BACKGROUND: In the 17th century the Kazakh territory became a buffer between Russia and China, the two expanding empires of the Eurasian continent. However, after the conclusion of the Protocol of Tarbagatai in 1864, the Kazakh borders were delineated between Russia and China. The Russians regarded the provisional guard posts the Chinese had established on the steppe to prevent the nomads from moving into the contemporary Xinjiang region, as the actual border. From Chinese claimed that this was not the true border, but it lacked the political power to fight the issue and was forced to accept Russias position as the de facto border line. In the 1950s, the USSR exerted strong influence in Xinjiang and it was not until 1962, with the break between Beijing and Moscow that Russian-Soviet influence in the region came to an end. It was at that point that Beijing asserted its claim that large parts of eastern Kazakhstan were a part of China.
When the USSR collapsed in 1991, Kazakhstan declared itself an independent republic and within a month it was official recognized by China. However, the demarcation of the border remained an unsolved issue. Out of 34,000 square kilometers of disputed Chinese border with the former USSR, the Kazakhstani section accounts for around 944 square kilometers. Kazakhstan's President Nazarbayev claimed that the agreement had "finally and irrevocably" resolved the outstanding disputes over the frontier. According to the ratified agreement, the Chinese borderline was changed by 187 square kilometers, which meant that Kazakhstan retained 56.9% of the disputed territory and China 43%.
After independence, Kazakhstan made serious attempts to develop good relations with China. The interest was reciprocated and both sides began to exchange contacts both on governmental level as well as through cultural exchange, trade and scientific missions. The atmosphere of good relations between Kazakhstan and China were formalized in 1996 when President Jiang Zemin and President Nazarbaev signed a joint declaration agreeing "to further consolidating good neighborliness and cooperation in the border regions between the two countries as well as strengthening Sino-Kazakh confidence and understanding". In 1998, after more than five years of talks, China and Kazakhstan finally signed an agreement settling the centuries old 1,700 km border dispute.
IMPLICATIONS: Even before the border treaty was signed and despite the protracted border negotiations, both sides continued to expand contacts and cooperation. In 1997, China and Kazakhstan signed a $9.5 billion investment package, which included building a 3,000 km pipeline between the two nations. Under the deal, China National Petroleum Corp. will develop the Aqtöbe and Uzen oil fields and route the pipeline through Xinjiang. However, the project has been delayed since China appears to give priority to oil transit by tanker through the Persian Gulf. Nevertheless, both sides insist that the project is still on the agenda.
At the regional level, cross-border contacts have steadily flourished. Already at the beginning of the 1990s, the interconnectedness between China and Kazakhstan had increased when air, rail, road and telephone lines linked Almaty with Urumchi, the capital of Xinjiang. Improved communications also facilitated an increasing immigration of Chinese workers and entrepreneurs into Kazakhstan with a subsequent expansion of Chinese goods and business. Prior to 1992, cross-border trade was extremely limited between Kazakstani and Chinese border regions. Today, the cross-border trade is described as "thriving" and "dynamic" and many of the Kazakhstani and Chinese border regions have benefited significantly from being granted greater freedom to trade with their neighbors.
Nearly 20,000 foreign traders were reported to have visited the Khorgas market on the Chinese border-Kazakhstani border in the first half of 1997, buying products worth 170m yuan. The market, located in Ili prefecture, was described as a "showcase of cross-border trade", and as one of the top of its kind in China. More than 2,000 different types of goods, from 1,000 different enterprises from all over China are traded at the market, which was said to employ 800 people. However, the trade is not limited to the border. Chinese traders and street peddlers are nowadays found all over Kazakhstan.
CONCLUSION: When Kazakhstan signed the border treaty with China, Kazakhstans Foreign Minister Tokayev said that the border treaty was "very favorable" and gave Kazakhstan "additional security guarantees." In exchange, China obtained a commitment from Kazakhstan not to shelter Uyghur anti-government "separatist" activists who seek independence for Xinjiang. China's increasing problems with nationalist and Islamic activities among the Uyghurs in Xinjiang has caused unrest and disturbances along the borders. China accuses exile Uyghurs groups in Almaty of supporting Xinjiang Uyghur anti-government groups.
The repression of the Uyghurs has increased dramatically in China the last three years, and many Uyghur "separatists" are being sentenced to execution or long-term imprisonment. Refugees are again leaving Xinjiang through the Kazakhstan-China border. While this is troubling to China, for their part the Kazakhstanis are concerned with China's continuation of nuclear testing in the Lop Nor area of Xinjiang. Several Uyghur protests have taken place along the border against Chinas activities in Xinjiang. The growing impact of the Chinese in Kazakhstan is also a matter of concern and has led to public protests by the Kazakh citizens of Kazakhstan. Even though the border treaty between the two countries has been signed, it is certain that border issues will continue to be a major focus in the relations between Kazakhstan and China.
AUTHOR BIO: Claes Levinsson is a political scientist studying border issues in the former Soviet Union. Ingvar Svanberg is the foremost anthropologist of the Kazakh people who has recently published Contemporary Kazaks (St Martin Press 1999).