Amid Global Transitions, Kazakhstan is an Emerging Swing Player

November 29, 2023 Topic: Kazakhstan Region: Central Asia Tags: COP28Climate ChangeKazakhstanRussiaChina

Amid Global Transitions, Kazakhstan is an Emerging Swing Player

Kazakhstan is assuming an increasingly important role amid a global energy transition and regional diplomatic shifts.

From the landmark Biden-Xi summit in San Francisco to the upcoming COP28 UN Climate Change Conference in Dubai, November is proving to be a busy month for global diplomacy. Both events highlight some of the world’s biggest challenges at this time, from the increasingly contentious U.S.-China relationship to the disruptions associated with climate change and the management of the global energy transition. One country that may play a surprisingly important role in shaping each of these major themes in the coming months and years is Kazakhstan. 

Located in Central Asia, Kazakhstan sits astride strategic real estate in the middle of the Eurasian supercontinent. The country has long borders with both Russia and China, and it is a significant producer and exporter of energy sources like oil, natural gas, and uranium. The combination of this location and resources has made Kazakhstan of substantial interest to external powers, most notably its two giant neighbors. Russia has had influential ties to Kazakhstan for centuries and remains an important trade and security partner. In the meantime, China has emerged as a significant economic player in Kazakhstan over the past decade. Chinese president Xi Jinping even announced the launch of the flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Astana in 2013. 

More recently, Kazakhstan has been building ties with other important players as it pursues a “multi-vector” foreign policy. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in Feb 2022 and Moscow’s associated standoff with the West, along with China’s economic slowdown, have exposed the dangers of relying too heavily on its immediate neighbors. As such, Kazakhstan has sought to diversify its ties around the world, increasing diplomatic and economic engagement with various regional and global players, ranging from Turkey and the Gulf states to the United States and European Union.

Such engagement should not be seen simply as a replacement for Kazakhstan’s ties with either Russia or China. Instead, it reflects the global shift to an increasingly multipolar world, as well as Kazakhstan’s growing attractiveness to numerous influential players. Not only is the country a major producer and exporter of fossil fuels, but it is also a potentially pivotal player when it comes to the global energy transition to combat climate change. Kazakhstan contains significant deposits of critical minerals needed for solar, wind, and electric batteries (many of which are currently being sourced from countries like China and the Democratic Republic of Congo), and it could be a significant exporter of clean fuels like green hydrogen in the future. 

And just as the world is going through the global climate transition and increasing multipolarity, Kazakhstan has been undergoing an essential transition of its own on the domestic front. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who came into power in 2019 and succeeded the long-serving leader of Nursultan Nazarbayev, has pursued a democratic reform agenda in the country, which has included limiting presidential term limits, streamlining the process for establishing new political parties, and abolishing the death penalty. Tokayev, who previously served as Director-General of the UN Office in Geneva, has also pursued economic reforms and leveraged a European mentality to build up Kazakhstan’s ties with the West.

This was seen most recently during French President Emmanuel Macron’s meeting with Tokayev during a visit to Kazakhstan on November 1, during which the French leader acknowledged the country’s reform dynamics and thanked his counterpart for Kazakhstan’s adherence to Western sanctions imposed on Russia. The two leaders also signed economic deals, including a partnership agreement on rare earth minerals. A subsequent EU-Kazakhstan business forum held in Brussels on November 14 highlighted strong and growing trade and investment ties, noting Europe’s accelerating demand for critical raw materials.

In the meantime, Kazakhstan has also been developing stronger ties with the United States, with Tokayev participating in the first-ever head-of-state C5+1 summit between President Joe Biden and Central Asian leaders on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 19. This summit has been followed by working-level meetings between the United States and Kazakhstan, including the holding of the Kazakhstan-U.S. Enhanced Strategic Partnership Dialogue (ESPD) in Astana on November 6. 

Following the announcement of plans to establish a C5+1 Critical Minerals Dialogue at the UNGA summit, discussions of “clean energy deployment and combating the climate crisis” featured heavily on the agenda for U.S. and Kazakh officials. 

Thus, Kazakhstan is emerging as a significant player in the West’s climate transition plans, and it could prove to be an important weathervane for U.S.-China relations as well. Despite tensions between the two countries on issues like Taiwan and the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Xi and Biden did strike a more cooperative tone on climate change during their summit on November 15. This included a joint pledge by the world’s two largest economies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ramp up renewable energy production by 2030. Despite their competition in other areas, this could incentivize both Washington and Beijing to engage with Kazakhstan and elsewhere in Central Asia in a collaborative, or at least constructive, manner.

At the same time, there are risks that such climate cooperation between the United States and China can be reversed, as was the case following the visit of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to Taiwan in August 2022. There are also risks that American efforts to compete with China’s BRI projects and general economic penetration in Kazakhstan could be seen by either Washington or Beijing as a zero-sum game, as opposed to Astana’s preference to pursue projects with both simultaneously.

Meanwhile, the role of Russia as a potential spoiler cannot be ruled out regarding U.S. and EU efforts to develop ties with Kazakhstan in what Moscow views as its “sphere of privileged influence.” With Kazakhstan unwilling to support Russia’s war in Ukraine, Moscow may look increasingly nervously at Astana’s efforts to build ties with other external players, especially those in the West. As such, the same dynamics that have made Kazakhstan more attractive could also make the competition over the country more dynamic. 

Regardless, Kazakhstan is bound to play an influential role in many of the transitions that are currently underway, from the global energy transition to regional diplomatic shifts in Eurasia to what is an increasingly multipolar world. While it may not grab headlines during the Xi-Biden meeting or the COP28 summit at the end of this month, Kazakhstan could be a pivotal swing player in shaping the broader trends that underpin them for a long time to come. 

Eugene Chausovsky is a Senior Director at the New Lines Institute. Chausovsky previously served as a Senior Eurasia Analyst at the geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor for more than ten years. His analytical work has focused on political, economic, and security issues pertaining to Russia, Eurasia, and China, as well as global connectivity issues related to energy and climate change.

Image: Shutterstock.com.