Chinese President Xi Jinping and Kazakhstan leader Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in a file photo. Image: Facebook

With China recently offering political and economic security to Kazakhstan against “external forces,” Beijing appears to have reached a point where it can no longer sustain its self-touted policy of non-interference in countries along its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Recent protests and violence in Kazakhstan over rising fuel prices turned another of China’s neighbors into a tumultuous mess, one that threatens wider regional instability.

Hundreds were killed before Kazakhstan leader Kassym-Jomart Tokayev appealed for help from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to help stabilize the situation and protect his regime.

While Beijing was not directly involved in the CSTO deployment, it became quickly evident that it could no longer sit on the fence and watch a potential “color revolution” evolve in a neighboring country.

Beijing’s motivations, however, were not shaped mainly by Kazakhstan’s geographical proximity; the country holds vital economic significance for China. China sources at least 20% of its natural gas from or via Kazakhstan.

In recent years, China has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Kazakhstan in sectors ranging from chemical engineering to agriculture to infrastructure.

China is also Kazakhstan’s largest export partner. In 2020, bilateral trade was worth more than US$20 billion, with China shipping $12.59 billion worth of goods to Kazakhstan while importing $10.35 billion.

With a 1,770-kilometer border with Xinjiang and strategically positioned between China and the West, Kazakhstan is a vital conduit for the BRI’s ambition to reach Europe. That makes Kazakhstan both a subject and object of China’s geopolitical interests, and thus unrest there quickly stirred Beijing into action.

Map: Screengrab / ABC News

In what some now see as an end of Beijing’s self-claimed policy of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs, China assured Kazakhstan of its support against “external sabotage” via an immediate boost in “law enforcement and security” cooperation.

China and Kazakhstan military exchanges started in 1993 and over the years have focused mainly on counter-terrorism rather than conventional warfare, including through Beijing’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which explicitly disclaims any military ambitions.

In a recent call to his Kazakh counterpart, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized how “external forces” were trying to disturb “peace and tranquillity in our region” without identifying the “forces.” He also said that China was willing to “jointly oppose the interference and infiltration of any external forces.”

In an earlier call between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Kazakhstan counterpart Tokayev, the Chinese leader resolutely opposed any and all efforts to engineer a “color revolution” – a term that both China and Russia often use to refer to what they see as Western – especially United States – sponsored uprisings that covertly aim to install governments more favorable to their interests.

A “color revolution” in Kazakhstan, as some experts have pointed out, could potentially evolve to stir unrest in China’s troubled Xinjiang region by allowing ethnic Uighur separatists to deepen and broaden their militant activities.

ISIS, East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and a host of other transnational jihadi outfits now present in Afghanistan are seeking to expand their jihad to Central Asia and in the case of ETIM into China, making it crucial for Beijing to shut down any avenues of militant movement in its immediate neighborhood.

This policy was recently articulated in an editorial published in the Chinese Communist Party-affiliated mouthpiece Global Times, where it argued in favor of an active Chinese role in managing regional stability and protecting its economic interests in Central Asia.

Global Times opined it was “essential for China to not only offer Kazakhstan necessary support to help it restore order, but also take this opportunity to actively coordinate security and stability affairs with neighboring countries.”

Ethnic Uighur fighters with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) fly their flag in a file photo. Image: Facebook

The narrative being built, both officially and via Chinese state media, signals a shift away from non-interference towards more overt intervention. The non-interference policy has until now been the rhetorical anchor of China’s international relations in the post-Mao Zedong era.

While discarding the policy of non-interference does not mean China will necessarily intervene in ways that sabotage existing regimes, the Kazakhstan crisis shows there is a new willingness in Beijing to actively support its allies against perceived “external interventions.”

This apparent shift is not only being driven by rising rivalry with the US, which Beijing believes is angling to stir trouble on its periphery, but also by the BRI, which has evolved from a pure economic and commercial venture to include a major military component to protect its vital geopolitical interests along its Silk Roads.

According to a 2020 report by the Asia Society Policy Institute: “Chinese laws mandate that even overseas infrastructure be designed to meet military standards. These laws authorize the military to commandeer ships, facilities and other assets of Chinese-owned companies.”

As the report further points out, “Beijing’s approach seeks to lay the groundwork for military utilization (of BRI ports to support Chinese Navy vessels) without raising red flags.”

With the BRI extending into Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, that is gradually already happening worldwide. While Beijing already has a military base in Djibouti, US officials recently claimed that China is also seeking to build another military base on Africa’s Atlantic coast in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, where it is a major donor.

It’s not clear yet China will seek to establish a similar military presence in Central Asia, where ally Russia is already present military. Significantly, Moscow still views the region of volatile ex-Soviet republics as its sphere of influence – as its prompt military intervention this month in Kazakhstan’s crisis underscored.

The CSTO, which includes Kazakhstan but not China, is the dominant regional security institution in Central Asia. Unlike the SCO, it is a genuine mutual defense alliance, including many large-scale military exercises and the sale and joint production of major weapons systems.

But as Beijing senses “external forces” are agitating to destabilize regions along its borders near Xinjiang, where by some BRI renderings four out of seven Silk Road routes will traverse, a next step after abandoning the non-interference policy could very well be boots on the ground in Central Asia.