Security Relations between Kazakhstan and China: Assessments and Recommendations on the Transnational Uighur question
Wednesday, April 10th, 2013
Kazakhstan is unique among the five republics of Central Asia. While it too underwent a painful post-Soviet reconstruction and struggled to contain its Islamic revival, Kazakhstan has emerged as a powerful player in Central Asia, thus distinguishing itself from its sister republics. Its influence is attributed in large part to its vast natural resource market, which has enabled Kazakhstan to pursue a complex foreign and security platform regarding neighboring China and Russia as well as the United States. While President Nursultan Nazarbayev has successfully maintained a relative balance toward these three powers, relations with China remain the most dynamic and will be discussed in this report.
In virtually every sector of enterprise, China is emerging as a powerful partner to Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is a key corridor in China’s massive export strategy and China is one of Kazakhstan’s most important energy partners. This explosive economic relationship therefore merits close monitoring and is a helpful context through which to understand their security relations and China’s expanding sphere of influence. Yet Kazakh-Chinese relations are very much pragmatic. Kazakhstan shares neither the cultural nor ethnic connections with China that it does with Russia, but the two countries are investing in a long-term and comprehensive friendship policy founded on commerce and transnational security interests, of which the latter is considered essential to the former’s success. Accordingly, the threat of Islamic militancy amongst Kazakhstan’s Uighur minority is a centerpiece to China’s regional security policy with Kazakhstan, and, therefore, essential toward advancing U.S. understanding of Kazakh-Chinese security relations.
Field interviews and observations for this paper sought to investigate the potential spread of Islamic militancy amongst the Uighur of Kazakhstan. By assessing the religious traditions and social priorities of the Uighur—in particular, whether a prevailing Uighur identity exists and if so whether it is bound to the Islamic faith—this research endeavored to determine whether Islamic militancy amongst the Uighur is a marginal threat or whether its appeal could gain popular traction.
Islam in Central Asia
Central Asia gained prominence as the commercial, cultural and intellectual network that connected the Eastern and Western civilizations. This silk road dynamism fostered a variety of religious and traditional practices, such that after Islam was introduced in the seventh century the more tolerant practice of Sufi Islam eventually gained favor amongst the nomadic people, because it allowed for the peaceful incorporation of many of the region’s non- and pre-Islamic traditions. The new religion gained a foothold first among populations in the urban centers then gradually with the nomadic Kazakh tribes of the steppes. For centuries Central Asia served as an important center of Islamic culture and learning. However when the land routes upon which trade in the region relied were replaced by sea travel the region declined as a center of commerce and Islamic scholarship. Ethnic and horde identities later reclaimed the region’s character following the successive Turkic and Mongol invasions. Eventually, Tsarist Russia expanded south and Khanate Central Asia was annexed into the Russian then Soviet Empire.
Despite its occupational history, Central Asia has remained remarkably adept at maintaining an Islamic identity. Russia, maneuvering against its British ‘Great Game’ rival, forcibly consolidated the region into the collectivized agricultural and industrial region referred to as Turkestan. Yet even during this time the institutions of Islamic law and practice were largely still in place. While settled regions were more easily administered by Moscow, the nomadic tribes maintained much of the symbolic resistance. The transition period between the Tsarist and Soviet regimes produced a momentary awakening of Islamic activism. Islamic leadership, such as the Central Asian Muslim Congress, made a series of proposals to reclaim confiscated land and, inspired by notions of Pan-Turkism, even proclaimed Central Asia as autonomous Turkestan. Learning the lessons of its predecessor regime, however, the Kremlin envisioned nothing short of a complete reconstitution. The Soviets typically controlled the region by dividing and displacing the region’s ethnic demographics, creating new administrative jurisdictions, transforming nomadic populations into settled agriculture and industrial production, and deconstructing the region’s Islamic heritage to comport with Soviet doctrine.
The resulting creations were the five Soviet Republics, each purposefully having a sizeable population of one another’s ethnic groups as well as resettled people from elsewhere in the Empire. The Fergana Valley for instance, the region’s most populous area and symbol of Islamic piety, was divided among three Republics, and Uighur refugees from Xinjiang, China were settled into Kazakh and Kyrgyz territory. The religious endowments of Central Asia were confiscated, and the Sharia system was dismantled and outlawed. The Soviet intention in all this was to replace the region’s ethnic and Muslim character with a transformative secular national identity. Variations of these policies would continue in the course of the Soviet Empire, often vacillating between periods of heightened religious repression and mild tolerance in response to the Soviet’s changing political vulnerabilities in Muslim Central Asia.
Independence was essentially thrust upon the Republics with the collapse of the USSR, and amidst the blatant failures of their command and control economic system many in Central Asia sought inspiration and guidance away from the state. This period came to be known as the Islamic Revival. Formerly underground religious communities came into the open, foreign missionaries showered the region with imported learning and funding, and new conservative interpretations of Islam and its perceived role in the state became the issues of much debate. Over the next two decades each of the Republics developed into their own entities, yet commonly struggled with the legacy of Soviet indoctrination, holdover leadership, global-power gamesmanship, and domestic and economic uncertainties. What appeared as a local problem, however, quickly began to be recognized by all as a transnational one: terrorism premised on the Islamic faith. The ways in which Kazakhstan and China are addressing the issue of terrorism, especially toward the Uighur minority, provide insight into the developing nature of their dynamic relationship.
Kazakh-Chinese Security Relations Since Independence
Security relations between Kazakhstan and China developed quickly with the independence of the former Soviet Republics. Chinese policy was to ensure Kazakhstan, home to the largest Uighur community outside of Xinjiang, would contain its Islamic revival for fear of further inciting China’s own restive Uighur population. To preserve Beijing’s conditional aid, Kazakhstan, like many other Central Asian governments during post-Soviet reconstruction, severed cross-border connections and instituted powerful security measures to eliminate perceived threats by Muslim activists. Since then, China and Kazakhstan have jointly pursued a number of transnational groups that espouse either political activism or evolving concepts of Uighur separatism or operate under a militant banner of Islam. Virtually all of these groups reference Uighuristan or East Turkestan and, regardless of their motivations, are treated by both states as a threat to national security. Kazakh and Chinese security cooperation has only increased, and through institutional creations, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, political alliances and the accompanying economic opportunities facilitate threat mitigation in the region. For instance, Kazakhstan designates the Islamic Party of East Turkestan and other groups as terrorist organizations; it prosecutes Uighurs at the behest of Beijing, denies Uighurs asylum protections, and extradites suspected Uighur militants to China. As evidenced by the threats perceived by the punctuated Uighur resistance in Xinjiang, China continues to consider Uighur activism a national security threat that cannot be eliminated solely within its borders. Its security and economic relations with Kazakhstan reflect that priority.
Pipeline Politics of Kazakh-Chinese Relations
China is one of the most powerful partners to Kazakhstan in virtually every sector of enterprise. China is the largest consumer of Kazakh goods and is second only to Russia in terms of Kazakhstan’s import market. Given that hydrocarbons account for nearly 60 percent of Kazakhstan’s exports, pipeline politics are a vital part of Kazakh-Chinese relations. Two major pipelines between the countries have already been completed, one of which extends from the Caspian coast eastward to the Uighur heartland of Xinjiang. Also, having already purchased oil giant PetroKazakhstan, China (through CNPC) now has a stake in Kazakhstan’s state oil and gas company, KazMunayGas (KMG).
Other significant ventures between Kazakhstan and China include the Mangistau, Aktobe, North and South Kumkol oil and gas fields, as well as the Central Asia Gas Pipeline consortium. KMG is the second largest oil producer in Kazakhstan after the Chevron-led Tengizchevroil consortium, in which KMG has a 20-percent interest. Areas of future development include Kazakhstan’s need for more refineries and internal oil and gas pipelines to connect from the source to south and east Kazakhstan, for which China has already pledged financial support. Full development of its major oilfields could make Kazakhstan one of the world’s top five oil producers in the next decade.
While China has aggressively expanded its energy interests in the country, Kazakhstan’s foreign strategy has pivoted toward recalibrating its foreign investment policy. The Ministry of Oil and Gas is the state organization responsible for developing the legislative and regulatory framework for the oil industry. Through Ministry involvement KMG now represents the state’s interest in the industry and reserves a majority stake in all new projects and joint ventures. One of the key pieces of legislation is the Law on Subsoil and Subsoil Use, which enables Kazakhstan to exercise preemption rights on any oil asset put up for sale in the country; allows it to make retrospective changes to any existing contract, including outright rescission, if deemed a threat to national security; and establishes strict local content requirements for oil and gas contracts.[i] Recently production sharing agreements were eliminated in favor of joint ventures, and oil export duties have been reintroduced.
The Uighur of Kazakhstan
The Uighur represent an ancient Turkic civilization that evolved from a confederacy of early Tiele tribes into imperial prominence known as the Uighur Khaganate. At its height in the eighth and ninth centuries, the Uighur Empire spanned from Central to Eastern Asia, but in time most Uighur settled in the historic lands of the central silk road network known today as Xinjiang and southeast Kazakhstan. With a total population questionably ranging between eight and ten million, the Uighur people largely identify themselves apart both ethnically and culturally, and sometimes politically, from Han Chinese and even from their steppe cousins in Central Asia. The geographic importance of this region, and the relevance of the people to it, has made the Uighur the subject of important transnational security studies.
For purposes of this research project, the Uighur of Kazakhstan have been identified into three categories, with each imparting a distinct insight into the transnational Uighur question. Native Uighur are those who consider themselves indigenous to the Kazakh land, Refugee Uighurs are those who came from Xinjiang in the 1950s and 1960s during the Sino-Soviet split, and Chinese Uighurs, who came recently to Kazakhstan for trading and commerce. Each category of Uighur presents a unique perspective toward Islam, Xinjiang and Kazakh-Chinese security relations.
Methodology and Scope of Research
The methodological tools used in this research were analyses through religious ideology, political process, and context opportunity theories–in particular, reference group analysis between Kazakhstan and China with significant in-person interviews of private citizens and community leaders. Personal interviews of members of Kazakhstan’s Uighur community included questionnaire polling based on three categories of Uighur and three occupational categories with third-party interpretation and translation services considered. Polling combined both quantitative and qualitative aspects of data collection.
Three categories of Uighur – Native, Refugee, and Chinese – and three occupational categories – Peasant (i.e. laborer, agriculture, livestock), Merchant (i.e. manufacturing, shopkeeper, trades), and Professional (i.e. academia, medicine, law) – were asked to rank the order in which they identify to the following groups: Uighur, Kazakh, Muslim, Turk, and a selected local identifier.
The study sought to determine whether what it means to be Uighur is significantly different among the three Uighur and occupational groups. The responses to this survey as well as related interviews helped answer the following questions: 1) whether political activism premised on the Islamic faith could gain popular traction in Kazakhstan; 2) whether the historically moderate Sufism of the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence is compatible in Kazakhstan with the imported strains of fundamentalism from the Wahhabi-Deobandi movements; 3) whether Kazakh-Uighurs consider themselves part of the unrealized East Turkestan community; and 4) whether Kazakh-Uighurs are divided by deep ideological and identity differences. Ultimately, the results of this study sought to determine whether Islamic militancy amongst the Uighur is a marginal threat or whether its appeal could gain popular traction.
Research Findings and Analysis
Political Activism Premised on the Islamic Faith?
Circumstances suggest that political activism premised on the Islamic faith could achieve traction in Kazakhstan for the following reasons: 1) Kazakhstan is a secular republic that does not recognize religion within its constitution; 2) political parties associated with the Islamic faith are not recognized by the state; 3) Kazakhstan does not permit state funding of Islamic educational and civic organizations; and 4) at least one significant transnational political force premised on the Islamic faith has already been found to exist in Kazakhstan.
These factors are known to create a disenfranchising political atmosphere that encourages significant underground, study-abroad, and foreign-funded activities.[ii] Since faith-based political activities remain largely underground, the concern is that, without opportunities for meaningful expression and the scrutiny of a transparent process, such forces are more susceptible to extremist messaging that could manifest in dangerous ways. Case in point is how Soviet doctrinal opposition to religion essentially gave rise to the Islamic Revival, which still underlies much of the religiously dominated foreign investment in Kazakhstan. As it stands, religious schooling and endowment projects are highly reliant on foreign donors from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Pakistan.[iii] Given their financial dependence, these struggling institutions are more susceptible to religiously conservative conditional funding. Finally, as Islam is a socially encompassing belief structure, the interconnectivity between religion and politics increases the likelihood these suppressed political elements may be drawn toward a political outlet associated with the Islamic faith.
One of the most significant political Islamic organizations known to operate in Kazakhstan is Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT).[iv] For almost sixty years the philosophical principles of HT have proven resilient and remain attractive to many in the Muslim world. HT likely arrived in Central Asia via Uzbekistan in the 1990s. Its effort to attract members from all ethnic groups has allowed HT some measure of success among Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, and Kazakhs, with its strongest Kazakh following in the populated areas of southern Kazakhstan.[v] HT’s political doctrine espouses sharia law and an authentic Islamic state, characterizing itself as a political organization founded on Islam that rejects any legal creation not religiously enumerated. HT’s envisioned Islamic system of government is based on the principles that sovereignty is for Sharia and the Caliph is the supreme appointment and executive, controlling all civil, military, judicial and religious instrumentality. Virtually all governments in the Muslim world have outlawed HT, including Kazakhstan.
HT is known to have proven attractive in Kazakhstan, especially among minority populations and also among women, because its somewhat egalitarian policies complement the Communist tradition of female enfranchisement. What separates HT from terrorist organizations is not the objectives sought, but the means by which they are achieved. The core tenet of HT philosophy is the official denouncement of violence as a means toward achieving an Islamic state. As events of the Arab Spring continue to unfold, however, one cannot help but recognize the striking similarities to HT’s pronouncements of a “vanguard of inspired individuals” that will lay the foundation for a radical transformation of the Muslim world without resorting to the use of violence.[vi] Under these conditions, and with the likely consequences of Kazakhstan’s ultra-secular policies, circumstances suggest that political activism premised on the Islamic faith could achieve traction in Kazakhstan.
Is the Islam Commonly Practiced in Kazakhstan Fundamental or Revolutionary?
While circumstances suggest political activism premised on the Islamic faith could achieve traction in Kazakhstan, the Islam commonly practiced in Kazakhstan however is neither fundamental nor revolutionary. The Islamic belief popularly practiced amongst the Uighur, and throughout Kazakhstan, is of the Sufi brand. Sufism in conjunction with the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, in contrast to the imported strains of fundamentalism from the Wahhabi and Deobandi movements, is influenced by ancient mysticism and is generally tolerant of other forms of belief.[vii] It is not only accepting of other religious expression, but it also incorporates other non-Islamic elements from the Uighur’s pre-Islamic traditions.
When Islam was introduced into Central Asia in the seventh century it developed in two very different ways. Among the nomadic peoples, especially the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz tribes, Islam was gradually incorporated into their pre-Islamic traditions and practices. Whereas in the settled oasis communities, common to the Uzbek and Tajik communities, Islam developed in the more formal and institutional Islam common to the Middle East. “[B]eyond the oasis towns and valleys, the spread of Islam on the Central Asian steppe was slow and sporadic. Islam did not come to the Kazakh steppe until the 17th century.”[viii] Principally, the nomadic way of life did not lend itself to established institutions and clergy, opting instead for Sufism’s more personal communion without strong reliance on priests and scholars.[ix] Islam has been described as an “urban religion,” which is why “[e]ven today the nomadic Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Turkmen tribes are far less Islamized—and much less susceptible to Islamic radicalism—than their counterparts in the settled oasis areas.”[x] In addition, the Kazakhs maintained their practice of customary law (adat), as opposed to sharia, and incorporated that into their prevailing practice of Islam.[xi] The Islamic faith amongst the Uighur, and throughout Kazakhstan, therefore, is neither fundamental nor revolutionary.
Do the Uighur Identify Themselves as Part of East Turkestan?
In this research the Uighur were divided into three categories: Native Uighur who consider themselves indigenous to the Kazakh land, Refugee Uighurs who came from Xinjiang in the 1950s and 1960s during the Sino-Soviet split, and, Chinese Uighurs who came to Kazakhstan for trading and commerce.[xii] Of those interviewed, the categories that most readily identified with the notion of East Turkestan were Native and Refugee Uighurs. As part of the oral tradition, both categories continue to identify themselves as descended from ancient Turkestan. However understanding the concept of Turkestan was problematic, as it is ambiguously appreciated as an historical, administrative, and political descriptor. The term gained notoriety likely after the death of Genghis Khan when his son’s descendants divided much of Central Asia into two khanates: Transoxania and Turkestan, with the latter divided further into the Islamic Uighur Kingdom of Eastern Turkestan. The Russians also established the colonial administration of Turkestan, and then momentary independence in Xinjiang was declared with the East Turkestan Republic. While both the native and refugee categories maintain identification to a personalized notion of Turkestan, the connection appears to be mostly symbolic to an ancient or revered entity rather than to a temporarily suspended modern political entity founded upon Islamic principles. In other words, identification with an honored lineage is much different than toward an aspiring Islamic republic. The Chinese Uighurs interviewed did not identify with an Islamic entity perceived to be in contest with the state.
Do Ideological and Identity Differences Exist Among the Uighur?
The research reveals that identifications differences among the Uighur are too diverse to be unified by Islam. Polling and interviews were conducted by this author in a number of Uighur communities in south-east Kazakhstan. Three categories of Uighur – Native, Refugee, and Chinese – and three occupational categories – Peasant (i.e. laborer, agriculture, livestock), Merchant (i.e. manufacturing, shopkeeper, trades), and Professional (i.e. academia, medicine, law) – were asked to rank the order in which they identify to the following groups: Uighur, Kazakh, Muslim, Turk, and a selected local identifier. [xiii] The study reveals that what it means to be Uighur is significantly different among the Uighur and occupational categories.
Interviewees from the Native and Refugee categories identified most strongly with the Uighur and Muslim labels. The natives then associated with the local identifier while the refugees opted instead for the Kazakh label. Interestingly, of those in the Chinese category, the Kazakh label was chosen first, followed by Uighur, Muslim, and the local identifier. All three categories associated last with the Turk label. The results of these findings indicate that of the three categories very little distinguishes the native from the refugee except the order of state importance and local identifier, while Chinese traders assumed association first with the state. Among the occupational categories, all three identified first with the Uighur label, while the peasant categories could not distinguish between Uighur and Muslim, as they were considered virtually synonymous. The local identifier was next strongest by the peasant category, but near the bottom by merchants and professionals. Interestingly, the Kazakh and Turk labels ranked higher than Muslim by the merchants and professionals.
When the three Uighur and occupational categories were integrated and combined with religious ideology, political process, and context opportunity methodologies, the research suggested a number of conclusions. It is clear that peasants, whose interaction and travel is limited to a particular geographic region, identify most strongly with Islam and do not consider a distinction to exist between Uighur and Muslim. Their local identification, however, is much stronger than any state or aspiring political association. This is especially true of those peasants in the native category. Merchants, who rely on commercial interaction, identify more with the state, and this is true of merchants in both the refugee and Chinese categories. Professionals, interestingly, identify more with notions of pan-Turkism, distinguish between Uighur and Muslim, and, based on interviews, lean toward a secular form of governance. Of the three, peasants seem to exhibit the strongest ties to Islam but given their local loyalties they are unlikely to mobilize into an Islamic movement let alone a militant one to bring about an independent East Turkestan. Professionals identify most in a political fashion with their Uighur brethren in Xinjiang, but are unlikely to be attracted to an Islamic message as they lean toward broader ethnic alliances but with secular political intentions. The implications of this study suggest that the Uighur are a divided people that have interests too diverse to be drawn under a common banner of Islam. Therefore, any militant Islamic message will likely not generate popular appeal amongst the Uighur of Kazakhstan.
The results of this research indicate that Islamic militancy amongst the Kazakh-Uighur lacks the appeal for broader actionable support. While circumstances suggest that political activism premised on the Islamic faith could achieve traction in Kazakhstan, the Islam commonly practiced in Kazakhstan is neither fundamental nor revolutionary, and the Uighur do not largely identify themselves as part of a politically unrealized East Turkestan. Based on a review of the three Uighur and occupational categories, the identifications differences among the Uighur are too diverse to be unified by Islam. Therefore, militant Islamic elements amongst the Uighur minority in Kazakhstan will likely remain a localized and marginal threat.
The author suspects that, while Kazakhstan has enormous trade investments with China, its vast natural resource holdings will continue to give it the opportunity for a more independent foreign policy. As evidenced by Nazarbayev’s multi-vectored platform, Kazakhstan will continue to identify more with Russia but will also promote strong relations with the United States and Europe. Under these circumstances the author suspects Kazakhstan will maintain a long-term economic alliance with China but will not allow itself to become subordinated to the will of Beijing.
Recommendations for U.S. Policy
U.S. engagement in Kazakhstan, as much as it should be encouraged, will not reasonably have equal standing with neighboring Russia and China. Their respective commercial and strategic opportunities will remain more significant. The key for the United States, though, is to maintain a strong economic and political presence so that President Nazarbayev’s multi-vectored foreign policy continues with his successor and the United States remains positioned to serve as a reliable ally and alternative to Kazakhstan amidst its neighbors’ unfolding political agendas. U.S. policy interests will continue to be served by promoting a diversified Kazakh economy, strengthening its civic and political institutions, and helping implement measures to avoid the radicalization of segments of its society. With these considerations, the following recommendations are made to U.S. policymakers:
1) Encourage the Legalization in Kazakhstan of Political Parties Associated with the Islamic Faith.
Circumstances suggest that political activism premised on the Islamic faith could achieve traction in Kazakhstan. While Kazakhstan is a secular republic, it need not deny registration to political parties associated with the Islamic faith. Already one outlawed political party is cultivating support in Kazakhstan, and the continuation of these ultra-secular policies risk disenfranchising moderate forces from the political process. These practices force political expression underground and could increase the appeal of more extreme and often foreign-based strains of Islamic thought. If Kazakhstan were to grant limited recognition to faith-associated parties, which disavow revolutionary or Sharia ambitions, this could help marginalize the appeal of Hizb ut-Tahrirand similar political groups in favor of more moderate political activism, thus drawing more into an approved democratic outlet.
2) Encourage Kazakhstan to Sponsor the Study of Islam by Financially Supporting Officially Sanctioned Islamic Educational Institutions.
Kazakhstan is known for having a shortage of formal faith-based educational and community institutions. This has encouraged a significant amount of underground, study abroad and foreign-supported activities, the consequences of which remain questionable and may even prove dangerous. As a practical matter, when faith-based institutions are highly dependent on foreign donors, from such places as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, foreign elements are brought into the equation that may bear on the type of instruction and curricula provided. In effort to maintain the moderate practice of Islam in Kazakhstan, to which its common traditions are already oriented, it would seem prudent for Kazakhstan to moderate its policies and invite a more transparent religious infrastructure and endowment process to be created for which it could temporarily provide financial support.
3) Encourage Kazakhstan to Initiate a More Accountable Process for the Extradition of Uighur-Kazakhs to China.
Many Uighurs fear that Kazakhstan will oblige the security demands of China irrespective of the merits for extradition, and that Uighur prisoners will be subjected to torture and other inhumane treatment. The question that arises, therefore, is why Kazakhstan has not yet demanded more prisoner safety guarantees as well as the heightened demonstrations of proof normally associated with foreign extraditions. The author suspects that without such protections Uighur-Kazakhs may continue to be categorically swept into the dragnet of China’s larger blowback mitigation policy, the origins of which date back to the Afghan campaign when China trained Uighur fighters to wage jihad against the Soviets only to have their returning nationals take aim at the Chinese state.[xiv] In this security context, the author suspects that Uighur-Kazakhs fear Islam and militancy are viewed as one and the same in China, and to be an Uighur in China is suspiciously close to being an Islamic militant. An effort to assuage those fears under the guise of promoting sovereignty, would be for Kazakhstan to demand more factually justifiable procedures with legal due process protections before extradition could be affected. Prisoner safety guarantees should also be pursued. Both should help establish better confidence building measures in the practice of extradition and partially help disassociate the presumptive Islamic militancy factor from the Uighur question.
Andreas Borgeas conducted research for this article while a Policy Specialist Fellow at the U.S. Embassy in the Republic of Kazakhstan. He is the Professor of International and Comparative Law at the San Joaquin College of Law.