The significance of the agreements on energy cooperation achieved during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recently completed visit to Kazakhstan is only an indicator of the consolidation of deeper tectonic shifts in Eurasian security and economic affairs. A new triangle is emerging in East Central Eurasian geo-economics among Russia, Kazakhstan and China. (It is being complemented by the emergence of another such triangle in West Central Eurasia among Russia, Turkmenistan and Ukraine.) Energy cooperation is a linchpin of each of the emerging triangular ententes, but the ententes themselves go far beyond energy.

There is every reason to believe that the agreements signed by Putin and Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbaev are not mere diplomatic boilerplate, but instead concrete joint undertakings to be followed through on and implemented. The list of such accords includes an agreement for Russia to continue to rent the Baikonur cosmodrome until mid-century, delimitation of 98 percent of the two countries’ common border, provisions for enhancing “military-technical cooperation”, and an affirmation of bilateral cooperation within a host of multilateral forums – the Eurasian Economic Community (including the Single Economic Space), the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS – including the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia.

To this inventory are then to be added the agreements on energy cooperation, ranging from Russian transit for Kazakhstani oil to world markets – not only the Caspian Pipeline Consortium’s route to the Black Sea, but also the future prospect of a Baltic outlet through Russia – to the consolidation of electrical power networks, and, last but not least, the confirmation of bilateral cooperation in the development of oil deposits near the border between the two countries’ offshore national sectors of the Caspian Sea.

Like Moscow, but with less success, Beijing has sought to use major domestic energy corporations to extend political influence into Kazakhstan. In this perspective, Kazakhstan’s profile as a marchland acquires a new dimension. Kazakhstan, historically a borderland between Russia and South Asia, is now equally so between western China and the expanded post-Soviet Middle East stretching from North Africa to the South Caucasus. If in mid-2000, among the three issue areas of energy development, anti-terrorism and economic cooperation, Russia’s relations with Kazakhstan were implicated in the first and the last, it is now implicated in all three; but if at that time China was implicated only in the last, it, too, is now also implicated in all three.

If from the north a Russian bear hug threatens to smother Kazakhstan, then from the east the Chinese dragon equally imperils its breathing space. Over the past 12 years, Nazarbaev has acted as if he believed there was no alternative to acquiescence before China’s varied importunings. These have included insistence on the suppression of domestic Uighur social organizations and, in violation of Kazakhstan’s international treaty undertakings, the forced return of Uighur refugees to certain death in Xinjiang. China has also accomplished the seizure, by diplomatic means, of the greater part of the Black Irtysh river headwaters in the course of negotiations over border delimitation in the 1990s.

Most recently, Astana has acceded to Beijing’s pressure to grant long-term leases to large numbers of Han Chinese for agricultural development of Kazakh lands with a view towards exporting foodstuffs to China. This last runs up against domestic social opinion in Kazakhstan, for which land tenure has been an extremely sensitive political issue since the early 1990s and which has resented illegal Han immigration from China beginning in the later part of that decade.

So far Kazakhstan’s bilateral relations of Russia and China have been reviewed. The latter pair of countries are the two vertices defining the third side of the triangle. It has not happened, as some analysts feared, that Chinese and Russian troops find themselves together in Central Asia at the core of a military and political bloc built around a joint CIS-SCO “anti-terrorist center” in Bishkek (which was to have been established following an August 1999 summit of the SCO’s precursor, the Shanghai-Five grouping). Still, an early 2001 “Treaty on Good-Neighborly Relations, Friendship and Cooperation” – the first major bilateral Sino-Russian treaty in half a century – has provided for greatly increased Russian arms sales to China, particularly advanced technology transfers, and the training of increased numbers of Chinese officers at Russian military schools.

Russia and Kazakhstan are potential competitors for China’s energy import market, but China would probably take them both as partners if it could get them. However, Russia has a better chance, as the Siberian deposits are closer and the pipeline projected from western Kazakhstan to western China looks no closer to realization today than it did in the mid-1990s when it was first discussed.

The dynamics within this emerging triangle appear to conform to Putin’s geopolitical vision, which he explained to a dinner companion during his last visit to Brussels by drawing a map on a napkin. In that worldview, Putin grouped Russia and China together, while lumping his European hosts in with (as he put it) “your American cousins”. So doing, he mentioned in passing his view that the ongoing demographic Arabization of Europe was strongly analogous to the historical Africanization and contemporary Latin-Americanization of the United States population. Putin’s candor in sharing this view suggests that he may possibly believe Russia should more closely emulate a variation on the Chinese “model” of political, if not also economic, maldevelopment.

First published in Asia Times Online (15 January 2004).