China provided Kazakhstan’s president strong verbal support for his deadly crackdown to calm protests, but remained silent while Russia brought in special forces troops.
Resource-rich Kazakhstan, located on China’s western border, is an important economic and strategic link in Beijing’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure initiative, which aims to expand China’s global trade and political influence in competition with the United States and its allies.
China’s response to the crisis demonstrates how it prefers to sway outcomes through verbal assurances and offers of assistance rather than deploying troops.
“With Russia and China becoming closer, we may expect increased rhetorical support for Moscow’s abroad activities, especially when they conflict with Western geostrategic goals,” said Rana Mitter, an Oxford University China expert.
“However, China is highly hesitant to deploy People’s Liberation Army forces outside of its own borders, save in areas such as UN peacekeeping operations,” Mitter added.
WHAT ARE CHINA’S CENTRAL ASIA GOALS?
China has steadily grown its economic and political power in a region that Russia considers its own backyard since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan is crucial, serving as the buckle in China’s “Belt and Road” effort, and its authoritarian politics serve as a bulwark against democratic movements in Ukraine and elsewhere, which China dismisses as “color revolutions” orchestrated by the West.
China’s ruling Communist Party, which violently suppressed its own pro-democracy movement in 1989, sees such movements as a threat to its own stability, whether in Georgia or Hong Kong. Chinese President Xi Jinping said his country would “resolutely oppose external forces deliberately creating unrest” in a message to Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev amid the unrest.
According to Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, China’s influence in Central Asia is still limited, and Kazakhstan may be wary of inviting in Chinese troops because of China’s harsh treatment of ethnic Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities within its borders.
“Making the globe safe for authoritarian nations and preventing color revolutions from spreading is a key element of China’s foreign policy under Xi,” Tsang added.
China frequently vows retaliation for any criticism of its policies, especially when the offenders are the U.S. and its allies. It is significantly more tolerant of autocrats, promising non-interference and cooperation with whoever is in power, regardless of their human rights or corruption histories.
This is evident in its dealings with regimes that others despise, ranging from Myanmar’s military authorities to Hungary’s Viktor Orban.
While Beijing does not recognize the Taliban, it is hedging its bets in Afghanistan by cooperating with the country’s current rulers, despite their support for the kind of radical Islam Beijing has been trying to keep out of its restive, largely Muslim region of Xinjiang, which shares a narrow border with Afghanistan and a much larger one with Kazakhstan.
China typically saves military and other action for situations in which it perceives its own security is threatened, such as the 1950-53 Korean War or, more recently, violent incidents along its disputed border with India, and especially with Taiwan, which China threatens to invade unless it agrees to unite.
When Lithuania defied diplomatic convention by permitting Taiwan to open a representative office in Vilnius under the name “Taiwan” rather than “Chinese Taipei,” Beijing retaliated with brutal commercial and diplomatic reprisal.
WHAT IS CHINA’S POINT OF VIEW ON MILITARY ALLIANCES?
The Collective Security Treaty Organization, a collection of six former Soviet states, dispatched troops to Kazakhstan last week at the president’s request amid extraordinary violence. Although China officially opposes such security alliances, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which Beijing and Moscow jointly control, does include a security component, which is now confined to joint training and other non-combat tasks.
There is “no consensus regarding sending troops from member countries of the SCO,” unlike the CSTO, according to Chinese foreign security specialist Li Wei. “Moreover, China adheres to the fundamental concept of not employing force against other nations.”
China is quick to point out that it is the largest contributor of forces to such missions among the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
Given China’s growing military might, some experts predict that Beijing will become more receptive to military interventions in the future. Mitter also mentions a burgeoning “grey zone” of Chinese private security firms that can be utilized to safeguard Chinese interests “without any formal government participation,” according to Oxford’s Mitter.