Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 34 Issue 3
Author: Giuliano Bifolchi
The recent bilateral meeting between Kazakh and Xinjiang authorities substantiated the collaborative commitment between Astana and Beijing, highlighting the pivotal role that the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) may assume in bolstering regional connectivity and facilitating the realisation of the Belt and Road Initiative.
While the parties have affirmed their dedication to surmounting trade and business-related impediments, and have expressed intent to enhance their trade interchange and collaborative projects, it is imperative to acknowledge that Beijing’s approach to Uyghur minority governance in Xinjiang could pose a hindrance or challenge to the interests of both Kazakhstan and China.
This report endeavours to scrutinise recent developments in Kazakh-Xinjiang economic relations to evaluate the opportunities and challenges confronting Astana and Beijing in their effort to capitalise on the full potential that the XUAR presents for their trade and business pursuits.
Xinjiang and Kazakhstan Economic Relations: Background Information
On August 21st, 2023, Serik Zhumangarin, Kazakh Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Trade and Integration, visited Urumqi and discussed with Ma Xingrui, Communist Party Secretary XUAR, the issues of strengthening cooperation and overcoming emerging barriers between the parties.
Ma Xingrui suggested deepening trade and economic cooperation in rail and road transportation, creating new logistics centres, increasing the number of flights, establishing cultural exchanges, creating an international business environment to attract entrepreneurs from Kazakhstan, as well as investing in Xinjiang and vice versa.
Serik Zhumangarin warmly thanked Ma Xingrui for the friendly welcome and conveyed greetings from the President and the Head of Government, stressing that Xinjiang is the first partner in China-Kazakhstan’s trade with a 40% share.
As a result of the meeting, the parties prepared a map of barriers to joint trade in order to work on their elimination.
For the Chinese government, Xinjiang sits upon a geopolitical goldmine. The province borders Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, and is one of four buffer regions for Beijing, which protects the heartland of Han China.
The region takes up one-sixth of the Chinese landmass and it is the western gate of the country. Xinjiang plays also plays a significant role in the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Trade turnover between Kazakhstan and Xinjiang in January-June 2023 amounted to $8.5 billion, which is 87.3% higher than in the same period of the previous year ($4.5 billion).
Exports from the Central Asian republic to XUAR in January-June 2023 increased by 36.5% and amounted to $6.1 billion. Imports to Kazakhstan from Xinjiang in January-June 2023 increased by 2.2 times and amounted to $6.2 billion.
Last year, the total trade turnover of XUAR amounted to around $33.58 billion (246 billion yuan), an increase of 57%. In terms of growth rates, XUAR ranked first in China. Central Asian republics accounted for around $16.24 billion (119 billion yuan) of the total volume of trade, of which the largest share was trade with Kazakhstan.
Before the meeting between the Kazakh minister and XUAR representatives, from August 17th to 21st, 2023, the city of Urumqi hosted the ‘China – Eurasia International Exhibition: Goods and Trade” that 40 Kazakh producers attended.
During this exhibition, Ma Xingrui confirmed that XUAR authorities are interested in working in culture and tourism, increasing the number of quotas for free education of students from Kazakhstan in Xinjiang.
XUAR has 17 checkpoints, of which the largest number is with Kazakhstan. In this context, the capabilities of the Khorgos checkpoint are growing along with the development of the BRI and today this infrastructure work 24/7.
Thanks to introducing innovation to speed up local processes, the throughput of the point has noticeably increased and today it is 3 million tons of products per year. The development of Khorgos has a positive effect on the expansion of foreign trade throughout Xinjiang.
If China needs to attract foreign companies and investors in Xinjiang to transform the region in the logistic centre capable of supporting the BRI, also Astana has its economic strategy regarding logistics and transports sectors.
Indeed, as Serik Zhumangarin stated during his official visit to Urumqi, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev set the task of turning Kazakhstan into a logistic centre. Since a logistics terminal in Urumqi might become a cargo consolidator in the region, Astana is ready to participate in this project.
The Kazakh minister confirmed that Xinjiang Hualin Industry and Trade (Group) Co. is actively involved in his country. Indeed, the Chinese holding has visited three regions in Kazakhstan and expressed the interests in cattle breeding. The products coming from this economic activity might be exported to Xinjiang and reach the entire Chinese market.
Xinjiang, Kazakh Economic Interest, and the Uyghur Question
China is hugely interested in Kazakhstan since this Central Asian republic has a strategic position in the Eurasian geopolitical chessboard and might work as a natural connector between Europe and Asia and support the Chinese BRI.
Beijing confirmed its significant interests in the region when, in May 2023, Central Asian head of states visited the Chinese city of Xi’an to attend the first “China-Central Asia” Summit and meet with the Chinese President Xi Jinping. During the summit, the parties discussed a new package of investments worth about $3.7 billion and implementing infrastructural projects to support the BRI.
Since Xinjiang shares a border with Kazakhstan and is a key asset in Beijing’s BRI, this region has attracted the interests of Astana and the financial support of the Chinese government.
Although XUAR is rich in coal and natural gas, only recently the region started experiencing some positive changes thanks to Beijing’s local strategy aimed at improving socioeconomic conditions and attracting foreign interests.
If Astana-Beijing’s cooperation has been characterised by positive results and an increasing cooperation in different fields, even though Xinjiang offers both Kazakhstan and China significant opportunities in trade and logistics, this region has influenced the Kazakh public opinion over the situation of the Uyghur.
Uyghur people and the Chinese sociocultural strategy in Xinjiang might be one of the major obstacles that Astana and Beijing should address to avoid future problems. Indeed, the Uyghur people, a Turkic ethnic group, claim Xinjiang as East Turkestan and argue that it should be independent from China, stressing that the region is their land.
The Uyghurs are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group. They speak their own language and see themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations. There are about 12 million Uyghurs living in Xinjiang among a total population of 25 million people.
Recent decades have seen a mass migration of Han Chinese into XUAR, allegedly orchestrated by the state to dilute the minority population there. China has been accused of targeting Muslim religious figures and banning religious practices in the region, as well as destroying mosques and subjecting Uyghurs to intense surveillance, forced labour, and involuntary sterilisations, among other rights abuses.
Considering that the Chinese authorities have detained also ethnic Kazakhs, including residents and citizens of Kazakhstan, Kazakh citizens have developed negative feelings and suspicion towards the Chinese government. These negative feelings have, on some occasions, developed into Sinophobia.
Although Astana has always attempted to being neutral and not involved in the local dynamics of a foreign partner, what happened to ethnic Kazakh in XUAR was not get unnoticed.
In conclusion, the prospects for enhanced economic cooperation between Kazakhstan and Xinjiang are palpable, bolstered by the resolute backing of both Astana and Beijing. However, it is imperative that both parties earnestly engage with the pressing issues pertaining to customs barriers and the Uyghur question.
This imperative is further underscored by the heightened scrutiny from the international community, particularly the Western nations, directed towards China’s approach to governing the local populace within the XUAR. Addressing these concerns prudently and collaboratively will be pivotal in ensuring the sustained success and credibility of the burgeoning economic relationship between the Kazakhstan and Xinjiang.
Do you like SpecialEurasia reports and analyses? Has our groundbreaking research empowered you or your team? Now is your chance to be a part of our mission! Join us in advancing independent reporting and unlocking the secrets of Eurasia’s complex geopolitical landscape. Whether through a one-time contribution or a monthly/yearly donation, your support will fuel our relentless pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Together, let’s pave the way for a brighter future. DONATE NOW and secure your place in shaping the geopolitical narrative.