While Beijing is set to boost its influence through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which will link China’s western provinces with Europe via road, rail and sea routes, neighboring Kazakhstan is weighing in on its contributions to the mega-transportation project that is estimated to cost over $900 billion.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s idea was unveiled in 2013 in Astana during his tour through Central Asia.
“Although five years is not such a long period of time, today we can say that it was a great idea […] because it was thrown up for countries that picked it up as a concept, which would help get out of the remnants of the crisis,” Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev said, referring to the European sovereign debt crisis. Nazarbayev’s remarks were made as part of an interview he gave with China Central Television (CCTV) on Monday this week.
The BRI is expected to connect about 60 percent of the world’s population, or 4.5 billion people, in 65 countries in Asia, Europe and Africa, with a GDP of about $21 trillion.
China’s launch of the BRI gave impetus to Kazakhstan for a land reform initiative that became part of what Nazarbayev dubbed Nurly Zhol, meaning “bright path.”
“This [initiative] just spurred us to accept the program of Nurly Zhol,” Nazarbayev said Monday.
The $9 billion nationwide plan prioritized the development of the country’s railways and roads, eyeing China’s investments in the BRI. In 2016, Beijing and Astana agreed to integrate both initiatives, in order to boost cooperation across sectors of their economies, ranging from farming to the automotive industry. China sees Kazakhstan as adding significant advantage to its plans, given that it absorbs 15 percent of Kazakhstan’s hydrocarbon exports, including oil and oil-based products, coal and gas.
Kazakhstan is considered the largest trading partner of China in Central Asia, with trade turnover amounting to almost $10.5 billion in 2017. Kazakhstani exports amounted to $5.7 billion and imports $4.6 billion, according to Kazakhstan’s Statistics Committee.
Hit hard by the world financial crisis in 2008 and the subsequent plunge in oil prices in 2014, officials in Astana realize the need to diversify the economy and invest in public works. The country’s GDP fell to $137 billion in 2016 compared to $236 billion in 2013, according to data provided by the World Bank.
In 2014, a Chinese-Kazakhstani logistics terminal was commissioned in the coastal city of Lianyungang in the east of China, which gave the world’s largest landlocked country a much-needed outlet to the Pacific Ocean. Kazakhstan holds a 49 percent stake in the Kazakhstan-Chinese International Logistic Company created there, with China holding the majority share. From 2013-2017, the volume of exports and imports that passed through the terminal exceeded 8 million tons, or 500,000 containers.
The two sides also launched the Khorgos Eastern Gate Special Economic Zone located six kilometers away from the Altynkol border crossing between Kazakhstan and China. That gives Kazakhstan access to the Western Europe-Western China highway, which is the country’s longest road, with a total length of 8,445 km. Approximately 65 trains, amounting to 6,200 TEU, per month are currently being transshipped through Khorgos.
“A great work has been done over the years, and we see that it was a very timely, very far-sighted idea that works for the benefit of our nations,” Nazarbayev said.