Even a generation ago, the Silk Road would have seemed to most people little more than a fascinating, if long-lasting, episode in history. It may have been the route through which goods, people and ideas flowed between East and West for many centuries, but its relevance to the modern world seems slim.
After all, it was a time when the U.S., Japan and Europe were still regarded as the motors of the global economy. It was maritime and air routes that were seen as the future. It was also why Central Asia, despite the region’s position at the centre of global crossroads, was seen as peripheral to the future.
Perceptions today are very different. Any lingering doubts about the key importance of China to the health of the global economy have been dispelled in recent weeks by the impact on confidence worldwide of suggestions that the country’s remarkable growth in recent years may be slowing down. Kazakhstan’s region, too, is now seen, for both good and bad reasons, as central to the challenges and opportunities facing the world.
It is against this background that the One Belt, One Road development initiative has to be viewed. By modernising and extending the ancient Silk Road and ensuring its benefits are felt by all the citizens and countries along its route, it will be a powerful lever to spread stability and prosperity east and west, north and south.
First spelled out in detail by China’s President Xi Jinping on a visit to Kazakhstan in 2013, it won immediate, enthusiastic support from his hosts. Kazakhstan had, in fact, already been involved in developing the ideas that will see significant new investment to open up trade routes across land and sea and to build an integrated and cohesive economic area around them.
The vision goes far beyond restoring the importance of the old Silk Road by making road and rail links between China and Europe fit for the future, important as these are. It also sets out to create new maritime connections to foster investment and cooperation with Southeast Asia, Oceania and Africa.
Any glance at a map would show how central Kazakhstan is to the success of these plans. The country’s territory links Asia and Europe and also the fast-growing markets of the Middle East, from whose ports goods can be exported and imported. Kazakhstan’s energy and mineral wealth already form an important part of the trade along both routes.
Kazakhstan’s vital role in the project has already been confirmed by a series of joint investment deals with China to increase cooperation on infrastructure, energy and industrial capacity. It will be further boosted by plans to streamline customs rules and remove bureaucratic barriers not only between the two countries but among all nations on the Silk Road.
For at the heart of this initiative is a recognition of the importance of all countries sharing in its benefits. Opportunities and prosperity must be extended as widely as possible or the progress and stability of all could be undermined.
Kazakhstan, of course, has its own economic policy – Nurly Zhol, which shares a lot of similarities with the One Belt, One Road initiative. Nurly Zhol will compliment China’s project, as its main priority is the development of transport and logistics, as well as industrial and energy infrastructures. When combined together, the Nurly Zhol programme and the One Belt, One Road initiative will open up new opportunities for strengthening the strategic partnership between the two countries and will ensure that both Kazakhstan and China achieve their objectives.
One Belt, One Road is, of course, also a powerful answer to those who feared the launch of the Eurasian Economic Union would see Kazakhstan limiting its horizons. It confirms, as does the country’s membership in the World Trade Organisation (WTO), that Kazakhstan sees the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) as another way of driving growth and deepening its relationship with the global economy.
Two years ago when President Xi Jinping visited Kazakhstan, the prospects for the world’s economy seemed more optimistic. Today’s climate is more challenging. But this uncertainty has only strengthened the case for the One Belt, One Road initiative, whose main aim has always been to spur growth. It shows why ideas like the Silk Road have stood the test of time.