In recent years there has been considerable development in Sino-Kazakh relations. Trade, tourism and cultural interaction are all actively developing between the two countries. Territorial proximity and a common border with a length of almost 1.8 thousand km, an ancient history of relations between the Chinese and Kazakh people, active development in the industries and economies of both countries – all of these things create the conditions for successful cooperation.
Another reason for the success of Sino-Kazakh relations is cooperation between the two countries in the implementation of the infrastructure project the “New Silk Road” (NSR), initiated by China in 2013.
NSR, part of the global Chinese project “One Belt, One Road”, involves the creation of a unified land transport system for conveyance between Europe and Asia. The basis of this system is an extensive and branching network of railways. As a result of the project, one of the NSR’s so-called “Eurasian land bridges” will go through Kazakhstan, through which a large flow of cargo and passengers from East and Southeast Asia will reach Europe and the Middle East. The route through Kazakhstan is very convenient for the East-West railway of Eurasia thanks to its great length in this direction and relatively smooth terrain. Also beneficial for NSR is the fact that Kazakhstan borders China, Russia (which another “Eurasian land bridge” goes through), Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and it has access to the Caspian Sea. Finally, the existing rail network is of great importance in Kazakhstan, along with railway systems of neighbouring countries. Trains from China can head to Europe (through Russia) and the Middle East through Kazakhstan’s railways, thanks to the “Kazakh-Turkmen-Iranian” railway, which was officially opened in December 2013. Cargo delivered via this railway to Iran can cross to other Middle Eastern countries, as well as to India and Africa by sea via ports in the Persian Gulf.
All this makes Kazakhstan one of the China’s key partners in the NSR project. For Kazakhstan, participation in NSR is also very beneficial as well, given their own plans for infrastructure development under the economic development program “Nurly Zhol”. In 2014, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev addressed the Kazakh nation with a message, “Nurly Zhol – Path to the Future”. In it, he announced plans for overcoming the consequences of the global economic crisis and outlined a long-term strategy for the economic development of Kazakhstan. Special attention was paid to the development of the country’s transport infrastructure. Soon, on the basis of N. Nazarbayev’s message, a state program of infrastructure development “Nurly Zhol” was created for 2015-2019. It is reported that its main objective is to build effective infrastructure on the hub principle of integrating regions of Kazakhstan and forming a common economic market. The Kazakh state program of infrastructure development is conveniently also included in the NSR, which allows the implementation of “Nurly Zhol” with Chinese support.
The linking of Chinese and Kazakh railway systems is proceeding rapidly. Transit traffic through Kazakhstan in the direction from China to Europe has already exceeded 1 thousand flights per year. The Middle East is also developing. In January 2016, the first trial container train was launched via “China – Kazakhstan – Turkmenistan – Iran” (CKTI) from the city of Yiwu (China). This international transport corridor, the total length of which is about 10 thousand km, includes the above-mentioned “Kazakh–Turkmen–Iranian” railway which ends in the Iranian capital Tehran. The whole journey took 16 days, which is almost twice as fast as a normal delivery of goods from Asia to Europe by sea.
In April 2016 in Beijing, a presentation took place on the CKTI railway corridor, attended by representatives of the embassies of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to China, senior officials of the PRC and the China Railway Corporation. It was announced that the CKTI route has proven its effectiveness and holds great potential for both economies to develop each country as well as for the NSR project. However, it was stated that for CKTI to function at full force, work on building infrastructure in countries along the corridor needed to be accelerated and customs procedures at their borders simplified.
The next trains from China to Iran travelled along the CKTI in 2017. These trains delivered hundreds of tons of various Chinese-manufactured products worth several million dollars to Iran. In total throughout 2017 eight such trains were sent.
Now work is actively being carried out to increase cargo traffic between all the countries involved in CKTI. At the end of November 2017 a meeting was held of railway workers from Kazakhstan, China, Iran and Turkmenistan. One of the main issues discussed at the meeting was the organization of regular container transport along CKTI and setting competitive rates. Operators responsible for the transportation were appointed. The volume of transit traffic to Iran is planned to increase to up to 20 thousand containers a year.
The volume of transit traffic through Kazakhstan in the China to Europe direction is also planned to increase. In 2018, it could rise by 75%, reaching 350 thousand containers in both directions. By 2020, 800 thousand containers per year are expected to transit between Europe and China.
Cooperation in the construction of the NSR and the development of transportation is stimulating Sino-Kazakh cooperation in many sectors. The total trade volume between the two countries has grown in 2016-2017 by 29% to 31% according to various sources, and exceeds $6.5 billion according to Kazakh experts. It should also be noted that in 2017 over 250 thousand Chinese tourists visited Kazakhstan, which is also a result of cooperation in the transport sector.
Thus, we can conclude that relations between China and Kazakhstan are developing quite successfully, and the NSR project is playing an important role in this. In the near future, freight traffic is expected to grow on Kazakhstan’s existing railway networks, as well as along the road corridor from Western Europe to Western China, the Kazakh section of which was recently completed. It will further strengthen Kazakhstan’s role in a Chinese infrastructure project and will further strengthen Chinese-Kazakh cooperation.
Dmitry Bokarev, political commentator, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.