U.S. should not let China replace Russia in Central Asia

By Kamran Bokhari
Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) and his wife, Peng Liyuan, pose for a photo with Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev before a banquet during the Second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in April. File Pool Photo by Xie Huanchi/UPI
Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) and his wife, Peng Liyuan, pose for a photo with Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev before a banquet during the Second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in April. File Pool Photo by Xie Huanchi/UPI | License Photo

Aug. 2 (UPI) -- China's President, Xi Jinping, has had a busy summer traveling across Eurasia with the first stop being Russia (June 5-7). This was followed by a trip to Kyrgyzstan for the Shanghai Cooperation Council summit (June 12-14). Then on June 15-16, Xi was in Tajikistan for a bilateral visit and to attend the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA). These visits underscore Beijing's ongoing concerted push to emerge as the dominant player in Central Asia, where the Russian footprint is slowly receding, and the United States has not paid much attention.

Central Asia is the one region on the planet where Russia and China have enjoyed greater influence than the United States. However, this situation is rapidly changing, especially because Russian power projection capabilities are waning. The Chinese are trying to seize upon the opportunity to expand their influence through major financial investments in their Belt & Road Initiative. The United States is thus faced with both a historical opportunity to fill an emerging geopolitical vacuum in the Eurasian heartland and the threat of China becoming a major landpower.


At a time when China is engaged in this westward push, Kazakhstan is in the throes of a critical transition. Fortunately,the country's political transition has been carefully planned by the man who steered the country out of the imploding Soviet Union nearly three decades ago. Former President Nursultan Nazarbayev is trying to ensure that Kazakhstan continues to remain on the path of economic growth at a time when Beijing, Moscow and Washington are all competing for influence in his country.

His successor and newly elected president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, is highly experienced when it comes to foreign affairs but now he has to prove that he can lead on the domestic political front. Tokayev won the June 9 election to become the successor to the founder of post-Soviet Kazakhstan. A longtime ally of Nazarbayev, the new president has held a number of top positions including: chairman of the Senate (2013-19 and 2007-11); director-general of the United Nations office in Geneva (2011-13); prime minister (1999-2002); and foreign minister (1994-99 and 2002-07).

The key thing to note here is that unlike many other long-serving heads of state, Nazarbayev voluntarily initiated the process of transition. By stepping down as president while he still maintains decent health, Nazarbayev is trying to ensure that his country moves forward without him. It goes without saying that the Kazakh state needs to balance between continuity in terms of stability and change via a reform process. Of course, it is too early to tell how this process will unfold as Tokayev assumes greater leadership and Nazarbayev's influence naturally begins to wane.


What will help Kazakhstan move forward is its immense economic potential as an energy powerhouse. The Kazakh economy is dominated by its energy sector, making up nearly 20 percent of the gross domestic product. The country exports 78 percent of its oil production, regionally and along large trunk lines to China and Russia. Along with its agricultural and metals wealth, Kazakhstan's energy sector has made the country highly valuable to its neighbors.

That said, Kazakhstan must begin to think about global energy transition and diversify its economy away from hydrocarbons as oil demand is expected to drop dramatically over the course of the next 20 years. There is massive potential for renewables such as solar and wind across the Kazakh steppe. The country has been increasing its "green portfolio" to attract foreign direct investment and bolster energy security. The 100-megawatt Saran facility located on 405 acres and using 307,664 solar panels from Canadian Solar, is considered the largest solar plant in Central Asia.

Energy Minister Kanat Bozumbayev revealed that the government wants to increase non-fossil-fueled generation to 10 percent of the country's total generation by 2030. According to Bozumbayev, as many as 60 renewable energy installations with a total capacity of 531 megawatts have been built and are operating in Kazakhstan. Another 50 renewable energy installations with total generation capacity of 2,353 megawatts are expected to come online over the next year. In the here and now though, Kazakhstan's status as a major energy producer means Russia and China (with whom the Kazakhs have long borders) have deep interests.


Without rocking the boat, Kazakhstan has been trying to distance itself from Russia; its policy of transitioning its alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin is a key case in point. At the same time, the Kazakhs also do not want the Chinese, using their financial prowess, to step into the space that the Russians have held for centuries. Nazarbayev was adept at balancing between Moscow and Beijing. Moving forward, Tokayev will need help from the United States to manage the shifting geopolitical sands in the region.

Despite its declining economic capacity, Moscow will not go quietly into the night. Meanwhile, Beijing with far greater financial bandwidth is determined to expand its tentacles throughout the region. Thus, neither has an interest in Kazakhstan's political economic reforms, but they are crucial for U.S. interests. Tokayev will be building upon the foundations laid down by his predecessor while dealing with a China determined to replace Russia as the regional hegemon.

It is, therefore, imperative that the United States help Kazakhstan reach its full potential. Toward this end, Tokayev must proceed in a way that caters to the concerns of the country's politically active citizenry. China, obviously, will work to undermine this process. It is critical that the United States increases its support for a stable and prosperous Kazakhstan, which is the key to countering Chinese strategic plans for the region.


Kamran Bokhari is a founding director of the Center for Global Policy and the coordinator for Central Asia studies at the State Department's Foreign Service Institute. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not an official policy or position of CGP, FSI or the U.S. Department of State. Follow him @KamranBokhari.

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