This contribution to the historiography on the Kazakh steppe is an analysis of Russian-Chinese relations in the period from the 1750s to the 1860s, with an emphasis on how Kazakhs themselves served to shape those relations. In this period the region between the Russian and Qing empires was a frontier zone, which neither side claimed definitively (as Noda notes, the Kiakhta treaty of 1727 did not mention the Kazakh steppe nor Kazakh nomads), although each empire tried at times to claim control over the land or the people living there. Until the early 1830s, Russian policy was guided by the desire to avoid conflict with the Qing, and the Russian government trod very lightly in its demands that the Qing recognise the Russian subjecthood of certain Kazakh clans. Kazakh migration between Russian and Qing territory complicated the policies of both empires in this period before border demarcations were drawn in 1864. Beginning in 1831, Russia asserted more forcefully its power within the frontier zone. It opened a sub-provincial administrative office (okrug prikaz) in Aiaguz and stationed Cossack patrols there. Qing officials tried to challenge this, and some Kazakh Sultans attempted a dual diplomacy by which they appealed to both empires for assistance in preserving lands, avoiding taxes and gaining titles. Gradually, the Qing involvement in this politicking diminished and the Russian involvement grew to the point that Kazakh Sultans could no longer effectively pursue political advantage vis-à-vis Qing imperial officials. This brief article is rich in empirical evidence of imperial and local politics in the eastern Kazakh steppe, particularly in the 1830s. The research is based on Russian, Manchu and Turki-language archival sources, as well as Japanese scholarship (e.g., works by Saguchi) only available in Japanese. Most of the information in this article is from Russian imperial sources, the result of which is less clarity on Qing policies and attitudes toward Kazakhs.