Kazakh-Chinese military exchanges continue


By Richard Weitz

Kazakh-Chinese military exchanges continueDespite repeated statements by Kazakh and Chinese officials that they aim to increase mutual defense ties, the bilateral defense military between the two countries remains modest, especially compared with their growing economic, energy, diplomatic, and even security cooperation.

However, the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from the region, combined with an inability of Russia to maintain general security in Central Asia, could compel Kazakhstan and China to establish much deeper defense ties sooner than either side would currently prefer. China’s growing economic presence in the region is compelling it to also develop strategies for protecting its investments, which should gradually also increase Beijing’s security influence in the region.

BACKGROUND: At a December 5 meeting in Beijing between Kazakh Defense Minister Adilbek Dzhaksybekov and Fan Changlong, vice chairman of the Communist Party of China Central Military Commission, agreed to enhance their bilateral military-to-military cooperation to promote regional peace and security. In Dzhaksybekov’s meeting with PRC Defense Minister Liang Guanglie, Liang pledged to increase defense ties with Kazakhstan both bilaterally and within the multilateral framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Earlier this year, Major General Yedil Urazov, the head of the military education and science department at Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Defense, called China one of Kazakhstan’s “priority” defense partners. Kazakhstan receives defense training, military education, and security equipment and intelligence from China. Both countries’ security organs regularly collaborate against narcotics and weapons trafficking and conduct joint counter-terrorist exercises in border regions. China’s defense academies now enroll Kazakh military personnel in their classes.

The most prominent bilateral and multilateral Kazakh-Chinese security activities are the SCO exercises that take place among their military, internal security, and law enforcement agencies. Since 2003, the SCO has organized a number of “anti-terrorist exercises” that have involved their armed forces and paramilitary units as well as intelligence and law enforcement personnel.

At the opening of Peace Mission 2010, conducted at Kazakhstan’s Matybulak training area in September of that year, Saken Zhasuzakov, first deputy defense minister and chief of the staff of Kazakhstan’s Armed Forces, told Chen Bingde, chief of the PLA General Staff, of his “gratitude to China for its support of Kazakhstan’s military build-up and personnel training.”

Regular meetings occur between Kazakh and Chinese defense ministers, armed forces chiefs, general staffs, and border commanders within the SCO framework. Some of these sessions occur at wider meetings among SCO government representatives – such as on the sidelines of bilateral and multilateral summits – whereas others involve only defense leaders. For example, Dzhaksybeko met Liang when they were both attending a meeting of SCO military chiefs in Beijing in April 2012. Contacts are more common among mid-level military officers, especially those in command of border security units.

Kazakh and Chinese defense experts also engage in regular discussions in the SCO context in functional areas such as communications, engineering, and mapping. Furthermore, academic exchanges also constantly occur, with students studying in the military academies of other SCO countries.

However, while Kazakhstan’s ties with the PLA are greater than they are with Western militaries, they remain modest. During the past two decades, only some one hundred members of the Kazakh armed forces have received education and training in China’s defense academies. During the ten years, Kazakhstan and China have engaged in only two dozen bilateral and multilateral security exercises.

Most joint Kazakhstani-Chinese security activities have focused on non-military threats such as terrorism, drug trafficking, humanitarian crises, and border security. This same orientation also occurs within the SCO, whose main standing organ is the Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure. China has led opposition within the SCO to having the organization adopt a more conventional military capacity or assume traditional defense missions.

IMPLICATIONS: Although security considerations initially dominated China’s policies toward Kazakhstan and its other newly independent Central Asian neighbors, economic and especially energy concerns have become increasingly important. Thanks to its energy riches, Kazakhstan has become Beijing’s most important economic partner in Central Asia. China has been Kazakhstan’s second-largest trade partner since 2009 and its biggest export destination since 2010. Bilateral economic ties should expand further given that both countries regularly enjoy some of the world’s fastest growth rates and given China’s growing demand for Kazakhstani’s rising exports of oil and gas.

Even so, Kazakhstan-Chinese defense cooperation faces major impediments that will likely see them lagging behind Kazakh-Chinese economic and energy ties. These barriers include the two countries’ different military traditions and languages, Russia’s continuing defense domination in the region, the minimal presence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Central Asia, and the two military establishments’ preoccupation with other defense regions and issues. For example, few of Kazakhstan’s senior military officers know the Chinese language or have studied or otherwise spent much time in China. Russia clearly remains Astana’s main military partner.

The Russian armed forces have several semi-permanent facilities in the region; Kazakhstan’s officers receive more military training in Russian military education institutions than anywhere else; and Moscow dominates Astana’s most important regional military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Kazakhstan still obtains most of its military equipment from Russian suppliers, often at discounted prices. Kazakhstan’s periodic hopes of receiving decommissioned weapons from the rapidly modernizing PLA have been thwarted by Beijing’s refusal to challenge Russia’s jealously guarded role as the main source of advanced military equipment to the Central Asian armed forces.

The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) also has several Moscow-dominated military organs, including the CIS Anti-Terrorism Center and the CIS Council of Border Guard Agency Commanders. Kazakh officials have regularly declined to endorse proposals that occur periodically in Chinese-friendly media outlets-which can be interpreted as trial balloons-that the PLA should establish a more enduring military presence in their region.

In contrast to their modest engagements with China, the Kazakh armed forces have much broader and deeper ties with Russia. The two defense establishments share doctrine, weapons, and training. Hundreds of Kazakhstan’s officers regularly enroll in Russian military academies. They also provide the most forces to the CSTO’s collective military units. As a CSTO member, Kazakhstan is eligible to purchase some Russian military equipment at wholesale prices. Russia and Kazakhstan have joint air defense and other partnered units and missions

One barrier to a much more significant Chinese military presence in Central Asia – the PLA’s limited power projection and logistical capabilities on its western front – appears to be waning. In Peace Mission 2010, the PLA Air Force conducted its first simulated long-range air strike. Four H-6 bombers and two J-10 fighter jets took off from air bases in Urumqi, China, and practiced bombing ground targets in Kazakhstan, 1,200 miles away from their departure base. Having the capacity to conduct long-range air strikes and coordinate air-ground battle maneuvers in a net-centric environment could prove useful for attacking insurgents in Central Asia.

CONCLUSIONS: China’s growing economic presence in the region should change some of these factors over time and gradually increase Beijing’s security influence in the region. The Chinese authorities are still developing their strategies, tactics, and capabilities to defend their growing foreign economic assets, which in Central Asia include energy pipelines and the foreign operations of several major companies.

Central Asian as well as Chinese and Russian policy makers would prefer if Beijing could rely on the local authorities, supported by Russia, to protect these assets from terrorists, rioters, and other threats, but the failure of these non-Chinese actors might compel all parties to accept, if reluctantly, a large and enduring Chinese military presence in their region.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Associate Director of the Center for Future Security Strategies at the Hudson Institute.

(This article was first published in the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst (www.cacianalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.)