China, Russia both seize opening to score points in Kazakh crisis

China, Russia both seize opening to score points in Kazakh crisis

The China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization said the regional security pact is prepared to act in Kazakhstan, fueling concerns that China may join Russia in sending troops to the troubled Central Asian nation in a bid to exploit unrest for its own ends.

The eight-country SCO, which China formed in 2001, vowed to extend assistance to Kazakhstan “if there is a corresponding request from Kazakhstan‘s relevant body,” the official Russian Tass news agency reported. 

The statement implies that China could send troops or security forces to Kazakhstan, contrary to Beijing’s oft-stated policy of opposing interference in the internal affairs of other nations. Kazakhstan is a charter member of the 20-year-old alliance.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was quick to credit his troops with helping restore order and preserve the authoritarian regime in Kazakhstan after a week of unrest from what he described as a terrorist uprising backed by foreign powers. 

Shops began reopening as traffic returned to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s biggest city, the Reuters news agency reported. Cleaning crews were removing debris from the streets, littered with hulks of burned-out cars, after security forces violently confronted anti-government protesters. 

For the first time since Wednesday, the internet was turned on for several hours. Meanwhile, the area near the mayor’s office was under the control of security forces. Police searched cars at checkpoints, Reuters said. 

Sharing long borders with landlocked Kazakhstan, China and Russia appear poised to exploit the situation to greater geopolitical ends.

Rick Fisher, a China military affairs analyst, said a Chinese partnership with Russia to suppress protests in Kazakhstan would provide a preview of a China-dominated world order that he called Pax Sinica.

“Pax Sinica promises a world in which China is able to project military power globally and instantly to protect a growing array of client dictatorships from the will of their oppressed peoples,” said Mr. Fisher, a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center. 

China has been developing such intervention capabilities for its People’s Liberation Army, including an increasing number of Xian Y-20 heavy airlifters. A fleet of 20 Y-20 transports could move 1,000 Chinese troops and 40 armored vehicles — “more than enough to massacre spontaneous unarmed protesters,” Mr. Fisher said.

“This will be the acme of Pax Sinica,” he said.

SCO Secretary General Zhang Ming said in a statement Friday that “maintaining internal stability and social harmony in the Republic of Kazakhstan as a member state of the SCO is one of the key factors of peace and security in the region.” 

“We count on the earliest possible stabilization of the situation, restoration of law and order and public security in the country, ensuring the rights and interests of all representatives of the multiethnic and multiconfessional people of Kazakhstan,” Mr. Zhang said in a statement. 

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said it is prepared to assist Kazakhstan‘s authoritarian president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a message of personal support Friday to the Tokayev regime, and Beijing issued a formal invitation to the embattled Kazakh leader to attend the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympic Games.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke by phone Monday with Kazakh Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi, China‘s state media reported. China has made major investments in the Kazakh economy in recent years.

“Mr. Wang said the sudden unrest in Kazakhstan shows that the situation in Central Asia still faces severe challenges and proves once again that some external forces do not want peace and tranquility in the region,” according to a summary of the meeting by the state-controlled Global Times. “He also stressed China will ensure the safety and smooth operation of major ChinaKazakhstan joint projects, and China believes that Kazakhstan will earnestly safeguard the safety of Chinese institutions and personnel in the country.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Friday that China “is ready to work with Kazakhstan to enhance cooperation between law enforcement and security departments, strengthen bilateral cooperation against external interference, uphold the two countries’ political system[s] and political power security, forestall and foil any attempt at instigating ‘color revolution,’ and jointly oppose the interference and infiltration of any external force,” Mr. Wang said. 

Protests broke out in western Kazakhstan on Jan. 2 over price increases for fuel and escalated into mass anti-regime riots and attacks on government buildings. The government reported that 164 people were killed in a government crackdown.

With some 2,500 paratroopers in Kazakhstan, Mr. Putin was quick to take credit for the relative calm that seemed to prevail Monday. Russian forces were sent to Kazakhstan last week at the head of a regional peacekeeping mission to protect “strategic facilities” after violent demonstrations resulted in the ransacking and torching of public buildings.

At the same time, Moscow has been engaged in a tense standoff with the West over massing troops along its border with Ukraine. 

Mr. Putin embraced the Kazakh regime’s portrayal of the protests as provocation by unnamed outside agitators and hailed the government’s apparent success in suppressing the unrest. 

“Of course, we understand the events in Kazakhstan are not the first and far from the last attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of our states from the outside,” Mr. Putin said, according to Reuters. 

Moscow has said it would offer military assistance to leaders of other former Soviet states facing similar uprisings. Mr. Putin told a virtual summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, an alliance of former Soviet states that dispatched Russian and allied troops to Kazakhstan, that the mission prevented the “complete degradation of the internal situation” and blocked terrorists, looters “and other criminal elements.” 

Mr. Tokayev told the fellow CSTO leaders on the virtual call that his government had survived “an attempted coup d’etat.” 

“Under the guise of spontaneous protests, a wave of unrest broke out,” he said. “It became clear that the main goal was to undermine the constitutional order and to seize power.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.