Written by: William Hampton
It was to Kazakhstan that Chinese president and Communist Party secretary Xi Jinping took his first trip in almost three years. Since early 2020, he has stayed in China, concerned with anti-pandemic measures and a government-imposed lockdown.
Xi put his trip to Kazakhstan ahead of his participation in a critical meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Uzbekistan, which Kazakhstan’s president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev also attend, demonstrates Xi’s personal commitment to and good relations with Tokayev, whom he met in person for the first time earlier this year in Beijing.
China’s investments in Kazakhstan’s energy sector total about $14 billion and are mainly in oil and gas infrastructures. As Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine continues, Kazakhstan is more important than ever to China’s energy security.
Kazakhstan is also a keystone country for China’s trade corridor to Europe, part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). More firms are looking to Kazakhstan as their land bridge connecting to China at a time when Russia’s transport infrastructure is vulnerable to international sanctions. Some analysts view Xi’s trip as an attempt to breathe new dynamism into the BRI.
Xi went to Kazakhstan in the context of a state visit, the highest level meeting under diplomatic protocol. Already at their February 2022 meeting in Beijing, Xi had praised Tokayev’s diplomacy, particularly his re-invigoration of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), a forum little known in the West but of recognized significance in Asia.
The CICA’s sixth summit in 30 years, bringing together 27 countries from Egypt to Vietnam (plus 14 observer states and organizations), is to be held in a month’s time in Kazakhstan’s capital. Tokayev has proposed turning the intergovernmental forum into a full-fledged international organization.
Coincidentally at the same time as Xi, Pope Francis was also in Kazakhstan to attend the triennial meeting of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. This unique interfaith forum, bringing together 30 leaders of world religions, was hosted by Tokayev.
Referring to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which took place in Helsinki during the period of Soviet-American détente in the early 1970s, Pope Francis spoke of the need to “generate a new ‘spirit of Helsinki’,” thus implicitly validating Kazakhstan’s CICA initiative. “It is necessary,” he said, “to avoid the intensification of rivalries and the strengthening of opposing blocs” and instead “allow peoples to understand each other and dialogue” at the international level.
Tokayev was a vocal advocate the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in its formative years following the September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City, and he worked to establish it in Kazakhstan. In his public remarks, Pope Francis praised Kazakhstan as a country “at the crossroads of relevant geopolitical junctions,” fundamental in mitigating conflict, and having “two souls—European and Asian—[and thus being] a link between East and West.”
This forum also represents an expression of Kazakhstan’s multilateralism that Pope Francis has implicitly endorsed. Kazakhstan has implemented a “multi-vector” foreign policy starting in the early 1990s, which has since been emulated by others. The Pope also alluded favorably to Tokayev’s domestic reform program, mentioning “the democratization process aimed at strengthening the powers of the Parliament and local authorities” in the country.
Kazakhstan has in recent years hosted many international negotiations and gatherings, from Iran’s nuclear program to the conflict in Syria and the legal status of the Caspian Sea. The country’s credentials as an honest broker on the international scene depend upon on its trusted and balanced neutrality in international affairs.
The country’s social cohesion and the absence of domestic ethnic conflict, despite being home to over ten major world religions and over 100 ethnic groups, rests on the continuation of its judicious approach to diversity of opinion. So it was that Pope Francis lauded Kazakhstan as a “country of encounter” among numerous ethnic groups, making it “a unique multicultural and multi-religious workshop.”
Tokayev’s own diplomatic credentials bolster the country’s recognized role as an international arbitrator. He is a seasoned diplomat, having graduated from the elite Moscow State Institute of International Relations in 1975 and served in critical posts including in Singapore and China before becoming the Minister of Foreign Affairs of an independent Kazakhstan in 1994.
Besides serving in several other high-level governmental positions, including as prime minister, Tokayev was also notably an Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, in charge of the organization’s office in Geneva. He engages with presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in their respective native languages, and with Western leaders in English, without needing a translator.
During his short time in his current role as the president, Tokayev has made Kazakhstan a gathering-place for cross-cultural diplomacy and a platform for international cooperation. As he put it in the National Interest article he penned, “At times like this, we need to build bridges, not walls.” Tokayev’s international prestige looks set to secure Kazakhstan’s continuing place in world diplomacy and its centrality in intercultural dialogue. It is in this light that the recent coinciding visits of China’s Xi and Pope Francis portend the country’s power and future potential.