Home Belt and Road Ten years on, BRI’s birthplace Kazakhstan serves as benchmark for the initiative’s win-win cooperation

Ten years on, BRI’s birthplace Kazakhstan serves as benchmark for the initiative’s win-win cooperation


Editor’s Note:

Kazakhstan marks the lynchpin for the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), not only because geographically it acts as a key point along the BRI, and has fostered deep connections and conducted meaningful cooperation with China covering almost all sectors under the BRI framework, but also because Kazakhstan was where the initiative was first proposed 10 years ago.

As the BRI is set to celebrate its 10th birthday this month, China-Kazakhstan cooperation can offer a paragon of how the initiative has deepened both countries’ connectivity, boosted trade, as well as benefited both peoples and brought the two countries closer. Moreover, it also offers examples of how the BRI’s win-win cooperation has stood against unilateralism; how the initiative has broken geographic isolation and brought countries closer; in addition to enabling people from different countries to better understand each other.

As the 10th anniversary of BRI approaches, Global Times reporters have visited a number of countries and regions across Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Africa, Central and Eastern Europe, as well as the South Pacific, where they witnessed first-hand the success of the BRI and how it has improved life in those countries and regions. This is the third installment, which focuses on how the BRI has been helping to usher in a new era of development in Eurasia over the past decade.

Revisiting the starting point

In mid-August, Nazarbayev University in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, has already begun to welcome new faces. When Global Times reporters visited the campus on a cool and clear summer afternoon, a number of student societies and interest clubs attached to the university were recruiting new members, attracting hundreds of freshmen to participate. Everywhere, sounds of music and laughter could be heard, signs in English, Kazakh and Russian could be seen, and an energetic and youthful atmosphere could be felt.

Vibrant and highly internationalized – no other words could possibly be more accurate in describing Nazarbayev University. And they are also true for the BRI first proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping at this very location 10 years ago.

The young Nazarbayev University, founded only in 2010, is now widely considered to be the starting point for the revitalization of the millennia-old Silk Road under the BRI. The concept “Silk Road Economic Belt,” part of the BRI, was officially proposed during President Xi’s visit to Kazakhstan in 2013. In a speech in Nazarbayev University’s Senate Hall on September 7, 2013, Xi recalled the 2,000-plus-year history of exchanges between China and Central Asia along the ancient Silk Road and proposed joining hands to build a Silk Road Economic Belt with an innovative cooperation model and making it a grand cause benefiting people in countries along the route. 

Ten years later, the Senate Hall, filled with dark wood furniture that are mostly the same as in 2013, remains in good condition. This is because the room is now mostly used only for events like ceremonies and officials’ visits, according to a staff member from the university. 

Usually, there are more than 200 seats in this conference hall. Around 100 more seats were added before President Xi’s epoch-making speech in 2013 due to the high demand from students and faculty members to participate in the event. A live broadcast was even arranged for those who couldn’t enter the scene. Xi’s remarks were greeted with warm applause from the audience, recalled the staff member.

Gulnar Shaimergenova, Director of China Studies Center, Kazakhstan was working at the Nazarbayev University at the time and directly participated in the event when President Xi first proposed the Silk Road Economic Belt there. “I am sure that the Belt and Road Initiative, which represents the reconstruction of the Great Silk Road of the 21st century, became the most remarkable event of this century. It reflects the rise and grandeur of modern Asia,” Shaimergenova told the Global Times.

Shaimergenova said that the implementation of BRI is strategically beneficial for Kazakhstan. “The transformation of China into a key trade partner of the EU has been made possible to some extent thanks to the stable operation of China-Europe rail routes – up to 80 percent of which pass through Kazakhstan. Further development of China-Europe trade relations implemented through land corridors is economically beneficial for Kazakhstan.”

The smooth promotion of BRI cooperation between China and Kazakhstan was also advanced by the strategic guidance of the leaders from both countries. 

President Xi has visited Kazakhstan four times in September 2013, May 2015, June 2017; and September 2022, the last of which marked his first trip abroad since emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev paid a state visit to China in September 2019, attended the Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022, and also attended the China-Central Asia Summit in May 2023.

Over recent years, China’s relationship with Kazakhstan has continued to strengthen. In 2019, China and Kazakhstan decided to develop a permanent comprehensive strategic partnership. 

I am very pleased that Kazakhstan became the first country to support the idea of the BRI, and actively participates in its development, Aidar Amrebayev, Director of the Political Studies Center in Almaty, Kazakhstan told the Global Times. 

After 10 years since the announcement of the initiative, many projects have been implemented in Kazakhstan, benefiting our country and the entire Central Asian region. These projects involve expanding transport and logistics capabilities, modernizing industrial and agricultural infrastructure, enhancing mutual understanding among our peoples, and fostering active inter-country interactions at the political level, Amrebayev opined. 

“I am happy to say that 10 years later, all my expectations [about the BRI] have materialized,” former Secretary-General of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and Chairman of the Board of the Foreign Policy Research Institute under Kazakhstan Foreign Affairs Ministry Bolat Nurgaliyev told the Global Times. The development of the BRI, going through stages, has gone hand in hand with the concept of a community with a shared future for mankind, he added.

The decade-old BRI cooperation proves that we have to show inclusiveness by involving countries in constructive cooperation instead of confrontation, division, and ideological divergence in the immediate political considerations, Nurgaliyev added.

Robust economic cooperation, warm people-to-people exchanges

Astana is one of the youngest capitals in the world. Yet, it is also one of the most modernized and fast-growing cities in Central Asia. From the Chinese businesspeople coming out from the striking Chinese-style building known as the Beijing Palace in the city center to the city’s first light rail system under construction with the help of a Chinese company, they mark the changes that China and the BRI have brought to Kazakhstan’s capital.

In Almaty, the former capital and largest city in Kazakhstan, advertisements for Chinese electronic devices, vehicles and even sportswear are easy to find. Locals told the Global Times that from China-made smartphones to electric vehicles, Chinese products are popular among Kazaks. At the same time, Kazakhstan was the second country to open a national pavilion on the Alibaba e-commerce platform and more than 200 Kazakh enterprises are running business on the Chinese platform.

According to the General Administration of Customs of China, the total volume of trade in goods between China and Kazakhstan stood at $31.17 billion in 2022, up 23.6 percent from the previous year. In 2022, the trade volume between China and Central Asian countries registered a record of over $70 billion.

The story of Yuan Zhaohui, a Chinese businessman is a vivid example of the robust economic cooperation between two countries. Yuan has been operating cross-border trade with his partners from Kazakhstan for eight years. He started his business from scratch as the first company in the Xi’an International Trade and Logistics Park to use the Chang’an train to ship cross-border e-commerce goods.

At present, about 80 percent of his company’s business is linked with Kazakhstan, other Central Asian countries and Russia through the train service. The stable operation of China Railway Express has greatly reduced freight costs for his business.

Taking the road from Xi’an to Almaty as an example, the cost of freight for a container transported by the Chang’an train is about 50,000 to 60,000 yuan ($7,130 to $8,560), which is half the price of traditional land cross-border transport, according to Yuan. The simplified and easier custom declaration for cross-border e-commerce companies has also served to accelerate the growth of his business.

Agriculture is another key area of China-Kazakhstan cooperation that is vigorously developing under the BRI framework. Located in the North Kazakhstan Region, more than 300 kilometers north of Astana, is the Kazakhstan processing park of the Aiju Grain and Oil Industrial Group headquartered in Xi’an, Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province. The company is one of the first Chinese enterprises that engage in agricultural investment and cooperation in Kazakhstan under the auspices of the BRI.

Kazakhstani local Yerkenbek Sidick has been working in Aiju’s agro-processing and logistics park since 2017. He has witnessed how his company has transformed from a few Soviet-era grain silos into a comprehensive base with large-scale grain storage and distribution capacity.

The Aiju processing park has built a modern oil processing plant with a maximum annual output of 300,000 tons of processed oil crops and a depot that can store 50,000 tons of grains. It has dispatched more than 200 freight trains to deliver 350,000 tons of high-quality raw materials, such as wheat and rapeseed, from the North Kazakhstan Region to China through the Alashankou port.

More than 10 years ago, very few Chinese companies were active in Kazakhstan, and even fewer showed interest in taking roots in the country and making long-term investments, Sidick told the Global Times. With the implementation of the BRI, more and more Chinese companies have begun to pay attention to Kazakhstan, boosting the cooperation and development of the two countries in various fields, including agriculture.

From trade and investment to capacity cooperation, from connectivity to emerging industries, from joint efforts in fighting against the pandemic to cultural exchanges, the all-round mutually beneficial cooperation between China and Kazakhstan has demonstrated strong vitality and resilience, and the foundation of people-to-people friendship is becoming increasingly concrete, Chinese Ambassador to Kazakhstan Zhang Xiao told the Global Times in an exclusive interview. 

Specifically, he gave an example of a large number of exemplary projects built by both sides, such as the Shymkent Oil Refinery, the photovoltaic power plant in Almaty, the Orda glass plant in Kazakhstan’s Kyzylorda Region, saying that those projects greatly improved Kazakhstan’s industrialization level and benefited local residents.

Aside from economic cooperation, China and Kazakhstan are also embracing close people-to-people exchanges. Those two countries are cooperating in areas such as publishing books, jointly making films, doing archaeological research together and establishing universities… Such interaction between the two countries has laid the foundation for friendly exchange between two peoples. 

Famous Kazakh director and producer Akan Satayev is planning to co-produce a film with China. He told the Global Times that China and Kazakhstan are both countries along the Silk Road, which renders them to share a common history and culture. Satayev said he is very interested in Chinese culture, and he hopes to find more common points in the history and culture of China and Kazakhstan and make films and television works based on such findings. “This will definitely bring us closer together,” said Satayev.

“The BRI has helped China ‘go global’ and broaden the Chinese people’s horizon, while enhancing Central Asia’s understanding of China,” said He Cheng, Chief Representative of the Kazakhstan International Integration Foundation. As the understanding of people in Central Asia and China on each other deepens, people now become more open-minded and see the opportunity and potential of bilateral and multilateral cooperation under the BRI framework, he noted.

In He’s opinion, the BRI is no longer a link of communication, but a model of cooperation between countries in a honeycomb structure. “With the deepening and widening of cooperation, we are ultimately moving toward the establishment of a community,” he told the Global Times.

Brighter future

In 2014, a $9 billion infrastructure project known as “Nurly Zhol,” translated as “Bright Path,” was announced by Kazakhstan’s government. Since then, the integration between the BRI and Nurly Zhol has been constantly discussed in Kazakhstan’s strategic and political circles.

“The two programs should be interconnected. They should be coordinated so that what has already been started as projects within the Nurly Zhol should be somewhat supplemented. This will be a better use of the capital of the investment,” former SCO Secretary-General Nurgaliyev commented.

In many senses, the development road the BRI has provided can also be described as “bright.” Ten years on, this ambitious initiative has benefited Central Asia through close cooperation, including improving infrastructure, providing jobs and boosting bilateral trade. It is now a path that is even brighter than a decade ago and has the ability to lead the region and the world to a brighter future.

Nurgaliyev believes that the BRI will continue to develop. “The circle of participation in the BRI is already so wide. We have now 193 states in the United Nations system, and 152 are BRI participants,” he said. “So what better argument can prove that the BRI is beneficial for everybody who participates in the implementation?” the diplomat noted.

On September 7, 2023, the 10-year anniversary day of the proposal of BRI, a seminar was held by think tanks from China and Kazakhstan at Nazarbayev University. 

As a participator of the seminar, Shaimergenova said “I am sure that the Belt and Road Initiative, which represents the reconstruction of the Great Silk Road of the 21st century, became the most remarkable event of this century. It reflects the rise and grandeur of modern Asia.”

With the support of China, Central Asia now is beginning to realize economic revival as the region becomes a contributor to its own development. By embedding in the East-West transport communications, the problem of continental isolation is being eliminated, and strong prerequisites for intra-regional cooperation are being created, said Shaimergenova.

Cooperation along the BRI has a strong impact on the prosperity and progressive development of several billion people around the world. I am sure that the Initiative will be a good basis for building the Community of the common destiny of mankind, she noted.

The further flourishing of the BRI is a general wish from not only scholars and diplomats from Kazakhstan, but also ordinary people like Sidick from Aiju’s processing park in the Central Asian country.

“After our company’s seven-year journey in Kazakhstan, now we are expecting a harvest,” Sidick told the Global Times. 

“I hope that the road of BRI will become wider and wider to attract more Chinese companies to develop and invest in Kazakhstan and drive the two countries’ economic development and people-to-people exchanges. I am looking forward to finding my own position and creating more value for my company and the BRI,” said the Kazakh young man with a big smile on his face.