The strategic initiative of the People’s Republic of China “One Belt-One Road” has a truly global significance and far-reaching geopolitical consequences. For the first time, the concept of combining the land and sea parts of the megaproject, which received the abbreviation BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) in the English versions of numerous foreign studies and comments, was announced in a speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping in September 2013 in the Kazakh capital, within the walls of Nazarbayev University. Like everything else that the Chinese leadership is doing, the choice of a geographical location for the presentation of a new strategic initiative to the world community was, in my opinion, deeply thought out and filled with political symbolism.

As the President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev noted in his speech at the February 2020 Munich Security Conference, the Central Asian region is one of the key ones for the implementation of this megaproject. It is obvious that when choosing our capital to announce its most important initiative, the Chinese leadership took into account Kazakhstan’s consistent commitment to the idea of reviving the Great Silk Road by acquiring the role of Central Asia as a trade and infrastructure hub of the entire Eurasian continent. The capitals of both states attach great importance to the development of a comprehensive strategic partnership characterized by a constant intensive political dialogue at the highest level and the solution of all issues of bilateral cooperation on the principles of good-neighborliness, mutual understanding and mutual trust.

It is no secret that the Belt and Road initiative itself and the motives that prompted Beijing to promote it are ambiguously regarded by many abroad, especially critical in the government circles of the United States and a number of Western European countries. In Kazakhstan, as the Head of State stressed, they do not share concerns about the excessive influence of the Chinese economy on the development of our country, on the contrary, they proceed from the fact that close cooperation with the People’s Republic of China within the framework of the “Belt-Road” provides many advantages and, ultimately, will certainly increase the geopolitical importance of Central Asia as a whole.

This assessment is in tune with the position of the First President-Elbasy Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has repeatedly noted that Kazakhstan is the first and key country along the Silk Road Economic Belt, a kind of geo – economic gateway of China to the West. At the highest level of the two states, the main directions of joint work on combining the Kazakhstan program “Nurly Zhol” with the initiative of the SREB were identified. The harmony of “Nurly Zhol” and “Belt-Road” is determined by the fact that the priorities in both megaprojects are such areas as transport and logistics, industry, energy, export of agricultural products, housing and communal infrastructure, education and human capital development, support for small and medium-sized businesses. Of particular importance for our country is the creation of transport corridors “China-Kazakhstan-Russia-Western Europe”, “China-Kazakhstan-Western Asia”, “China-Kazakhstan-South Caucasus” within the framework of the “Belt-Road”/Turkey-Europe”.

The main difference between the Belt and Road initiative and the large-scale joint projects previously initiated by other countries and interstate associations is, in my opinion, the following. First, the practical tangibility of the transformation of the stated intentions into reality. Secondly, there is a clear mechanism for translating the concept into concrete actions, including the establishment of specialized sources of financing for the most ambitious and expensive projects in the infrastructure, energy, industrial, information and communication and other spheres. Third, unprecedented country and interregional coverage.

In the six and a half years since the start of the Belt and Road initiative, more than a hundred Asian, European, Middle Eastern and African countries and dozens of international organizations have joined it in one form or another. Such impressive dynamics and the number of participants undoubtedly prove the viability of the Belt and Road, clearly demonstrating the positive expectations of China’s partners, who see an attractive economic prospect and practical benefits for themselves in the initiative. The successful implementation of large multilateral projects is largely determined by the attitude of the participants to the motivation of the author of the initiative. It is one thing to see the initiator as a “soloist” pursuing his own, veiled foreign policy and economic goals, and it is quite another thing if the author of the initiative assumes the role of a leading partner who is sincerely interested in making the most effective use of each other’s comparative advantages, complementing opportunities for implementing national development strategies based on the unifying goal of achieving socio-economic well-being. The Chinese leadership is aware of the importance of ensuring that the partner countries correctly understand their motives and emphasizes the mutual and universal benefits of involvement in the initiative.

Beijing’s official position is that against the background of modern global and regional transformations, as well as the challenges and problems faced by the PRC and other states, the Belt and Road initiative was put forward primarily to preserve the global free trade system and open economic ties, as well as to promote the strengthening of diverse cooperation with partner countries.

The priorities are defined in a special Action Plan for the “Belt and Road” and their hierarchy is arranged as follows: 

1) coordination of economic policy and regional development plans, joint implementation of major projects;
2) the formation of an infrastructure network connecting Asia, Europe and Africa from transport corridors, railways, seaports, aviation infrastructure, energy transportation systems, etc.;
3) unhindered trade, in particular, by removing barriers, creating free trade zones, liberalizing trade rules, improving customs and border procedures, etc.;
4) financial integration on the basis of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, as well as by increasing the coverage and scale of currency swaps;
5) humanitarian cooperation, including an increase in: the number of citizens studying at Chinese universities from the countries participating in the “Belt and Road”; the influx of tourists from these countries to the PRC; contacts in the field of healthcare, as well as through NGOs.

Taken together, this gives a fairly clear idea of the goals of the Chinese leadership in promoting the “Belt and Road”. Assessing the background of motivations, we can highlight a number of points that are not particularly advertised.

First, it is obvious that the slowdown in China’s economic growth due to the global recession (the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic has been added to the previously existing restrictions since the beginning of this year, the geo-economic consequences of which can be very serious) encourages Beijing to step up efforts to create new export and investment opportunities, as well as expand access to raw materials and access to new markets for Chinese products. The diversification of transport routes for the delivery of Chinese export products to world markets requires a developed transport and logistics infrastructure in transit countries and favorable conditions for the unhindered movement of Chinese goods and services, including the liberalization of customs and currency regimes.

Secondly. China’s progressive acquisition of the role of the largest consumer center, as the welfare of the majority of the population increases, puts it at the top of the value-added chain. Still having, unlike the southern and eastern regions of the country, a significant reserve for extensive economic expansion, the central and especially western regions of the People’s Republic of China are becoming leaders in terms of growth rates. The leveling of regional imbalances requires the implementation of large-scale infrastructure projects in these parts of the country in cooperation with neighboring Central Asian and South Asian States.

Thirdly, in the efforts of the Chinese leadership to reduce the severity of the problem of separatism in the Xinjiang Uygur and Tibet Autonomous Regions, great importance is attached to accelerating the economic development of the XUAR and TAR by intensifying their ties with other provinces of the country and foreign neighbors.

Fourthly, in recent decades, the growth of the Chinese economy has been largely based on the so-called “demographic bonus” in the form of a huge army of working-age citizens who created an excessively high supply of cheap labor in the labor market. The Belt-and-Road projects provide an opportunity to solve the problem of employment for the long term.

Fifth, the initiative is aimed at ensuring the presence of Chinese capital in the sectors of the economy of the participating countries of the megaproject that are strategically important for the People’s Republic of China. Beijing’s priority is to stimulate the growth of the national economy by increasing exports of products from those industries where there is a significant overproduction, for example, the steel, cement and aluminum industries.

Sixth, the giant construction industry, which provides work to tens of millions of Chinese, will need new long-term projects after the upcoming completion of construction of large infrastructure facilities in the east of the country, and the transport and logistics infrastructure of transit infrastructure in the direction of Europe, the Middle East and Africa will provide long-term contracts to Chinese construction companies.

The above does not indicate that there is anything particularly alarming about the Belt and Road initiative: with the appropriate financial resources, any government that cares about the socio-economic development of the country would do so.
Nevertheless, geopolitics based on the “win-lose” principle, when a positive for one strategic competitor is considered nothing but a loss for another, determines the critical attitude towards the Chinese initiative among representatives of state structures and the expert community abroad, especially in the United States, and in general in the so-called collective West. Moreover, in behind-the-scenes, and in public diplomacy, Washington and the capitals of a number of other close allies of the United States are trying to instill caution in the governments and accordingly influence the public opinion of the countries participating in the “Belt and Road” regarding the inconsistency of their long-term national interests with “excessive dependence on unequal cooperation” with China. The negative perception of the PRC’s initiative in the West is formed around the following theses. 
The Belt and Road is a strategy of Beijing, which seeks to spread Chinese influence to the regions of the world involved in the initiative under the guise of a modernized version of the revival of the Great Silk Road, covering them with an extensive network of transport, logistics, energy, trade and financial ties controlled by the PRC.
China is trying to push the US hegemony in the global geopolitical space, attracting as many states of Eurasia and other continents as possible into its orbit through large-scale infrastructure projects.
China’s multibillion-dollar investments in economic projects on the territory of the Belt and Road member countries are allegedly actually aimed at strengthening their political and economic dependence on Beijing, and some of these countries are facing the prospect of becoming satellites of China, which allegedly intends to force them to agree to the presence of Chinese military contingents along transit lines to ensure the security of the created infrastructure.

Representatives of the West warn that the role of transit countries assigned to the participants of the “Belt and Road” will not stimulate the growth of industrial production, but will only increase the dependence of their economy on the demand for raw materials. One should not get carried away with the credit lines of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank for financing large projects on the territory of the participating countries of the Chinese initiative, since they increase the already impressive indicators of external debt, for example, in a number of Central Asian countries, not to mention the fact that sooner or later the current loans will have to be returned to the same AIIB.

The validity of some of the above warnings will be tested by reality, while others a priori seem strained and conspiratorial. Anyway, the Belt and Road initiative has become one of the notable irritants in the strategic confrontation between the United States and China. The recent conclusion of an agreement between Washington and Beijing on the first phase of the settlement of trade relations is a positive signal for the global economy, but it should be assumed that the geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China will continue to determine the parameters of global challenges and risks for international political and economic interaction. 

It is advisable for our country and our neighbors in the region to proceed from the fact that the Belt and Road strategic initiative is an open, inclusive platform for multilateral cooperation, in the process of which it is quite possible to observe the vital national interests of each participant, regardless of the size of its economy and political weight. It is clear that China has its own, especially non-publicized reasons for promoting the Belt and Road ,but the decisions of the leadership of almost a hundred countries that joined the initiative were based, of course, on a deep analysis of all the pros and cons, including the consequences not only for economic development, but also, accordingly, for sovereignty and national security interests. For Eurasian countries like Kazakhstan, the Belt and Road is a favorable opportunity to realize a collective interest in creating a solid foundation for the sustainable development of the entire continent.

In the recent past, even before the nomination of the “Belt and Road”, an authoritative American political scientist, chairman of the Silk Road Study Program at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, Frederick Starr, pointed out that, despite its obvious attractiveness, the idea of a land-based Eurasian transport and trade corridor does not translate into reality due to a lack of strategic imagination, the obsession of many countries on urgent and important, but current problems, which prevents them from covering the full geopolitical and geo-economic situation. With its Belt and Road initiative, Beijing has presented such a strategic vision.
The implementation of the megaproject will allow, without exaggeration, to reformat trade and economic processes globally and turn infrastructure integration to the benefit of countries like Kazakhstan that do not have access to the world’s oceans. In the modern context of globalization and the growing trend towards the interfacing of economic integration processes on the Eurasian continent, the very concept of” land-locked country ” is being transformed into a new definition of “land-linked country connected by land transport routes” (land-linked). 

For Kazakhstan, whose foreign policy and foreign economic course was based on the principle of multi-vector and openness to constructive cooperation with neighboring states and with all other parts of the world community since the dawn of independence, active participation in the “Belt and Road” is natural and logical. Nur-Sultan believes that the megaproject will bring undoubted benefits to our country in the form of modernization of transport and transit logistics and integration with the new economic program “Nurly Zhol”. There is no doubt that everything necessary for the proper arrangement of the Kazakh part of the revived Silk Road will be successfully implemented.

Bulat Nurgaliyev

Deputy Chairman of the Board of the Institute of Foreign Policy Studies under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan

Former Secretary General of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (2007-2009), Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Kazakhstan


Published by the Center for the Study of China with the author’s permission.

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