The latest attempt to hold Syrian peace talks began on Monday in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, and will end on Wednesday. While the probability of resolving that complex conflict is exceedingly low at this point, the venue of the talks is the more significant part of the story. Kazakhstan is raising its international profile, especially as it looks to its future economic growth.
First and foremost is Kazakhstan’s desire to be an indispensable part of China’s Silk Road project, which has $40 billion in financing available from a dedicated Chinese government fund. Once completed, this much-hyped initiative will allow Chinese goods to travel to Europe faster and cheaper by land rather than by sea or air. The volume of trade between China and Europe is currently around $600 billion per year, and is predicted to exceed 170 million tons, or $800 billion by 2020.
With a prime location at the geographic crossroads of Europe and Asia, the more favorable an investment climate Kazakhstan can create, the more likely it is to cash in on China’s largess. “I propose to establish a new high-speed multi-modal transport route, Eurasian transcontinental corridor, which will run through the whole territory of our country, and allow the unhindered transportation of goods from Asia to Europe and vice versa,” said Kazakhstan’s authoritarian president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, at the 8th Astana Economic Forum last week.
To that end, the government is working towards removing all infrastructure-related restrictions in order to be more competitive in shipping. Meanwhile, the state provided over $2.5 billion in 2014 for transportation infrastructure and logistics, and will allocate another $3 billion per year from its National Fund between 2015 and 2017. The cumulative total of such investment is planned to exceed $20 billion by 2020.
And results are already materializing on the ground, with far more to come. One of these flagship transportation infrastructure projects is the ongoing construction of a dry port and rail yard at Khorgos, on the eastern border with China. Kazakhstan has already formed 100 container trains from China’s Lianyungang Port to Central Asia this year, according to AzerNews.
Kazakhstan’s top three trading partners– Russia, China, and the E.U. –collectively account for about 79% of Kazakhstan’s imports and nearly 75% of its exports. They will continue to play the leading roles in Kazakhstan’s foreign trade and diplomacy, but new horizons are opening up as well. Last Wednesday, Mexico announced it will open up an embassy in Kazakhstan for the first time later this year. Mexico is Kazakhstan’s second largest trading partner in Latin America after Brazil — their bilateral trade in 2014 totaled $120.8 million — and now economic and diplomatic relations are set to deepen.
And a new chapter in South-South partnerships began symbolically last Thursday at a special session of the Astana Economic Forum. Titled “Africa – the Next Driver of the Global Economy,” the meetings included 20 permanent representatives to the U.N. from Africa in attendance. “Africa is something new for Kazakhstan. We knew about Africa from schools, but we didn’t have much of a relationship,” said Kazakh Minister of Foreign Affairs Erlan Idrissov. The first Kazakh embassy in Africa opened in Cairo in the early 1990’s, followed by one in Pretoria, South Africa in 2013 and another in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2014.
More are likely to follow, as Kazakhstan diversifies away from its historical dependence on Russia and reaches out to other partners large and small.