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.

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 & 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.

China & Kazakhstan Border
Photo: Train at Khorgos Border Crossing point in Kazakhstan and Chinese flag indicates the line is linked to China.

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.