Kazakhstan, located in Central Asia snugly on the northwestern border of China, is the world’s largest landlocked country. Kazakhstan is landlocked by China, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. In its post-Soviet counterparts, Kazakhstan sees a human displacement crisis caused by mass corruption and autocratic politics. In China and Russia, it sees the expansion of growing international aggressors. Russia, China, and Iran continue to box Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe into an intensifying geopolitical power struggle with a passive Western mediator. Kazakhstan develops its economy on the graces of both sides, pledging further cooperation with Russia with regards to “post-Soviet states biosecurity” as well as cooperating with Western businesses such as Amazon.
Central Asia has seen no priority from United States foreign policy. World Politics Review noted in April that the Biden administration needs to define a clear Central Asia policy, as Central Asia continues to be a region that no U.S. President has ever personally visited in their state rounds. WPR noted that even visits from U.S. Senators to the region are incredibly rare.
In the case of Kazakhstan, the nation is open to cooperation with the United States. “Some Central Asian countries, like Kazakhstan, have a strong interest in taking bilateral ties with the United States to a new level. The Biden administration should capitalize on this with a high-level trip to a region that has never been visited by a sitting American president,” wrote WPR, in an article published in April.
Central Asia is rarely engaged in foreign political discussions on its own merits. Instead, its states, such as Kazakhstan, become relevant in their proxy position between Russia, China, and Europe. Central Asia is also viewed within the context of the security concerns of radicalization and the terror in Afghanistan.
The Biden administration continues to lack clear priority in the region, even as increased geopolitical tensions put pressure on the states in question. Ethnic Kazakhs are fleeing China and Turkmenistan under complaints of human rights abuse and corruption, and flocking to their ethnic homeland in Kazakhstan. Yet, the Biden administration also continues its foray into regional political challenges, pressing U.S. intelligence to continue to probe the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. (This not referring to the State Department inquiry, probing the possibility that the origins of Covid-19 leaked from a lab in Wuhan, that the Biden administration shut down).
As the Biden administration pursues this origin, it holds some responsibility for accountability of U.S. political interests and advancements in the region of Central Asia. The Obama administration, in which Biden was Vice President, established the funds and development for a biohazard research lab in Kazakhstan in 2013, to research bubonic plague. In May 2020, the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies wrote that, despite some questions from Russia and China, Kazakhstan’s lab which was “funded by the US Department of Defense’s Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program,” had added a new biosafety level. Through its financial investment in the biosecurity of the region, and due to the Russian and Chinese intervention tactics in the region, the Biden administration is faced with the challenge of accountability for its biohazard interests in the region.
In 2013, the Obama administration began funding an enhanced biosecurity lab, originally adapted to research the spread of bubonic plague in the region. The lab was at the center of political controversy during the COVID-19 pandemic’s earlier hours, as China attempted to divert attention from international suspicion of its own Wuhan P4 lab by referencing an outbreak of mysterious pneumonia, believed to be more dangerous than COVID-19, in Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan denied the claims made by the Chinese Embassy in Kazakhstan.
With China’s continued evasive tactics, the Biden administration will be forced to give accountability for the lab that it also helped to put forward in the China border region. Under the geopolitical strain of the U.S. and China’s continued rivalry in the region, China has the opportunity to exploit the history of the American-funded lab, a project meant to gather scientists of the post-Soviet region into a bioweapon-prevention program, to divert blame for the COVID-19 pandemic’s origins onto American intervention.
Kazakhstan’s place in the theater of world economic courtship also puts pressure on it regionally. Kazakhstan is open to Western and Eastern business, having recently been approved for sales on the Amazon platform, but at the same time, being courted by China for BitCoin bit-farming, and increasing business with Tehran.
As the risk of interregional security increases from the aggressive policies of Russia, China, and Iran, and sometimes as a unified power trifecta, the West is hard-pressed by geopolitical experts to prioritize new allies. Yet, the Western world shows a lack of interest in direct engagement of Central Asia, or the regions surrounding it. For example, The United States has been accused of abandoning the conflict theater in Afghanistan and has been criticized by Ukraine for waiving sanctions on the entities behind the Russian-German Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, a project Ukraine threatens will increase its internal security crisis scenario. The rare visits of officials such as President Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the region have been used in the proxy policy of the United States, Russia, and China, with Pompeo using his visit to Kazakhstan to discuss China’s persecution of Xinjiang province’s Uighur Turks. Around 7 percent of the population of Xinjiang is ethnic Kazakhs, who have fled to Kazakhstan to escape the conditions of the Uighur Genocide.
“While Pompeo did meet with senior policymakers in both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and even participated in a meeting with all five of his counterparts from the region, the visit was overshadowed by his criticism of China,” wrote World Politics Review.
In the backdrop of the United States’ tendency to sideline the importance of engaging the Central Asian states as potential allies, comes the geopolitical issues of increased biosecurity interest in Kazakhstan.
On May 26, the Astana Times reported that despite the continued risks of the COVID-19 pandemic to Kazakhstan publicly, the country has continued its political reform process.
“A new law on rallies was developed and adopted,” said Assistant to the President of Kazakhstan, Chairman of the Kazakhstan Council on International Relations Erlan Karin, as quoted by Astana Times.
“The reforms also affected the legislation on elections, parties, the Parliament and other areas, which include reducing the registration barrier for creating political parties from 40,000 to 20,000 people, introducing a 30 percent quota for women and youth on electoral party lists, and introducing the institution of parliamentary opposition.”
Karin stated that, in some cases, the COVID-19’s impact had accelerated the process of political reform in Kazakhstan, referencing how in May 2020, Kazakhstan held its third National Council of Public Trust meeting.
“Despite the fact that the pandemic forced in many cases the leaders of the countries of the region to switch to a remote format of interaction, this had almost no effect on the regularity and quality of cooperation. In most cases, interaction at the sites of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and other associations has been strengthened, including the coordination of measures to combat the coronavirus,” said Karin, as quoted by Asanta Times.
On May 25, Newsweek published an op-ed by the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Kazakhstan, Mukhtar Tleuberdi, who argued that Kazakhstan is opening itself up to democracy. He argued that, as the rest of the world was thrown into rivalry as a result of COVID-19’s outbreak, Kazakhstan united around it. He also stated that Kazakhstan has generated political reforms of politics, people’s power, and human rights.
Tleuberdi argued the key importance of Kazakhstan to international trade.
“We believe these reforms hold regional and global significance. Located strategically between the East and the West, Kazakhstan plays a vital role in global trade, including through China’s Belt and Road Initiative,” he wrote.
He also stressed the geopolitical relevance of Kazakhstan to foreign policy.
“Politically, Kazakhstan plays a key role in ensuring regional stability, peace, and prosperity. The country has extended practical support to stabilization efforts in Afghanistan and Syria, and has combated nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and drug and human trafficking,” he wrote.
Tleuberdi also argued the importance of Kazakhstan’s reform process, when looked at through the lens of its former status as a Soviet republic. He stressed the importance of the path forward for Kazakhstan saying that its democratic revolution “is not over.” Tleuberdi wrote with regards to the relevance of Kazakhstan as it stands out against the anti-democratic landscape of geopolitical concerns today.
“At the same time, we understand that our path toward a full democracy is not yet over. We need to further instill a culture of political debate and competition, encourage the work of local NGOs and civil society, including free media. But in the context of the increased concern over anti-democratic tendencies around the world, what matters is that Kazakhstan is truly committed to democratization and political reforms, which means we remain a trusted partner for the United States, the European Union, and the wider international community,” he wrote.
Kazakhstan’s advances as a state caught between the East and West with a strong tie to the East and the West because of trade, give it a vulnerability in the theater of geopolitical manipulation.
As Kazakhstan has moved forward with its cooperation with Russia over biosecurity, as was stated by the Russian government media agency TASS, the nation stands on the verge of a complex geopolitical vested interest in biohazards. The United States advances its inquiry into the origins of COVID-19, a disease that has been suspected to originate from a lab leak in Wuhan Province, China. China has insisted that the United States should look elsewhere for the origins of the disease, and politically diverted attention to the health crisis in Kazakhstan, alleging the outbreak of rampant pneumonia more deadly than COVID-19 in the summer of 2020.
In 2021, China continues to extend its influence in the form of economic projects and medical foreign aid projects. The South China Morning Post wrote on May 13 that China had offered to extend the production of COVID-19 vaccines to its regional counterparts. SCMP had likewise noted that China, through its Belt and Road Initiative, has offered to deepen further infrastructure cooperation with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Kazakhstan’s neighbors have been known to advance and politically manipulate the position of former Soviet republic counterparts, as has been observed in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas province Russian aggression crisis. With a noncommittal posture from the United States, the motion toward democratic reform will draw the attention of regional counterparts. China’s growing pressure campaign on ethnic Kazakhs and Uighurs within its sovereign borders likewise drives a need for a stable Kazakhstan that could harbor as legal citizens the presence of a Kazakh-Uighur displaced person influx democratically. Kazakhstan has continued to face challenges with its China-immigration policy as displaced Kazakhs are denied citizenship in Kazakhstan due to their illegal entry into the republic.
In January 2020, The Diplomat reported that a Kazakh woman faced deportation back to China after fleeing the Uighur-Kazakh persecution in Xinjiang in 2017. The woman was a former camp detainee of China’s persecution of Uighur Turks and Kazakhs. In an interview with Radio Free Asia, the former camp detainee stated that authorities within Kazakhstan were working at the behest of authorities in Beijing to forcibly repatriate her. This report was released in January 2020, in the earliest hours of the COVID-19 pandemic, which dominated international attention at the time.
U.S. foreign policy has a constituent interest in paying greater heed to the human rights abuses of Uighurs and Kazakhs, as Uighurs and Kazakhs have escaped to America for asylum. As Kazakhstan is poised to take a more critical look at its cooperation with China, such as was seen with the ban of selling agricultural plots to foreigners, to quell public concerns about Chinese investors, as was reported by The Diplomat, The United States moves into a position to find more ready cooperation with Kazakhstan.
Global activists call on the Biden administration to increase its foreign diplomacy on behalf of the reportedly declining democracy of Kyrgyzstan, one of the Central Asian nations landlocked Kazakhstan. The organization Just Security called on the U.S. to give “high-level attention” to the issues of democracy in the nation. An increased Western geopolitical relationship in the region, including mediation with Kazakhstan as a neighbor nation, may be beneficial. Kyrgyzstan has likewise been the scene of recent post-Soviet border clashes with its neighbor nation Tajikistan, and an eroding political situation in Kyrgyzstan serves to add tension to the tentative peace between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan after a border clash over water pump rights led to violence. An increased U.S. interest in regional diplomacy would serve as a counteraction to the more aggressive intermediary methods of Russian foreign policy.