On January 3, Chinese President Xi Jinping exchanged celebratory messages with Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and the country’s founding father, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to mark the 30th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two countries. Just two days later, Kazakhstan was on fire. Deadly riots ignited by a sudden spike in liquefied petroleum gas prices are continuing across what was once considered among the most stable of ex-Soviet republics in Central Asia, and the repercussions may extend beyond its borders. While the current violence appears to have taken most by surprise, commentators tend to forget that violence in Kazakhstan is nothing new. One of the worst instances of this took place in 2011, in the western city of Zhanaozen, when at least 14 protesters were killed by police after a strike turned violent. Zhanaozen appears to be the epicentre of the current protests over rising fuel prices. China has not forgotten, however. During past flare-ups, Beijing’s top leaders counted on Nazarbayev to deal with problems along the shared 1,780km (1,110-mile) border between the two countries. Now, however, Kazakhstan has turned to Russia for help. To worsen matters, this new round threatens an even more vital interest for China: besides being a strategic supplier of natural resources for China, Kazakhstan is also a key access point for the land-based portion of the New Silk Road. Kazakhstan president says order restored as Russian troops arrive Beijing considers its neighbour a linchpin of its Belt and Road Initiative. It was not by chance that Xi launched the Belt and Road Initiative’s land connection vision while on a state visit to Kazakhstan in 2013. Long-term unrest in Kazakhstan could spell economic disaster for the other landlocked countries of Central Asia, which are already reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic. Worse, it could create a domino effect that ensnares other less stable countries in the region, such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. This would cast serious doubt on the viability of the BRI’s land connections and energy supply routes, which link Turkmenistan’s gas and Kazakhstan’s oil reserves to China via its westernmost province of Xinjiang . Protracted unrest in Kazakhstan could also derail advancing bilateral ties and deepening BRI cooperation between both sides, including the long-discussed China-Kazakhstan permanent comprehensive strategic partnership. There is another worry for China: the prospect of being dragged into providing security in Kazakhstan to protect its investments and nationals. This is a process that could alienate Kazakhs and bring China into conflict with Russia. Moscow has already moved into the country. Among the troops it has sent are those belonging to a Spetsnaz brigade. Also, for the first time since its inception, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) , a Russian-led security bloc, has agreed to deploy military forces to support an ally. According to a CSTO communique, peacekeeping forces are entering Kazakhstan to “stabilise and normalise the situation for a limited period”. Although Tokayev requested the intervention of the CSTO peacekeeping force, the fact that it decided to answer the call raises suspicions. The CSTO has more often than not preferred to stay on the sidelines when such conflicts erupt – in 2010, during ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan, and more recently, during the 44-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, it refused to do anything. Now, with Russians troops on the ground, an old fear is being stoked, of a permanent return to the region by Moscow. Already, there are concerns that Vladimir Putin is using the unrest to reassert Russian influence in post-Soviet republics. If proven correct, this would clash with China’s own long-term plans for the region. Beyond that, troops alone cannot stabilise the situation. Some economic support will also be needed, but these are beyond Moscow’s modest means. Turkey, also an important economic partner in the region and part of the same club with Kazakhstan in the Organization of Turkish States, is similarly unable to fill the void, given its own economic crisis. The task thus falls to China. But Beijing has economic woes of its own, too, for its state-owned enterprises involved in BRI projects are seeing falling profitability, leading to state banks to tighten credit lines. In effect, Kazakhstan has now become the latest in a list of mounting woes for China in Central and South Asia. That list includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. The unexpected Kazakh crisis is another distraction that Beijing really does not need while it wrestles with the strategic rivalry with the US, a worsening perception of China in the West, and slowing economic growth. Why China’s belt and road plans for Central Asia are changing However, if Beijing fails to provide economic support now, it could soon have to pay an even higher price later. The ongoing crisis in Kazakhstan is a result of unequal distribution of resources and related inefficiencies, a problem that affects many of the Central Asian Republics. It is not beyond the realm of reason that the protests could spread. Russia’s iron-fist solution to any problem could quell the riots temporarily, but the long-term negative ripple effects could bring instability directly to China’s western border, an area already marred by ethnic confrontations, forcing Beijing to act. As always, the best-laid plans tend to fray on first contact with reality . China experienced this recently in Afghanistan, despite its public crowing about the United States’ hasty, chaotic withdrawal last year. The violence in Kazakhstan threatens to force Beijing’s gaze away from the West, and increasingly towards its western border.