Kazakhstan’s Defence Cooperation with China

By David Harrison

Memorandum of intentions was signed between the Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Kazakhstan and the Ministry of Defence of People's Republic of China. Photo by Kadex
Memorandum of intentions signed between the Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Kazakhstan and the Ministry of Defence of People’s Republic of China in 2014. Photo by Kadex

Kazakhstan has faced many security challenges during its 23 years as an independent country. Its geo-strategic position at the heart of Eurasia has led to its adoption of a multi-vector foreign policy championed by its leader and widely emulated in the region. Consequently it has looked to maintain good relations with all its neighbors and has sought membership of a range of international organizations and institutions that it believes enhance its foreign policy objectives. In recent years China has included Central Asia as a region for its economic ambitions, and in the process China has challenged Russia’s historical dominance in this region. As China’s economic activity grows in the region, it would be reasonable to assume that China would seek influence in the sphere of regional defence and security, including that of Kazakhstan.

The majority of Kazakhstan’s defence policy has been modeled for historical reasons on that of Russia. Its equipment owes its origin to the military’s Soviet legacy, demonstrated in its military doctrine that was updated in 2011, showing close similarities to that of the Russian Armed Forces at the time and the military operating language remains in Russian. Yet for many years Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Defence has sought alternatives to assist with the professionalization of the armed forces and the modernisation of its equipment. As the fastest developing country in the region, Kazakhstan has been offered, and accepted, significant assistance from a range of countries including its traditional partner Russia, and more recently, from NATO and the United States. In 1994 it established a Partnership for Peace programme with NATO, which continues to this day. US engagement in Afghanistan over the decades resulted in deeper military cooperation with Central Asian states through high-level visits, military education in US, assistance on peacekeeping and advice on the professionalisation of the armed forces. Other European countries have also been active, particularly with the provision of equipment through joint ventures such as the helicopter project with Eurocopter, while India has sought to cultivate closer military ties created during the period of the Soviet Union. However, one major player that was notably less active within Kazakhstan’s burgeoning network of international security relationships is China.

Economically, Kazakhstan’s engagement with China has developed rapidly in recent years. China is now Kazakhstan’s biggest trading partner, and it is significantly ahead of Russia in bilateral trade. China has been cooperating closely with Kazakhstan as part of efforts to develop Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vision of the Silk Road Economic Belt. The joint development of pipelines, roads and railways across Kazakhstan runs counter to the historic routes, which lead to Moscow. With closer economic cooperation it is reasonable to expect closer defence and security cooperation between China and Kazakhstan.

Currently, the most obvious element of cooperation between Kazakhstan and China is through the multilateral Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), involving Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. SCO member states’ common security threats are enshrined in the so-called “three evils” of terrorism, separatism and extremism. There is an increased intent to share intelligence, which takes place through the SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) based in Tashkent, and with the recent departure of NATO forces from Afghanistan the perceived need for such intelligence sharing is likely to have increased. It is hard to believe, however, that all sides share high value information because of the closed nature of the various intelligence services and the mutual suspicion that generally exists between China and its former Soviet neighbors.

Militarily, China and Kazakhstan cooperate through the SCO’s annual Peace Mission anti-terrorist exercises. The most recent exercise, in which both the Chinese and Kazakh armed forces participated, was held in China’s Inner Mongolia in late August 2014. It is interesting to note that Russian is the common operating language for these exercises, reflecting the limited number of Chinese speakers in the Central Asian militaries, which inevitably affects interoperability. The planning and coordination of these joint exercises takes place within the framework of the SCO’s annual defence ministerial meetings, which brings the Kazakh and Chinese military into close cooperation. The importance of this routine contact should not be underestimated, but it is always under the observance of Russia, one of the most dominant SCO players, which will inevitably limit Kazakhstan’s freedom to express more independent views.

There have been obvious signs of bi-lateral military cooperation between China and Kazakhstan, but the substance behind such measures is questionable. Most recently, in September 2014, the previous Kazakh Defence Minister Serik Akhmetov visited Beijing where further declarations of closer cooperation in the educational and military technical spheres were made. These statements had a hollow ring to them as previous similar announcements have failed to increase substantially the numbers of Kazakh students at Chinese military academies. It has been estimated only 100 Kazakh students have attended Chinese military academies in the last two decades. One of the limitations is the low number of Chinese speakers in Kazakhstan’s Armed Forces. Cooperation in the military technical sphere is also surprisingly limited as evidenced by the participation of only three Chinese companies in the Kazakh Defence and Equipment Exhibition (KADEX) in Astana in May 2014. In comparison, there were 63 Russian companies present. Despite regular signals by senior officials on both sides towards enhancing cooperation there appears little evidence to suggest there is an increase in activity. Bi-lateral military cooperation appears to be at a low level and only takes place in uncontentious areas, such as participation in each other’s low-level tactical training and the exchange of military bands.

An area of potential cooperation pertains to border management. The border between Kazakhstan and China stretches for 1,520 kilometres. This, coupled with the presence of a substantial Uighur population in the south east of Kazakhstan, whose separatist movements have affiliations with the separatist Uighur population in China’s Xinjiang Province, reflects a common security interest between Kazakhstan and China. One would expect the desire to cooperate on border security to be strong given that both countries are mindful of what they perceive as the threat of extremism within the Uighur community. Yet cooperation between border management troops appears undeveloped, and the reasons for this are complex.

There is a strong geographical and historical significance to the border. In many areas the terrain is inhospitable with unpopulated mountains. Locally, there is historic distrust between Dungan Chinese and nomadic Kazakhs over land. Sino-Soviet suspicion has meant reduced freedom of movement in the border areas resulting in communities being separated. Although border demarcation issues have been resolved since independence, local land ownership disputes continue. Smuggling and the trading of illegal goods are well documented and in May 2012 a murky incident took place at a remote Kazakh border post at Arkankergen when 15 border guards were found dead. Initially reported as a terrorist act, the killings were later ascribed to the only survivor, a 19-year-old conscript, who was sentenced to life imprisonment. Inevitably conspiracy theories abound and largely focus on smuggling across the border. Until there is a will to tackle the vested interests associated with smuggling and the trading of illegal goods on both sides of the border, it is difficult to see closer border cooperation taking place in the near future.

Kazakhstan remains keen to gain assistance for its armed forces from other sources apart from those of Russia, but this is difficult to achieve whilst there is pressure from Moscow to maintain close historic ties. China’s interest in Central Asia is economically focused and assistance is directed towards infrastructure projects that will benefit their Silk Road Economic Belt policy. Meaningful defence cooperation is not on offer, partly because the Chinese armed forces do not have the knowledge Kazakhstan seeks, and also because China is not motivated to provide additional assistance. With Kazakhstan’s ties to Russia becoming closer again with the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union, any increase in deeper military cooperation with China seems unlikely in the near to medium term.

David Harrison is the former defence attaché of the British Embassy in Astana.

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