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Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the flagship program of the Chinese President Xi Jinping, comprising of the land-based ‘Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB)’, passing through the Eurasian heartland of Central Asia, and the sea-going ‘21st Century Maritime Silk Road’, traversing the vital Indian Ocean littorals. It is aimed at furthering Chinese geo-strategic, economic and political interests and to cement China’s status as a rising superpower. Apart from exporting its excess capital and manufacturing capacity to countries desperate for infrastructure investments and development, China aims to develop and integrate its restive western province of Xinjiang, with the larger Eurasian economy. In this context, Central Asia and specifically, Kazakhstan in it, acquire the most significant role and form the thrust of SREB strategy.

Kazakhstan – Land of the Wanderers

Significance in BRI

Kazakhstan is described as the vast flat steppe land. It is the largest landlocked country in the world and also the region’s largest in terms of the area extending from the Volga in the west to the Altai Mountains in the east and from the plains of western Siberia in the north to oases and deserts of Central Asia in the south. The vast openness and huge expanse are in contrast to the country’s relatively low population of roughly 18 million. The country is considered politically stable under the rule of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled the country since its independence. Economically, Kazakhstan is the most powerful of all the other Central Asian states largely due to the country's vast natural resources.

It is no wonder then that the Chinese President Xi Jinping chose Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital, to announce the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ back in 2013. It symbolised the centrality of Kazakhstan in the land-based component of the BRI, i.e. ‘Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB)’.

Kazakhstan is the critical pillar in two of the proposed six economic corridors under BRI, namely the New Eurasian Land Bridge, connecting China and Europe via Central Asia, and the China-Central Asia-West Asia Corridor. Being the largest of the CARs in terms of area and economic weight, Kazakhstan has been the most confident and enthusiastic supporter of the BRI unlike some of the others in the region which are still uncertain, circumspect or less confident in dealing with a giant neighbour like China.

Economic and Socio-Political impact

Although the economic relationship between China and Kazakhstan had been budding well before BRI, the project has given a fillip to the relationship, and there is new momentum to it. According to trade statistics from the Chinese Embassy in Kazakhstan, the bilateral trade volume between the two countries has almost reached $100 billion. China is Kazakhstan's second-largest trading partner, export destination and source of imports.

In 2015, Kazakh President aligned its national development strategy by forging ‘Nurly Zhol’ (Bright Path) program together with China’s BRI to further boost trade, industrial and technological capacity. The Bright Path foresees investments up to the US $40 billion until 2020 in logistics, public services, SMEs and other infrastructure. The Central Asian country hopes to project the dry land port of Khorgos(part of Nurly Zhol) as a transit hub for freight traffic flowing between China and Europe. Khorgos, located 350 km north-east from Almaty, Kazakhstan’s most populous city, has significantly impacted the Almaty region, which shares a 700-kilometre border with China and is one of the largest agro-industrial and fastest growing parts of Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan has a stated goal to transition from a middle-income country to a high-income country by 2050 and seeks to reduce its dependence on the export of natural resources by diversification of the economy. For example, its Digital Kazakhstan 2020 program envisages the creation of a Digital Silk Road where it wants to leverage the Chinese investments and technology.

Main economic concern regarding China’s BRI all over the world has been the use of tactics now famously called ‘debt-trap’ diplomacy whereby it offers generous loans to countries that are beyond their capacity to repay and traps them in a debt cycle to leverage and advance its interests. Kazakhstan would need to be more careful in implementing BRI projects and ask for more transparency from China and assess the long term sustainability of some of the projects. It has tried to mitigate that somewhat with its ‘multi-vector’ foreign policy by engaging other outside powers. Also, economic development should not come at the cost of environmental protection either as Chinese projects are known to disregard environmental standards.

The asymmetry of the population, industrial capacity, and Chinese predatory policies create a perception and fear of an influx of Chinese migrant labour into Kazakhstan and flooding of Kazakh markets with cheap Chinese products in return for raw material extraction. This also contradicts Kazakhstan’s goal of achieving a high-income status and to provide opportunities for its young population. Astana government cannot afford to antagonize and alienate the working class. It needs to bargain with Beijing better by leveraging its location and must insist on the use of local labour accompanied by skill development and reciprocity in terms of market openness and setting up of industrial and technological base. These matters need to be dealt with carefully, especially in the age of social media where perceptions matter a great deal and can spontaneously spark outrage. For instance, in 2016 when the Kazakh government tried to change land lease policies, extending from 10 to 25 years, it created unforeseen unrest and led to protest in many cities of Kazakhstan. The perception that Chinese investors would buy those lands and take overplayed a huge role in it and led to the President reversing the decision and putting a moratorium on it.

The significant factor behind the lure of Chinese and earlier Russian investments has been the ‘no strings attached’ policy of those countries. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International have successfully lobbied the European Union (EU), for instance, to prioritize human rights and political freedoms over business opportunities to pressurize governments to reform. The Chinese, unlike their Western counterparts, however, do not give such moral lectures on human rights, political freedoms, etc. and hence are a more appealing partner to countries like Kazakhstan, which have been ruled with an iron fist by Nursultan Nazarbayev. His age, 74, points to an uncertain political future for the country and can have an unforeseen impact on BRI itself.

Another factor is the Chinese support & reiteration for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of CARs. This is a particularly sensitive subject in the region. It helps China and respective countries to give legitimacy to the policy of securitisation and crackdown on dissent. It further deepens the grip of elites in the country and provides diplomatic cover to shield themselves from harsh critique in the West of some policies.

Other than the economic and political outreach, China has also given a ‘soft power’ push to its dealings with Kazakhstan. Having learned its lessons in Africa about misperception and the importance of reaching out to the local populations, China has embedded its cultural or Confucius diplomacy within BRI. As a result, China has set up five Confucius Institutes in Kazakhstan and has welcomed the launch of five Kazakhstan language and culture centres in China. While announcing the SREB, Xi had announced that China would extend 30,000 scholarships to SCO countries and had invited 200 faculty members and students from Nazarbayev University to go to China the following year for summer camps. According to the Chinese Embassy in Kazakhstan, there are currently 14,000 Kazakhstan students in China. By fostering people-to-people ties, China hopes to create goodwill ambassadors for itself in Kazakhstan who would help in projecting a positive image of China and also offset the pervasive but waning Russian influence.

As Joseph Nye, who coined the term ‘soft power’, would point out though that projection of soft power driven by government machinery has its limitations. This bears out true looking at the issue of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang province of China. About 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs live in Xinjiang, a region that borders Central Asia and has long been home to ethnic tensions. There have been cases of missing persons and forced internment into reeducation camps by the Chinese authorities. Instances like these dent Chinese ‘soft power’ push in Kazakhstan and also show the cleavage between the ruling elites and the local people in the country where rulers find it hard to confront China on such issues vociferously.

The scale of the Belt and Road Initiative is grand, and even if China accomplishes sixty to seventy per cent of what it wants to do, it would have far-reaching consequences for the international order. In no other region of the world would these consequences be more visible and felt than in Central Asia, which because its geography lies at the heart of the project’s road component. Within Central Asia, Kazakhstan has the largest footprint and the most significant role in the BRI. It has been partnering China wholeheartedly but needs to bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality when it comes to actual benefits for the country. While there are tremendous opportunities for Kazakhstan that can help it develop further and transform into a modern 21st economy, it needs to be careful of the many associated pitfalls in the implementation of the project and what it entails.



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Image credit: Xinhuanet

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Written By Amandeep Hanspal

Software engineer turned geopolitical enthusiast.

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