President Xi Jinping’s grand plan to make China the center of the world again by reviving the ancient Silk Road trading route faces obstacles at its first stop.
In Kazakhstan, through which Xi envisages pipelines, roads and railways revitalizing an economic belt that stretches half way around the world to Venice, China has struggled to gain a significant foothold. It’s failed in efforts to realize a free trade agreement mooted 22 years ago and, in 2009, the Kazakh president was forced to deny a plan to lease farmland to China after angry protests from a public wary of their neighbor’s growing power.
What’s more, Xi’s vision for a bloc that involves at least 60 countries has left government advisers from Almaty to Delhi largely in the dark about the details. While Kazakhstan’s leaders have voiced support, enticed by billions of dollars in infrastructure funding, analysts in the country say the strategy involves greater Chinese influence that may be a harder sell to its people.
“Xi’s proposed idea is to form the foundation of a new geopolitical concept of China,” said Konstantin Syroezhkin, an adviser to the Kazakh president. “All discussions before were mainly around the economic component of China’s relations with this region, but Xi has put forth a vision that is much broader.”
China’s leader is staking political capital on the Silk Road, which started from his home province of Shaanxi and represented the golden years of Chinese civilization. During the Han Dynasty that ruled for four centuries from around 200 b.c. and the Tang Dynasty from the seventh century, the route made China’s economic and trade prowess the envy of the world.
It’s part of Xi’s “Chinese dream” to rejuvenate the Middle Kingdom and expand its sphere of influence beyond economics to politics and culture at a time when the U.S. is seeking to reassert itself in the region. A second, maritime, Silk Road that traverses the Horn of Africa en route to Europe, was later unveiled by Xi in Jakarta.
People walk through the centrul atrium at Nazarbayev University, Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Oct. 1, 2014. When Xi visited Kazakhstan in September last year, he outlined a much more integrative relationship in a speech at the Senate Hall of the University.
Earlier this month, Xi pledged $40 billion to set up a Silk Road Fund that will finance the construction of infrastructure along the route. He may need more than money to succeed in places like Kazakhstan, a former Soviet state on China’s western border, which is happy to do business with its neighbor but hasn’t been so keen on building a close friendship.
“China is too powerful, too strong, and we’re afraid of being overwhelmed,” said Nargis Kassenova, director of the Central Asian Studies Center at KIMEP University in Almaty. “It’s hard to turn down on what China can offer, but we resist the full embrace of Chinese power. We’re just trying to benefit economically.”
China surpassed Russia as Kazakhstan’s top trading partner in 2010 and trade with the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia has jumped more than 20 times to $46 billion in 2012 from $1.8 billion in 2000, according to data from China’s Ministry of Commerce. Lying on some of the world’s biggest oil and gas reserves, Kazakhstan signed cooperation contracts and agreements worth $30 billion last year to help slake its neighbor’s thirst for energy.
When Xi visited Kazakhstan in September last year, he outlined a much more comprehensive relationship in a speech at the Senate Hall of Nazarbayev University. Besides dangling the carrot of an unparalleled market of almost 3 billion people along the New Silk Road Economic Belt to Europe, he urged all countries involved to support each other on issues concerning sovereignty, territorial integrity and security, while cracking down on the “evil forces” of terrorism, extremism and separatism.
“The Silk Road Economic Belt needs to be seen as a key part of the foreign policy legacy that Xi Jinping is building for himself,” Raffaello Pantucci, director of International Security Studies at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, said in an interview in Almaty. “It has the effect of both helping the domestic situation in western China, but also growing China’s power and influence across the Eurasian landmass.”
Not everyone rushed to listen to Xi’s speech. Zhansultan Zhambylov, a second-year biology major student at the university, said he was too busy to go.
“I probably wouldn’t have gone anyway,” said Zhambylov, an ethnic Kazakh who speaks Russian and German. “Some of my classmates and friends went but said they didn’t quite get” what Xi’s vision was.
Malika Kelesbekova, a 20-year-old student at Al Farabi university sits for a photograph in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Sep. 27, 2014. Kelesbekova, said her parents advised her that speaking China’s main language might open career opportunities, while also urging her not to mix too closely with Chinese people.
Kazakhstan’s government was more receptive. President Nursultan Nazarbayev called it “a wonderful concept” at a security summit in Shanghai in May. Prime Minister Karim Massimov delivered a speech in Chinese in September in Urumqi, in China’s far west, in which he said that “solidarity will be our strength to develop regional cooperation along the Silk Road.”
Ties between the neighbors have started to grow beyond the economic sphere into cultural and administrative cooperation. 2017 is designated as a year to boost tourism, and Kazakhstan has shown interest in China’s anti-corruption measures, with a Chinese delegation visiting the capital Astana in September to discuss the fight against graft.
History shows that Kazakhstan’s leaders aren’t always in step with popular opinion. China has unsuccessfully pushed for a free trade agreement with Kazakhstan since diplomatic ties were established 22 years ago. More than a decade after Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao and Nazarbayev reached a consensus in principle on the deal little has transpired, while Kazakhstan entered into a custom union with Belarus and Russia in 2010. A small trial area of 5.28 square kilometers was established in June this year in the border city of Khorgas.
In late 2009, after China proposed leasing a million hectares of farmland, several hundred Kazakh protesters clashed with police in Almaty, waving signs that read: “We will not give up Kazakh land!” Nazarbayev, who has been president since 1991, later denied the government had any plans to lease land to China.
“The Kazakh government might find they have political anger at home toward the Chinese investment,” Pantucci said. “If you got huge public anger to confront, you’ve got to respond to it.”
In Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, 378 kilometers (235 miles) from China’s western border, Chinese migrants say discrimination by officials and police has made it hard for them to plant roots that will enable Chinese development to flow outwards.
A Chinese trader who hawks clothes, toys and rice cookers at the outdoor Barakholka market, on the outskirts of the city, says conditions are worse now than when he arrived in 1992, soon after Kazakhstan became independent. Standing outside an almost empty downtown branch of Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, the man, surnamed Li, recalls days when he had to stand in line.
“Chinese people were queuing up to wire money back home then; now many of them have fled in frustration, because they found little going for them here,” said Li, who says he hasn’t been able to obtain permanent residency. He asked not to be identified in full for fear of reprisals.
China’s efforts at soft power have yet to get traction in the country. The Confucius Institute, which promotes Chinese language and culture throughout the world, has two bases in Kazakhstan. The Almaty branch shares a building with the International Relations Department of Al-Farabi Kazakh National University. Even so, most students don’t know where it is or what it is for, according to interviews by Bloomberg. At the Astana branch, a Bloomberg reporter seeking information was turned away.
Even for young Kazakhs who are eager to study Chinese to become more competitive in the job market, China feels very remote. Malika Kelesbekova, a 20-year-old meteorological student at Al-Farabi, said her parents advised her not to mix closely with Chinese people.
“China we don’t understand –- its people, its culture and its mentality,” said Kelesbekova. “It’s a mystery for us.”
Lack of understanding
Analysts say China doesn’t get Central Asia either, making its vision flawed by failing to consult its proposed partners. Officials in countries such as India say there haven’t been any talks with China about its Silk Road proposal.
Kazakh government adviser Syroezhkin, the chief research fellow of the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies, a state-sponsored outfit reporting to the president, said he had no idea how the strategy will be implemented.
“Essentially the idea is interesting, but talking about it as a strategy, perhaps it’s premature,” he said.
The government in Beijing failed to bring anticipated partners on board before the plan was announced, according to Yang Shu, director of the Institute for Central Asian Studies at Lanzhou University in China’s western Gansu Province.
“The Silk Road should be something that all countries jointly build, but now it looks like China is building it and asking others to tag along,” Yang said.
In recent months Xi has begun to court international support, securing verbal commitments from three countries along the route during a September trip to Tajikistan, the Maldives and Sri Lanka, as well as from Afghanistan.
The Silk Road may help China build a bulwark against the U.S., which is strengthening military ties with treaty allies and pushing a Pacific trade deal, said Jin Canrong, Associate Dean of the School of International Studies at Renmin University in Beijing.
“If the plan gets implemented well and achieves what it’s meant to, it will become an important legacy of Xi,” Jin said. “He’ll be remembered as the great leader to rejuvenate the Middle Kingdom. But this is a long shot, as it will need at least three decades.”