The Balance between Sinophobia and Discourse on Cooperation: Expert Opinion on China in Russia and Kazakhstan

The Beijing-Moscow-Astana triangle is the key to the processes of integration and economic cooperation in “Central Eurasia”—a recent but salient geopolitical construct, the appearance of which was brought to light by the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Russian concept of “Greater Eurasia.”1 Relations of the three sides of this triangle result from the complex process of searching for a balance between these country’s understandings as part of a protectionist paradigm and the ongoing integrationist pull summoning all three states to act, as national interests hover in the background. At present, relations among the three are cordial and even alliance-like (although Russia and China strive to avoid this term): all are members of the SCO; Russia and Kazakhstan belong to the CIS, the EEU, and the CSTO; and both positively responded to China’s BRI and even agreed with China and others to draw together the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB, part of BRI) and the EEU. Despite this, relations of the three remain, as before, fragile and dependent to a significant degree on the personal relations of the leaders, which means that they could change sharply at any moment. Therefore, searching for a suitable balance between the aspirations to stand for one’s own interests and a readiness to make concessions to partners is an important task for diplomacy as well as for the expert community in all three of these countries.

It might seem that what is written above is the usual situation for the majority of bilateral or multilateral relations in the contemporary world. However, there are some factors that make this aspirational triangle unique and, in reality, the key for the entire geopolitics of Eurasia. The most important of these is space: Russia (17 million sq. km.) is the largest country in the world, China (9.5 million sq. km.) is third largest, and Kazakhstan (2.7 million sq. km.) is ninth. Together the three comprise 55 percent of the entire territory of Eurasia, stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, from the Arctic Sea to the equator. For the entire world, relations within the Beijing-Moscow-Astana triangle is important, above all from the point of view of the transport routes that pass through it connecting East Asia and Europe. Through Russia and Kazakhstan pass major existing and potential transcontinental corridors, the first being the Trans-Siberian, which has, to date, not lost its economic significance. After gaining its independence in 1991, Kazakhstan began active work toward the development of its own transit potential. A second railroad border crossing was established with China (now there are as many as exist between Russia and the PRC) and two off-loading branches were built, which made it possible to shorten the exit to the Caspian Sea port of Aktau by 700 km. As a result, at present the volume of transit from China to Europe through Kazakhstan already exceeds the total combined volume of transit through the border crossings of Eastern Russia.2 Passing through Western China and Kazakhstan, cargo enters Russian territory and then Belarus without going through any additional customs controls since Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus are members of a single customs area under the EEU. This makes the transport route in question the most convenient and promising from the point of view of increasing the proportion of land logistics, which at present comprises no more than 2 percent, in the total “Asia-Europe” traffic.

Efforts to establish alternative transport corridors from China to Europe bypassing Russia and Kazakhstan, regardless of the noisy rhetoric, are far from successful. Decades of negotiations have already been conducted on construction of a transit railroad from China to Uzbekistan (and beyond, in the future, to Turkmenistan, Iran, and Turkey) through the territory of Kyrgyzstan; however, the parties still have not been able to agree on either the technical or the financial side of the problem, despite the length of the railway comprising only 268 km. Due to the complexity of multi-modality transit across the ports of the Caspian Sea with its several borders, there is little prospect for a route bypassing Russia through Kazakhstan, the Caspian  Sea, and beyond by railroad to “Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Tukey” (the long-awaited segment of “Akhalkalaki-Kars” was at last put into operation in October 2017).

Another effect of the vast expanse united by the three countries is the unique “barrier” to routes for narcotics, active terrorists, and extreme organizations from countries of South and Southeast Asia. Authoritarian regimes in China, Russia, and Kazakhstan can be criticized as much as one wishes for violations of human rights and non-democratic procedures; however, it is just to recognize that as long as these regimes are stable and ready to cooperate on matters of security, scenarios for turning Central Asia into the Middle East are improbable. In other words, much depends on how much China, Russia, and Kazakhstan can cooperate in secure movement of cargo from Asia to Europe, in questions of security, and in the future integration in Eurasia, which is impossible without the cooperation of each of these three countries.

For successful cooperation by these countries a balance is necessary between distrust and a protectionist understanding of one’s own interests, on the one hand, and an integrationist agenda, love of which distinguishes the leaders of all three countries. The 78-year old president of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev was the first on the ruins of the former Soviet Union to suggest the idea of an integrated union. This idea was realized under Vladimir Putin, who energetically supports the development of the EEU despite some obvious drawbacks for the economy of Russia and a certain hastiness in widening the union to the benefit of economically less-developed members.3 Moreover, already finding himself in confrontations with the West, Putin often expressed in words his commitment to integrationist processes, tossing out such catchphrases for expert society as “Greater Eurasia from Lisbon to Vladivostok” and a “joint, novel constructive future based on justice, equality, respect for national sovereignty.” Coming to power after his two colleagues, Xi Jinping also made the “motto of his administration” the idea of integration and cooperation with various countries through the Belt and Road Initiative, which he formulated in the spirit of Chinese philosophy: “Belt and Road is a community of common destiny” (一带一路是人类命运共同体).

Paradoxically, public opinion in all three countries not only is apprehensive of the prospect of integration with its neighbors, but even often is inclined against such integration. Thus, in Kazakhstan there is extremely strong distrust in the integrationist policy of Russia, which is interpreted through the prism of colonialism. (Kazakhstan spent 260 years under a Russian government, which induced not only modernization of all aspects of live of Kazakh society, but also, as nationalists believe, acts of genocide and destruction of the equestrian way of life of the Kazakhs.) There is no less distrust toward China, which is viewed through the prism of a demographic takeover and acculturation. The events in the Xinjiang-Uighur region, where Kazakhs live—as do Uighurs close to them in culture and language—and are now subjected to harsh repression by the authorities,45 even further exacerbate the alienation in the public opinion of Kazakhstan in relation to the Chinese.

Complicated emotions are characteristic even for Russia, which for too long looked at China from the position of a “yellow peril,” as it has struggled to radically alter its relationship during the course of several years in its “turn to the East.” Moreover, Russia, as before, regards the former republics of the Soviet Union (including Kazakhstan) as a zone of its special interests and reacts with extreme disquiet when it sees other players, including China, strengthen their presence in those republics.6

Finally, even China itself looks at its neighbors not only through the prism of a “community of common destiny.” As before, Chinese public opinion views Russia and Kazakhstan as countries in the ranks of those into which entered “territories” lost by the Qing empire as a result of the “unequal treaties” written in the 19th century. The average Chinese regards Putin personally with great respect but looks at the Russian economy with disdain. For it, Kazakhstan is one of the Central Asian Islamic countries, which are waiting for handouts as financial help, assuming that all they have to offer in exchange are resources and illegal migration.

Considering that decision-makers in all three countries, to one extent or another, share these views, then in society as a whole balancing between alarmist and cooperative discourse is not an easy task. Expert communities are called upon to explain to society and the leadership what risks and threats are real and what are concocted, which possibilities are “chimerical” and which are such that it is worth for their sake to make concessions in one’s own sovereignty. Precisely for that reason it is important how one’s neighboring experts look at the situation.

This study is dedicated to a narrower problem—the question of relations among the expert communities of Russia, Kazakhstan, and China. In the author’s opinion, by establishing this relationship, we can explain and, to a degree, predict the concrete steps of Moscow and Beijing in regard to China and its policies in the post-Soviet space. Brief conclusions from this will be presented at the end of the article. The main contents are dedicated to comparison of expert opinion in Russia and Kazakhstan, according to two key criteria: attitudes toward “risks” and “opportunities.” I proceed from the thesis that, despite a whole series of common features, which result from a shared history, the view of China in the two post-Soviet countries cannot possibly be homogeneous.

In working on the article, I used the results of a survey of Russian and Kazakh experts, which was conducted in the spring of 2017. In all, 20 experts were surveyed, each of which in 2013-17 had published a scientific or analytic work on the theme of relations with the PRC.7 All were posed three questions and informed that in the publication from the research there would be no indication of who was the source of one or another response. It was assumed that this would facilitate honesty in answers to the questions. In addition, some conclusions on the theme of the study were drawn in the course of exchanges with colleagues from Russia and Kazakhstan at the symposium, Regional Cooperation Initiatives in the Asia Pacific and the Emergence of New Eurasian Geopolitics (Singapore, April 2017), at the seminar “The New Silk Road and the Future of Regional Cooperation” (Irkutsk-Vladivostok, September 2017), and at the gathering “Scientific School on Central Asia” (Almaty, June 2018). The results of this study were positively evaluated by some colleagues, to whom the author owes great gratitude. 8


Impressions of risks emanating from China have more in common in Russia and Kazakhstan than they diverge. On this matter, the expert community of the two countries is not homogeneous and can be classified into several groups: alarmists (Sinophobes), pragmatists (realists), and optimists. Certain uneasiness about China is found in the impressions of all of the groups, even the optimists, in whose ranks the author belongs: in Russia experts of the “Valdai Club,” attracted to the idea of geopolitical complementarity of Russia and China and the prospect of forging an alliance of Moscow and Beijing; in Kazakhstan, supporters of broadening cooperation with the PRC in the context of realizing the strategy of “Nurly Zhol.” Even the optimists appeal to the governments of the two countries not to forget about national interests, positioning China as a patient, unyielding interlocutor, which in case weakness is shown will immediately “outsmart and beat you.” In this respect it is absolutely characteristic for all categories of experts to regard China as a country capable of setting forth a long-term strategy—in this there is a rebuke that in post-Soviet states in some situations private interests are pursued forgetting about the overall interests. However, the optimists, under the force of political competition, strive not to focus on problems, sometimes even staying silent or making little of them. In the works of pragmatists, alarmist discourse is significantly weaker than among observers or in the materials of the mass media which are following their own agenda, often with loud headlines and provocative ways of presenting the news.

It is necessary to mention that in Russia as in Kazakhstan the “soft power” of China is effective from the point of view of creating an image of an influential power, but it absolutely fails from the point of view of forging trust in China. Elena Safronova correctly notes that to the present China has not created an attractive image, which would dissipate the distrust in it from its neighbors. She also remarks that “as history proves, the economic success of countries at times is accompanied by an outburst of nationalist feelings in the immature form of national pride, which can undermine all of the forces of Chinese soft power.”9 We can see the justness of her words in the example of the events of 2018, when Beijing’s cruel internal policy toward the Islamic national minorities in Xinjiang actually undermined efforts over many years to forge a positive image in Kazakhstan.

In both countries economic cooperation with China is seen as a process involving not only possibilities but also risks: linked to the loss of control over strategic enterprises, long-term dependency, and, in the final accounting, loss of part of one’s sovereignty. In the post-Soviet space as a whole, people react with caution to the prospect of accepting “ties” with Chinese creditors, which lobby the Chinese side regardless of whether they are doing something useful for the national economies. However, if in such countries as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan there are actually no alternatives to Chinese credits, which already in 2018 have resulted in substantial debt dependency on the PRC, then Russia and Kazakhstan, as richer states, maintain their caution. In the view of Russian experts, acceptance of Chinese investments under the aegis of state guarantees, on which Chinese negotiators have traditionally insisted, signifies that even if the project becomes commercially unprofitable, it is still necessary to pay for it. Thus, as one of the specialists surveyed assessed the situation, considering the unprofitability of most infrastructure projects on the territory of Russia (in light of the sparse population and small scale of the market), this would actually mean that Russia with its own money would be supporting the foreign economic expansion of China and modernization of China’s economy.

Liberalization of access for Chinese companies into national markets, in the opinion of experts, could lead to the failure of local companies in the competition in comparison to the Chinese, who have access to cheaper credit, and subsequently to further degradation of local industry. In this case, variations of Chinese investments, which propose the advantageous use of Chinese equipment and a Chinese workforce, are equivalent to the transfer of Chinese production into the countries of the post-Soviet space and are considered by an absolute majority of experts as undesirable and even absolutely unwelcome. Among the various examples, we can cite the negative attitude of Kazakh society (including officials and the expert community) to the program to transfer from China 51 types of production at a sum of $26 billion, about which Nazarbayev spoke in September 2016; however, after two years, almost nothing of the plan has been realized, due to what some treat as sabotage on the part of Kazakh officials.

Differences in the alarmist discourse between Russia and Kazakhstan relate to the sphere of security and international relations. In Central Asia, as a whole, voices of Sinophobia are much louder than in Russia, interpreting the actions of China as expansionism and neocolonialism. If for contemporary Russia the thesis of Chinese demographic expansion—characteristic of the 1990s and 2000s—was on the whole inaccurate, then, as remarked one of the surveyed experts, Central Asia society is, as before, fearful not of Chinese weapons but of Chinese migration: In Kazakhstan, having the lowest density of population (18 million persons in 2.7 million square km) in Central Asia, the example is starkest, traditionally taking pride in its horse-back culture—the image of a “free horseman living in a boundless expanse”10—pure in bloodline and adhering to traditions. Therefore, here, it is extremely painful to contemplate the possibilities of encroachment on access to land, a mixed blood population, dilution of national culture—all that is associated with Chinese expansion. It was no coincidence that in 2016 massive demonstrations turned out to be associated with the introduction of amendments to the land code, allowing foreigners to rent and buy land. Society took this decision by the authorities as a sign that before long all land would be sold to Chinese,11 and in the final analysis, this forced the leadership of the country to declare a moratorium on that decision.

In Russia such questions, as a rule, have a subtext, originating from the process, colonial in its essence, of settling the eastern periphery (the Russian Far East and the Baikal region) directly bordering on China. Despite its vast territory and cornucopia, the RFE holds less than 5 percent of the population of Russia. Public (and expert) opinion in the country, as before, looks at the eastern periphery from the position of a metropolis. Cooperation with China on this territory has the potential to become the locomotive in the development of the Russian Far East but is seen through the prism of allowing a Chinese population to take root in these territories and the future loss of resources and expanses, which would allow Russia to control the processes in Northeast Asia and the northern part of the Pacific Ocean. At the same time, talk naturally does not proceed to China swallowing all of Russia. For Russian expert discourse a characteristic thesis is “No, never give away land to China,” at the same time as in Kazakhstan, where the most populous and developed regions are located along the border with the PRC, a similar formulation would simply make no sense: transfer of territory to China would signify the destruction of Kazakhstan as it is.

Another aspect of Russia’s “colonial past” is the view of Central Asia (Kazakhstan in particular) as the traditional sphere of influence of Moscow. Starting from that, people in Russia fear that an active Chinese policy in this region would lead to a loss of cultural, linguistic, geopolitical, and economic positions of Russia. Correspondingly, this perspective leads to worsening relations with China, which, in the opinion of experts, it is critically important not to alienate, considering Russia’s clash with the West. Certain Russian experts insist that China is also driving Russia out of another strategically important region to it—Eastern Europe. Thus, Andrei Vinogradov writes, “Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Romania, one after the other, are shifting to a stance of “Euroskeptics,” extremely dissatisfied with their positions under the rubric of the EU. However, they are drifting not to the side of their old partner Russia, but to the side of China. The policies of China carry a risk for Russia of losing influence in Ukraine, the Baltic states, and even Belarus, since China is ready to pay, both in the forms of credits and investments in production necessary for stabilizing one’s economic position.12 For Kazakhstan, as a country whose leadership position is limited at a maximum to the region of Central Asia, similar fears are not characteristic.


Opinions regarding what possibilities for national development China brings to Russia and Kazakhstan are more sharply divided. Both countries look at cooperation with China as a means to stimulate the national economy, to attract financial resources in short supply for developing infrastructure. If in Kazakhstan most expectations of China are concentrated in the sphere of economic pragmatism, then in Russia, simultaneously with expectations of China of an economic nature, a significant share of its expectations is connected to geopolitics. At their base lies a specific understanding of the geopolitical map of the world, characteristic of part of the Russian elite, including the pro-authority expert community. Its essence is an impression of the “persistent tendency of the West not to give up the reins of monopoly management of the world and to prevent the process of forming a polycentric world order.” On this basis, China’s activities represent an “answer to the attempts of the West to suppress the ripening transformation in the global system of international-political and economic relations.”13 Russia, as a country interested in strengthening itself as one of the independent centers of the world order, should welcome the activities of China and jointly draw a polycentric map of the world. Experts start from the presence of deep and insurmountable contradictions between China and the United States; therefore, they are confident that Russo-Chinese “constructive relations” can equalize the domination of the United States.14

Those with these views, whom we earlier called “optimists,” are confident that Russia should maintain the role of regional leader in Central Asia, starting from the thesis that “Russia’s national development goals do not require a conflict with China over Central Asia, and vice versa.”  The potential instability in the region is called an “ideal common challenge,”15 which unites the interests of Russia and China. Another common challenge is the activities of the United States restricting the development of these two countries. This forces China to develop its own integrationist project on the continent BRI, which, rather than threatening Russia breathes new life into former platforms such as the SCO. Precisely on the basis of multisided formats Russia sees itself cooperating with China.

The position of the majority of Kazakh experts is close to that of the Russian “pragmatists.” Specialists interpret Beijing’s policy in BRI as actions to create logistical infrastructure for export of its goods to the European market and put to use its own surplus production capacity. In the opinion of experts, China’s intentions regarding the development of trans-continental transport infrastructure serve the interests of Kazakhstan. A firm positive consensus in society has been kept for the Kazakh strategy of development “Nurly Zhol.” Attitudes are split regarding other elements of economic cooperation with China. For example, reindustrialization of the country through transfer of production from China and also expansion of Chinese agrobusiness are seen in exclusively negative terms.

The key contradiction between Russia and Kazakhstan is their approach to the format of cooperation with China. Kazakhstan, as the other countries of Central Asia, actively uses the bilateral format of relations. It can count on dialogue, but not on a position of a static observer of dialogue between “two great powers.” At the same time, Russia insists on using the format of multisided organizations (the EEU and SCO). One of the ideologues of the “Valdai Club” Timofei Bordachev directly declares, “The consolidation of the EEU and SREB projects may face the greatest risk if they are split into unrelated and uncoordinated national lines of cooperation with Beijing. EEU is the main cementing element expected to lead the way for both its members and Chinese partners. We need to keep bringing it to Beijing’s attention that the EEU-China format is the central one and that it should not be reduced solely to trade relations. Also, Russia should be in constant contact and dialogue with its EEU partners, reminding them that as relatively small and weak states they will gain the most from a multilateral format.”16

A similar position resonates in the analytical report of the Moscow Institute of International Relations: “Important from the point of view of Russia’s national interests in Eurasia is the attempt to draw together three neighboring projects—the EEU, the SCO, and SREB—which would make it possible to speak of the possibility of the future formation of a long-term Eurasian policy of Russia.” The authors of the report consider that in the drawing together of SREB and the EEU, it is necessary to include the SCO in the role of the connecting link. Strengthening the SCO in the terms of classic geopolitics is interpreted as the strengthening of the Russo-Chinese (Eurasian) version of heartland.17 It is worth noting that the euphoria around the prospects for Eurasian integration under Russia initiative is not supported by part of the pragmatists, who point to the limitations in the levers of Russian influence over its neighbors.

At that moment and at other times, Kazakhstan was ahead of Russia in the effectiveness of working out economic cooperation with China, having in its portfolio some large-scale “historical successes”: the trans-border trade-economic complex of “Khorgos,” the highway of “West China-West Europe,” the Kazakh logistical terminal at the Chinese port of Lianyungang, Chinese investments in the company “Kazmuchaigas,” a national operator of exploration and extraction of oil and gas. The problem of Russian-Chinese relations consists of high-up plans conceived in the relations of the leaders of the two countries, which do not correspond to real dynamics of regional cooperation. The program of joint coordination in the development of border regions in Russia and China for 2009-18 failed, 18 and a new program finalized at the Eastern Economic Forum-2018 in Vladivostok already speaks only of attracting Chinese investments into Russian projects. The flagship project of a high-speed railway artery “Moscow-Kazan’” (part of the future “Eurasia” magistral) has not begun to be realized even after five years of discussions.19 Apart from the purchase by Chinese of stocks in “Yamal-LNG,” there are essentially no other examples of large-scale Chinese investments in the Russian economy. All of this forces the Russian expert community, acting out of inertia from the ongoing agenda of cooperation emanating from the Kremlin, to operate not from concrete projects, but, in the main, from abstract hopes for attracting Chinese investments and technology.

These hopes were strengthened significantly in light of the foreign policy and economic context of 2014-18, following the “Crimean events.” The peak of hope was tied to the realization of the agreement on “conjugation” the EEU and SREB in May 2015. The decision taken on “conjugation” was interpreted in Russia as a great victory of national diplomacy and a sign that Moscow is keeping under control the realization of the Chinese BRI. From the point of view of realizing concrete infrastructure projects in the context of “conjugation,” Russia has to date received nothing, and for partners in the EEU, this decision was received painfully (above all, in Astana, where they still remember that it was Nazarbayev himself who was the initiator of the establishment of the EEU). Considering the absence of progress in most directions of cooperation, at the present moment, disappointment has gradually been rising both in the prospect of mutual cooperation with China and in its well-publicized symbol—the “conjugation of the EEU and SREB.”20

For Kazakhstan a similar leap from heightened expectations to disappointment was not characteristic. In that country, as before, the force of Sinophobic discourse has only been intensifying in nature in 2018 due to the events in Xinjiang, but this does not interfere with working out constructive bilateral relations on an economic foundation and on a sufficiently constructive attitude of the Kazakh expert community toward cooperation with the PRC.

Conclusions and Prognoses

The relationship of the expert communities of Russia and Kazakhstan regarding cooperation with China is a mixture of pro and contra. The two sides are more similar in their phobias than in their positive expectations. In both countries, there is fear that economic cooperation will lead to undesirable conditions, which would result in long-term dependency, loss of control over strategic sectors of the economy, and, as a consequence, loss of natural resources or even part of their territory. In both, the discourse on preserving natural resources prevails over that on development, which leads to the conclusion: “Better to be poor and without the Chinese than to be rich with unavoidable changes that result in Chinese expansion.” In this respect, Russia, in which demographic, economic, and intellectual potential is concentrated in a comparatively small territory at the center of the European part of the country, fears China as a pretender for resources and expanses of its eastern possessions. For Kazakhstan, phobias were more often linked with possible demographic and cultural dissolution among the more numerous Chinese.

Opinions on what one can receive from China are more divergent, although in each country they are, naturally, similar: in both Russia and Kazakhstan there are expectations from China of rapid and easily obtained investments—and not receiving them, or not being able to receive them on favorable conditions, people quickly are disillusioned. In these circumstances Kazakhstan concentrates its expectations from China on the economic sphere—above all, on development of transportation infrastructure. For Russia, economic expectations are secondary. First priority are considerations of a geopolitical nature, connected to forging a new, polycentric, world order. Experts in Kazakhstan count on forging a separate, bilateral relationship with China. Experts in Russia, regarding China as one of the poles in a world order, are prepared to forge equal, partnership relations with China, but refuse doing this with Kazakhstan, insisting on using in relations with China multi-sided formats, in which Russia is the leader (the EEU) or one of the leaders (the SCO).

Due to the necessity to observe this balance between pro and contra, most analytical words devoted to China are built around one scenario. At the start this is based on the prospect of cooperation with China, after that an important qualification is raised: this could be done only on the basis of sticking to a series of conditions that make it possible to avoid risks. Conclusions that follow have a general and sometimes even a philosophical character (“to cooperate is better than not cooperating”), and conclusions “against” are concrete and cannot be ignored. As a result, discourse on cooperation with China for experts in Russia and Kazakhstan is when you speak correctly on development of the economy and cooperation, but, in doing so, you always expect a trick and strive to insure against it.

Advancing the agenda of cooperation with China facilitates the confrontation of Russia with the West, when Moscow needs to demonstrate to its opponents, as well as to its own population, that there exists an alternative to cooperation with Europe and the United States, and with the new possibilities the country will become still stronger. Such a “turnaround” was supported even by that part of the expert community that earlier stood behind narrowly protectionist principles. The absence of quick results from the “turnaround” in the Chinese direction led to just as quick disillusionment among the experts. This accompanied the “freezing” of most of the actively discussed projects at the stage of extensive negotiations and exchanges in which nobody was bound by memoranda and intentions. One can expect that to the extent of normalization of relations with the West or change in the world trading price of oil and gas, which allows Russia to emerge from its economic crisis, the inflexibility of Russia in negotiations regarding various Russo-Chinese projects will become even greater.

We see a similar situation even in Kazakhstan. Part of the political elite in this country is interested in cooperation with China, both as an expression of diversification of foreign relations and escape from dependency on Russia, and as an expression of their own commercial interests,21 in the form of access to Chinese capital for affiliated enterprises, cheap Chinese credits, which can be spent on family needs, banal bribes, etc. For Kazakhstan cooperation with China is appealing because it imposes no political conditions on the ruling regime (in contrast to the US and, in some sense, Russia). However, this does in no way signify that a freedom-loving country of past horsemen is ready to become a “colony” of China. And the stronger and more decisive China becomes, both in the foreign and domestic arenas, the stronger will be the existential phobia of Kazakh society concerning its eastern neighbor. This creates a certain line, which even a corrupt political elite does not dare to cross. Kazakhstan, as other states in Central Asia, would prefer to live poorer but to keep relations with China at a distance. The prospect of crossing this line (the point of no-return) is frightening and is a reason why most of the initiatives of China are blocked by its Central Asian partners: this concerns both liberalization of the transit movement of goods and the relocation into the region of dangerous production, both renting out of agricultural land and stationing here of military contingents.

However, overturning the agenda of cooperation with China is not of interest to either Astana or Moscow. Kazakhstan needs China as a counterweight to the influence of Russia. For Russia China is needed as a partner to roll back the unipolar world order. Both countries need cooperation with China to realize their own integrationist agendas (which often appear more as public relations of nationalist leaders than as a real integrationist process). Finally, both countries still have not despaired of receiving much-needed investment and technology on favorable or at least welcome terms. All this determines that a balance between fears and possibilities will persist both among persons who make political decisions and among experts, who provide the analytic accompaniment to these decisions.

1. At present this concept is not yet established in the literature; so there can be many different definitions. I include in “Central Eurasia” the following areas: all the post-Soviet space, China, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey.

2. More detailed information on this theme is found in other studies by the author. I.Iu. Zuenko, S.V. Zuban’, “Trans-continental Transit Asia-Europe,” Mirovaia Ekonomika i Mezhdunarodnye otnosheniia, No. 7, 2016, pp. 70-76.

3. For more detail, see Ivan Zuenko, “The Eurasian Gap: Winners and Losers of the Economic Union,” Carnegie Moscow Center, November 2016, (11

4. The theme of the attitudes of the Kazakh expert community toward the events in Xinjiang is covered in the study, I.Iu. Zuenko, “Excesses on the Silk Road: how China resolves the Uyghur question,” Moscow Carnegie Center, April 2018, (18

5. This observation is one of the main theses in the article, Ivan Zuenko, “Sino-Russian Cooperation in Central Asia. Negative Scenario I,” The Asan Forum, September 2017,

6. Among them in alphabetical order: I. Denisov, A. Gabuev, R. Izimov, V. Kashin, A. Kaukenov, E. Khon, D. Kosnazarov, A. Larin, S. Lukonin, A. Mukhamediev, M. Shibutov, L. Smirnova, K. Syroezhkin, S. Zuban’, and 6 other experts who asked that their names be withheld.

7. The results of the questionnaire are also used in the article, I.Iu. Zuenko, “One ‘belt’, two paths: reception of the Chinese integrationist initiatives in Russia and Kazakhstan (2014-2017), Rossiia i ATR, No. 1, 2018, pp. 118-32.

8.   Special recognition is owed to Aleksandr Korolev, Aleksandr Gabuev, Igor’ Denisov, and Adil’ Kaukenov.

9. Kitai v mirovoi i regional’noi politike: Istoriia i sovremennost’, Moscow 2018, p. 105.

10. The very word “Kazakh” means “free person.”

11. See the BBC reporting,

12. Kitai v mirovoi i regional’noi politike, p. 205.

13. Odin poias—odin put’: Vedushchaia strategiia vnutrennei i vneshnei politiki Kitaia (Moscow: Rossiiskii institute strategicheskii issledovanii, 2016), p. 6.

14. I should acknowledge that opposing arguments were presented for several years before the beginning of the “trade war” between the US and China in 2018.

15. Timofey Bordachev, “The Great Win-Win Game,” Russia in Global Affairs,

16. Timofey Bordachev, “New Eurasian Momentum,” Russia in Global Affairs,

17. V.I. Iakunin and A.V. Lukin, eds., Kitaiskii global’nyi proekt dlia Evrazii: postanovka zadachi (Moscow: 2016).

18. For details see Ivan Zuenko, “A Chinese-Russian Regional Program Ends with a Whimper,” Carnegie Moscow Center, September 26, 2018,

19. For details see I.Iu. Zuenko. “Liubiteli bystroi ezdy,” Profil’, July 19, 2018,

20. Examples include: A.T. Gabuev, “The Silk Road to Nowhere,” Vedemosti,; I.E. Denisov, “Representative of the road: what the initiative ‘OBOR’ means personally for Xi Jinping and his authority?” Moscow Carnegie Center,; and M.Iu. Korostikov, “The Pit of the Silk Road: Why are countries all more and more often leaving this main international project of China?” Moscow Carnegie Center,

21. This thesis is set forward by the leading Kazakh Sinologue Konstantin Syroezhkin in the collective work, V.I. Iakunin and A.V. Lukin, eds., The Chinese global project for Eurasia: presentation of the problem (Moscow, 2016), p. 87.