Five centuries ago, Central Asia had lost momentum and been quickly pushed to the edges of the world scene. But subsequently history has given it a second chance based on abundant natural resources, which became really and in large volumes needed only in the twentieth century. If we let this opportunity pass us by, meekly consenting to what is expected from us, rather than what is essential for our survival, we are likely to succumb to the tyranny of the market and deal with the risk of sliding into deeper poverty and degradation.
But things with regard to situation of Central Asia as a whole and Kazakhstan, in particular, are beginning to change with the rapid development of China, which has continued for several decades. Indeed, they are quickly being reshaped nowadays. So quickly, that stereotypes, which have been widely held for decades or even centuries, are becoming obsolete in front of your eyes.
In ensuring economic development, the West has remained in the vanguard of global community, let’s say, for the last 500 years. From there, as a process, it has been expanding across the world for centuries. Towards the East, continental Eurasia, that expansion has been spreading strictly along the west-east axis.
But right now in Central Asia in general and Kazakhstan, in particular, it begins to come into contact with other similar movement, running in precisely the opposite direction and emanating out of the Far East, which has expanded as another centre of global economic development, almost ready to serve as an alternative to the Euro-Atlantic or Euro-American region. And such a reality should probably be regarded calmly and soberly. That is the general trend of the times. And it is, so to speak, on the move.
A shift in the centre of gravity of the world economy towards Asia and China, rising intra-Eurasian trade flows, and changes in the economic geography of value are gradually re-establishing Central Asia’s role as a major transit hub of the global network of commercial exchanges.
Of course, it would be naive not to recognize that China prioritizes its own interests when it comes to international expansion. It’s quite normal and understandable.
The Kazakh-Chinese political and economic relations, starting almost from scratch in early 1990s, have made significant progress in their development over the years since our nation gained state independence. In December 1992, an economic and trade agreement was signed between the governments of the Republic of Kazakhstan (RK) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Since the mid-1990s, a steady growth of trade began to be noticed between two countries. In the year 2000, Kazakhstan–Chinese commodity trade turnover amounted to over $1.2 billion.
Our republic thus became an important trading partner of China, taking second place among CIS countries after Russia. In 2017, the commodity turnover between Kazakhstan and China increased by 37.4% and reached $18 billion. It’s an impressive progress, isn’t it?! Accordingly, the geopolitical environment in which Kazakhstan is located has dramatically changed.
At the end of 1991 and the beginning of 1992, when the Soviet Union finally disintegrated, and former Soviet Union Republics achieved independence, Russia was undoubtedly the largest economic power in the whole area immediately surrounding Kazakhstan. In 1990 (the last full year of the Soviet Union), its gross domestic product (GDP) had been about $570 billion, which represented a per capita income of $3,780. But since then, the situation has radically changed.
The Central Asian republics in general and Kazakhstan in particular faced major challenges in the early years of independence. Their economies were trapped in a «cycle of de-development». Real gross domestic product (GDP) fell by one half or more in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan between 1990 (the last full year of the Union) and 1994. By the end of the decade, a period of high oil prices set in, and Kazakhstan began to see accelerated economic progress. Meanwhile, China’s economy has been continuing to witness tremendous growth. Its gross domestic product has surged from less than $150 billion in 1978 to $8,227 billion in 2012 – and to $12,250.39 billion in 2017. At the beginning of 2006, the Chinese national statistics, showing a national economic output of $2.26 trillion, sent China soaring past France, Britain and Italy to become the world’s fourth-largest economy. In the second quarter of 2010, China eclipsed Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy behind the United States.
It is important to us that China’s rapid economic development and increasing influence gain within the system of regional and international relations are accompanied with an equally impressive intensification of the ties of this state with Kazakhstan.
But, as they say, it’s the way to go. The point here is that the PRC, while making great efforts to strengthen economic development in its lagging western regions, is promoting progress from its east to the west.
It may be reasonable to assume that, on the one hand, rapid growth of the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region’s economy – at one point or another – would build up a new momentum for development of the southeastern part of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
On the other hand, the Chinese, boosting their areas adjacent to Central Asia, would be quite interested in rapid economic and social development on the other side of inter-state borders. Otherwise, their Far West, despite all the efforts, would remain a remote landlocked region, opening onto undeveloped Kyrgyzstan and underdeveloped South-Eastern Kazakhstan. So that is not going to be the path to go. China’s assistance to those parts of Central Asia, by providing a powerful boost to their smaller economies, should – in one way or another – improve the region’s international competitiveness and facilitate its further integration into the global economy, in which China plays a very important role.
Indeed, this is already happening within the framework of the One Belt One Road project initiated by Xi Jinping. On September 7, 2013, the president of PRC made a speech titled «Promote People-to-People Friendship and Create a Better Future» at Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University, in which he said «To forge closer economic ties, deepen cooperation and expand development space in the Eurasian region, we should take an innovative approach and jointly build an «Economic belt along the Silk Road». This will be a great undertaking benefitting the people of all countries along the route. To turn this into a reality, we may start with work in individual areas and link them up over time to cover the whole region». Turning to the relationship between our two countries, Xi Jinping noted: «China and Kazakhstan are friendly neighbors as close as lips and teeth. Our 1,700-kilometer long common border, two millennia of interactions and extensive common interests not only bind us closely together, but also promise a broad prospect for bilateral ties and mutually beneficial cooperation. Let us join hands to carry on our traditional friendship and build a bright future together».
Much has already been done in the previous three and a half years. But more remains to be done. One Belt, One Road is becoming a reality with every other day.
This is a gigantic process. Nursultan Nazarbayev when meeting with visiting Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli on 18 April 2017, in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, said the achievements Kazakhstan scored in recent years could not have been realized without China’s strong support. Kazakhstan firmly supports China’s domestic and international policy and the Belt and Road Initiative, he added.
In a recent interview aired by China’s CCTV-13 channel, Nursultan Nazarbayev stressed the importance of the state visit to Kazakhstan by Xi Jinping in 2013. It was then that the Chinese leader, in a speech at the Nazarbayev University, for the first time announced the global initiative to create the Silk Road Economic Belt. Kazakhstan’s president said: «Today we can say that it was a great idea. Because in 2012 the world did not get out of the [global economic] crisis and all countries faced difficulties. At that time, this initiative, this idea was a must. It was pitched for all states and they gladly picked it up as an idea that would help them overcome the remnants of the crisis. This stimulated us to adopt our program «Nurly Zhol», because the way to Europe runs across Kazakhstan, Russia, and beyond».
It therefore means that Nazarbayev see collaboration between Kazakhstan and China as being mutually beneficial.