On a route to nowhere, China tries to recreate ancient route

December 30, 2015 6:58 am

 Traffic
is seen on a section of the road that will link and Europe that
is being built by Sinohydro. Photo / Washington Post

Slowly but surely, a four-lane highway is beginning to take shape on the sparsely populated Central Asian steppe.
Soviet-era
cars, trucks and ageing long-distance buses weave past modern yellow
bulldozers, cranes and towering construction drills, labouring under
Chinese supervision to build a road that could one day stretch from
eastern to Western Europe.
This small stretch of blacktop,
running past potato fields, bare dun-coloured rolling hills and fields
of grazing cattle, is a symbol of China’s march westward, an advance
into Central Asia that is steadily wresting the region from Russia’s
embrace.
Here the oil and gas pipelines, as well as the main
roads and the railway lines, always pointed north to the heart of the
old Soviet Union. Today, those links are beginning to point toward
China.
“This used to be Russia’s back yard,” said Raffaello
Pantucci, director of International Security Studies at the Royal United
Services Institute in London, “but it is increasingly coming into
China’s thrall.”

It is a shift that has shaken up the Russian leadership, which
is watching China’s advance across the steppe with apprehension. Moscow
and Beijing may speak the language of partnership these days, but
Central Asia has emerged as a source of wariness and mistrust.
For
China, the region offers rich natural resources, but Beijing’s grander
commercial plans – to export its industrial overcapacity and find new
markets for its goods – will struggle to find wings in these poor and
sparsely populated lands.
In September 2013, Chinese President Xi
Jinping chose Kazakhstan’s sparkling, modern new capital, Astana, to
announce what has since become a cornerstone of his new, assertive
foreign policy, a Silk Road Economic Belt that would revive ancient
trading routes to bring new prosperity to a long-neglected but
strategically important region at the heart of the Eurasian continent.
Bound
together by 2000 years of exchanges dating to the Western Han Dynasty
and sharing a 1800km border, the two nations, Xi said, now have a
“golden opportunity” to develop their economies and deepen their
friendship.
At the China-Kazakhstan border, at a place known as
Horgos to the Chinese and Khorgos to the Kazakhs, a massive concrete
immigration and customs building is being completed to mark that
friendship.

The new road has already led to business with Kazakh traders. Photo / Washington Post
The new road has already led to business with Kazakh traders. Photo / Washington Post
A short distance away, China is building an almost entirely
new city, apartment block by apartment block, alongside a 5sq km
free-trade zone, where traders sit in new multi-storey shopping malls
hawking such items as iPhones and fur coats.
This is reputed to
have been a seventh century stop for Silk Road merchants. Today, the
People’s Daily newspaper calls it “the pearl” on the Silk Road Economic
Belt.
But this pearl is distinctly lopsided: On the Kazakh side
of the zone, opposite all those gleaming malls, a single small building,
in the shape of a nomad’s tent or yurt, sits on an expanse of wasteland
where a trickle of people stop to buy biscuits, vodka and camel’s milk.
The
Silk Road slogan may be new, but many of its goals are not. Beijing has
long been working to secure a share of the region’s rich natural
resources to fuel China’s industrial economy; it is building a network
of security co-operation in Central Asia as a bulwark against Islamist
extremism that could leak into China’s restive western province of
Xinjiang, and it wants to create alternative trading routes to Europe
that bypass Asia’s narrow, congested shipping lanes.
Under the
Silk Road plan, China also is promising to spend hundreds of millions of
dollars to build new infrastructure here, and it hopes to reap benefits
of its own: to create new markets for Chinese goods, especially for
heavy industries such as steel and cement that have suffered as the
Chinese economy has slowed.
But the scene at Horgos underlines
the fact that the economies of China’s Central Asian neighbours are
simply too small to provide much of a stimulus to China’s giant
financial system.
China’s ambitious Central Asian plans did not go down well, at least initially, in Moscow.

A Chinese surveyor/engineer climbs a bank of earth to take measurements on the site of a bridge project on a section of the road that will link China and Europe. Photo / Washington Post
A Chinese surveyor/engineer climbs a bank of
earth to take measurements on the site of a bridge project on a section
of the road that will link China and Europe. Photo / Washington Post
“When China announced its Silk Road plan in Kazakhstan, it
was met with a lot of scepticism and even fear by the Russian
leadership,” said Alexander Gabuyev, head of the Russia in the Asia
Pacific Programme at the Carnegie Moscow Centre.
China has
overtaken Russia to become Central Asia’s biggest trade partner and
lender. Pipelines transport increasing amounts of Kazakh oil to China
and vast quantities of Turkmen gas east through Horgos. That has served
to undermine Russia’s negotiating position when it has tried to sell its
own gas to China.
At the same time, however, Xi has worked
overtime to calm Russian fears, reassuring his counterpart Vladimir
Putin that Beijing has no plans to counter his country’s political and
security dominance in Central Asia.
In May, Xi and Putin signed a
treaty designed to balance the two nations’ interests in Central Asia
and integrate the Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Road.
China’s
expanding influence has provoked mixed feelings in many Asian states,
and it has used “velvet gloves” in its dealings with Central Asia, said
Nargis Kassenova, an international relations expert at KIMEP University
in Almaty.
About a quarter of Kazakhstan’s citizens are ethnic
Russians, while Russian media dominate the airwaves. The Chinese
language, by contrast, is nowhere to be seen or heard.
What
Beijing can offer is infrastructure loans and investment. It has been
careful to frame its plans as more than just a “road” – where
Kazakhstan’s natural resources are extracted, and Chinese goods waved
through on their way to Europe – but as a “belt” of economic prosperity.
Nevertheless,
a survey conducted by independent analyst Elena Sadovskaya found that
Kazakh attitudes toward Chinese migrant workers reflect fears that China
would one day dominate the country, swamp it with immigrants and cheap
goods, grab land or suck out its natural resources while giving little
in return.
Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister, Erlan Idrissov, plays down concerns, saying progress and development represent good .


“Our
philosophy is simple: We should get on board that train,” he said in an
interview in Astana. “We want to benefit from the growth of China, and
we don’t see any risks to us in that growth.”
China’s state-owned
investment giant CITIC runs an oil field and an asphalt factory in
Kazakhstan and says it has established a $110 billion fund to invest in
Silk Road projects, much of the money aimed at Kazakhstan and Central
Asia.
But private Chinese companies and ordinary Chinese traders
say they have yet to reap the rewards, as the small Kazakh economy is
shrinking under the weight of falling commodity prices and Russia’s
economic decline.
In the Horgos free-trade zone, Chinese traders
also say business is poor. Many were lured by tax breaks, cut-price
deals to rent shops and cheerleading by state media about the
opportunities on offer.
“After we came here, we realised it was
all lies,” said one shop owner who declined to be named for fear of
trouble with the authorities.
The Kazakh Government is building a
“dry port” at Khorgos – with warehouses, an industrial park and rows of
cranes to transfer containers across different railroad gauges – in
what it hopes will become a major distribution and trans-shipment hub
for goods bound between China and Western Europe, a “mini-Dubai” in the
making.
But the nearby free-trade zone still boasts just the one
small supermarket, guarded by four lonely concrete camels, plastic
flowers in their saddlebags.

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