ASTANA – Astana hosted an international conference on Sept. 7, marking the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), one of the world’s largest development and infrastructure projects. The event also celebrated 30 years of partnership between Central Asia and China.
The conference was organized by Kazakhstan’s Center for Chinese Studies and took place at Nazarbayev University, where Chinese President Xi Jinping initially announced the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative a decade ago. The event brought together scholars and experts from Kazakhstan and China to discuss the initiative’s progress and challenges.
What is BRI?
BRI is a significant global development strategy Xi Jinping proposed during his visit to Kazakhstan in September 2013. It is a massive infrastructure and economic initiative to enhance connectivity and foster cooperation among countries across Asia, Europe, Africa, and beyond.
The BRI consists of two main components – the Silk Road Economic Belt, which focuses on land-based routes connecting China to Europe via Central Asia and the Middle East, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, centered on maritime routes connecting China to Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Africa.
Over the past decade, China has signed more than 200 cooperation documents related to the BRI with 152 countries and 32 international organizations, covering 83% of the countries with which China has diplomatic relations, according to the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s national economic planner. As of March, China has invested nearly $1 trillion into BRI.
Kazakhstan’s role in BRI and strategic partnership with China
Kazakhstan was one of the first countries to support the initiative, aligning its participation with its ambitious goal of becoming a transport and logistics hub in Eurasia. This objective was recently emphasized by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in his state-of-the-nation address. At least 11 international transport corridors traverse Kazakhstan, and the country aims to increase the share of transport and logistics in its GDP to 9% within the next three years.
Aidar Amrebayev, head of the Center of Political Studies in Almaty, highlighted the enduring strategic partnership between Kazakhstan and China as a crucial factor in Kazakhstan’s role within the BRI.
“Relations between Kazakhstan and China exemplify an eternal strategic partnership, the highest level of interaction. It was here [at Nazarbayev University], where, a decade ago, Kazakhstan became the first country to confirm its participation in this expansive cooperation project. This serves as a testament to the mutual understanding and compromises achieved between our countries. In any endeavor, decision-making is grounded in political trust, and that trust is indeed present here,” the expert said in a comment for this story.
He noted that industrial cooperation also forms a pivotal dimension of the Kazakh-Chinese partnership, acting as a driving force within BRI. China and Kazakhstan have jointly identified a substantial list of 52 projects, collectively valued at over $21.2 billion.
“Half of them are either completed or being implemented. I have personally visited some of these sites, including the reconstruction of the Shymkent oil refinery or the establishment of the new CaspiBitum enterprise in Aktau [the only oil refinery in Kazakhstan focused on the production of air-blown road bitumen],” said Amrebayev.
Transport potential and connectivity
Developing transport potential is one of the key goals for countries participating in the BRI.
“It is evident that the Silk Road Economic Belt is designed for interaction between large and independent markets, particularly China and the European Union. We are at the crossroads of the transport corridor and will realize the directive from our country’s leadership to become a major hub connecting the West and the East, as well as the North and the South,” said Amrebayev.
During their meeting in Xian in May, leaders from Central Asia and China agreed to join efforts to accelerate the development of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, also known as the Middle Corridor. The route begins in China and passes through Central Asia – particularly Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan – before crossing the Caspian Sea and continuing through Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Türkiye to reach Europe.
In his address at the summit, President Tokayev emphasized the route’s strategic importance, saying, “We intend to systematically increase its capacity by introducing digital solutions and modernizing infrastructure. Considering that China is the main shipper, we consider it necessary to intensify joint efforts to ensure maximum and uninterrupted loading of this route.” The statement reaffirmed Kazakhstan’s commitment to the BRI.
The volume of freight transit transportation between Kazakhstan and China reached 23 million tons last year. In the first quarter of this year, it grew by 35%, exceeding seven million tons.
Central Asia’s role in the BRI
China’s trade with the five Central Asian countries increased to $70.2 billion in 2022, with Kazakhstan accounting for 45% of that trade. China is also a leading investor in the region. According to data from China’s Ministry of Commerce, as of March, China’s direct investment in the five Central Asian nations had surpassed $15 billion, and the total turnover from completed projects had reached an impressive $63.9 billion.
Vladimir Norov, Uzbekistan’s former foreign minister and former secretary-general of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, said Central Asian countries have benefited from their participation in BRI. Norov underscored the importance of a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to China, inaugurated in 2009 and passing through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and further to Xinjiang.
“Over the years, 423 billion cubic meters of gas has been transported to China and has improved the lives of more than 500 million people,” he added.
Other important facilities constructed under the BRI in Central Asia include a 100-megawatt wind farm in Zhanatas in southern Kazakhstan, the Turgusun hydropower plant in eastern Kazakhstan, the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan highway, the Vahdat-Yavan section of the Dushanbe-Kurgantube highway, and a heat power plant in Dushanbe.
“The construction of the heat power plant in Dushanbe played a very important role not only in addressing energy shortage but also in improving central heating systems in the capital of Tajikistan,” said Norov.
Connectivity is central to BRI
Connectivity lies at the core of the BRI, encompassing the physical and digital infrastructure that facilitates the movement of goods, services, people, and information across borders.
Norov suggested that China and the European Union should collaborate by aligning the BRI with the EU’s Global Gateway connectivity initiative.
“All countries will benefit if the Belt and Road Initiative and the European connectivity initiative are combined, especially the landlocked countries of Central Asia. The European and Chinese sides should contribute to the transformation of Central Asia into a major transportation corridor. This is in the interest of all countries,” said the Uzbek diplomat.
While the countries participating in the BRI have seen a positive impact on infrastructure improvement, some major concerns persist, including debt sustainability and environmental considerations.
One of the most prominent concerns is the potential for countries to accumulate unsustainable levels of debt. Many BRI projects are financed through loans from Chinese banks, and there are concerns that some countries may struggle to repay these loans, leading to debt dependency.
Experts also note the need for greater transparency in terms of project selection, financing terms, and environmental and social consequences.
Watch the Astana Times special coverage of the conference on our YouTube channel.