China seeks economic union with Kazakhstan and Russia
China has pledged to boost imports from Kazakhstan and guaranteed that US moves to slap punitive tariffs on Beijing’s goods will not affect the amount of metals, oil and gas it buys from the Central Asian nation. China’s ambassador to Kazakhstan, Zhang Hanhui, also signaled at a press briefing on March 27 that his country wants to consolidate economic cooperation in the region with Russia. As Eurasianet writes in an article "China Assures Kazakhstan That US Trade Offensive Won't Hit Imports", while the ambassador’s remarks were seemingly intended primarily to reassure that increasingly hawkish trade positions adopted by Washington would not have a deleterious knock-on effect in Kazakhstan, they also signaled that China has a strategic backup plan. Far from anticipating a shrinking appetite for Kazakhstan’s exports, Zhang said that China wants to expand its investments there.
In February, Ning Jizhe, chairman of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, said at a bilateral investment forum in Beijing that his government is looking in particular at sharing its experiences in high-tech and green technology in Kazakhstan. That would mark a shift away from concentration on the raw materials industry, which has traditionally constituted the main focus of Chinese investment.
Later that same month, Kazakhstan’s Minister for Investment and Development, Zhenis Kasymbek, said that cooperation with China has generated 51 ongoing commercial projects worth a total of $27.7 billion. Another six projects were to be rolled out in 2018 at value of $363 million.
The bilateral trade figures are generally in Kazakhstan’s favor. The figure for 2017 reached $10.5 billion, with around $5.8 billion of that total accounted for by exports to China. That export figure marked a 37 percent rise year-on-year.
Zhang, the ambassador, said, with perhaps a hint of mischievousness, that Beijing wants to continue developing projects in Kazakhstan with European help. “This will be very good. If our cooperation is in everybody’s interests, then why not? You Europeans can come with your ideas and technology. If you don’t have money, then we will have it,” he said. Zhang said he has received specific expressions of interest from his German, United Kingdom and European Union counterparts. The priority, he indicated, will be in consolidating the three-way axis with Russia and Kazakhstan, however.
“The Russian ambassador [in Kazakhstan], my old friend [Aleksei] Borodavkin is dropping by this Sunday and we will have talks. I think that we have very good conditions and basis for trilateral cooperation,” Zhang said.
Chinese reaffirmation of its commitment to Kazakhstan comes a few weeks after President Nursultan Nazarbayev traveled to Washington to meet with President Donald Trump, where the pair spoke warmly of their intention to take their partnership to a “new strategic level.”
In trademark fashion, however, Trump framed relations with Kazakhstan in resoundingly self-interested terms. “A lot of goods are being purchased from our country, meaning jobs — General Electric, Boeing. Tremendous amounts of money,” he said on January 16 before talks with Nazarbayev.
China is more careful to frame its narrative — if not its deeds necessarily — in ways that emphasize mutual interests and connectivity. One such example was a cargo train that departed on the morning of March 28 from the eastern Chinese city of Xinxiang to embark on a maiden trip through all five Central Asian states. This train will operate once weekly and pull 50 carriages carrying cargo weighing between 150,000 tons and 200,000 tons. As a report by China’s state-owned Xinhua news agency noted, the train is expected to operate on the principle of “leave full, return full.” “It will send mechanical equipment, rubber products, fire-resistant materials and other goods to the countries of Central Asia, and return a variety of raw materials,” the agency reported.