Kazakhstan in Sino-Russian Relations: Cooperation and Competition between the EEU and BRI
On the sidelines of the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) foreign ministers’ meeting in Moscow on September 12, 2020, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, issued a joint statement hailing the Sino-Russian “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership.”1 While containing a boilerplate restatement of the two parties’ commitment to a multipolar world order based on “the principles of sovereign equality and non-interference in internal affairs,” the joint statement also noted that both sides “reaffirmed their commitment to advancing the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ and the ‘Greater Eurasian Partnership’ in parallel and coordinated development” in order to enhance “regional connectivity and economic development in Eurasia.”2 After attending the SCO meeting Wang Yi then met with Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in Nur-Sultan on September 12. In the Kazakh capital, Wang noted not only that China “would never forget” that the BRI began in Kazakhstan during Xi’s September 2013 visit to the country but that “Kazakhstan is the most important strategic partner in the region” for Beijing.3
Kazakhstan finds itself simultaneously identified as a central partner for both China’s BRI and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). The question remains however as to how Kazakhstan fits into the bigger picture of Sino-Russian relations. Does the reality of EAEU-BRI interaction on the ground in Kazakhstan match the rhetoric of Sino-Russian cooperation at the international level? We argue that the rhetoric of Sino-Russian cooperation regarding the “coordinated development” of BRI and the EAEU serves a shared Sino-Russian interest in balancing against the West, but the lack of concrete cooperation projects in Kazakhstan suggests that Russia and China pursue hedging strategies against one another regionally. While this dynamic presents Kazakhstan with the opportunity in the short term to continue to pursue its traditional “multi-vector” foreign policy of balancing the relative influence of its larger neighbors against each other, some long-term structural and economic factors in Sino-Russian relations suggest that this may be of diminishing utility in the long term. We demonstrate this via an examination of Kazakhstan’s role in China and Russia’s integration projects, the BRI and the EAEU.
Central Asia in Sino-Russian Relations: cooperation and competition
In recent years the closeness of Sino-Russian relations has prompted considerable debate in the West. Some have argued that Moscow and Beijing have established an “axis of authoritarianism” bent on destabilizing the Western-led international order and diminishing the capacity for the United States to influence strategic outcomes across Eurasia.4 Others, in contrast, have framed Sino-Russian ties as nothing more than an “axis of convenience,” where the relationship is essentially “tactical and instrumental” and defined by “expediency and opportunism.”5 In this reading Moscow and Beijing are happy to leverage their bilateral relationship in the context of their other important regional and global relationships but remain unable to establish a true condominium of interests due to the continued effects of historical, normative, and domestic factors that inhibit the transformation of their “comprehensive strategic partnership” into a formal alliance. Both extremes capture important elements of the relationship. The “proto-alliance” side captures Moscow and Beijing’s shared dissatisfaction with aspects of the existing international order, and signals the overlap of their normative preferences, while the “axis of convenience” side accurately captures the interests-based, functional aspects of the relationship based on complementary strategic and economic objectives.
The interaction of these aspects of Sino-Russian relations in Central Asia has been demonstrated via the overlap of interests in three core areas across much of the post-Cold War period: shared interests in stability, security, and order; complementarity of economic interests; and shared desire/interest in the development of a “multipolar” international order (in both strategic and normative terms).6 Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, China and Russia developed a clear coexistence in the region, with each (generally) recognizing the other’s comparative advantages in each core area. Thus, Moscow retained the role and status of security provider (e.g. through its military presence in Tajikistan) and China became increasingly predominant economically.7 Throughout the 1990s and 2000s China and Russia developed a clear modus vivendi in the region, each recognizing the others’ comparative advantages with Moscow retaining the role of security provider and China predominant economically. Indeed, by the close of the 2000s China had overtaken Russia as Central Asia’s major trading partner.8
Since the end of the Cold War both Moscow and Beijing have sought to leverage their bilateral relationship as a means of combating the perceived detrimental effects of US unipolarity at the global and regional level. There has thus been a significant overlap in Russian and Chinese elite narratives and preferences for a “multipolar” international order, the creation of alternate normative orders to those authored/led by the West, and the protection/reassertion of state sovereignty. Demonstrating the broader condominium of interests in Sino-Russian relations, however, were Moscow and Beijing’s clear accommodation of each other’s global strategic interests—with for instance Russia acceding to China’s efforts to construct a “statist multilateralism”9 in the form of the SCO focused on Beijing’s Xinjiang-centric security concerns and China refraining from overt criticism of Russian interventions in the post-Soviet space.10 Regionally, both Moscow and Beijing have sought influence in what they perceive to be a potentially unstable region, albeit for different reasons. For Moscow, its discrete and “thin” interests in Central Asia—such as maintaining access to hydrocarbons, combating Islamist terrorism, or protecting ethnic Russians—have been framed by the broader goal of maintaining its self-image as a great power. Beijing, in contrast, instrumentalized its approach to the region in order first to secure its long-restive province of Xinjiang and second to leverage that geopolitical position to pursue broader economic and strategic objectives. This pattern was largely consistent with an alignment rather than a formal alliance, where the relationship was organized around a “system principle” (e.g. desire for a multipolar world) that was goal rather than threat driven and entailed low commitment costs that permitted both parties “to retain a greater degree of autonomy and flexibility, thus mitigating the ‘entrapment’ dynamic common to orthodox alliances.”
Where, then, does Kazakhstan fit into this picture? To answer this question, we now turn to an analysis of the country’s place in Moscow and Beijing’s regional integration frameworks, the EAEU and BRI. The Russian-initiated “Greater Eurasian Partnership” is central to understanding Kazakhstan’s place in Sino-Russian relations. Following the 2014 Ukraine crisis and the sanctions imposed by the West, Russian foreign policy has increasingly pivoted towards Asia. The concept of Greater Eurasia presented itself as an alternative to Greater Europe. The question remains, however, whether this partnership is simply convenient rhetoric in an effort to balance against the West or whether Russia and China have a genuine interest in jointly developing the transport and resource potential of Eurasia, in which Kazakhstan holds a key position.
Since 2014, Russia has moved to deepen military and technological commitments with China. In September 2019, Russia and China signed official agreements to pursue joint military-technological cooperation, with the Russian defense minister saying that “the results of the meeting will serve to further the development of a comprehensive strategic partnership between Russia and China.”12 Today Russia’s arms sales to China are at an all-time high, and China is reliant on Russia for certain defense technologies.13 A recent example of this technological transfer is the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft weapons system, the second installment of which was delivered to the People’s Liberation Army Air Force in early 202014 in defiance of US economic sanctions imposed on China after their first purchase of S-400 technology back in May 2018.15 In late 2019, Putin also stated that Russia is helping China to build a ballistic missile warning system.16 At the moment, only Russia and the US possess such technology. Therefore, in Putin’s words, “this [development] is a very serious thing that will radically enhance China’s defense capability.”17 Furthermore, Russia has conducted a growing number of military exercises alongside China over the past few years. These joint drills have included Vostok-2018, the largest Russian military exercise ever conducted and in which 3,500 Chinese troops participated. NATO condemned the drills, saying that they demonstrated ‘Russia’s focus on exercising large-scale conflict.18
While material commitments certainly exist as evidenced above, a significant element of Russia’s pivot to China is discursive. Russia has downplayed historical tensions with its eastern neighbor, instead focusing on certain motifs where Russia and China are either portrayed as the historical victims of the international system or as the new global leaders (or both). In particular, Putin returns often to the motif of shared World War II history. From his speech at the 2015 SCO summit to an interview with news agencies TASSand Xinhua, Putin has frequently invoked the heroic Soviet peoples and Chinese who fought against a common enemy in the war.19 Together they “liberated enslaved peoples” and “brought peace to the planet.”20
In the same interviewPutin decried the rebirth and spread of exclusionary politics, right-wing ideology, and militarism today.21 The WWII analogy has interesting connotations: if Russia and China are once again victims of an oppressive foreign alliance, then it also lends legitimacy to their balance against that alliance. Who exactly this enemy alliance is remains vague, but it serves the purpose of uniting Russia and China as new global leaders rising to the occasion. As Putin says, this “tragic past calls for our common responsibility for the fate of the world.”22
At the 2016 Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), Putin took Sino-Russian connections one step further by proposing the “Greater Eurasian Partnership,” not an impromptu phrase but rather the work of a group of Russian economists and academics from the Valdai Discussion Club, a Russian think tank with close ties to the Putin political elite.23 The Valdai Club brainstormed “further options for Eurasia’s integration” and produced the idea of “Greater Eurasia,” a concept Putin apparently liked.24
During his 2016 speech at the SPIEF plenary session, Putin specifically linked this partnership to the EAEU and BRI. This was not the first time Putin had spoken of pairing the two initiatives. The pivot east has been tied to this potential partnership from the outset. The compatibility of the EAEU and BRI was even a topic of discussion at the first meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Council on May 8, 2015.25 That same day Putin held talks with Xi and also gave a separate speech to the press specifically on Sino-Russian relations, once again highlighting the possibility of the EAEU’s economic integration with the BRI.26 At almost every platform where Putin and Xi have met subsequently, this cooperation has remained a key talking point.
In Putin’s speeches, one striking phrase is sopriazhenie integratsionnykh protsessov (sometimes proektov), the “pairing of integration processes” or succinctly, the “integration of integrations.” Putin has been using this phrase since at least 2015 to refer to the pairing of the EAEU and BRI.27 Specific areas named for their integration potential have been transport, logistics, and infrastructure.
Following a “multi-vector” foreign policy approach, Kazakhstan is a key participant in both the EAEU and BRI. Russian politicians and Eurasian Economic Commission officials regularly attribute the origin of the EAEU to Nursultan Nazarbayev, who put forth the idea of a future “Eurasian Union” at a speech at Moscow State University in 1991. Kazakhstan is also central to BRI with Xi Jinping choosing Astana (now Nur-Sultan) to first announce the Silk Road Economic Belt back in 2013. Analyzing EAEU-BRI interaction in Kazakhstan, therefore, may lend valuable insight into the wider Sino-Russian relationship.
Kazakhstan and the EAEU: unfulfilled integration?
On December 25, 1991, the Soviet sickle-and-hammer flag was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin, replaced with the white, red, and blue stripes of the newly created Russian Federation. Several months earlier, the five Central Asian Soviet Socialist Republics, including the Kazakh SSR, had declared independence from the Soviet Union. Unlike in the Baltics and Eastern Europe, the Central Asian republics “were not at the forefront of the national emancipation movements of the late Soviet era … [and] until November 1991, their leaders participated in negotiations on a “renewed” Soviet Union agreement with the Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev.”28 Following the USSR’s collapse, the former leaders of the Soviet Union’s republican structures retained power in the newly-formed states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. While domestic instability and a deteriorating economy meant that Russia’s interest during this early period of independence was focused inward, Moscow still aimed to retain influence in the former USSR, especially Central Asia. The post-Soviet organizations that arose out of the following period—some still existing, others failed—are important to understanding the origins of the EAEU and Kazakhstan’s place within it.
On December 8, 1991, several days before the official dissolution of the USSR, the leaders of the Russian SSR, the Belorussian SSR and the Ukrainian SSR met in a villa near Brest, Belarus to sign the Minsk Agreement, creating the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The CIS was declared open to other post-Soviet states, and on December 21, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan signed a declaration in Alma-Ata (now Almaty) to join the Commonwealth. On January 22, 1993, the CIS Charter was ratified by all of the states except Ukraine and Turkmenistan. It was during this era that the idea of a more concrete Eurasian trading bloc was first proposed. The initial steps towards a common economic space happened in 1995 when Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus signed an agreement on the establishment of a Customs Union. In 1996, Kyrgyzstan joined the union followed by Tajikistan in 1998.
In October 2000, the member states of this early Customs Union decided to reorganize into the Eurasian Economic Community or EurAsEC,29 whose aim was to establish a “common external tariff with respect to the rest of the world countries (non-CIS) and harmonize the non-tariff barriers.”’30 In 2005, Uzbekistan became the sixth member but withdrew in 2008.
The EAEU itself identifies that the Customs Union of the 1990s and the EurAsEC which formed out of it failed for a number of reasons,31 however, arguing that this early learning experience was pivotal in shaping later attempts at integration.32 According to David G. Tarr, the EurAsEC collapsed because it benefitted Russia and not other member states.33 Russia’s tariff regime was applied as the common external tariff for all member states, which improved Russia’s preferential market access in Central Asia. However, the tariff regime placed Central Asian states at a disadvantage as they did not enjoy any improvement in market access to Russia. While the EurAsEC was not officially terminated until 2014, it was clear by the late 2000s that the community was highly flawed due to its tariff treatment among other issues.
In January 2010, Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan launched the Eurasian Customs Union or ECU. The new union aimed to eliminate both trade and non-trade barriers among member states. Noting its success, the three states then moved to strengthen ties by establishing a “common economic space,” which became known as the EAEU. Signed in May 2014, the Treaty on it came into force in January 2015. That same year Armenia and Kyrgyzstan joined. Following the EU model, the EAEU emphasizes four freedoms: free movement of labor, goods, capital, and services.34 Free movement of labor is one of the most attractive benefits for Central Asia, which has a massive and growing youth population looking for work abroad. In Kyrgyzstan, for example, personal remittances, mainly from Russia, make up 33% of the GDP.35 Russia meanwhile gains by importing cheap workers to an economy suffering from an “aging and shrinking” population.36 The improvement of labor mobility is less important to Kazakhstan, however, as the country has far fewer migrant workers in Russia.
In the other three areas, the benefits are even less clear. In terms of free movement of goods, states like Kyrgyzstan, which previously had liberal trade regimes, were forced to raise tariffs, making imports from outside the EAEU more expensive. Meanwhile, the EAEU has not resulted in a major increase in capital flows between members.37 As Tarr notes, it has not been very successful in reducing non-tariff barriers or increasing trade facilitation.38 Whether or not Russia can convince member states that they, too, can benefit from the union will likely determine if the EAEU can be more successful in Central Asia than its predecessors.
In general, the main activities of the EAEU in Kazakhstan are policy-related rather than physical projects. When Kazakhstan joined at its inception, its trade policies and customs duties had a high level of harmonization with the other countries. However, after finally joining the World Trade Organization following years of negotiation, Kazakhstan reduced a large number of tariffs without consulting fellow members. The result is that only about 60 percent of Kazakhstan’s tariffs today match the rest of the EAEU.39
In the wake of the ongoing Ukraine crisis, Western sanctions against Russia have had a spillover effect on Kazakhstan. In April 2018, for instance, US-targeted weakening of the ruble hit the tenge by proxy, causing a three percent drop in one week and pushing central government officials to draft an emergency response plan.40 To avoid more negative impacts, Kazakhstan, like Belarus, has chosen not to enact many of Russia’s countersanctions against the West, further weakening the union. Such spillover effects and economic uncertainty emanating from Russia-West tensions are likely pushing Kazakhstan closer to China.41
Kazakhstan and the BRI: from “Eurasian bridge” to “logistical lynchpin”
Kazakhstan has effectively pursued a “multi-vector” foreign policy since independence that has sought to balance the relative influence of its two significant neighbors, Russia and China.42 For Beijing, Kazakhstan is important for both geopolitical and economic reasons. Geopolitically, Beijing has been cognizant of Kazakhstan’s own conception of its role as a “Eurasian bridge” linking Europe and Asia43 and has sought to leverage this with respect to its various “connectivity” initiatives. In particular, Kazakhstan’s centrality to the overland SREB component of BRI has been noted by Zhao Huasheng, who suggests that it constitutes the “main axis of the SREB corridor,”44 which means that Beijing needs to make Central Asian states “not mere participants” but “ardent supporters and promoters” in “building the SREB” component of BRI.45 This has perhaps been most evident with respect to Sino-Kazakh cooperation on key infrastructure linkages such as the Sino-Kazakh railway connections that are crucial to China-Europe rail freight (CERF) services, the “West Europe-West China” highway, the substantial Atasu-Alashankou oil pipeline, and the Khorgos dry port. More recently “Chinese funding for the development of Kazakhstan’s infrastructure primarily goes into the railway and road connections” such as “the construction of a new railway line from Dostyk on the Kazakh—Chinese border to Aktau on the Caspian Sea, the expansion of the port of Aktau, the construction of a new port at Kuryk and of a logistics center in Aktobe and in Shymkent.”46
China’s focus on such infrastructure “connectivity” has been seen as complementary to the economic interests of a number of Central Asian states. It gels, for instance, with the long-held desire of the region’s major energy rich states such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to diversify export routes for their oil and gas.47 More broadly, it is also perceived as holding promise to stimulate diversification of Central Asian economies beyond such resource exports. Kazakhstan, in particular, has identified BRI as “an opportunity to acquire new capital inflows and new technologies which are now urgently needed to carry out the country’s developmental reforms and programs” under its domestic Nurly Zhol (Bright Path) development plan.48 Indeed, China has invested at least $35.16 billion into Kazakhstan since 2005, with some $18.27 billion of that figure occurring since BRI’s inauguration in 2013.49
Much of this investment, as indicated by the 2016 China and Kazakhstan agreement to “link” Nurly Zhol and BRI, has prioritized transport infrastructure, trade, and manufacturing industries.50 The transport infrastructure priorities identified included the “China-Kazakhstan-West Asia,” “China-Kazakhstan-Russia-Western Europe,” and “China-Kazakhstan-South Caucasus/Turkey-Europe” corridors, and construction of logistics terminals in China, Kazakhstan, and third countries (including dry ports on the Turkmen-Iranian border and at the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas).51 Meanwhile, the key trade and manufacturing priorities were to increase “the share of high-tech products and coordination of policies in the sphere of certification” and increase industrial capacity via joint ventures in Sino-Kazakh “special economic zones” such as Khorgos.52 In this latter regard, 2016 also saw an agreement to “transfer” industrial capacity to Kazakhstan through the identification of 51 projects “totaling over $26.2 billion in the chemical industry, the mining and metallurgical sector, mechanical engineering, infrastructure, energy, agro-industrial complex, light industry, oil refining, production of building materials and information technology.”53
Such transport infrastructure projects have been particularly beneficial for the Kazakh state via the significant transit fees generated by logistics terminals and rail and highway links with official reporting noting an increase in such revenue to $1.5 billion in 2018.54 Sino-Kazakh investment in dry ports, highways, and rail links has also made Kazakhstan a major transshipment hub for Chinese exports to Europe with the country handling “70 percent of goods transited overland between China and the EU” before the Covid-19 pandemic.55 As China emerges from the pandemic, Chinese officials have claimed continued growth in the volume of cargo crossing the Sino-Kazakh border with Lu Dongfu, head of China Railway, stating on September 20 “that in the first eight months of 2020, the volume of cargo crossing the Chinese-Kazakh border totaled 14.2 million tons, a 30 percent increase over the same period last year.”56
Kazakhstan is also a central element in China’s energy security diversification strategy to mitigate against overreliance on sea-borne imports of hydrocarbons.57 The Atasu-Alashankuo pipeline (i.e., the Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline), a joint venture between China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and KazMunayGas, the Kazakh national oil company, “pumped 12.2 million tons of oil from oil fields near the Atasu oil fields to CNPC’s complex in Alashankou, Xinjiang in 2017,”58 while KazTransGaz, Kazakhstan’s national gas company, and PetroChina International concluded a five-year contract in 2018 that “aims to see Kazakh natural gas exports to China double to 10 billion cubic meters.”59 Additionally, Kazakhstan also serves as a pipeline transit country for Chinese investments in natural gas rich Turkmenistan. Indeed, as the BP Statistical Review of World Energy of 2018 noted, some 31.7 bcm of China’s total natural gas imports of 36.2 bcm came from Turkmenistan.60
Chinese and Kazakh complementarity of economic interests has thus played a major role in making Kazakhstan into the “logistical lynchpin” of BRI.61 Complementarity is also evident between Chinese and Kazakh interests in the geopolitical and normative domains. For Kazakhstan economics has arguably converged with geopolitics. Kazakh officials see BRI as an opportunity to not only diversify the country’s economy but also to make good on the country’s long-standing claim to be the “Eurasian land bridge.” BRI, as Moritz Pieper notes, is “seen as the means to transition from ‘land-lockedness’ to ‘landlinkedness,’” transforming Kazakhstan from a resource rich state to a crucial logistics and industrial hub on the “new” Silk Road.62 China’s normative narrative around BRI has also synergized with Kazakh preferences with Beijing’s rhetorical commitment to the norm of “non-interference” in domestic affairs of others and its positioning of BRI as an alternative source of finance and infrastructure investment resonating with former president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s “geopolitical code” that has consistently presented the country’s immediate geopolitical environment as “positive and non-threatening,” emphasized its role as “conciliator and bridge between different civilizations and conflicting geopolitical interests,” and prioritized the country’s economic integration in the global economy.63 The question remains, however, as to whether the current correlation between China and Kazakh interests on the one hand and those of Russia can hold.
The Bear vs. the Dragon: Lack of cooperation between the EAEU and BRI in Kazakhstan
The encroachment of Chinese power and influence into Central Asia, long defined as part of Moscow’s “near abroad,” over the past decade has shifted the balance between Russia and China. BRI’s emphasis on developing trans-Eurasian economic and infrastructure “connectivity” has made Central Asia a vital hub for Beijing’s efforts. With its far north-western province of Xinjiang serving as a jumping off point, China seeks to consolidate a “Silk Road Economic Belt” linking China, Central Asia, Russia and Europe. Since 2012, however, both Russian and American influence in the region has been weakened. Washington ultimately sought to extricate itself from Afghanistan and reorient its strategic and military attention toward the Asia-Pacific, while Russia has had to grapple with the economic consequences of declining oil and gas prices and the diplomatic and strategic costs of Putin’s interventions in Ukraine and Syria.
Russia’s ability to offer attractive “public goods” to the Central Asian states has been adversely affected by a number of geopolitical and economic developments over the past two decades. In a security context, while Russia has been independent Central Asia’s dominant actor, its war with Georgia in 2008 and more recent actions in Ukraine and Crimea, have contributed to misgivings in regional capitals regarding Russian commitments to the status quo.64 Economically, Putin’s own regional project, the EAEU, amounts to a form of “protective integration” or “defensive regionalism” that seeks to embed Russian hegemony in the post-Soviet space through a restrictive customs union.65 While Russia was initially concerned that BRI “would hamper the further development” of the EAEU, the “deterioration of Russia’s relations with the West following the annexation of Crimea has left Moscow little choice but to bandwagon with the Chinese Eurasian plan by proposing the linking up of the EEU and the SREB.”66 Given this situation, as one Russian analyst remarked in 2018, Moscow has come to frame Sino-Russian “parallel” development of BRI and EAEU as a means of countering American “hegemony.”67 This, of course, ultimately also serves a key geopolitical objective of BRI as far as Beijing is concerned—to mitigate American predominance in the maritime domain of the Indo-Pacific via consolidation of Chinese influence in the continental domain—and contributes to the potential construction of alternative normative and institutional frameworks to US or Western-led multilateralism.68
As we have seen, however, such confluence of Russian and Chinese interest at the global level has not held at the regional level. This has been evident in the interaction between BRI and EAEU and Beijing and Moscow’s respective relations with Kazakhstan. We have noted that despite the interviews, speeches, press releases, and memorandums extolling the benefits of Sino-Russian “partnership,” virtually no concrete cooperation projects exist between the EAEU and BRI in Kazakhstan or elsewhere. According to Nargis Kassenova, in March 2017, the EAEU prepared a list of 39 priority cooperation projects “to support the linkage [of the EAEU and BRI], including building new roads, modernizing existing ones, creating logistics centers and developing transport hubs.”.69 This list, however, is not available to the public. Of the projects believed to be on the list, only one has been started—the Western China-Western Europe Highway, also known as the Meridian Highway–touted by both Russia and China as a vital part of the new Eurasian transport corridor. The part of the highway transiting Kazakhstan has already been completed. Construction on this segment started in 2009, before the EAEU and before the BRI. However, the 3,225 kilometers from the Kazakh-Russian border to the Russian-Belarussian border has been stalled for years with a proposed routing only agreed upon in July 2019. Any cooperation that does exist is therefore bilateral in nature—the secondary product of relations between China and a country that happens to be an EAEU member.
In the end, the EAEU and BRI are two very different projects. The EAEU is an economic union and trade bloc, whereas the BRI is a global infrastructure development strategy. One is policy-oriented, the other centered on physical projects. With such different aims and realities, actual cooperation results are unlikely. As one Eurasian Economic Commission official pointed out, the agreement signed between the EAEU and China was a memorandum of cooperation with little content.70 The official said that a higher-level agreement like the EAEU’s recent Free Trade Agreements with Iran and Singapore would never happen with China as it would destroy inter-EAEU trade and damage Russia’s economic position in the region.71
In short, Russia cannot easily compete with China in Kazakhstan in terms of investments and grants. For this reason, Russia hedges its bets by outwardly allying the EAEU with the BRI. In doing so, Russia avoids confrontation and maintains its image as a great power still highly influential. Alongside China, Russia positions itself as a co-architect of the great Eurasian transformation centered on Kazakhstan. However, in reality, the EAEU represents a strategic opportunity to counter China’s influence by tying Kazakhstan closer to Russia through trade policy.
1. “中华人民共和国和俄罗斯联邦外交部长联合声明,” September 12, 2020, https://www.chinanews.com/gn/2020/09-12/9289184.shtml
3. See “Kazakhstan, China ready to deepen strategic partnership, fight COVID-19,” KazInform, September 12, 2020, https://www.inform.kz/en/kazakhstan-china-ready-to-deepen-strategic-partnership-fight-covid-19_a3693985; and “Нурсултан Назарбаев встретился с главой МИД КНР Ван И,” https://24.kz/ru/news/policy/item/422438-nursultan-nazarbaev-vstretilsya-s-glavoj-mid-knr-van-i
4. S. W. Harold and L. Schwartz, “A Russia-China Alliance Brewing?” The Diplomat, April 12, 2013, http://thediplomat.com/2013/04/a-russia-china-alliance-brewing/; Michael J. Green, “Should America Fear a New Sino-Russian Alliance?” Foreign Policy, August 13, 2014, http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/08/13/should-america-fear-a-new-sino-russian-alliance/; and Jacob Stokes and Julianne Smith, “Facing Down the Sino-Russian Entente,” The Washington Quarterly 43 (2) (2020): 137-156.
5. Bobo Lo, Axis of Convenience: Moscow, Beijing, and the New Geopolitics (Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2008), p. 5.
6. Enrico Fels, “The Geopolitical Significance of Sino-Russian Cooperation in Central Asia for the Belt and Road Initiative,” in Maximillian Mayer, ed., Rethinking the Silk Road: China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Emerging Eurasian Relations (London: Palgrave, 2018), p. 249.
7. Nicola Contessi, “Foreign and Security Policy Diversification in Eurasia: Issue Splitting, Co-alignment, and Relational Power,” Problems of Post-Communism, 62 (5) (2015).
8. Niklas Swanstrom, China and Greater Central Asia: New Frontiers? (Washington DC: Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, 2011), pp. 48-49.
9. Nicole Jackson, “Trans-Regional Security Organisations and Statist Multilateralism in Eurasia,” Europe-Asia Studies, 66 (2) (2014): 181-203.
10. Shannon Tiezzi, “China Backs Russia on Ukraine,” The Diplomat, March 4, 2014, https://thediplomat.com/2014/03/china-backs-russia-on-ukraine/
11. Thomas S. Wilkins, “‘Alignment’, not ‘alliance’—the shifting paradigm of international security cooperation: toward a conceptual taxonomy of alignment,” Review of International Studies 38 (1) (2012): 68.
13. Samuel Bendett and Elsa B. Kania, “A New Sino-Russian High-Tech Partnership: Authoritarian Innovation in an Era of Great-Power Rivalry,” Canberra: Australian Strategic Policy Institute: International Cyber Policy Centre, 2019, p. 4.
Franz-Stefan Gady, “Russia Completes Delivery of Second S-400 Regiment to China,” The Diplomat, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/02/russia-completes-delivery-of-second-s-400-regiment-to-china/
15. These sanctions imposed on the PLA’ Equipment Development Department included “the denial of export licenses and a prohibition on transactions with the U.S. financial system.” See “US Sanctions China over Purchase of S-400 Air Defense Systems, Su-35 Fighter Jets from Russia,” The Diplomat, 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/09/us-sanctions-china-over-purchase-of-s-400-air-defense-system-su-35-fighter-jets-from-russia/
19. “Stenogramma Zasedaniia Soveta Glav Gosudarstv—Uchastnikov Shankhaiskoi Organizatsii Sotrudnichestva v Rasshirennom Sostave,” kremlin.ru, http://kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/49908; “Interv’iu Informatsionnym Agentstvam TASS i Sin’khua,,” http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/50207
20. “Interv’iu Informatsionnym Agentstvam TASS i‘Sin’khua.’”
23. Nadège Rolland, “A China-Russia Condominium over Eurasia,” Survival, 61, no. 1 (2019): 9.
26. “Zayavleniya Dlya Pressy Po Itogam Rossiysko-Kitayskikh Peregovorov [Press Statements Following Russian-Chinese Talks]”, kremlin.ru, http://kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/49433
28. Uuriintuya Batsaikhan and Marek Dabrowski, “Central Asia — twenty-five years after the breakup of the USSR,” Russian Journal of Economics 3, no. 3 (2017): 298.
29. Eurasian Economic Community, “Dogovor Ob Uchrezhdenii Yevraziyskogo Ekonomicheskogo Soobshchestva [Treaty Establishing the Eurasian Economic Community],” (2000).
30. Irina Tochitskaya, “The Customs Union between Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia: An Overview of Economic Implications for Belarus,” in CASE Network Studies & Analyses (Warsaw: CASE—Center for Social and Economic Research, 2010).
31. Eurasian Economic Commission, “Eurasian Economic Integration: Facts and Figures,” (Library of Eurasian Integration, 2016), http://www.eurasiancommission.org/en/Documents/Брошюра%20Цифры%20и%20факты%20итог%20англ.pdf.
33. David G. Tarr, “The Eurasian Economic Union: Can It Succeed Where Its Predecessor Failed?” Eastern European Economics 54, no. 1 (2016).
34. Eurasian Economic Commission, “Connecting Paths: 2018 Annual Report,” (2018).
35. World Bank, “Personal Remittances, Received (% of GDP) – Kyrgyz Republic,” (2018).
36. Sam Bhutia, “Can Uzbekistan Gain from EAEU Membership?,” Eurasianet (2020), https://eurasianet.org/canuzbekistan-gain-from-eaeu-membership.
38. Tarr, “The Eurasian Economic Union: Can It Succeed Where Its Predecessor Failed?”
40. Tristan Kenderdine, “Russia Sanctions Push Kazakhstan Closer to China,” Global Policy Journal (2018), https://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/blog/23/04/2018/russia-sanctions-push-kazakhstan-closer-china.
42. See for example, Reuel Hanks, “‘Multi-vector politics’ and Kazakhstan’s emerging role as a geo-strategic player in Central Asia”, Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies 11 (3) (2009): 257-267.
43. For a discussion of the development of Kazakhstan’s “geopolitical code” since independence see Thomas Ambrosio and William A. Lange, “Mapping Kazakhstan’s geopolitical code: an analysis of Nazarbayev’s presidential addresses, 1997—2014”, Eurasian Geography and Economics 55 (5) (2014): 537-559.
44. Zhao Huasheng, “‘Sichou zhi lu jingji dai’ de guanzhudian ji qierudian.” [Concerns and Breakthrough-Points of the Silk Road Economic Belt.] Xinjiang Shifan Daxue Xuebao [Zhexue Shehui Kexue Ban] 35 (3) (2014): 31.
45. Ibid at 32.
46. Pieper, “The linchpin of Eurasia.”
47. Shamil Midkhatovich Yenikeyeff “Energy Interests of the ‘Great Powers’ in Central Asia: Cooperation or Conflict?” The International Spectator, 46 (3) (2011): 70-72.
48. Bitabarova, “Unpacking Sino-Central Asian Engagement,” 162.
49. China Investment Tracker.
50. See “Plan sotrudnichestva po sopryazheniyu Novoi ekonomicheskoi politiki ‘Nurly Zhol’ i stroitelstva ‘Ekonomicheskogo poyasa shelkovogo puti’ mezhdu Pravitelstvom Respubliki Kazakhstan i Pravitelstvom Kitaiskoi Narodnoi Respubliki” [Plan of Cooperation for the Linking the New Economic Policy ‘Nurly Zhol’ and Construction of the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ Between the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan and the Government of the People’s Republic of China], approved by the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan on August 31, 2016, https://tengrinews.kz/zakon/pravitelstvo_respubliki_kazahstan_premer_ministr_rk/mejdunapodnyie_otnosheniya_respubliki_kazahstan/id-P1600000518/.
51. Nargis Kassenova, “China’s ‘Silk Road’ and Kazakhstan’s ‘Bright Path’: Linking Dreams of Prosperity” Asia Policy, (2017).
53. “Kitai perevedet v Kazakhstan 51 predpriyatie” [China will transfer 51 enterprises to Kazakhstan], Forbes.kz, September 2, 2016, https://forbes.kz/finances/markets/kitay_perevedet_v_kazahstan_51_predpriyatie
54. Forbes Kazakhstan (2019) V Pravitel’stve podveli itogi programi ‘Nurly Zhol’ na 2015—2019 [The Government Summarized the Results of ‘Nurly Zhol’ Programme for 2015—2019],
56. Niva Yau, “China business briefing: Mooove over, Australia”, Eurasianet, October 7, 2020, https://eurasianet.org/china-business-briefing-mooove-over-australia.
57. See for example: Chaofeng Chen, “China’s Self-Extrication from the ‘Malacca Dilemma’ and Implications,” International Journal of China Studies 1, no. 1 (2010), 1-24; and David Brewster, “Silk Roads and Strings of Pearls: The Strategic Geography of China’s New Pathways in the Indian Ocean,” Geopolitics (2016), 1-23.
58. W. Travis Selmier II, “Kazakhstan as Logistics Linchpin in the Belt and Road Initiative”, in Irina Heim (ed.), Kazakhstan’s Diversification from the Natural Resource Sector: Geopolitical and Economic Opportunities (London: Palgrave, 2020): 178.
59. Catherine Putz, “Central Asia Gassing Up China”, The Diplomat, November 7, 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/11/central-asia-gassing-up-china/
60. BP Statistical Review of World Energy, June 2018, https://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/business-sites/en/global/corporate/pdfs/energy-economics/statistical-review/bp-stats-review-2018-full-report.pdf
61. W. Travis Selmier II, “Kazakhstan as Logistics Linchpin.”
62. Pieper, “The linchpin of Eurasia.”
63. Ambrosio and Lange, “Mapping Kazakhstan’s geopolitical code,” 537, 555.
64. See for example, Anna Dolgov, “Kazakhs Worried after Putin Questions History of Country’s Independence,” The Moscow Times, September 1, 2014, http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/kazakhs-worried-after-putin-questions-history-of-country-s-independence/506178.html; and Erica Marat, “How Russki Mir Enters Central Asian Politics,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, January 22, 2015, http://new.cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/13130-how-russkii-mir-enters-central-asian-politics.html.
65. See Ksenia Kirkham, “The formation of the Eurasian Economic Union: How successful is the Russian regional hegemony?” Journal of Eurasian Studies 7, no. 2 (2016): 111-128; Sultan Akimbekov, “Needless Rush: Another Look at Eurasian Integration,” Russia in Global Affairs, March 21, 2014, http://eng.globalaffairs.ru/Needless-Rush-16499; and Moritz Pieper, “The linchpin of Eurasia: Kazakhstan and the Eurasian economic union between Russia’s defensive regionalism and China’s new Silk Roads,” International Politics (2020), https://doi.org/10.1057/s41311-020-00244-6.
66. Assel G. Bitabarova, ‘Unpacking Sino-Central Asian Engagement along the New Silk Road: A Case Study of Kazakhstan’, Journal of Contemporary East Asia Studies 7, no. 2 (2018): 157.
67. Ivan Zuenko, “Odin ‘Poyas’, Dva Puti: Vospriyatie Kitaiskih Integratsionnyh Proektov v Rossiii Kazakhstane (2014-2017) [One ‘Belt’, Two Roads: Perceptions of China’s Integration Initiatives in Russia and Kazakhstan (2014-2017)]” Rossiia i ATR, no. 1 (2018): 118-132
68. See for example: Michael Clarke, “The Belt and Road Initiative: Exploring Beijing’s Motivations and Challenges for its New Silk Road”, Strategic Analysis 42, no. 1 (2018): 84-102; and Mark Beeson, “Geoeconomics with Chinese characteristics: The BRI and China’s evolving grand strategy”, Economic and Political Studies 6, no. 3 (2018): 240-256.
69. Nargis Kassenova, “More Politics Than Substance: Three Years of Russian and Chinese Economic Cooperation in Central Asia”, Foreign Policy Research Institute, https://www.fpri.org/article/2018/10/more-politics-than-substance-thee-years-of-russian-and-chinese-economic-cooperation-in-central-asia/.
70. Dana Rice’s personal interview with official at Analytical Support Section, Eurasian Economic Commission, Moscow, November 13, 2019.