This year marks the fifth anniversary of the launch of what is now called the Belt and Road Initiative. In that regard, a number of high-profile events were recently organized and held in China and in many other countries.
Last month, President Xi Jinping made an important speech on the Belt and Road Initiative. He used terms of traditional Chinese painting to describe the progress achieved in the implementation of that Initiative over the last five years. According to him, the sketch of BRI is now done with “freehand brushwork” and it is time to attend to the details with “fine brushwork”.
As is well known, the BRI is a project initiated by the Chinese President Xi Jinping. On September 7, 2013, he 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”.
The Great Silk Road has always been associated with China. A number of attempts had been made by various countries in the 19th and 20th centuries to restore it in one form or another. Yet all of those efforts had been failures. It’s beginning to happen only after China has stepped in or, metaphorically speaking, got back in the game.
A BRIEF BACKGROUND TO THE HISTORY OF
PREVIOUS ATTEMPTS AT REVIVING THE ANCIENT SILK ROAD
The public figures like drawing historical parallels, whereas the political strategists keep it much more simple and action-oriented, without making their intentions too obvious. And this sometimes leads to a result which at first appears to be contrary to general experience and utterly illogical.
So far, there have been few attempts to somehow revive the ancient Silk Road including through interconnecting the railway networks of the Far East, the subcontinent of South Asia and the Middle East via Central Asia. This would be beneficial for all those concerned. Yet all attempts to implement such ideas have so far either failed or fallen short of expectations.
The idea of reviving the great Silk Road with the help of modern technological capabilities and technical competencies arose immediately after expansion of railroads into the Asian continent had been launched in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Russia was the first country to directly connect two of the four above-mentioned regions. Having conquered backward feudal monarchies, such as the Emirate of Bukhara and the khanates of Kokand and Khiva, and forming the Turkestan general governorship, it built a railway from Uzun-Ada (in the territory of modern Turkmenistan), on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, to Tashkent (now the capital and largest city of Uzbekistan, then the capital of that province of imperial Russia).
The first Central Asian railroad was linked to Baku through a regular ferry line. Central Asian cotton, which had become one of the main reasons for the Russian colonial expansion into Turkestan, was being transported via this bimodal route to the European part of Tsarist Russia.
A further step could be to interconnect the railway networks in British India (now the Republic of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) and Russian Turkestan (then it comprises modern Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, with the exception of the protectorates of the Emirate of Bukhara and the Khanate of Khiva in the case of those three post-Soviet Central Asian States, and Kyrgyzstan, as well as parts of the territory of modern Kazakhstan).
If this had been done back then, the shortest land route from India to Europe would have been open. Along with that, Afghanistan would have become covered by the railway networks, and it would have been a very different country. Great Britain was primarily interested in the implementation of such ideas.
Therefore, it is not surprising that the British were hatching a plan for interconnecting their railway networks in India and the Middle and Near East through Central Asia. Such plans met with failure due mainly to political reasons. As a result, Afghanistan has been and still is one of the very few countries in the world which do not have railways. And there are not what-ifs in history.
Some changes relevant to the subject began to take place only 100 years later, towards the end of the twentieth century. In 1996, the railways of Turkmenistan and Iran were conjoined within Meshkhed-Serahs-Tedzhen section. That made possible reciprocal railroad access between Central Asia, on the one hand, and the Middle and Near East, on the other. One could then even speak of the realization of the long-cherished dream of access to free waters by the landlocked Central Asian countries.
Anyway, that linkage technically could mean that the south corridor of the Trans-Asian Railway was put into operation most closely repeating the ancient Silk Road. As the re-establishment of rail traffic between China and post-Soviet Central Asia via the train/railway stations of Alashankou (on the Chinese side) and Dostyk/Druzhba (on the Kazakhstani side) took place a little earlier.
Bilateral cargo container traffic between the Far East, on the one hand, and the Middle and Near East, on the other, could begin to function at full strength as early as the second half of the 1990’s. But that didn’t happened.
The reason behind this has been and still is the West’s negative attitude toward the development of trade and transport links of other countries with Iran and via Iran. Let us give you one example of this.
Financial Times, in an article by R.Corzine entitled “Buffer state still avoids being hit” and published on 11 December 2000, said: Another key issue of the current US-Kazakh relations is the future participation of Kazakhstan in the proposed BTC (Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan) oil pipeline. The US is pushing this project to … support the economy of Turkey – their key ally in the region. Kazakh officials appear to tend toward an alternative Iranian route, given that there is a shorter distance, and costs are respectively lower.
Further comment is unnecessary; subsequent history has been quite eloquent enough.
But the situation has been changing, and there have been several attempts by some Central Asian countries to move in that direction.
THESE ARE NEW TIMES
Much has already been done in the previous five 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 President Nursultan Nazarbayev see collaboration between Kazakhstan and China as being mutually beneficial.