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China’s dynamic role in Kazakhstan’s nuclear industry: A case study in adaptive engagement

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China’s rise to global power often sparks debates about its methods and implications. While some argue that China imposes its developmental model on other nations, a deeper look reveals a more nuanced picture. Chinese engagement often involves working with local actors and adapting to local norms and practices, a facet often overlooked in Western discourse.

Supported by the Ford Foundation, Carnegie embarked on a groundbreaking research initiative examining China’s engagement strategies in seven regions globally. In Central Asia, particularly Kazakhstan, Chinese actors demonstrate a remarkable adaptability, aligning with Kazakhstani interests and extracting mutual gains.

In uranium extraction and nuclear fuel supply, Kazakhstan stands as a crucial partner for China. Leveraging its abundant uranium resources and cost-effective extraction methods, Kazakhstan wields significant bargaining power, compelling foreign partners to invest in modernization and technology transfer. China, with its burgeoning nuclear energy sector, heavily relies on Kazakhstan for natural uranium.

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Chinese state-owned companies, notably China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) and China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN), have invested in Kazakhstan’s uranium mining ventures. Unlike in Namibia, where Chinese ownership predominates, in Kazakhstan, local ownership norms dictate a more equitable distribution of resources, with Kazakhstani state entities maintaining around 50% ownership in joint ventures.

Kazakhstan’s strategy extends beyond uranium extraction; it seeks vertical integration into higher-value segments of the nuclear fuel supply chain. Kazatomprom, Kazakhstan’s national nuclear company, leverages its uranium resources to secure foreign investment and technology for fuel fabrication. This strategy involves quid pro quo arrangements, ensuring partners contribute to Kazakhstani vertical integration goals.

CGN’s involvement in Kazakhstan exemplifies this dynamic. In exchange for access to uranium, CGN committed to investing in Kazatomprom’s fuel fabrication plant and purchasing fuel assemblies for twenty years. By fulfilling these promises, CGN not only advanced its commercial interests but also contributed to Kazakhstan’s goal of moving up the value chain in nuclear fuel production.

Contrary to simplistic narratives of Chinese dominance and resource exploitation, China’s engagement in Kazakhstan reflects a mutual adaptation to local conditions and a pursuit of shared benefits. As Russia faces sanctions, Kazakhstan explores alternative transit routes for its uranium exports, with China emerging as a promising partner. Through infrastructural developments and strategic partnerships, Kazakhstan aims to enhance its connectivity and bypass traditional transit routes, potentially reshaping the global uranium trade landscape.

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