it is an arrangement that could rule over the region.
But Kazakhs have higher hopes than condominium. Though Soviet oppression remains fresh in the Kazakh mind, Chinese domination is not taken lightly either. China is deeply unpopular among Kazakhs, and a proposed change in land laws to allow Chinese to buy Kazakh land more easily provoked street protests. This rare display of dissent in the former Soviet republic elicited an even rarer reversal from the government. The enmeshing of ethnic Kazakhs in China’s crackdown on Turkic minorities in neighboring Xinjiang has not helped matters.
Kazakhstan wants to be self-reliant, and it has grown its economy substantially since the millennium, with a more than sixfold increase in GDP. Though oil, gas, copper and iron are Kazakhstan’s economic lifeblood, the country has sought to diversify away from natural resources. Programs like Kazakh Invest and the Astana International Finance Center have sought to grow the financial services sector, and Kazakhstan has made an effort to be business-friendly. The year, Kazakhstan cracked the top-30 in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index.
Kazakhstan’s economic power allows it to assert its own influence in the region, and even to counter China and Russia. Its population of just under 18 million accounts for a quarter of the region’s population. Although neighboring Uzbekistan’s population is twice as large, Kazakhstan accounts for 60 percent of Central Asia’s GDP. The government has directed some of that money to regional aid projects. Its KazAid agency has invested in Kyrgyzstan and donated to Tajikistan, but the lion’s share of its focus has been on Afghanistan, and a raft of humanitarian and educational aid, infrastructure projects, and even gender-equality initiatives.
Kazakhstan has also tried to look beyond the region. ‘Kazakhstan has made an international name for its ambitious, yet nonaggressive foreign policy,’ says Wilder Alejandro Sanchez, a DC-based defense and geopolitics analyst. It became the first Central Asian member of the UN Security Council in 2017, and it wants to further raise its international profile by joining the OECD (members of which must have foreign aid programs, undoubtedly a factor driving Kazakhstan’s regional humanitarianism ). Moreover, Kazakhstan has asserted a role in international peace arbitration, hosting the ‘Astana round’ of Syria talks.
The other way Kazakhstan hedges regional competition is through pursuing warm relations with the other superpower, the United States. Though the State Department has been critical of Kazakhstan’s human rights record, Kazakhstan opened its Caspian Sea ports to the US for use in the Afghan war effort; Russia was upset it had not been consulted beforehand, though Kazakhstan insisted that cargoes be nonmilitary out of courtesy to the Kremlin. The US and Kazakhstan have partnered on counterterrorism and nuclear nonproliferation, and bilateral talks early last year saw an ‘enhanced strategic partnership’ announced, covering a host of issues from Afghanistan and counterterrorism, to trade, cybersecurity and English-language education.
Ultimately, Kazakhstan is an enigma. It is geographically isolated, yet caught in the middle of superpower geopolitics. It is in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, yet it pursues warm relations with Russia’s superpower rivals, the US and China. For now, Kazakhstan is on the rise. Time will tell how successful its ambitious foreign and economic policies will be — and whether the superpowers will allow them to succeed.