Wed, 18 May 2022

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China's resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

I'm RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here's what I'm following right now.

Violent unrest in Kazakhstan, coupled with a Russian-led military intervention to prop up Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, the country's embattled president, has already left its mark on the country and Central Asia as a whole.

The crisis is also reshaping Beijing and Moscow's relationship with each other, highlighting the lengths they are willing to go to accommodate one another, as I reported here.

Finding Perspective: By intervening militarily and throwing its support behind Toqaev, the Kremlin signaled that it is still the leading security provider in a region that it views as its strategic backyard. At the same time, it also boosted its already sizable political influence.

An alleged coup attempt that sparked a purge of the Kazakh elite could also undercut some of China's sway in the country, with many of its former interlocutors sidelined.

Despite these potential points of tension, Beijing and Moscow have used the crisis in Kazakhstan to increase their support for one another.

Beijing took a wait-and-see approach in the early days of the crisis, but Chinese officials and the country's state-run media have since thrown their weight behind Russia's intervention and the somewhat suspect official narrative from Kazakh authorities that the unrest was the result of foreign-backed 'terrorists.'

Why It Matters: While China and Russia have been growing closer in recent years, Central Asia was seen as a region of competition between Beijing and Moscow. But their reaction to events in Kazakhstan shows they're learning to work together and respect each other's interests, even when they might conflict.

China watched the violence in Kazakhstan warily and certainly had a close eye on the arrival of Russian troops through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Moscow-led military alliance. But Beijing was keen to let Russia take the lead and ultimately boost its influence in Kazakhstan.

China has a pragmatic approach to Central Asia and shares Moscow's overriding concern about keeping the region stable.

Beijing was also not willing to let events in Kazakhstan get in the way of the wider China-Russia relationship, which is becoming increasingly important for both governments as they spar with the United States.

Read More

● Nursultan Nazarbaev, Kazakhstan's influential former president, appears to be brushed aside as his family is being removed from high-ranking roles in the country. My colleague Bruce Pannier explains the shake-up under way in the country's shadowy world of elite politics.

● What's behind Beijing's cautious approach to the unrest in Kazakhstan? I took a look here.

● For a better understanding of where popular anger in Kazakhstan was coming from, the Financial Times' Tom Burgis took a deep dive into the astounding scale of corruption in the country over the last 30 years.

Expert Corner: The Limits Of Chinese Influence In Central Asia

Readers asked: 'What does China's reaction to the unrest in Kazakhstan tell us about its influence in Central Asia?'

To find out more, I asked Haiyun Ma, an associate professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland, who studies China's presence in Central and South Asia:

'This type of crisis obviously makes China nervous as Kazakhstan has become China's most important partner for the [Belt and Road Initiative] in Central Asia. In the aftermath of this elite infighting, Beijing will have to remake many of its networks of influence, a lot of which flowed through [Karim] Masimov's circle, the former head of the domestic intelligence agency who was arrested on treason and accused of plotting a coup. So, China loses some levers of influence in Kazakhstan for now.

'If you think about Russia, you don't only have a military or security presence, but you also have all sorts of sectors from business to culture that are very closely and personally tied to Moscow. Chinese economic dominance is there for sure, but if you look at the elite circles, I don't think that's quite as true. Investment alone doesn't lead to the same type of influence.'

Do you have a question about China's growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at StandishR@rferl.org and I'll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. The Serbian Connection

Serbia is quietly financing an effort to install advanced and largely unregulated Chinese surveillance tools in Kosovar communities that are partly outside Pristina's control, RFE/RL's Balkan Service reported.

What's At Stake? Kosovo risks becoming a reluctant laboratory for invasive Chinese surveillance technology at the hands of neighboring Serbia.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but Belgrade is still influential within the country, whose independence Serbia does not recognize.

Pristina has largely spurned Chinese products like this and pledged support for Washington's 'Clean Network' initiative meant to block advanced Chinese-made technology.

A predominantly Serb provisional authority in southeastern Kosovo signed a deal last month to purchase tens of thousands of euros' worth of small surveillance cameras, digital recorders, and other equipment from the U.S.-blacklisted company Zhejiang Dahua Technologies to monitor schools in a dozen communities, according to publicly available documents.

The documents said that a Serbian government office that steers relations with the former province provided the funding.

Central Kosovar authorities including the government, police, and customs office have not responded to requests for comment or said they have no information about the Serbian plans.

The Serbian government has close ties with Beijing and, should the deal go ahead, it would contribute to a Chinese foothold in facial-recognition and other artificial-intelligence-based technologies in Kosovo.

2. Middle East Diplomacy

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi took some big swings at the United States during a meeting in Wuxi with Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, his Iranian counterpart. The two discussed reviving a nuclear deal and furthering a 25-year cooperation pact that Beijing and Tehran signed in March 2021.

The Details: Beijing publicly supports efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal between major powers and Iran, which the United States withdrew from in 2018.

Washington reimposed sanctions that badly damaged Iran's economy after the Trump administration left the nuclear pact, saying the terms did not do enough to curb Tehran's nuclear activities, ballistic-missile program, and regional influence.

Talks are moving slowly and China is keen to hang the diplomatic troubles around the neck of the United States and boost Beijing's own standing in the region.

China has become a lifeline for Iran's economy and ties between Beijing and Iranian political leaders have warmed in recent years, as both have grappled with intensified diplomatic and economic confrontations with the West.

Beijing is walking a fine line in the Middle East and around reviving the Iran nuclear deal. China wants to preserve the pact and prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons program, but is also aiming to undercut Washington's efforts to keep Iran isolated and better position itself in the process

While feasibility questions still surround the 25-year deal China signed with Tehran, it sent a powerful signal of support.

It's also partly behind why Beijing is taking aim at U.S. sanctions. Should the nuclear agreement remain stalled or worse, Chinese firms could face secondary sanctions from Washington for doing business in Iran.

3. Beijing's Big Lens

Kazakhstan's crisis has been revealing about China in a number of ways, showing where its priorities and blind spots in Central Asia truly are.

In particular, two main areas continue to pop up on Beijing's radar: fears of Western influence and anxieties about Islamic extremism in Central Asia bleeding over into neighboring Xinjiang.

What You Need To Know: Even before Beijing offered more full-throated support for Toqaev in the face of protests, Chinese officials, its state-run media, and leading pundits all centered on warning about a 'color revolution' in Kazakhstan.

The color revolution narrative is in reference to the wave of popular protests that removed pro-Kremlin leaders from Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2005 and both Beijing and Moscow see them as Western-backed and -funded.

Beijing has beat this drum in the past when it comes to popular protests, but it's interesting to watch it unfold in Kazakhstan, where there is no evidence that the West played a role in the unrest and the United States, in particular, has had strong working ties with both Nazarbaev and Toqaev.

Yet some of China's most prominent Central Asia watchers, such as Fudan University's Shen Yi, have said unequivocally that Kazakhstan's unrest is the result of U.S.-backed efforts.

While Moscow also spoke about an attempted color revolution in Kazakhstan, Toqaev and his officials have not used this narrative, instead focusing on the role that unspecified foreign-backed 'terrorists' played in an alleged coup attempt.

Beijing has also run with this focus on terrorism and used the Kazakh government's official explanation to call for greater cooperation on counterterrorism in the region.

China is hyper-fixated on its own stability and has long seen events in Central Asia as connected to Xinjiang, where Beijing is running an internment camp system aimed at Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities over alleged extremism concerns.

Across The Supercontinent

Election Day: The Hungarian opposition has gathered nearly 100,000 signatures to hold a referendum on election day in April over whether taxpayers should fund controversial plans to build a campus for China's Fudan University in Budapest, RFE/RL's Hungarian Service reports.

Calling Beijing: Ever since it swept to power in August 2021, the Taliban has had limited control over its embassies around the world and its government is not recognized by other countries.

Now, its leaders are calling on China to back it in a campaign to gain international recognition.

On The Border: Kyrgyzstan's State Customs Service chief, Adilet Kubanychbekov, was arrested on accusations of corruption, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported.

Kubanychbekov was only appointed in October 2021 and his short tenure came following a corruption scheme involving the former deputy chief of the customs service, Raimbek Matraimov, who transferred hundreds of millions of dollars out of Kyrgyzstan with a Chinese-born Uyghur businessman who was subsequently assassinated in Istanbul in November 2019.

New In Town: Zhang Ming, until recently China's ambassador to the European Union, will take over as secretary-general of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the China-led Eurasian security bloc, the South China Morning Post reports.

One Thing To Watch

As tensions continue to rise over Ukraine and the potential of another Russian invasion, all eyes are on a crisis that could be a defining test for Europe, the future of American power, and Moscow's wider ambitions.

The military buildup and diplomatic tensions are also being closely watched by China, which shares a similar goal for Taiwan as the Kremlin's in Ukraine: to rectify what it sees as its own geopolitical wrong.

For Beijing, it's a test of American resolve. And how the United States and its allies will be able to deter Russia (or not) will have far-reaching consequences not just for Europe but also for China's own plans in Asia.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your in-box on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036

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