Kazakhstan’s Approach to Belt and Road: Meeting China on Its Own Terms

Almaty, Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan, the world’s ninth-largest country by land area, has become a key partner in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive infrastructure project aimed at connecting Asia, Europe, and Africa through a network of railways, roads, ports, and other facilities. The country, with a rich history of trade routes passing through its territory, has been keen to capitalize on its unique geographic position to bolster its economy and enhance connectivity.

The BRI, launched in 2013, has garnered both praise for its potential to foster global connectivity and criticism for potential debt traps and geopolitical implications. Kazakhstan, a key Central Asian nation sharing a long border with China, has strategically positioned itself as a critical link in this transformative endeavour. The country has embraced the BRI with open arms but has also taken proactive steps to ensure its own economic and political stability.

Kazakhstan’s approach to the BRI serves as a compelling case study of how a country can strategically engage with China on its own terms. By pursuing a path of mutual benefit while safeguarding its sovereignty and national interests, Kazakhstan has managed to leverage the BRI to enhance its economic development and regional connectivity. As the BRI continues to evolve and expand, Kazakhstan’s experience can offer valuable insights for other nations seeking to navigate this complex geopolitical landscape.

Economic Integration and Diversification

Kazakhstan’s pragmatic approach to the BRI is rooted in its commitment to economic integration and diversification. The country has leveraged its geographic location to facilitate trade between China and Europe, becoming a vital transit hub along the BRI corridor.

Key to this strategy is the Khorgos-Eastern Gate Special Economic Zone, a sprawling industrial complex located on the border with China. This ambitious project has transformed Khorgos into a bustling logistics hub, handling a substantial volume of goods transiting between China and Europe. The emphasis on diversification is aimed at reducing Kazakhstan’s economic reliance on a single trading partner.

A Shared Vision: Kazakhstan and the BRI

Kazakhstan’s relationship with the BRI is defined by a shared vision of economic development and regional connectivity. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vision of the Silk Road Economic Belt closely aligns with Kazakhstan’s “Nurly Zhol” (Bright Path) economic policy, which seeks to transform Kazakhstan into a major logistics and transit hub.

Since signing an agreement with China in 2015, Kazakhstan has welcomed substantial Chinese investments, particularly in infrastructure projects like railways, roads, and energy pipelines. The China-Kazakhstan cooperation in these areas has not only improved connectivity but also contributed to Kazakhstan’s economic diversification.

Balancing Act: Safeguarding Sovereignty and National Interests

While Kazakhstan is eager to benefit from the BRI, it is also wary of the potential risks associated with such a massive infrastructure initiative. One of the key challenges for Kazakhstan has been to strike a balance between reaping the economic rewards of the BRI and safeguarding its sovereignty.

Kazakhstan’s approach has been characterized by careful negotiation and prudent decision-making. It has been proactive in setting the terms of engagement with China, emphasizing the importance of transparency, environmental sustainability, and the inclusion of local labour and materials in BRI projects. This approach has helped Kazakhstan to ensure that BRI projects adhere to international standards and regulations.

The Case of Khorgos: A Model for Cooperation

One noteworthy example of Kazakhstan’s successful collaboration with China within the framework of the BRI is the Khorgos International Center for Cross-Border Cooperation. Situated on the border between the two countries, Khorgos has become a symbol of bilateral cooperation and a bustling logistics hub.

The Khorgos project, which includes a dry port, a special economic zone, and a free-trade area, has not only boosted trade between China and Kazakhstan but has also facilitated trade with Europe via the China-Europe rail routes. This model of cooperation has been hailed as a blueprint for other BRI projects, showcasing Kazakhstan’s ability to meet China on its own terms while reaping the benefits of economic integration.

A Broader Regional Impact

Kazakhstan’s approach to the BRI extends beyond its borders. As a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Kazakhstan plays a pivotal role in promoting regional cooperation. Its commitment to balancing Chinese investment with broader regional interests underscores its position as a responsible regional actor.

Moreover, Kazakhstan’s ability to manage its relationship with China has not gone unnoticed by other countries along the BRI routes. Its emphasis on transparency, environmental standards, and local participation has set a precedent for responsible engagement with China, offering valuable lessons for other nations seeking to navigate the challenges and opportunities of the BRI.

Balancing Act in Investment

While actively courting Chinese investment, Kazakhstan has taken steps to mitigate the potential risks associated with BRI projects. The country has sought to balance its foreign investment portfolio, avoiding overreliance on Chinese capital and diversifying sources of funding.

Furthermore, Kazakhstan has established clear regulations and guidelines for foreign investments to ensure transparency and accountability. This approach aims to prevent the kind of debt-related challenges faced by some other BRI-participating countries.

Safeguarding Sovereignty

Kazakhstan’s commitment to safeguarding its sovereignty has been at the forefront of its engagement with China under the BRI. The government in Nur-Sultan has insisted on maintaining control over strategic assets and resources, ensuring that any investments do not compromise the country’s long-term interests.

Additionally, Kazakhstan has emphasized the importance of preserving its cultural and political identity. It has maintained a delicate diplomatic balance between China and other global powers, ensuring that it is not drawn into any geopolitical disputes that could jeopardize its stability.

Environmental and Social Responsibility

Recognizing the potential environmental and social challenges posed by large-scale infrastructure projects, Kazakhstan has taken steps to ensure that BRI initiatives are carried out responsibly. The country is committed to adhering to international environmental standards and promoting sustainable practices in project development.

Kazakhstan’s approach to the Belt and Road Initiative is a testament to its strategic acumen. By embracing the project while simultaneously safeguarding its interests, the country has positioned itself as a linchpin in China’s grand vision of connectivity. Kazakhstan’s journey serves as a valuable example of how nations can engage with the BRI while maintaining economic stability, sovereignty, and environmental responsibility.

As Kazakhstan continues to play a vital role in facilitating trade and connectivity between Asia and Europe, its approach to the Belt and Road Initiative will undoubtedly be watched closely by other nations seeking to harness the potential benefits of this ambitious project while minimizing its potential pitfalls.

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