While the rise of Russia and China has received no shortage of Western attention in the past year, less has been said about the dynamics between these two power players, or about the states that are most affected by their evolving, ever cautious relationship. There is perhaps no region more crucial to the interests of both states than Central Asia — and notably Kazakhstan, a post-Soviet economic standout with rich oil stores, a prime strategic location, and ethnographic assets that satisfy both countries’ dreams of resurgent historical empires.
As Russia and China continue to look to this Central Asian state as a key player in their respective foreign policy strategies, Kazakhstan is bound to feel the impact. Whether the effects will be positive or negative remains to be seen, and will depend on a variety of internal and external factors. Either way, they’ll be dramatic: as a Brookings Institute fellow put it on a recent trip to the capital of Astana, “I couldn’t help feeling that I was at, or at least close to, the center of the universe.”
Kazakhstan is no stranger to being used as a pawn in a game between rivals. For most of the 19th century, competition between the British and Russian Empires bore out in Central Asia, resulting in decades of intricate foreign policy moves famously dubbed “the great game.” Today, Russia and China are both powerfully drawn to Kazakhstan, albeit for slightly different reasons. The Kazakh territory was politically aligned with Moscow from the 1890s until the collapse of the Soviet Union. The country’s population is 25% ethnically Russian, and the majority of Kazakh citizens speak Russian as their first language. (To the dismay of local nationalists, a recent poll suggested that a full third of people living in Kazakhstan do not understand the Kazakh language.)
There are important cultural links tying the nation to China as well. A sizable community of ethnic Uyghurs straddles the Kazakhstan-China border, and those living on the Chinese side have a long history of sectarian discontent and marginalization. This repressed minority, largely resentful of Beijing rule, is concentrated in the Xinjiang province along the Kazakhstan border. China depends significantly on Astana to maintain stability in the area and dampen Uyghur nationalism. So far, Kazakhstan appears to have proven a trustworthy partner in this, denying visas and citizenship to the steady stream of Chinese Uyghurs who cross the border.
The interests of Russia and China in their Central Asian neighbor go beyond issues of national identity, however. Kazakhstan has also played a significant role in each country’s recent economic strategy. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev was the original proponent of the idea of an economic union between post-Soviet states, and the country since became one of the first countries to join the Eurasian Economic Union with Russia. Note that this E.U. competitor has not yielded significant benefits for Kazakhstan in itself. Still, the post-Soviet period has seen significant investment in Kazakhstan by Russians who flocked to the Kazakh business sector for its less expensive opportunities and relative legal protections. The two countries do around $25 billion in trade every year.
But developing economic ties with China appear even more important. An oil pipeline directly connecting the two countries pumps nearly 20 million tons of crude per year into the Xinjiang province, and China recently invested another $5 billion to develop additional Kazakh oil fields. There is other evidence that China and Kazakhstan could plan to quite literally cut Russia out of the mix: the countries have announced plans to construct a “new Silk Road.” The ambitious high-speed rail system will cut beneath Russia through Kazakhstan and enable ground travel between China and Europe in only two days (compared to the three weeks such a journey would take now.) This reaffirms the view that China’s international ambitions will rely heavily on the Kazakh partnership.
While Kazakhstan international profile is rising thanks to the support of these two global partners, there is trepidation associated with boosting one’s position via alliances with great powers with dueling interests. For now, though, Russo-Sino relations are warmer than they’ve been in recent memory. Moscow’s alienation from the West — and the economic sanctions that come with it — have thrust the country toward new partnerships with their eastern neighbor. In theory, this means that Kazakhstan can enjoy the status of a mutual friend rather than a contested one.
Still, Astana appears to be hedging its bets. Russian military aggression in eastern Ukraine has put all former Soviet republics on the alert. And because Russia’s claim to the Donbass region is largely steeped in linguistic and cultural ties, Kazakhstan perhaps has more to fear than most. A cautious Astana has recently begun to explore the creation of a Central Asian security council to replicate the one in the E.U. The country also passed recent legislation to bolster the Kazakh language and swap the Cyrillic alphabet for the Latin one, which indicates a drift from Russia. Nonetheless, Kazakhstan seems to be holding more cards in its relationship with Russia than Ukraine does.
Finally, the current geopolitics look to bode well for the rise of Kazakhstan in 2015, but negative internal factors could affect its prominence and stability. Kazakhstan’s economy is comparatively strong for the region, but it remains dominated by oil. And like Russia, Kazakhstan has suffered greatly from tumbling prices. Nazarbayev’s two-decade rule has been stable but authoritarian and human rights complaints have been growing ever louder. The country is sure to grab headlines in the coming year, but it’s still unresolved what the stories will be.