New Silk Road continues ancient route’s role uniting region, expanding understanding

On the eve of the Caspian Summit last month, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev visited Kuryk on the seashore to open the port’s new transport hub. His visit was more than just to acknowledge the latest step in the modernisation of Kazakhstan’s transport infrastructure. It was also to celebrate a practical example of the positive benefits of the international cooperation that he hoped the summit would – and thankfully did – achieve.

The state-of-the-art facilities at Kuryk are another important link in a remarkable transport chain, which connects China’s Yellow Sea with the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean and Western Europe. Together with the improved facilities at nearby Aktau, the two ports can handle 26 million tonnes of cargo every year. By enabling goods to be switched much more rapidly between land and sea, it will cut delays, increase trade, create jobs and drive prosperity not just in Kazakhstan but across the entire region.

The new hub, of course, is the latest major infrastructure project designed and delivered to coincide with the vision of the Belt and Road Initiative. Unveiled by China’s leader Xi Jinping five years ago when he visited Kazakhstan, this extraordinary project aims to rebuild and repurpose the ancient Silk Road across Eurasia for modern times.

It was no co-incidence that the Belt and Road Initiative was first announced in Kazakhstan. Our country has been a key partner from the beginning. Indeed, without Kazakhstan’s active support and willing participation, the land route would have faced huge, perhaps unsurmountable, difficulties.

Instead, major investment has been made in up-grading rail and road links including the building of the Western China – Western Europe highway across our country. They have been coupled with new logistics infrastructure not only on the Caspian Sea but also at the huge dry port constructed at Khorgos on the Kazakh-Chinese border

Thanks to these new facilities, modern motorways and railways and the intense efforts made to harmonise customs arrangements and cut red tape, goods can be moved from China to Western Europe within 15 days – a third of the time it takes by sea and half the cost of going by air.  It explains why Kazakhstan now accounts for 70 percent of transit land-based traffic passing between China to Europe as well as in other directions in Eurasia.

These cuts in costs and delays are a particularly welcome development at a time when the global economic future continues to look challenging.  As we have said before, in too many places in the world, we are seeing new barriers to trade imposed or threatened. When trade has been shown to be such a key driver of growth and prosperity, such obstacles are in no one’s long-term interest.  The Belt and Road Initiative can be considered an antidote to this worrying trend.

Modernising Kazakhstan’s transport infrastructure has, of course, been a major undertaking. But it is already clear that the rewards will far exceed the investment made. It has been estimated that the flow of goods on the modernised rail and road links could earn Kazakhstan as much as $9 billion a year by 2020.

This large figure will in time be dwarfed by additional income, which comes from the new factories and industries already setting up along the transport routes. They are a key part of Kazakhstan’s plans to diversify its economy away from a reliance on the energy sector and become the manufacturing and innovation powerhouse of the entire region.

But Kazakhstan and China have always envisaged the benefits of the Belt and Road project will be felt far beyond the two countries themselves and the final destinations for the goods which use the improved trade routes. Its broader aim is to integrate the whole region into a cohesive and vibrant economic area to boost growth, employment and development.

Nor will the benefits, in time, be limited to economics. A more prosperous and integrated region – particularly if it is extended to include Afghanistan – will also be more stable. And just as the ancient Silk Road allowed ideas to be shared and understanding increased, so its modern equivalent will also be a driver of renewed cooperation in the years and decades to come. This is again, as we look at the challenges our world faces today, a very important prize.