Kazakhstan is onboard to help make China’s Silk Road vision a reality. Speaking in Astana on May 5, Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev said at a plenary government meeting, “We need to build a new railway line across the territory of Kazakhstan from the border with China to the [Caspian] sea port of Aktau. Negotiations [with China] are underway in this regard” (Interfax-Kazakhstan, May 5). As an east-west China-Kazakhstan railway will be a competitor to the Trans-Siberian, it remains to be seen how Kazakhstan will explain the project to its close ally Russia.
The expansion of Kazakhstan’s railway network is not a new government priority. Two years ago, Kazakhstan Temir Zholy (KTZ) railways head Askar Mamin told a meeting focused on the KTZ’s 2012 work performance, “Given the target value of the World Bank’s Logistics Performance Index, we’ve set a goal to reach 40th place among 155 countries by 2020. For this, we need to ensure the transition from the 86th place in the ranking to the 50th place, in the medium term, by 2015” (Xinhua, January 9, 2013). Accordingly, the new proposed Khorgos-Aktau railway is an integral part of KTZ’s expansion plans. Mamin added that KTZ had drawn up a $2.7 billion investment program to modernize 126 locomotives, 4,172 freight cars and 250 passenger cars, repair 450 miles of rails as well as construct new lines.
The Kazakhstani government sees the China-Kazakhstan railway project as fundamental to its plans to upgrade the country’s transport infrastructure and integrate it with others in Eurasia. Nazarbayev told the plenary session, “We need to integrate into the international transport and communication networks. We have plans to this effect, too. First, we need to create a multi-modal high-speed transnational Eurasian corridor” (Akorda.kz, May 5). Nazarbayev envisages the transnational Eurasian corridor as integrating air, sea, rail and road links. As for mollifying Russia, Nazarbayev remarked, “The Eurasian corridor will take two directions. The first—through Kazakhstan, Russia and Europe. The second—through Kazakhstan from Khorgos to Aktau port, then along the Caspian and the Caucasus to Europe and to the south through Iran to the Persian Gulf.”
Kazakhstan’s government has plans and has designated funding to upgrade its transport infrastructure across the board. In March 2015, First Deputy Minister of Investment and Development Zhenis Kasymbek told participants at the Kazakhstan-Batumi business forum, “We plan to invest about $20 billion dollars in transport infrastructure through 2020. This will focus on east-west infrastructure, including transport networks towards the Caspian and beyond to Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. Much of the funds are being invested in the construction of the new Beyney-Zhezkazgan railway, as well as a second line toward China [Altynkol-Khorgos] in order to attract Chinese goods in transit toward the Persian Gulf and the Caucasus” (AKIpress, March 30).
While the Khorgos-Aktau railway obviously favors China, Beijing’s Silk Road Economic Belt initiatives are not the only projects that will reshape Eurasian transport networks.
At the western terminus of the “Silk Road,” on January 28, in Baku, KZT’s Mamin chaired the first working meeting of the Coordination Committee of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR). The meeting was attended by delegations from the railways of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Georgia as well as the heads of international sea ports of Aktau, Baku, Batumi and Azerbaijan Caspian Shipping Company CJSC. The meeting’s agenda included discussions of establishing competitive rates to transport goods across TITR member states and setting a rate to organize container transportation of goods across the TITR. The delegations also agreed to take measures to organize container transportation along the China-Kazakhstan-Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey land and sea routes. Also discussed was how to integrate Kazakhstan’s new Zhezkazgan-Beineu railway into the TITR, along with improving the capacities of Kazakhstan’s Aktau seaport. The delegates also reviewed the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway’s future role in the TITR, as the BTK, currently under construction in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, is scheduled to become operational later this year (The Astana Times, March 9).
To the east, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is also discussing how to upgrade and expand members’ railway networks. On May 15, the seventh SCO transportation ministerial meeting was held in the Russian city of Ufa. Founded in 2001, the SCO includes China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as full members, with Afghanistan, India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan as observers and Belarus, Turkey and Sri Lanka as dialogue partners. Last year, SCO countries signed an agreement on providing favorable conditions for international land transportation. At the Ufa meeting, the ministers declared the development of railroad transport, including high-speed rail lines, international multimodal logistics centers and innovative technologies in transport as their primary objectives. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told attendees, “Modern infrastructure is the key to the implementation of many business projects, large-scale initiatives, in order to establish advanced manufacturing workplaces” (Moskovsky Komsomolets, May 16).
The interweaving of all these projects mean that a trans-Eurasian transport network is becoming a reality; what is unclear is what form it will take and who will most benefit from it.
While Kazakhstan’s avowed multi-vector foreign policy prioritizes good relations with neighboring countries, Russia is watching closely China’s Silk Road Economic Belt initiative, which would give Beijing the predominant role in Eurasia and could also supplant the Eurasian Economic Union. Besides their commercial capacities, the interrelated transports networks as Eurasian “interior lines” will also have immense strategic value. Given the commercial and military stakes involved, even though Kazakhstan is an integral component of the Eurasian transportation network being woven, its giant neighbors and their covert struggles for primacy may well carry more weight in decisions about the transport network’s ultimate form and dimensions than any decisions taken in Astana.