Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 06:29 | SYDNEY
Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 06:29 | SYDNEY

Kazakh-China diary: Ablai Khan, train gauges and a piece of paper

29 September 2011 14:49

Konrad Muller is a former Australian diplomat and journalist now working on the Lowy Institute West Asia Program's West Asia-China project. Part one of this series here.

'The Russian bridle is of leather,' the academic tells us, 'the Chinese is of iron', and then ascribes this aphorism to the eighteenth-century Kazakh hero, Ablai Khan, noting the attribution is possibly apocryphal. (Ablai Khan statue at Almaty 2 Train Station, left).

We are at KIMEP, a private university modeled on north American lines, which, in one of history's ironies, occupies the old premises of the Communist Party's training school in Almaty. Our interlocutor shares another proverb, this time Bhutanese, but to the purpose nonetheless: 'When China spits, we drown.'

The unenthusiastic tone is striking, for dealings between the two states has been positive since Kazakh independence in 1991 — the two have removed the residue of Romanov and Manchu imperial history, settling a centuries-old dispute on their 1700 km-long border, and China is now Kazakhstan's largest export market, central to the country's strategy to diversify its oil and gas exports, including away from the old vice-like Russian monopoly. Beijing also extended soft loans to Astana in the aftermath of the GFC.

The two also cooperate in security affairs and even participate in joint military exercises through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the boutique international organisation that is Beijing's diplomatic bridgehead to the region. What, then, is the source of the sensitivity to China that seems so apparent in Kazakhstan?

Our KIMEP interlocutor elaborates.

The first reason is historical memory, not only of the relatively recent, propaganda-laden period of the Sino-Soviet split, but, more profoundly, from a deeper nomadic past, when the Kazakh zhuses, or hordes, forged their identity as a people partly in opposition to an expanding Manchu imperial system.

Then there is the small matter of contemporary circumstance — the sense that Kazakhstan, a geographically large but lightly populated country of 16 million, borders this vast economic dynamo of 1.5 billion people. 'It arouses a mixture of rational fear and xenophobia', our interlocutor observes.

Later, we find ourselves in the suburbs of Almaty. Here, up a flight of stairs and inside an office that features little beyond a computer, three ornamental Japanese swords and a series of small decorative Japanese masks, we meet Adil Kaukenov, editor-in-chief of an online publication called

Kaukenov, himself a young Sinologist, does not demur with the foregoing anatomy of national ambivalence toward China. But he chooses to add a further factor. 'China is terra incognita,' he remarks, 'and if we know nothing, then there is fear. Of course,' he adds more hopefully, 'this is now changing with more exposure to Chinese culture and with more Kazakhs studying the language.'

Kaukenov offers examples of how this lingering sensitivity plays out in government statements and policies. He cites the pressure the government was placed under earlier this year to deny rumours that President Nazarbayev, then on a state visit to Beijing, had agreed to lease one million square hectares of land to China for 99 years. The rumours were a baseless absurdity originating in a blog posted by the president's disaffected son-in-law, who resides in Vienna.

Likewise, Kaukenov reminds us of the rail connection between the two countries, specifically the failure to move to a common gauge. Any shift here, he notes, would be regarded as 'impossible' by the Defense Ministry.

And yet, we reply, the two countries engage each year in joint military exercises under the SCO. This causes Mr Kaukenov to laugh. He reaches for a notepad and a pencil and says, 'I go to those exercises every year in my capacity as a journalist and this is what I see', and he draws a line. 'This is a road,' he says, 'and on this side of the road there is' — and he writes letters for — 'Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan; and on this side of the road there is — you see? — yes, China.'

'And how could it be otherwise?' he continues, 'the former Soviet republics speak a common language — Russian — they have the same tactics, they use the same equipment. But the Chinese?' And then he adds, 'It always makes me laugh when I hear Western experts talk about the SCO as an anti-Western alliance. It is not. These exercises are not cooperation. They are just a display.' And he puts his pencil down, with his eyes smiling.

These conversations in Almaty, we should add, were conducted with a patience and intellectual hospitality — neither of us speaking Kazakh or Russian, the necessary languages here — entirely at one with this restrained, hospitable city, so near to China, under the Tian Shan mountains.

More to come next week.