- China's Silk Road and Kazakhstan's Bright Path:Linking Dreams of Prosperity
In 2013, President Xi Jinping announced China's Silk Road Economic Belt—the land-based component of the Belt and Road Initiative—during his visit to Astana. The choice of the venue did not seem accidental. Kazakhstan had already become a prime partner for China in Eurasia, with various connecting infrastructure projects completed or underway and with bilateral cooperation diversifying and blooming. The announced Silk Road Economic Belt Initiative promises better continental and intraregional connectivity and can only add wind into the sails of China-Kazakhstan cooperation.
This essay will give a brief overview of energy and transportation infrastructure already connecting China and Kazakhstan to show that cooperation between the two countries considerably predates the Belt and Road Initiative. Then I will discuss the complementarity of their interests and current visions for development and prosperity: China's Silk Road Economic Belt and Kazakhstan's Bright Path (Nurly Zhol). It is important to address the gap in perceptions of Chinese investments by the Kazakhstani ruling elites and the public at large, which will be the subject of the next section. Finally, I will analyze the implications of growing cooperation between China and Kazakhstan for the latter's political and economic development. I will also reflect on the geopolitical aspect of the Belt and Road Initiative and raise concerns about its sustainability and potential impact on governance in Eurasia.
China and Kazakhstan: Existing Energy and Transportation Infrastructure
In the energy sector, bilateral cooperation has been advancing since the 1990s due to the complementary objectives and geographic proximity of resource-rich Kazakhstan and energy-thirsty China. In 2009 the two countries launched a pipeline linking oil fields in western Kazakhstan with Xinjiang in China. The Central Asia–China gas pipeline, which supplies [End Page 110] China with half of its natural gas imports, was first agreed upon by Beijing and Astana and later was negotiated with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.1
There have also been long-term efforts to build better transportation infrastructure connecting the two countries. Unlike Russia, China's traditional land gateway to Europe, Kazakhstan is unreservedly enthusiastic about serving as a transit area for trade between Europe and Asia.2 In fact, becoming the bridge between East and West has been its official strategic development project since the early years of independence. The first railway link from Dostyk in Kazakhstan to Alashankou in China was launched in 1991. The second link at Khorgos, where the two sides began building an ambitious multi-modal logistical hub, dry port, and special economic zone (SEZ), the Khorgos–Eastern Gate, was launched in 2012.
In 2008, Kazakhstan began construction of the West Europe–West China Highway, which will stretch from the Lianyungang port on the Yellow Sea to St. Petersburg on the Baltic Sea. By 2016, China and Kazakhstan had completed their parts of the project, and Kazakhstani president Nursultan Nazarbayev had to call on Russia to finish its section.3 The highway is also connected to the Khorgos–Eastern Gate SEZ. In 2014 the parties also signed an agreement on building a joint logistics terminal at Lianyungang, giving landlocked Kazakhstan its "window to the sea."
From the Kazakhstani government's perspective, enhancing the country's transit potential should help develop the national transportation and communication infrastructure, which is not an easy task for a country the size of Western Europe. For example, Astana's key motivation for joining the Central Asia–China gas pipeline project was to satisfy domestic gas consumption needs by connecting the country's energy-rich west with the densely populated south.
The Silk Road Economic Belt and the Bright Path: Complementary Visions
In December 2015, Presidents Xi and Nazarbayev announced plans to link the Silk Road Economic Belt and Kazakhstan's Bright Path [End Page 111] economic policy. The latter is a large-scale, five-year program announced in 2014 by the Kazakhstani government to build domestic infrastructure, focusing on transportation, industry, and energy, as well as the development of the social sphere and institutions.4
The two parties put forward a joint plan in summer 2016 that indicates three priorities: transportation infrastructure, trade...