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A ‘Bright Path’ Forward or a Grim Dead End?

Executive Summary

This report assesses the political impact of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Kazakhstan. Specifically, it examines whether and how the People’s Republic of China can pursue a strategy of economic statecraft to further its foreign policy and political interests in Kazakhstan. Despite Kazakhstan’s importance for the success of the BRI’s overland trade corridors, the report argues that important financial, foreign policy, and political constraints limit Beijing’s potential to influence Nur-Sultan. Beijing’s concerns over upsetting its relationship with the Russian Federation and the fact that the value of bilateral trade, investment, and Kazakhstani indebtedness to China have decreased in recent years suggest that Beijing is less willing to, capable of, or interested in using the BRI to influence Kazakhstan. The perceived closeness in this bilateral relationship has less to do with the influence of the BRI and more to do with the alignment of both countries’ geopolitical interests before the initiative’s creation.

The report does not suggest that Chinese influence has decreased, but rather shows how Kazakhstan has been able to maintain a degree of political autonomy. Nur-Sultan has played a proactive role in forming its relationship with Beijing through its pursuit of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s “multi-vector” foreign policy strategy. In diversifying Kazakhstan’s diplomatic, economic, and political ties with Russia, China, the European Union, and the United States, Nur-Sultan has been able to avoid complete dependence on one country. Furthermore, Kazakhstan has been able to shape the size and scope of Chinese economic activity by guiding the initiative’s investments and projects to further the government’s domestic development agenda, Nurly Zhol (translated as “Bright Path”). However, issues related to corruption and deepening ties between Chinese and Kazakhstani elites through the BRI have likely strengthened Kazakhstan’s authoritarian political structure.


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