The Central Asian presidents attended the third Belt and Road Forum held on the 17-18th October in Beijing, celebrating the 10th anniversary of the “modern Silk Road”. This event represented a renewed opportunity for the parties to further the strategic cooperation within the BRI framework. This has been realized thanks to new agreements on connectivity and energy projects, based on additional conspicuous Chinese investments.
In the Belt and Road Initiative, Central Asia holds strategic relevance due to the presence of two of the six main BRI trade corridors. The China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor – currently based on the China-Kazakhstan railway corridor – crosses the Caspian Sea reaching Azerbaijan, Turkey and eventually the EU, while the Eurasian Land Bridge links China with Europe via Kazakhstan and Russia.
The construction of railways, highways and dry ports in order to increase connectivity between China and the EU is also a priority for the Central Asian republics (recipients of large financial investments from Beijing). These benefit from the creation of trans-regional networks of transport, allowing them to achieve two strategic goals: the opening of new markets for these economic-landlocked countries, and t escaping from the obliged transit through Russian infrastructures, inherited by the Soviet era (F. Indeo, The impact of the Belt and Road Initiative on Central Asia: building new relations in a reshaped geopolitical scenario, in W. Zhang, I. Alon, C. Lattemann (eds.), China’s One Belt and One Road Initiative: the Changing Rule of Globalization, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).
In the BRI framework, Kazakhstan, due to its strategic position, is China’s key partner on the implementation of interconnectivity projects. Its strategic relevance has become evident during the Russia-Ukraine war: China is actively working to further develop alternative trade and transport routes bypassing Russian territory. Thus, China escapes from the negative effects of international sanctions on trade and Russian railways.
China, Kazakhstan, with the other Central Asian countries, are committed to increase the potential capacity of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR) or Middle Corridor by diverting the traffic away from the New Eurasian Land Bridge. That route, using the existing BTK railway (Baku-Tbilisi-Kars), links China to the European Union through Central Asia and the Caspian Sea.
Moreover, China and Kazakhstan recently agreed to increase the capacity of the TITR fivefold up to 500,000/year containers. Kazakh President Tokayev affirmed that “about 85 percent of all land transit traffic from China to Europe occurs via Kazakhstan,” and that $35 billion has been allocated for the development of highways over 15 years (“Central Asia: New trade deals signed on sidelines of BRI forum”, China-Central Asia Monitor, Eurasianet, October 27, 2023; Official website of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, The Head of State takes part in the opening ceremony of the Third Belt and Road Forum for international cooperation, Akorda Kz, October 18, 2023).
After a decade, the cooperation between China and the states of Central Asia within the BRI blueprint represents a cornerstone for the successful implementation of this strategy. The latter concretely involves not only Kazakhstan but also the other republics. At present Uzbekistan is the largest recipient of new BRI-labelled investments, that are focussed on connectivity, renewable energy sources and trade.
At the same time, Turkmenistan hopes for the quick finalization of the fourth line of the China-Central Asia’s gas pipeline (Line D), that will allow Turkmenistan to export additional 30 billion cubic metres of gas to China per year. Although it was built four years before the launch of the BRI umbrella, this infrastructure is included in the initiative.
PhD in Geopolitics. He is non-resident researcher at the Center for Energy Governance and Security (EGS South Korea) and analyst at the Observatory for Central Asia and Caspian. He is research fellow at the University of Siena.