China and Kazakhstan try to smooth over ‘deadly pneumonia’ row

China has renewed its support for Kazakhstan, a key player in Beijing’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, as diplomatic tensions surfaced over an outbreak of a deadly pneumonia in the Central Asian nation.
During a phone call with Kazakh Health Minister Alexei Tsoi on Friday, Chinese ambassador to Kazakhstan Zhang Xiao spoke highly of bilateral ties and pledged Beijing’s firm commitment to the country and its battle against the deadly virus, according to a statement on the Chinese embassy’s website.
Tsoi thanked China for its strong support during the coronavirus pandemic, particularly Chinese medical teams and aid, the statement said.
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The call came just hours after Tsoi’s ministry rejected embassy claims that the Central Asian country had an outbreak of an unspecified pneumonia that was deadlier than the coronavirus.
Without mentioning the embassy, which initially referred to “Kazakhstan pneumonia” on Thursday but later changed to “non-Covid pneumonia”, Kazakhstan’s health ministry said on Friday that the claims by “Chinese media” did not “conform to reality”.
The World Health Organisation backed the ministry’s position, saying that many of the pneumonia cases in Kazakhstan were likely to be Covid-19 and “just have not been diagnosed correctly”.
Despite the latest misstep, frictions over China’s growing economic footprint and Beijing’s suppression of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, Chinese analysts said China’s relations with Kazakhstan would not be adversely affected, especially in the face of the post-Covid uncertainties and economic challenges.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev admitted on Friday that the coronavirus, which killed 264 Kazakhs and left nearly 55,000 infected, had dealt a heavy blow to the energy-rich country’s economy, according to Reuters.
The country’s economy shrank 1.8 per cent year on year in the first six months as a result of nationwide lockdowns, suspension of international travel and more importantly, a devastating crude price drop that nearly paralysed its oil and gas sector.
Kazakhstan, a top oil exporter in Central Asia, was forced to cut oil exports to China due to the plummeting demand in the first quarter as the pandemic raged.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has described Kazakhstan as “a friendly neighbour and a permanent comprehensive strategic partner”.
Li Lifan, an expert on Russia and Central Asia at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said Kazakhstan remained a key source of energy and an important pillar of the Belt and Road Initiative, the country’s top foreign policy and overseas investment project.
“It is true that we have minor incidents from time to time, but I don’t think it will alter the big picture” of bilateral ties, he said, adding that Beijing’s economic and financial support would be critical for the landlocked, Muslim-majority country in its economic recovery.
Those incidents include the summoning of Zhang by Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry in April to complain about one of a number of nationalist articles online suggesting that the country wanted to “return” to China’s fold.
The article ” “Why is Kazakhstan eager to return to China? “” sparked an outcry among Kazakhs amid growing anti-Chinese sentiment in the Central Asian country. Zhang said the article did not represent China’s official position on the matter, Chinese nationalist tabloid Global Times reported.
Then on Friday, the Chinese newspaper said the US had to come clean about a conspiracy theory that the coronavirus originated in the US and was linked to a US biotech lab in Kazakhstan.
While politically Russia remains the top ally for Kazakhstan, a former Soviet satellite state, China has rapidly become the country’s main trading partner and investor since Xi launched the belt and road scheme in Astana, now Nur-Sultan, seven years ago.
Thanks to its vast energy reserves and its strategic position in China’s plan to extend trade and transport links on the Eurasian continent, Kazakhstan’s importance to China has continued to rise, according …
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