China and Kazakhstan edge closer together

Nov 17, 2008 01:00 AM

by Martin McCauley

For China, Kazakhstan is the most important of the Central Asian states. This is made clear by Beijing referring to their partnership as "strategic".
So why is it exactly that Astana is the most important capital for Beijing?

Kazakhstan shares a long border with the Xinjiang autonomous region, home to Uyghurs and other Muslim nationalities. It is also potentially fabulously rich in minerals, oil and gas, not to mention being the bread basket of Central Asia. Energy security is very important to China, and oil and gas from Kazakhstan and from two other countries in the region -- Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan -- is less subject to disruption than imports from the Middle East.
Kazakhstan is courted by Russia, China and the US because of its strategic position and its potential mineral wealth. In the oil sector it has attempted to give equal prominence to all three competing states. In this way it seeks to avoid becoming dependent on any one of them.

China was a late arrival on the Central Asian scene, only making an impact in the last five years. Sino-Kazakh trade turnover is expected to reach $ 15 bn this year. China has been buying oil fields but, owing to its late arrival, it has only been able to acquire those of marginal importance. A Sino-Kazakh oil pipeline is being constructed and Chinese companies have concentrated their attention on deposits near this pipeline.
Beijing is, however, a major player in the oil sector. It takes part in the running of about a quarter of the Kazakh oil industry. This is due to the fact that Kazakhstan does not permit Chinese companies to operate on their own. They must enter into joint ventures with the Kazakh state oil company.

Two sections of the oil pipeline from the Caspian to the Chinese border are already operational. The third section, which runs through the central Kazakh desert, should be completed in 2011. This will increase the pipeline capacity to 20 mm tons annually, representing about 5 % of Chinese oil imports. Discussions are ongoing about doubling the pipeline's capacity.
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are constructing a 2,000-km pipeline to carry gas to China. The capacity will be 30 bn cm, with each of the three countries contributing a third. The original completion date was the end of 2009 but this is unlikely to be met because of delays in Turkmenistan.

Of the three states, Turkmen reserves are the largest. However, the Karachaganak deposits in Kazakhstan are vast and could make Kazakhstan the largest source of gas in Central Asia. Talks have begun about extending the pipeline to the Karachaganak field.
Hence China will be fiercely competing for this gas with the Russian state-owned gas and oil giant, Gazprom. The European Union, backed by the United States, is contemplating building gas and oil pipelines across the Caspian Sea to Turkey and then on to Europe. The Kazakh government can play one suitor off against the other.

China is keenly interested in Kazakhstan's huge deposits of uranium and in its hydroelectric potential. Water is a contentious issue in Central Asia and there has been tension between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over water rights. Some experts think that this could spill over into military conflict. China is building huge dams to generate hydroelectric power in Xinjiang, and this is restricting the flow of water into Kazakhstan. Astana is frustrated by the refusal of Beijing to discuss the issue.
Military collaboration is an even thornier subject. Most officers in the Kazakh military are Russian-trained, and there are only a few who have attended Chinese military academies. Kazakhstan is wary of a closer military relationship with China because it would antagonise the Russians. Most Kazakh military hardware is Russian. The United States would like military bases in Kazakhstan but this would be opposed by Russia and China.

Kazakhstan and China see eye to eye over the Islamist threat to Central Asia. This is most pronounced in Uzbekistan and southern Kyrgyzstan, where Hizb ut-Tahrir is well established. China and Central Asia share a common attitude to militant Islam. However, some Kazakh specialists regard China's policies in Xinjiang, where it is very difficult for Uyghurs and other Muslims to acquire advanced education, as potentially dangerous. They suggest this might lead Muslims to regard Islam as a religion of liberation.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are challenging for dominance in Central Asia. As far as China is concerned, Astana is the more important capital and is pushing for closer links. To the apparent disapproval of Russia.

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