The rift between China and Russia has recently become clear in Kazakhstan. At the beginning of 2022, Kazakhstan, the largest and most politically stable country in Central Asia, had its biggest riots since it gained its independence in December 1991. On January 5, at the request of Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) decided to send peacekeepers (in effect, Russian troops) to stabilize the situation and assist in the crackdown.
In reality, Russia's intervention did much more than calm the situation down: It helped to put an end to the Nazarbayev era. In fact, even though Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned as president of Kazakhstan in 2019 after being in power for 29 years, he retained substantial power. By taking Tokayev's side, Russia neutralized politically and militarily Nazarbayev's sympathizers, who were challenging Tokayev's power. Kazakh President Tokayev also removed Nazarbayev's confidant, Karim Massimov, from his post as head of the National Security Committee and placed him in custody.
The forceful "purge" of the Nazarbayev camp from politics poses a number of challenges for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Nazarbayev and his circle were politically and economically close to China, but now, due to the victory of the Tokayev camp, that the power has been tilted completely toward Russia and China has lost influence in an important fulcrum for the CCP's peripheral geostrategic interests. Hence, it is clear that the true nature of China-Russia relations is far from being unbreakable as advertised by Beijing or Moscow, but rather, the two countries are strange bedfellows, with different agendas and a fragile relationship. In fact, Russia's military assistance to Tokayev looks like a move to establish Moscow's influence back in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan and push Chinese influence out of the country and out of all of Central Asia.
The victory of the Tokayev camp has been considered a defeat for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has even been obliged to support Tokayev (who, by the way, speaks fluent Chinese), after the removal of the Nazarbayev camp. This has been seen as a real humiliation for Xi. Hence, in an attempt to save face (in China, the concept of "face" is so important that "losing face" may even be more frightening than the loss of life), Xi sent a message to Tokayev, stating: "You took decisive and strong action at the critical moment, quickly calming down the situation, which has shown your responsibility and commitment as a statesman and highly responsible stance toward the country and the people. As a fraternal neighbor and permanent comprehensive strategic partner of Kazakhstan, China is ready to provide necessary support to the best of its capacity to help Kazakhstan tide over the difficulties."
Xi then added: "China firmly opposes any forces undermining Kazakhstan's stability, threatening Kazakhstan's security, and damaging the peaceful life of the Kazakh people. China firmly opposes any deliberate attempt by external forces to provoke unrest and instigate a 'color revolution' in Kazakhstan, as well as any attempt to harm the China-Kazakhstan friendship and disrupt the cooperation between the two countries. No matter what risks and challenges Kazakhstan encounters, China will always be a trustworthy friend and reliable partner of Kazakhstan." In a rare emotional tone, Xi then stressed: "The Chinese people will forever stand with the Kazakh people."
However, if Xi wanted to "save face," the result was quite the opposite. In the hope of keeping China relevant in Kazakhstan, Xi actually supported Tokayev in his message and consequently (even if he did not mention it directly) the efforts of the Russia-led CSTO, which can be defined as a "rival" organization to the CCP-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Hence, after having been "betrayed," Xi had still to dance to Russian President Vladimir Putin's tune and praise Tokayev. A real loss of face.
The simple truth is that at a time when the CCP was busy confronting the U.S. and the West, intimidating Taiwan, forcing the so-called Zero Covid policy at home, frantically shutting down cities like Xi'an, and making final preparations for the major face-saving event, the Beijing Winter Olympics, Russia acted fast and decisively and stabbed China in the back. China's decades-long efforts in Kazakhstan were smashed overnight. The time, the manpower, the resources that China has spent to cultivate its own influence in Kazakhstan will most likely become a thing of the past, and the industries and projects that China has been operating in Kazakhstan for decades will also become the spoils of war for Russia.
China has now lost control on its own backyard. Russia's influence in Kazakhstan could even threaten China's 1,500-kilometer border with the Central Asian country. In theory, Russia could now even infiltrate and influence events in Xinjiang. However, the main humiliation is that Russia, with a shrinking economy, delivered to China, an economic superpower, a major blow to its political strength and legitimacy in the region.
After the end of the Cold War, facing the power vacuum in Central Asia, Russia and China initiated the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) respectively to construct their own regional international order. In fact, the members and missions (maintaining regional security, combating terrorism, and strengthening regional cooperation) of the two organizations overlap to a large extent. The relationship between the two organizations was from the very beginning far more competitive than cooperative.
Russia, which has always seen Central Asia as its own backyard, has been lukewarm about the SCO's activities, preferring it to be a regional economic organization for economic gain rather than a political or military one. After the outbreak of the crisis in Kazakhstan, the SCO did offer to help Kazakhstan, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry also offered to promote the SCO to play a role in the crisis. However, Russia completely ignored this and took actions bypassing China and the SCO.
In fact, Russia has violated the SCO Charter, which stipulates that the member States of SCO "seek no unilateral military superiority in adjacent areas," adhere to a "search of common positions on the basis of mutual understanding and respect for opinions of each of them; gradual implementation of joint activities in the spheres of mutual interest." At present, the role of the CSTO as a political and military alliance has been further strengthened, and the SCO has become a mere ornament, unable to intervene at all. It will be now more difficult for the SCO to exert its political influence in Central Asia.
Furthermore, in the economic field, Kazakhstan will prioritize the integration into the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (by the way, Nazarbayev himself put forward the idea of creating the Eurasian Union in 1994), so the space of the SCO in Central Asia's economic cooperation will be further squeezed out.
Kazakhstan is also an important fulcrum of China's foreign strategy. Among a series of international strategic frameworks initiated by China, Kazakhstan is a rare country that has participated in all of them, including the SCO, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Kazakhstan is actually an important transit channel and strategic fulcrum of the BRI strategy, and the most convenient passage for China to communicate with the whole Eurasian continent. The Kazakhstan section of the Eurasian Land Bridge is nearly 3,000 kilometers long, and Kazakhstan plays the role of the "Strait of Malacca" on land. Hence, with Russia now comfortably in control of Kazakhstan, Putin can (if he chooses) scrap Xi's proudest and most gloating strategy of the BRI.
Nevertheless, it is worth noting that even the so-called China-friendly Nazarbayev was not China's ally. Nazarbayev has always pursued the strategic philosophy of drawing in the U.S. and the West, keeping a watchful eye on Russia, and guarding against China, which is called "multilateral and equidistant diplomacy." To put it simply, it means that he trusted neither Russia nor China.
Recently, some Chinese media have offered a frank reflection on the events in Kazakhstan, stating that Putin was the biggest winner and acknowledging the CCP's huge losses. However, the reflection of these media also believes that no matter how the situation changes, it is difficult for Kazakhstan to get rid of its economic dependence on China. Yet, the problem is that what happened in Kazakhstan sets a precedent for other countries in Central Asia. Russia now may plan to monopolize the strategic space in Central Asia, and China's Belt and Road strategy will henceforth be subject to Moscow. After all, Putin has seen more clearly that Xi Jinping is ambitious but is unprepared to be a regional leader. The complete inadequacy of China to react to the events in Kazakhstan has shown that Beijing is a paper tiger.
Ironically, it is Russia that has leverage over China. Xi may need to make concessions to curry favor with Russia. If Putin turns against Xi, the CCP's strategic arrangements around the region, especially in the West (toward Central Asia), in the North (toward Mongolia) and South (toward India and Vietnam) could take a sharp turn for the worse.
*Chris King is Senior Research Fellow for the MEMRI Chinese Media Studies Project. King was an active participant in the student protests in China in 1989.