China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Kazakhstan and Geopolitics

The strategic Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of China has a truly global significance and far-reaching geopolitical implications. “Belt” is the “Economic Silk Road” that links China with the Eurasian continent, Africa and the Middle East by the road, railway lines and fiber-optic communication lines by land, while “Road” is “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” that links China with distant markets and raw materials of the area between Arctic and Indian, Pacific and Atlantic oceans by water.

The concept of combining the land and sea parts of the megaproject was first announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in his speech within the walls of the Nazarbayev University in September 2013 in the capital of Kazakhstan. Like every other decision of the Chinese leadership, the choice of a geographical location for the presentation of a new strategic initiative to the world community was, in my opinion, deeply thought-out and filled with political symbolism.

As President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev noted in his speech at the Munich Security Conference in February 2020, the Central Asian region is one of the key areas for the implementation of this megaproject. It is obvious that when choosing our capital to announce its most important initiative, the Chinese leadership took into account Kazakhstan’s consistent commitment to the idea of reviving the Great Silk Road through the adoption of the role of a trade and infrastructure hub for the entire Eurasian continent by Central Asia. The capitals of both countries attach great importance to the development of a comprehensive strategic partnership characterized by a constant and intensive political dialogue at the highest level and the resolution of all issues of bilateral cooperation based on the principles of good-neighborly relations, mutual understanding and trust.

It is no secret that the Belt and Road Initiative and the motives that prompted Beijing to promote it are regarded as controversial by many abroad. Government circles in the United States and several Western European states are especially critical towards it. As the Head of State stressed, Kazakhstan does not share concerns about the excessive influence of the Chinese economy on the development of our country. On the contrary, we believe that close cooperation with China within the framework of the BRI provides many advantages and, ultimately, will increase the geopolitical significance of Central Asia as a whole.

This assessment is in line with the position of the First President-Elbasy Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has repeatedly noted that Kazakhstan is the first and key country of the Silk Road Economic Belt, a kind of geo-economic gateway of China to the West. At the highest level, the two countries identified the main directions of joint work on the integration of Kazakhstan’s “Nurly Zhol” program with the Belt and Road Initiative. The harmony of Nurly Zhol and BRI is determined by the fact that both megaprojects prioritize transport, logistics, industry, energy, agricultural exports, housing, communal infrastructure, education, human capital development, and support for small and medium-sized businesses. Of particular importance for our country is the creation of transport corridors “China-Kazakhstan-Russia-Western Europe,” “China-Kazakhstan-Western Asia,” “China-Kazakhstan-South Caucasus/Turkey-Europe” within the BRI.

In my view, there are a number of key difference between the BRI and large-scale joint projects initiated by other countries and interstate associations. Firstly, the practical tangibility of the implementation of stated intentions. Secondly, there is a clear mechanism for translating the concept into actions, including the establishment of specialized sources of funding for the most ambitious and expensive projects in infrastructure, energy, industrial, info-communicational, and other areas. Finally, unprecedented interregional and country coverage.

In the six and a half years since the Belt and Road Initiative was launched, more than a hundred Asian, European, Middle Eastern, and African states and dozens of international organizations have joined it in one way or another.  Such impressive dynamics undoubtedly prove the viability of the BRI, clearly demonstrating the positive expectations of China’s partners, who see the initiative as an attractive and beneficial economic prospect. The successful implementation of large multilateral projects is largely determined by the attitude of participants to the motive of the creator of the initiative. It is one thing to see the initiator as a “soloist” pursuing their own, veiled foreign policy and economic goals, and quite another if the author of the initiative assumes the role of a leading partner who is sincerely interested in making the most effective use of each other’s comparative advantages, complementing the opportunities for implementing national development strategies based on the unifying goal of achieving social and economic well-being. The Chinese leadership is aware of the importance of ensuring that partner countries correctly understand its motives and emphasizes the mutual and universal benefits of involvement in the initiative.

The official position of Beijing is that given the world and regional transformations as well as challenges and problems faced by China and other countries, the BRI was proposed to primarily preserve the global system of free trade and open economic relations, and also promote diverse cooperation with partner countries. Priorities are defined in a special Action Plan for the BRI and their hierarchy is arranged as follows: 

1) coordination of economic policies and regional development plans, joint implementation of major projects; 

2) forming an infrastructure network that connects Asia, Europe, and Africa and consists of transport corridors, railways, seaports, aviation infrastructure, energy transportation systems, etc.; 

3) implementation of unhindered trade by removing barriers, creating free trade zones, liberalizing trade rules, improving customs and border procedures, etc.; 

4) financial integration based on the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), as well as by increasing the scope and scale of currency swaps; 

5) humanitarian cooperation, including an increase in the number of citizens studying in Chinese universities from the countries participating in the BRI; the influx of tourists to China from these countries; contacts in the field of health, as well as through NGOs.

Together, this gives a fairly clear idea of the goals of the Chinese leadership in promoting the BRI.  Assessing the background of motives, we can highlight several points that are not particularly advertised.

Firstly, it is clear that the slowdown in China’s economic growth due to the global recession (now with the added challenges of the coronavirus pandemic and geo-economic consequences) has motivated Beijing to step up efforts to create new export and investment opportunities and to expand access to sources of raw materials and new markets for Chinese products. The diversification of transport routes for the delivery of Chinese export products to world markets requires a developed transport and logistics infrastructure in transit countries and favorable conditions for the smooth movement of Chinese goods and services, including the liberalization of customs and currency regimes.

Secondly, China’s progressive acquisition of the role of the largest consumer, as the prosperity of the majority of the population increases, puts it at the top of the value chain. The central and especially western regions of China are becoming leaders in terms of growth rates, and unlike southern and eastern regions of the country, still possessing a significant reserve for extensive economic expansion. The leveling of regional disparities requires the implementation of large-scale infrastructure projects in these parts of the country in cooperation with neighboring Central Asian and South Asian States.

Thirdly, in the efforts of the Chinese leadership to mitigate the problem of separatism in the Xinjiang Uyghur (XUAR) and Tibet Autonomous Regions (TAR), it is important to accelerate the economic development of XUAR and TAR through the intensification of their ties with other provinces and foreign neighbors.

Fourthly, in recent decades, the growth of the Chinese economy was largely based on the so-called “demographic dividend” such as the large number of working-age citizens who created an excessively high supply of cheap workforce in the labour market. The projects related to the Belt and Road Initiative provide an opportunity to solve the problem of employment for the long term.

Fifthly, the initiative is aimed at ensuring the Chinese capital’s presence of participating countries in sectors strategically important for China. Beijing’s priority is to stimulate its economic growth by increasing the export of products from industries with significant overproduction, such as steel, cement, and aluminium.

Finally, the huge construction sector, employing millions of Chinese, will need new long-term projects after the upcoming completion of major infrastructure projects in the East of China. The transport and logistics infrastructure for transit to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa will provide long-term contracts to Chinese construction companies.

The foregoing does not indicate that there is anything particularly alarming about the Belt and Road Initiative: with the appropriate financial resources, this is what any government that cares about the country’s socio-economic development would do.

Nevertheless, when geopolitics is based on the “win-lose” principle,  a positive development for China leads to the critical attitude towards Beijing’s initiative among representatives of state structures and the expert community, especially in the United States and in the so-called collective West. Moreover, in backdoor and public diplomacy, Washington and the capitals of some other US allies are trying to instill wariness in governments and appropriately influence public opinion of the countries participating in the Belt and Road Initiative regarding the discrepancy between their long-term national interests and “excessive dependence on unequal cooperation” with China. The negative perception of the Chinese initiative in the West is formed around the following views.

Through the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing is seeking under the guise of the modernized revival of the Great Silk Road to spread Chinese influence in states involved in the initiative, covering an extensive network of transportation and logistics, energy, trade, and financial ties.

China is seeking to displace the US hegemony in the global geopolitical space by enticing as the many states of Eurasia and other continents as possible into its orbit through large-scale infrastructure projects.

China’s multi-billion investments in economic projects on the territories of the Belt and Road countries are allegedly aimed at strengthening their political and economic dependence on Beijing, and some of these countries face the prospect of becoming satellites of China, which supposedly intends to force them to agree to the presence of Chinese military contingents along the transit lines to ensure the security of the established infrastructure.

Representatives of the West warned that being a transit country in the BRI will not stimulate the growth of industrial production, but will only increase the dependence of their economy on the demand for raw materials. Credit lines of the AIIB to finance major projects in the participating countries should not be carried away, since they increase the already substantial indicators of external debt, including in some Central Asian states, stressing that sooner or later the current loans will have to be returned to the AIIB for instance.

The validity of some of the above warnings will be checked by reality, while others appear to be unrealistic and conspiratorial. In any case, the Belt and Road Initiative has become a notable stressor in the US strategic confrontation with China. The recent conclusion of an agreement between Washington and Beijing on the first phase of trade settlement is a positive signal for the global economy, but it should be assumed that the geopolitical rivalry between the US and China will continue to determine the parameters of global challenges and risks for international political and economic interaction.

It is appropriate for our country and our regional neighbours to assume that the Belt and Road Initiative is an open, inclusive platform for multilateral cooperation, where it is possible to meet the vital national interests of each participant, regardless of the size of its economy and political weight. It is clear that China has its reasons for promoting the Belt and Road Initiative, but the decisions of the leaders of almost a hundred countries that joined the initiative were undoubtedly based on a deep analysis of all the pros and cons, including the consequences not only for economic development but also for sovereignty and national security interests. For Eurasian states like Kazakhstan, the BRI is a good opportunity to realize a collective interest in creating a solid foundation for the sustainable development of the entire continent.

In the recent past, prior to the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, the authoritative American political scientist, Chairman of the Silk Road Studies Programme at Johns Hopkins University at Washington, Frederick Starr, pointed out that despite its obvious attractiveness, the idea of the Eurasian land transport corridor is not becoming reality because of a lack of strategic imagination, obsession of many countries on relevant and important, but current problems, making it difficult to encompass the entirety of the geopolitical and geo-economic situation. Beijing has presented this strategic vision with its Belt and Road Initiative. 

The implementation of the megaproject will allow, without exaggeration, to globally reformat trade and economic processes and turn infrastructure integration to the benefit of countries like Kazakhstan, which are landlocked. In the modern context of globalization and the growing trend towards interfacing economic integration processes on the Eurasian continent, the very concept of a “landlocked country” is being transformed into a new definition of a “land-linked country.”

For Kazakhstan, whose foreign and economic policies were based on the principle of a multi-vector approach and openness to constructive cooperation with neighboring countries and the world community at the dawn of independence, active participation in the Belt and Road Initiative is natural and logical. In Nur-Sultan, it is assumed that the megaproject will bring undoubted benefit to our country in the form of modernization of transport and transit logistics and integration with the new economic program “Nurly Zhol.” There is no doubt that everything necessary for the Kazakh side to contribute to the revival of the Silk Road will be implemented successfully.

Author is Bolat Nurgaliyev, Deputy Chairman of the Board of the Foreign Policy Research Institute under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan, former Secretary General of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (2007-2009), Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Kazakhstan

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