Can Kazakhstan Convince Great Powers to Pursue Dialogue?

Amid strategic uncertainty in the international arena, China is intensifying efforts to counter the global influence of the United States. A few days ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for the Global South to have a greater say in international affairs, emphasizing that developing countries should be at the forefront of promoting the building of a community with a shared future for humanity.” Concerns are rising that growing confrontations, not only between Beijing and Washington but also among other major powers, could further destabilize the existing global system.  However, an unlikely source—Kazakhstan, the Central Asian nation hosting the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in its capital, Astana, this weekis able to contribute to lowering tensions and shifting the global agenda toward dialogue rather than conflict. This is reflected in the summit’s theme, “Strengthening Multilateral Dialogue – Striving Towards a Sustainable Peace and Prosperity.”

Xi’s statement comes amid China’s ongoing geopolitical tussle with the West, alongside joint military exercises in the East China Sea by the United States, Japan, and South Korea, highlighting the major powers’ intent on rivalry.

Using its position as chair of the SCO, which is not a military bloc but a regional organization representing over 3 billion people—about 45% of the world’s population—Kazakhstan is promoting an alternative message. Instead of confrontation and bloc mentality, Astana is advocating for diplomacy as a means to strengthen trust and a stable global order.

Despite being the ninth-largest country in the world, Kazakhstan has been underestimated for its political influence. However, this perception has been changing since President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s election in 2019, culminating in hosting the SCO summit with leaders from China, Russia, Pakistan, other members of the SCO, as well as UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

How did Kazakhstan manage to position itself prominently on the geopolitical map?

Over the past few years, Kazakhstan has been pursuing a pragmatic and balanced foreign policy. As President Tokayev recently pointed out, this approach is rooted in the country’s commitment to multilateral cooperation and adherence to the United Nations Charter.

Prioritizing its national interests, Kazakhstan has adeptly balanced its relations with the two neighboring giants – China and Russia – while fostering ties with Europe and the United States. Last year, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kazakhstan to deepen bilateral cooperation. In the same year, French President Emmanuel Macron and UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly also travelled to Astana to strengthen their countries’ strategic and economic ties with Kazakhstan – their main partner in Central Asia.

As a result of its diversified foreign policy, Kazakh diplomacy has been actively involved in finding compromise solutions to complex international issues. For instance, since 2017, the Central Asian state has been hosting the Astana Process, bringing together representatives from Syria, Russia, Türkiye, and Iran to seek resolutions to the Syrian conflict. Additionally, on May 10-11, Kazakhstan hosted Azerbaijani and Armenian Foreign Ministers Jeyhun Bayramov and Ararat Mirzoyan in Almaty to discuss the normalization of relations between their countries. While Kazakhstan did not act as a mediator, it illustrated that promoting cooperation and dialogue remains a priority in its foreign policy. This is evident as Astana recently proposed a platform for talks between Russia and Ukraine.

Kazakhstan’s positive relations with countries often in conflict, such as Russia and Ukraine, China and the United States, Azerbaijan and Armenia, and Israel and the Palestinian territories, grant Astana legitimacy to act as a buffer and stabilizing force among major powers. This positioning allows Kazakhstan to reduce tensions and potentially mediate conflicts. Under the leadership of President Tokayev, a former diplomat and Director-General of the U.N. Office at Geneva, Kazakhstan is gaining respect and authority not only among its neighbors but also among leaders in the West, Asia, and the Middle East.

That is why Kazakhstan is leveraging the SCO summit in Astana to promote the message that diplomacy, rather than hostilities, is key to resolving disagreements. President Tokayev proposed the joint development of the SCO Initiative “On World Unity for Just Peace and Harmony,” emphasizing the importance of collaboration among member states to foster global stability and peace. This political initiative has received unanimous support from all SCO member states and will be adopted at the Astana Summit.

“Hosting such a large-scale event demonstrates our country’s significant authority on the global stage,” the Kazakh leader stressed on June 27 at a meeting with media representatives.

The SCO summit in Astana signals a shift in global power dynamics, with middle powers like Kazakhstan assuming greater responsibility in developing new concepts for a stable global order.

The Central Asian nation is regarded as a reliable and predictable partner, counterbalancing the belligerent rhetoric often used by great powers. However, persuading these powers to prioritize diplomacy over confrontation is easier said than done. Central Asia is well aware of the impacts of great power rivalry, having been the stage for the “Great Game” in past superpower confrontations.

But in the current turbulent global political and economic conditions, Kazakhstan is promoting a narrative of “Big Opportunities” instead of the “Great Game,” focusing on the opportunities offered by Central Asia’s untapped natural resources and the potential of expanding trade routes between Asia and Europe that traverse the region, including the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route. Astana is persistently telling the world that cooperation and dialogue will lead to global prosperity. However, only time will tell if the world powers will listen.

[Representational image: SCO summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan in 2022. Credit: Prime Minister’s Office, India, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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