China, Kazakhstan Planning New Special Forces Cooperation
China is giving new military aid to Kazakhstan and the two countries are planning joint special forces training, as Beijing slowly but steadily increases its military presence in Central Asia.
Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan visited Astana on Monday and met with Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Kazakhstani defense officials. There, Chang announced that China was donating some military trucks to Kazakhstan, according to Kazakhstan's Ministry of Defense.
Especially intriguing was the discussion of special forces training: "Training and exchange of experience in the sphere of combating asymmetric threats (training special forces units) is an important aspect of cooperation," the MoD announced. ("Asymmetric threats" is a military euphemism for unconventional warfare like terrorism and guerrillas.) "Kazakhstan is interested in organizing joint events on mountain training, training of military swimmers, actions in urban environments for special forces. In the near future joint tactical antiterror exercises are planned on the territory of China and Kazakhstan."
Kazakhstan has carried out these kinds of training exercises before with China, but it's almost always been within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. These exercises appear to be purely bilateral.
The press release from Nazarbayev's office announced that ties with China are "at a new level of cooperation," and Chang laid on the praise for the president: "We consider you to be a great politician and strategist. You have made a great contribution to the formation and development of Kazakhstan, enjoying enormous authority among the population."
While an interesting trend, there are probably limits to China's ability (and even interest) to gain military influence in Kazakhstan. An analysis from earlier this year on China-Kazakhstan defense cooperation by a former British defense attache to Astana concludes:
Meaningful defence cooperation is not on offer, partly because the Chinese armed forces do not have the knowledge Kazakhstan seeks, and also because China is not motivated to provide additional assistance. With Kazakhstan’s ties to Russia becoming closer again with the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union, any increase in deeper military cooperation with China seems unlikely in the near to medium term.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.