Being geographically located both in Asia and Europe, Kazakhstan considers itself a Eurasian country. In this article, based on my opening remarks at the annual Singapore Forum on April 2, I share some insights on the Eurasian perspective and Kazakhstan’s efforts to harness the fundamental changes on the continent.
Eurasia, a backbone of the modern world, is undergoing a sweeping transformation which will have far-reaching consequences for the entire world. There are four major transformations that I would like to single out.
First. We witness the unprecedented transformation of Russia with whom Kazakhstan shares the world’s longest land border. The new geopolitical posture of Russia has been shaped by the changing global landscape. Western sanctions have affected the Russian economy and caused tension in the relations between Russia and the West, first of all, the U.S. As a result, some experts argue that the world is sliding into a new Cold War.
Therefore, Russia’s foreign policy has now shifted its focus towards Asia, particularly to China. Sino-Russian relations both in the economic area and foreign policy have become closer than ever before. The two nuclear powers share common views on all major international issues as reflected in United Nations (UN) Security Council voting. Thirty years ago amidst the Soviet-Chinese confrontation which nearly brought the two countries to a nuclear war, this kind of situation could not even be perceived.
The strategic partnership between Russia and China produces a new global reality; in addition to that, any major global issue such as Ukraine, Syria, international terrorism or nuclear non-proliferation, cannot be addressed without the direct involvement of Russia, which has strengthened its strategic position by having sent troops to Syria.
At the same time, even though the partnership between Russia and China is strategic in its nature, it is wrong to assume that a new bloc is emerging. Both states have their own strategic interests and also realise the importance of cooperation with the West and, certainly, with the United States. The question is how to seek a common ground with the U.S. in present, very complex circumstances to tackle the most acute issues of the global agenda to meet the interests of the world community. The recent visit of the U.S. Secretary of State to Moscow has proved this tendency.
In general, we in Kazakhstan are against the bloc mindset as far as international relations are concerned and are committed to a joint solution of urgent problems. For obvious reasons, strategic partnership and an allied relationship with Russia are extremely essential to Kazakhstan. Cooperation between the two neighbours has been strengthening in all areas. Meanwhile, the U.S. is a major investor in our economy, particularly in the energy sector. China is also a very important partner of my country; out of $27 billion of Chinese investments to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, $23 billion was sent to Kazakhstan.
Second. Talking about the changing landscape in Eurasia, it is worth mentioning the serious transformation taking place in China. The rise of the world’s second largest economy is going on, even though at a slower pace. Trying to prevent overheating of its economy, Beijing is encouraging domestic consumption, boosting innovation and initiating huge cooperation projects such as One Belt, One Road, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Free Trade Zone. China has decided to give up outdated and environment-damaging industrial capacity to become a high-tech powerhouse. My assessment is that this strategic plan will be accomplished.
Beijing has emerged as an active global actor. China’s role in Central Asia has been steadily increasing. Its presence is backed by plentiful financial resources that other countries cannot afford to provide nowadays. According to President Xi Jinping, China will promote One Belt, One Road as the main trade and investment project that will boost Asian economy.
The political and economic rise of China and the U.S. presence in Asia with its Trans-Pacific Partnership generate speculation about geopolitical ambitions and a new rivalry between the two powers, including the territorial issues on the sea. However, despite the enmity, both China and the U.S. possess huge capacity to boost regional development.
The role of Central Asia in global politics is growing. Blessed with enormous natural resources and at the same time being located close to conflict zones including Afghanistan, this region is becoming a pillar of the whole Eurasian continent. All big powers continue to show their interests in Central Asia. If 20 years ago the U.S. dominated in the region, over the past five years Russia and China have seriously increased their presence.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev put forward an idea about Great Eurasia that would embrace the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the Silk Road Economic Belt and the European Union (EU) as a single integration project of the 21st century. We expect that this idea will be widely discussed at the Astana Economic Forum this May.
The third transformation is taking place in the European Union. A number of blatant terrorist acts, an unprecedented migration crisis, financial problems and Britain’s confusion about its EU membership suggest that Europe will never be the same again and the “Old World” is entering an era of grave upheaval. However, the potential of the EU cannot be understated; it will be able to overcome predicaments since the EU is still attractive to its members and outsiders as an evolving institution.
The EU is the largest trade and investment partner of Kazakhstan. Three months ago, we signed the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU. This framework document encompasses a wide range of relations and is forward-looking. Certainly, we are not planning to join the EU and will rather pursue a pragmatic policy. In late March, Kazakhstan’s President visited Brussels and held meetings with top officials of the EU.
Fourth. Negative transformation is taking place in the Middle East. Syria, Libya and Yemen have been in chaos over the last five years. The largest terrorist group in history, the so-called “Islamic State,” has appeared and strengthened its foothold.
Religious extremism is one of the main challenges not only in the Middle East, but also in other parts of the world. Unfortunately, this phenomenon has expanded worldwide. The fight against terrorism requires consolidated measures both on military and ideological fronts. International terrorism can undermine the world order. Therefore, this issue should be a priority for all countries concerned. A global network to counter terrorism needs to be established under UN auspices. This evil should not become a normality in our daily life.
Kazakhstan is the host of the Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions that offers its inclusive platform for political and religious leaders to engage in a dialogue to discuss the most pressing issues, such as combating extremist and terrorist threats. It is essential to ensure efficient involvement of religious leaders in explaining the malignity of religious extremism. The Religions against Terrorism conference is to be held in Astana on May 31 and it will bring together members of many Parliaments and representatives of world religions.
We believe that the end to Iran’s isolation is a positive factor in regional cooperation. Kazakhstan has been substantially contributing to the success of international negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme.
On April 1, Nazarbayev participated in the Nuclear Security Summit that was held in Washington, DC. Kazakhstan has been a consistent advocate of comprehensive nuclear disarmament. Twenty-five years ago, even during the Soviet time, President Nazarbayev signed a decree to close down the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site and our country voluntarily renounced its nuclear arsenal inherited from the Soviet Union, the fourth largest in the world. It was a unique case in international disarmament history. Therefore, Kazakhstan has a firm standing on the disarmament issue, in particular on the North Korean nuclear programme.
We need to acknowledge that because of ambiguities, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons is not fully observed. Unfortunately, the proliferation of nuclear arms and its technology is a sad reality; these deadly weapons have already fallen into the hands of irresponsible politicians and terrorists are next in line.
Regional cooperation to reverse negative trends in the international security area should be developed. We are closely watching the multifaceted activity of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and believe that its experience is useful for Eurasian organisations.
My country initiated the establishment of the EAEU. The EAEU is purely an economic project based on a pragmatic approach and shared interests.
Kazakhstan has proposed declaring 2016 as the year of enhanced economic ties of the EAEU with other countries and regional organisations, including ASEAN. Last year, Vietnam signed a free trade agreement with the EAEU. Singapore is showing interest in signing such an agreement as well. With the launch of the EAEU, foreign companies establishing joint ventures in Kazakhstan will get access to five national markets embracing 180 million people and a GDP worth $2.2 billion.
We believe that the SCO, comprising two permanent members of the UN Security Council – Russia and China, – as well as Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries, is an important institution. The SCO pursues a universal agenda including the fight against terrorism, religious extremism, separatism, economic investment and humanitarian cooperation. This year, the SCO is going to welcome India and Pakistan as its new members, which will give it additional political and economic weight.
Kazakhstan is convinced that contradictions existing between Asian countries should not impede building a continental system of security and cooperation. With this in mind, we initiated the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA). Our country is active in the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
We believe that amidst global turbulence all states, regardless of their economic and military capacities, should enhance the central role of the UN in global affairs. The erosion of the UN and international law may have a devastating effect on the modern world, especially against the backdrop of growing terrorism. Kazakhstan has proposed convening a UN conference at the highest level to uphold principles of international law to restore trust.
Several points on the Silk Road Economic Belt project, which was launched by President Xi Jinping during his visit to Kazakhstan in September 2013. It is a powerful geo-economic strategy aimed at modernising transport infrastructure spanning from the Pacific Ocean to Europe.
Kazakhstan has expressed its willingness to join this project and developed its own infrastructure-development programmes. This year, the Kazakh part of the Western Europe-Western China highway that is almost 2,800-km long will be completed. We are also constructing a high-speed rail across Kazakhstan. Container shipping along the China-Kazakhstan-Europe route has grown from 6,000 units in 2013 to 48,000 in 2015 and is going to reach 95,000 this year.
In 2015, Kazakhstan launched the Nurly Zhol (The Bright Path) programme to develop transport, logistical, energy, industrial, tourist, housing and social infrastructure. By 2018, the country will build and upgrade 9,000 km of motor roads and highways and construct a new seaport infrastructure on the Caspian Sea that will connect Kazakhstan with the Persian Gulf and Black Sea. We are enhancing logistics hubs along the border with China. Last year, a new Kazakhstan-Chinese logistics terminal was launched at the Lianyungang port.
Kazakhstan’s response to the global economic crisis goes beyond the package of the above-said measures and infrastructure-development projects. Last year, the President launched comprehensive institutional reforms, the Plan of the Nation, aimed at ensuring the rule of law, boosting industrial development and economic growth and strengthening national unity, as well as building a transparent and accountable government. Our Parliament adopted 59 laws, which among other things will further streamline foreign investment rules in the country.
A new high-tech village including EXPO 2017 pavilions is now under construction in Astana and as soon as the exhibition is over it will accommodate the new Astana International Financial Centre. This financial centre, located halfway from London to Singapore, will be based on English law, preferential tax treatment and an independent arbitration court.
All in all, the ongoing transformation of Eurasia brings both challenges and great opportunities for the region of Central Asia and Kazakhstan in particular. In the environment of uncertainty, it is extremely important to enhance regional security institutions as well as to find ways of combining the trade and economic strategies of various powers. The synergy of strategic projects, such as the EAEU and the Silk Road Economic Belt, will enable the region to offer to the world an efficient and balanced model of global economic development.
The author is Chairman of the Senate of the Parliament of Kazakhstan.