Kazakhstan breaks ground on China’s New Silk Road

By Sergei Blagov

Kazakhstan authorities are pledging to speed up implementation of China’s New Silk Road project. Their efforts will focus on the Western Europe-Western China road system, as well as other transit routes spanning Central Asia.

Russia, meanwhile, despite its “Ostpolitik” eastward policy shift, remains slow to develop its section of the Western Europe-Western China road system. Major showcase projects, such as the Western Europe-Western China road system, are suffering as a result.

For Kazakhstan, efforts to become a major transit route between Asia and Europe are a priority. On May 22, President Nursultan Nazarbayev mooted plans to finish Kazakhstan’s section of the Western Europe-Western China road system by the end of 2015.

His government expects to benefit in major ways from the New Silk Road. Kazakhstan sees up to 30 million tons annually of freight being funneled to its section of the Western Europe-Western China corridor, Nazarbayev said.

The Kazakhstan’s president also intends to create what he described as a new multi-modal high-speed Eurasian transportation route around the nexus of the new Silk Road. However, such plans to boost transit freight between China and Western Europe via the new Silk Road may prove far too optimistic given Russia’s ongoing crisis with the West.

Kazakhstan, nonetheless, has other Central Asian transit projects on the burner. Apart from the Western Europe-Western China system of highways, it has also built Dzhezkazgan-Beineu rail link between Western China and Caspian Sea ports. The Dzhezkazgan-Beineu railway was connected to the existing Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran rail link. This gives Kazakhstan access to Iranian ports in the Persian Gulf. As a result, Kazakhstan plans to increase grain exports to Iran significantly this year

All these projects are designed to increase Kazakhstan’s potential to become part of the New Silk Road. A planned Western Europe-Western China International Transit Corridor is due to connect China and Russia’s Baltic port of St. Petersburg. The 8,445-kilometer-long route includes 2,787 kilometers that passes through passing through Kazakh territory.

Kazakhstan’s efforts to finish portions of its road network remain subject to delays. The road system in South Kazakhstan was expected to be finished in 2013. It was then moved to September 2015. It is now slated for completion by the end of 2015.

The delays are traceable to the recent weakness in international oil and gas prices which have adversely affected Kazakhstan’s spending plans. Kazakhstan currently plans to spend $14 billion to finance the country’s infrastructure development projects between 2016-2018.

This marks a deceleration from what was spent previously on infrastructure projects. The nation’s earlier infrastructure blueprint envisioned implementing about 60 projects in 2012-2014 at an estimated cost of about $20 billion. The goal was to modernize the country’s 148,000-kilometer road network, including Almaty-Kapshagai, Almaty-Khorgos, and Astana-Karaganda.

Another looming handicap is that while Kazakhstan and China have been moving on the move towards the Western Europe-Western China project, the Russian authorities have remained slow to develop their 2,233-kilometer section of the New Silk Road system.

In 2011, Russia’s government said the country’s section of the Western Europe-Western China project would be completed by 2018. The construction of the Western Europe-Western China road system in Russia’s Orenburg region that neighbors Kazakhstan only began last year. Now, the Russian authorities aim to finish the Western Europe-Western China project by 2019-2020.

Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based independent journalist and researcher. In the past three decades, he has been covering Asian affairs from Moscow, Russia, as well as Hanoi, Vietnam and Vientiane, Laos. He is the author of non-fiction books on Vietnam, and a contributor of a handbook for reporters.

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