Kazakhstan holds the keys to a new geopolitical balance in Asia

Sergei Guneyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev shake hands after a news conference following talks in Moscow on Feb. 10, 2022.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, global geopolitics is shifting rapidly. While the U.S. successfully shaped a unified response to Russia’s aggression, it is overlooking a critical piece of a new geopolitical landscape: Kazakhstan and Central Asia. Kazakhstan’s summit meetings this month with China, Russia and the European Union underscore the urgency of a new U.S. strategy in the region.

The Central Asian countries wedged between Russia to the north and China to the east are critical balancers between the U.S., Europe, Russia and China. All but the U.S. have wooed Kazakhstan this month. Early in June, China’s Foreign Minister spent four days in the country planning a state visit for Chinese leader Xi Jinping in the fall. Sharing the stage in St. Petersburg with Russian President Vladimir Putin in mid-June, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev left a diplomatic opening, refusing to endorse Russia’s war in Ukraine. Last week’s meeting of the EU-Kazakhstan Cooperation Council in Luxembourg sought to deepen Kazakhstan’s connections to Europe.

A courtship for Kazakhstan has begun in earnest. Through the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Russia offers international security and domestic stability. In January 2022, at Kazakhstan’s invitation, Russia deployed troops to quell domestic unrest. China offers the country economic growth. Kazakh-Chinese trade increased at an annualized rate of 14.9 percent for the past 25 years. The Belt and Road Initiative will add over $25 billion to the Kazakh economy and reduce shipping times and costs.

In contrast, U.S. engagement has been uninspired. With the fall of the Soviet Union, U.S. diplomacy focused on nuclear security and economic reform. After 9/11, the U.S. sought intelligence and logistics support for the war on terrorism. Today the U.S. offers foreign assistance to a country rapidly becoming economically independent. The U.S. must act more decisively to build on Europe’s engagement and ensure Kazakhstan does not drift closer to China or back to Russia.

Kazakhstan is critical to U.S. national interests in a world of great power rivalry. A paramount U.S. goal in the region is to prevent the “unlimited alliance” between Russia and China announced this year from becoming a unified, autocratic block. Spanning nearly 2,000 miles across the heart of the Asian continent, Kazakhstan can either hold that alliance together or spoil it. The country is critical to both Russia’s sphere of influence and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

So too, Kazakhstan can again serve as a diplomatic bridge between Russia and the West. During the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, Kazakhstan effectively mediated between France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia. In 2015, after Turkey downed a Russian jet over the Turkish-Syrian border, Kazakhstan brought the two sides to the table. Potential solutions in Ukraine require a mediator with credibility on all sides. Kazakhstan has it, as well as close economic ties with China that could lend an imprimatur of Beijing’s support.

Kazakhstan can also help bridge Europe’s transition away from Russian energy. It has the reserves and pipeline connectivity to partially fill the supply gap. With the second largest proven oil reserves in Eurasia and 14th largest gas reserves in the world, Kazakhstan has available supply. Connected to the underutilized Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, it has direct links to Europe’s energy consumers. 

The U.S. needs a more compelling approach. First, to ensure Kazakhstan and its neighbors remain independent balancers, the US.. must not ask too much. These countries must maintain relations with Moscow and Beijing, Washington and Brussels. It would be unrealistic to expect Kazakhstan to sever relations with Moscow or Beijing. It is, in fact, those very relations that make it such a potentially useful — if limited — partner for the U.S.

Second, the U.S. must help buttress the region’s economic connections with the West, giving it an alternative to Russia and China. The U.S. should join with Europe under the EU-Kazakhstan Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement to invest beyond China’s BRI, perhaps with support from both the Asian Development Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Ensuring that export lines remain open to Europe, despite war in Ukraine, is essential — Europe accounts for 40 percent of Kazakhstan’s external trade. Foreign direct investment is critical. Historically, the U.S. has provided 18 percent of foreign direct investment into the country and should build on this base through export credits and investment incentives. The EX-IM Bank’s paltry $14,000 of support for exports to Kazakhstan in 2020 must be increased significantly.

Third, the U.S. should distinguish itself from China and Russia by supporting — not imposing — democracy and institutional reform urgently needed following January unrest. It is not clear whether President Tokayev’s new commitments to limit presidential power and restore the judiciary can be trusted. The U.S. should cautiously support his efforts, while simultaneously strengthening relations with others committed both to implementing the reform goals expressed in a referendum last month and ensuring an independent Kazakh foreign policy.

Finally, the U.S. must not allow Kazakhstan and the region to be caught in the crossfire of the Ukraine war. Doing so will push Kazakhstan toward Beijing or Moscow. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s expressed commitment to Kazakhstan’s foreign minister to minimize the impact of sanctions is a start. Kazakhstan relies on Russian oil pipelines for exports and risks direct, chilling effects from energy sanctions. The U.S. should clarify the reach of sanctions and grant Office of Foreign Assets Control licenses where necessary. While the region’s powerful business leaders are far from perfect, they provide essential political and economic links between Russia and the West. The U.S. must scrupulously avoid driving them into the arms of Moscow and Beijing through sanctions that go too far.

William Burke-White is a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, nonresident senior fellow of The Brookings Institution, and was a member of the Secretary of State’s policy planning staff from 2009-2011. Mochen (Phil) Ma, a JD candidate at Penn, contributed to this article.

Tags Belt and Road initiative China Kassym-Jomart Tokayev Kazakhstan Kazakhstan–United States relations Russia

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