What Kazakhstan Can Teach About Medium-State Diplomacy
How the self-styled “Asian Geneva” successfully navigated among Russia, China, and the West—at least for now.
Kazakhstan has always lived in an interesting neighborhood. Since the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991, the country of 18 million that ranks ninth-largest in area in the world has maneuvered its way between geopolitical heavyweights China and Russia, while also seeking to foster partnerships with the United States and the European Union.
Kazakhstan’s story highlights that for medium-sized countries, a pragmatic foreign policy that keeps all relevant parties happy could be the key to thriving. Despite being landlocked, Kazakhstan has found its niche in connecting trade and commerce from the eastern coastal regions of China with the lucrative, oil-rich regions of Central Asia, as well as the sprawling Siberian steppe to the north.
So what are Kazakhstan’s tricks, and how might they be replicated elsewhere?
Russia and China have long been the custodians of power in Central Asia. Kazakhstan is among the three states in the world that share borders with both, the other two being Mongolia and North Korea. From Kazakhstan’s perspective, both China and Russia have generally adhered to an established division of labor in Central Asia: Moscow primarily acts as the security guarantor, with its nuclear umbrella and military technology projected across the vast majority of Central Asia, while Beijing has taken up the goal of consolidating economic networks and interests in the region.
Yet that status quo has recently come into question as China has become more assertive in its regional security policy. In 2016, it signed an agreement with Tajikistan on counterterrorism, which enabled it to monitor the Tajik-Afghan border for insurgency and security risks. Alongside Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan, China also set up a counterterrorism cooperation initiative headquartered in Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang region. Increasingly, China has played an outsized role in the regional arms market as well—a sphere of influence traditionally viewed as Russia’s. Over the past eight years, China has significantly ramped up arms transfers to the region, gifting Kazakhstan 30 heavy-duty trucks and 30 large-load trailers worth $3.2 million in 2015 and selling the country eight Chinese Y-8 transport planes in 2018. A report last year revealed a significant increase in Beijing’s proportion of Central Asia’s military hardware, from 1.5 percent from 2010 to 2014 to 18 percent between 2015 and 2020.
On the trade side, China and Russia are both among Kazakhstan’s largest trading partners and have sought to deepen bilateral ties through security agreements and multilateral mechanisms, including the Eurasian Economic Union, a critical part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian vision for Russian regional influence, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Belt and Road Initiative on the Chinese side. Despite their divergences, both China and Russia share the view that Kazakhstan must not be co-opted into the American sphere of influence.
For its part, the Kazakh government strategically hedges between Russia, China, and actors beyond. Although the governments of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev and new President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev increasingly sought economic support from China and Russia alike, they also tried to retain close ties with the West as a means of offsetting the geopolitical ambitions of both of its neighbors. For example, the government has long been wary of taking explicit sides in unravelling relations between the United States and China, indeed courting former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in February 2020, to deepen strategic relations between the United States and Central Asian states under the “C5+1” framework.
A milestone on this front was the announcement of a new U.S. strategy for Central Asia (valid until 2025). Although the “new” U.S. vision for the region was not all that new, it was noteworthy for its resolve to consolidate the United States’ cooperative relationship with Kazakhstan. Such statements foreshadow increasing U.S. interest in the broader region, but also Kazakhstan’s role as a regional enabler of a continued U.S. presence there. Kazakhstan is widely viewed as a primary advocate of a gradual yet complete American withdrawal from the region, and it has sought to consolidate its own presence in the country with a combination of scholarships and supplies of critical commodities, such as wheat flour.
As that example shows, Kazakhstan thrives off making itself useful to all prospective partners (albeit not allies). To Russia, it offers a pivotal buffer zone between China and itself, and resources and markets for Russian military goods. To China, Kazakhstan acts as the gateway into the rest of Central Asia. For the United States, a largely neutral Kazakhstan is very much welcome in an increasingly hostile region.
Kazakhstan has openly declared its ambitions to become the “Asian Geneva.” It looks toward Switzerland, known for its relative ability to savvily weave in and out of alliance groups, as an exemplar of how economic size or geographical location need not strictly determine political strength.
With that in mind, Kazakhstan has played an increasingly proactive role in facilitating international mediations. It hosted international dialogues and multilateral initiatives, such as the Astana peace talks among Russia, Syria, and the West. It also sought to mediate between Turkey and Russia during escalating tensions in 2016. The country supplied diplomats and technical personnel to facilitate the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program and the Ukraine crisis. And it brokered dialogue between the Taliban, other rebel groups, and the Afghan state.
All of this appeared part of a concerted effort by Nur-Sultan to make itself a useful part of conflicts in the violence-prone region. In doing so, Kazakhstan secured a modicum of diplomatic immunity from external pressures to take explicit sides. It also enabled the country to shield itself from international criticism, especially allegations of being too closely aligned with Russia or China.
The newly elected president, Tokayev (himself a former diplomat), has decreed that Kazakhstan will be entering a new stage of its political and socioeconomic transformation. His government’s ambitious modernization agenda calls for a “constructive rethinking” of the country’s domestic and foreign policy, which centers around Tokayev’s conception of Kazakhstan as the “hearing state”; under the “Tyndau” project (meaning “hear” in Kazakh), the Kazakh government has sought to introduce a deliberative-consultative element to its governance, drawing in leading experts, academics, opinion leaders, and public representatives through the National Council of Public Trust—a platform for state-society dialogue.
The prospects of Tokayev succeeding, however, will turn heavily on the potential challengers to Kazakhstan’s regional status. Azerbaijan has increasingly sought to leverage its support from Kazakhstan to become an alternative bridge between Russia and Turkey, and China has been actively courting Uzbekistan as a sturdier regional partner. China’s and Russia’s vaccine diplomacy efforts in Central Asia under the Health Silk Road have clashed over Kazakhstan; while Kazakhstan’s vaccination program remains dominated by the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, talks between Nur-Sultan and Beijing have recently concluded, with the Sinopharm vaccine to be made available to Kazakh citizens within the week.
The balancing act is by no means simple, and the “Asian Geneva” may well be tested on its neutrality as Russia and China vie for military and security hegemony within the region and as U.S.-Chinese relations take a turn for the worse. To prove itself trustworthy to one party is by no means easy. To prove itself trustworthy to multiple, conflicting ones (and across public health, climate change, and economic imperatives) may turn out to be nearly impossible.
Here, smaller regional groupings that don’t include Russia and China may come into play. Kazakhstan wants to spearhead a more formalized regional cooperative collective, comparable to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) or the Nordic Council that would coordinate economic and cultural cooperation. The heads of the five states assembled at two informal, consultative meetings in Nur-Sultan in March 2018 and in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in November 2019. The third meeting was expected to take place in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in 2020, though it was postponed in light of Kyrgyzstan’s elections. These groupings could well be pivotal in building up regional goodwill toward Kazakhstan as the country seeks to solidify its reputation as an arbitrator and mediator of regional disputes—that is, ongoing tensions along the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border and internal problems within neighboring countries.
Global affairs has long been shaped by the actions of great powers and rising hegemons. Yet this need not be the case. Whether it be Singapore, with its ambitions to act as the balancer and mediator in ASEAN and Southeast Asia; Switzerland, with its historically entrenched neutrality; or, indeed, Kazakhstan, medium-sized states can and often do make a difference.
Middle powers like Kazakhstan can wield substantial regional influence and serve as pivotal allies to more than one side during escalating tensions. With the increasing pivot of economic might and competition to Asia, states that can mediate and bend are going to be in great demand there. In this respect, middle powers could well act as stabilizers in geopolitics in the future.
The Kazakh story is not wholly replicable, of course. Its sheer regional size, resources, and historical Soviet legacy have rendered it uniquely adapted to the region. Yet there is something that can be learned from its successes—and shortcomings. By making itself useful for all players, Kazakhstan has shown that strategic flexibility with pragmatic patience is key, no matter what neighborhood you live in.
Iskander Akylbayev is the executive director of the Kazakhstan Council on International Relations and an Asia 21 fellow.
Brian Y.S. Wong is the founding editor in chief of the Oxford Political Review and a Rhodes scholar from Hong Kong.