Kazakhstan’s Balancing Act with Russia, China, and the West

Kazakhstan has been catching the attention of Western countries recently. Through projects like China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the complementary Middle Corridor, both of which pass through Kazakhstan, the country is becoming an important bridge and a global hub for trade and diplomacy between the economies of Europe and Asia. Consequently, Kazakhstan’s foreign policy has major implications for the East and West. Its policies and alliances could greatly influence trade, economic stability, and diplomatic relations in the wider Eurasian region.

Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has repeatedly stated that Kazakhstan needs to foster mutually beneficial and pragmatic cooperation with all foreign partners, including its neighbours. By prioritizing diplomatic and economic cooperation with Russia, China, and the West, Kazakhstan aims to position itself as a balancing influence in Central Asia.

Russia is one of the key trade and economic partners for Kazakhstan, largely due to their shared Soviet legacy and geographic proximity. The two countries have concluded around 300 bilateral agreements, which cover various sectors and remain in force to this day.

Meanwhile, relations with China have reached new heights in recent years thanks to high-level visits and agreements. As a result, China has become the country’s largest trade partner with bilateral trade hitting $31 billion in 2023, a notable increase from over $24 billion in 2022. China is now one of the largest investors in Kazakhstan, having invested over $24 billion over the past 18 years. Kazakhstan’s geographical position is highly beneficial for the transit of Chinese goods. The Central Asian country thus remains key to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Joint projects like the development of the Middle Corridor and the construction of a railway line from Ayagoz (Kazakhstan) to Tacheng (China) are making Kazakhstan’s territory an indispensable transit route for China. The countries have also mutually abolished visas to strengthen economic and cultural relations.

Astana’s deepening ties with Russia and China pose dilemmas for Western countries. While the EU and the United States would prefer if Kazakhstan reduced its engagement with Moscow and Beijing, this is unrealistic given Kazakhstan’s geographical proximity, historical linkages, and substantial economic interests with its two powerful neighbours. Instead, Kazakhstan’s strategy is based on pragmatic considerations. Rather than choosing sides, this approach is more about maximizing national interests, necessitating close cooperation with immediate neighbours while standing firm on the principles of the UN Charter—a path followed nowadays by many other “middle powers” as well.

Yet, Kazakhstan’s interactions with Russia and China do not take much away from its relationship with Western countries. In fact, Kazakhstan acts as a conduit for trade and collaboration between the East and West. By maintaining close ties with all sides, Kazakhstan can contribute to reducing political tensions and facilitating a more cooperative international atmosphere through economic cooperation between Asia and Europe. For example, cargo transportation via the Middle Corridor (the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route), of which Kazakhstan is a key node, saw a significant increase to 274,200 tons in January 2024 – a 147 percent rise from January 2023. This trade route is emerging as a major alternative for East-West transportation via Russia, with a capacity to handle up to 6 million tons of cargo. In 2023, the volume of goods transported via this corridor reached 2.76 million tons, a 65 percent increase from 2022. The aim is to reach an annual throughput capacity of 10 million tons by 2027 by upgrading infrastructure and terminal facilities, expanding ports and rolling stock, reducing administrative barriers, and creating favorable conditions for transport companies.

Geopolitically, this year will be significant for Kazakhstan, as the country is chairing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), the Organization of Turkic States, the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea, and the Islamic Food Security Organization. Holding the chairmanship of the SCO, which was established by China, Russia, and Central Asian states to foster trust among its member states, positions Kazakhstan at the forefront of major discussions on security and economic cooperation in Eurasia. Additionally, as chair of the CICA, Kazakhstan seeks to enhance dialogue among Asian countries, addressing issues such as sustainable development, economic collaboration, and environmental protection that mirror the diverse interests and challenges of the Asian continent.

Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea is particularly poignant, given the ecological catastrophe the region has been facing. The country will be hoping to attract international attention and support for projects to rehabilitate the ecology of the Aral Sea and the surrounding areas. Lastly, leading the Islamic Food Security Organization gives Kazakhstan the opportunity to tackle food security issues within the Islamic world, an increasing important task amidst climate change, regional conflicts, and economic disruptions.

Kazakhstan is also hoping to enhance dialogue and cooperation on bilateral and multilateral levels with the second edition of the Astana International Forum (AIF) to be held in June 2024. International leaders meet annually at the forum to discuss peacemaking, climate change, energy security, financial stability, among other issues. Building on the 2023 inaugural conference, the AIF will seek to maintain these discussions in response to the growing global complexities.

Ultimately, Kazakhstan’s approach revolves around cooperation, dialogue, and mutual benefit. This path is dictated by pragmatic necessity, given Kazakhstan’s geopolitical positioning in Eurasia. Surrounded by powerful neighbours and key global actors, Kazakhstan has no other alternative but to craft and implement a balanced foreign policy, which protects its national security. These alliances are creating new trade and exchange routes that go beyond traditional geopolitical lines. In a world marked by shifting power dynamics and emerging global challenges, Kazakhstan’s even-handed approach could be an example for other nations aiming to retain their sovereignty while actively participating in world affairs.

[Photo by Akorda, the Presidential Palace of Kazakhstan]

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

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