The world’s first $
1 trillion infrastructure project has captivated global attention for its boldness, breadth, and transformative potential [1
]. Presented as the New Silk Road, China’s reach across Asia and beyond has no modern-day precedent. In May 2017, China‘s President Xi Jinping announced his ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) model to the world [2
]. International attention has been focused on rail journeys from China to London, roads and pipelines across Asia, and rapid development trajectories. In China, the programme is presented as “a great undertaking that will benefit peoples around the world” [3
] (p. 93). This mega-investment and infrastructure programme will have significant impact on the nations through which it traverses [4
]. In the rush to construction, questions of sovereignty, cost, and obligations are yet to be resolved in recipient countries. Here we examine how building a silk road supernova resonates in two neighbouring nations at its Central Asian heart: Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Located on China’s western border, they are pivot countries: how these states act and react will determine if the road paves a golden future or crumbles into a dusty dream.
OBOR is also known as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), and colloquially as the New Silk Road; use of OBOR in this paper reflects the most common and best-known acronym. A component programme is the Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI) that expands China’s interaction and investment throughout Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and Arabian Sea through the Mediterranean to Europe [7
]. In tandem, the land bridge and sea route comprise a grand vision of One Belt, One Road that encompasses multiple economic and political aims across dozens of countries [8
]. Narratives in the expanding literature on OBOR consider Chinese motivations, strategic implications, economic integration, and geopolitical forces [5
]. Recent scholarship is starting to conceptualise the programme through a range of theoretical lenses, yet has limited detail or regional and national specificity [7
]. Parsing meaning at state and sub-national levels in recipient countries has yet to feature; nor do narratives engage with the role that physical environments through which OBOR travels will have. This paper examines the overland Belt and Road Initiative from the perspective of two Central Asian ‘frontier states’ (from China’s viewpoint) and differentiates Kazakh and Kyrgyz roles and abilities to shape or benefit from OBOR. Further, we identify geographical factors that constrain infrastructure, recognise geopolitical contestation between Russia and China, address historical and cultural factors, and consider issues of institutional capacity and marginality that may be impediments to China’s OBOR.
Whilst the emergent discussion of OBOR presents a policy, economic, and international relations perspective on the programme [5
], the lack of engagement with landscapes for the world’s largest infrastructure programme is striking. As OBOR aims to cross the Himalaya, Pamir, and Tien Shan mountains, traverse the deserts and steppe of Central, South, and Southwest Asia, and pass through active conflict zones (notably Afghanistan), overcoming geography, culture, and sparse resources (think water or food) will be a major challenge and consume much time and resources. Creating infrastructure involves residents, communities, governments, and physical embodiments of the nation state; thus, how land and society interact with an expansive foreign hegemon is an essential research focus. Integrating notions of land and geography, this paper evaluates how OBOR may play out in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. We examine the limited body of literature on OBOR that incorporates Central Asia (see [5
]), tease out specific Kazakh and Kyrgyz motivations and concerns within this assessment (see [14
] and introduce an applied geography view to consider the implications when ‘earth and infrastructure’ meet [17
] (p. 2). The paper first contextualises OBOR in Central Asia and then considers regional geo-politics and geo-economics. Next, the physical landscape and infrastructure are examined and relevant social forces highlighted. The discussion then focuses on how OBOR may play out in Central Asia and suggests how the paper’s original research idea can address an unprecedented transformation in the region’s built environment.
2. Contextualising OBOR in Central Asia: Regional Histories, Geopolitics, and Geoeconomics
Chinese presentation of OBOR is as an idea or theme for engagement and development rather than a firm plan or roadmap [6
]. Whilst OBOR details are elusive to outsiders, from the Chinese perspective it is ‘an abstract and metaphorical concept’ with the ancient silk road as a touchstone [18
] (p. 2). This obscures the realpolitik of the programme that is President Xi Jinping’s ‘one and only major foreign policy initiative’ [6
] (p. 4). Any major transnational infrastructure programme is laden with expectation and liabilities; one country’s outreach and expansion is another’s incursion and obligation. Perhaps the two sides find a shared space of differentiated but positive benefit for both; for that to happen requires clarity of intent, roles, politics, and economic versus social benefits for giver and receiver at the outset. Cooley [5
] presents the New Silk Road as a contest between ‘traders’—development and economic interests—versus ‘gamers’ that see geopolitical angles as primary. Sidaway and Woon [4
] (p. 4) assimilate this to suggest OBOR is a ‘geopolitical strategy, albeit dependent and anchored on economic rationale’. China’s intentional ambiguity [9
] feeds a ‘net gain’ approach as opposed to a more benign regional development and soft power effort [19
]. Other interpretations of the motivations underpinning OBOR abound (Table 1
), from it being a project to absorb excess Chinese labour and capacity to the internationalisation of the yuan [19
]. Whatever socio-political paradigm is intended or dominates, the impact will be most directly felt in its immediate neighbours that control the gateway to the west—Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Central Asia is the historic core of silk roads through time [21
]. It is here that Alexander the Great died in his quest for empire; where Marco Polo searched for silk routes to Venice, and Britain and Russia contested the Great Game that contributed to regional isolation [26
]. Past silk roads between China and empires to the west presented Central Asia as ‘mere transit stations’ along the route [27
] (p. 433). A century ago a British geographer and politician [28
] identified Central Asia as the geographical ‘pivot’ of history, which all great land empires must control. This enduring saga is germane today, for this is where geography framed the past and economics aims to determine the future [29
]. The Dzungarian Gate on the China-Kazakh border and the Torugart pass from Kashgar to Naryn, Kyrgyzstan are two of the few openings in the Tien Shan and Pamir mountains that allow past and present trade caravans to flourish (see Figure 1
). Before China can access European markets overland, before goods can flow to West Asia and the Mediterranean and resources return to China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan must be crossed.
Based on their histories, politics and socio-cultural contexts, Central Asian states have their own distinctive interpretations of what a New Silk Road means [7
]. Location makes Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan the two key Central Asian players, though the countries have vastly divergent interests and needs. Kazakhstan presents an autocratic, rentier state that has extensive trade links and higher per capita income than China ($
12,436 vs. $
]. Driven by energy resources and pipelines to western China, Kazakhstan can self-fund and self-direct infrastructure and development if desired; its energy hub is centred in the Caspian basin and is thus closer to Europe than China. Kyrgyzstan, with its struggling democracy, low living standard ($
1267 GDP per capita) and mountainous terrain has limited economic resources; already 50% of its national debt is owed to China. Both nations fear Chinese stealth encroachment through OBOR, with hints at new ‘fangs of imperialism’ [31
] (p. 1). At the same time, both states are members of the Russia-driven Eurasian Economic Commission (EEU) that cedes significant trade rights and favours political deference to Russia. This drives a bifurcation between two spheres, as economics and development is dominated by China [13
], yet must exist within Russian military, social, and political hegemony. In fact, the term ‘New Silk Road’ first appeared in 2011 as a US State Department initiative for ‘new North-South transit and trade routes that complement vibrant East-West connections across Eurasia’ ([34
] (p. 1); [35
]). The American initiative built on past Soviet economic flows through Central Asia. Announced by the US State Department as part of its exit strategy from Afghanistan, its aim was to re-integrate the country into traditional trading routes. Though conceptual frameworks have varied, the initiative’s key points appear to presage and to have become core elements of China’s nearly identical 2015 OBOR outline (Table 2
With such a major infrastructure programme come a suite of ancillary factors that are influenced by domestic circumstances in host nations. These include indirect OBOR implications from reshaping border zones (e.g., Khorgos Special Economic Zone, Kazakhstan), state capacity to direct, absorb, and monitor projects, and manifestations of marginality (social, economic, ecological, political) to ethnic contestation, (dis)integration along transport routes, and engagement and benefit from OBOR at community levels [14
]. The uncertainty and potential direction of OBOR implementation is reflected in the $
46 billion Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) where the programme is most advanced [3
]. The infrastructure crosses the Himalayas to Gwadar port on the Indian Ocean and involves tens of thousands of Chinese workers. Less direct are the routing of the pipeline and transport links within Pakistan, interaction with local populations, ethnic unrest, implications for fragile state institutions, and perceptions of benefit or exclusion. Issues of security and surveillance, rights of residents, water and environmental degradation, and wielding of de facto supra-state power raise questions about levers of control and for who’s benefit is OBOR designed [38
]. Resultant political infighting, grasping for infrastructure, volta face in nationalistic policy, and weak monitoring institutions point to the disruption major external infrastructure projects can have. Similar complexities can be expected as OBOR expands into Central Asia.
With an $
8 trillion Asian infrastructure deficit, China’s ‘most significant and far reaching project…ever’ expects to find receptive hosts in need of what may be on offer [5
] (p. 11). Yet in traversing a region, economic and political forces become entwined with realpolitik. The five post-Soviet Central Asian states are caught in a bind: they must reconcile Russia’s historic role with China’s expanding economic dominance [35
]. Participation in OBOR may not be centred on local interest and consent as much as acceptance of projects sanctioned by the regional hegemons. Thus, Russia will favour train lines through Kazakhstan that bring it goods and tariffs over tracks to the Caspian Sea that benefit China or Europe instead [12
]. With funding directed by China, benefits will accrue through opening new markets for goods, procuring resources, and increasing access and engagement in previously underserved areas. Presented as an economic corridor, an OBOR of pipelines, bridges, roads, etc. is imagined for Central Asia to enhance security and energy cooperation [4
]. The concurrent launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) provides both a funding source and implied international backing for large scale building projects.
Whilst OBOR, BRI, and the New Silk Road are all about China [39
], frontier states are not a vacuum waiting to be filled or controlled [7
]. A large part of any regional infrastructure programme goes through former Soviet territory that remains Russia’s near-abroad today. This geopolitical background has created a convoluted ménage a trois
between China, Russia, and comparatively weak Central Asian states [35
]. Russia combines its roles as former (and aspiring) political overlord, military guarantor of (or perhaps threat to) sovereignty, trade partner through the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), and cultural (particularly language, alphabet (Cyrillic vs. Latin) and media) touchstone with its former republics [10
]. Though there are existing tripartite relations through the ongoing Shanghai Cooperation Organisation security alliance, the supercedent EEU dominates structural interaction between Russia and Central Asian states without China’s participation [41
]. Separate from Russian-Chinese relations, the EEU sets out a protocol that Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan follow for multi-faceted relations with trade benefits and restrictions within which China-Central Asian relations must be balanced. Thus, the two states are situated between two superpowers with different agendas. This is most notable in economics, where Central Asian trade with China increased from $
1 billion in 2002 to $
45 billion in 2014 [42
]. The political and economic divergence leaves these states facing two masters with different remits and agendas, and potentially conflicting rather than co-existing interests. Russian self-interest will favour infrastructure that will be beneficial through trade, resources, and transit fees [12
]. Reflecting this dichotomy, both countries export more to Russia than China, yet China is the largest source of imports. The unequal stature of the two key states finds that >80% of China’s regional trade is with Kazakhstan; benefits will thus accrue to Kazakhstan with limited support for disadvantaged Kyrgyzstan. Further, ethnic clashes have soured relations between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan [43
] with implications for China’s envisioned shared projects (pipelines, railroads) through the Fergana Valley and onward to Afghanistan, Iran, and West Asia.
China has been instrumental in Kyrgyzstan’s meagre development efforts whilst Russia maintains a military base. Vast amounts of new infrastructure is needed to replace aging and obsolete Soviet power plants, roads, bridges, dams, and hydro-electric power in Kyrgyzstan [45
]. Yet the value of infrastructure-build for China in the country is not clear. Kyrgyzstan is central to the key planned rail route from Kashgar through Naryn and on to Uzbekistan [46
], though currently China finds faster access traversing through Kazakhstan to Xinjiang Province. Such structural issues may limit and prescribe benefits to Kyrgyzstan. An unmentioned part of transport development in Kyrgyzstan is that its most valuable transit commodity is not minerals or oil but drugs. The state is on the main heroin route from Afghanistan to Europe through Kazakhstan and Russia where 25% of the supply is transported [47
]. Any expansion of roads without concomitant increased drug interdiction will potentially facilitate criminal activity and trafficking, including to China’s eastern heartland. Infrastructure also represents possible links between ethnic groups separated by borders, facilitates transnational networks, and represents pathways for migrants. For example, China claimed Uighur separatists were responsible for the 30 August 2016 car bomb attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan [48
In sum, OBOR is a project writ large with myriad intentions and possible implications. At the macro-scale, it is a presentation of China to the world in the 21st century. A Chinese government perspective stresses ‘development and prosperity’, that OBOR ‘is not a tool of geopolitics’ and ‘growing power and investments should not be seen as threatening’ [4
] (p. 3). What is written on OBOR is reflective of foreign perceptions of China’s global engagement; circumspect articles decipher signals framed by external expectations and power relations vis-à-vis China. What is missing is the transition in thought to what OBOR tentacles may look like and engender on the ground in receiving nations. Existing narratives present OBOR as China’s coming out event; now an interpretation and understanding of what this means for frontier states and host nations is imperative. As receivers of action, investment, and infrastructure, states are exposed to direct (physical, economic) and ancillary (social, environmental, political) benefits and costs.
Central Asia is largely overlooked in existing literature on OBOR, which has thus far largely attended to Chinese narratives about the initiative ([4
], the Maritime Silk Road component (e.g., [7
]), Chinese economic and political expansion in South East Asia [49
], and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor [3
]. Research by Central Asian scholars and specialists has begun to turn attention to the potential impacts of OBOR in the region, focusing on narratives of state ideologies and development [13
], the inability of Central Asian states to exert sovereignty [15
], marginal borderlands [1
], and expanding Chinese influence in the region [5
]. These themes are important for OBOR, as they address the capacity of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to engage and absorb major infrastructure projects, and the existing literature suggests constraints and mixed outcomes. For example, ref. [10
] (p. 376) views the New Silk Road as a series of mobilities through Central Asia that are corridors for ‘hydrocarbons…migrants…drugs…trade…and military’, a process matched by borders, immobility, and competition. Meanwhile, Reeves [50
] examines how infrastructure brings hope as well as roads and questions territorial integrity. The varied discourses highlighted in this scholarship stresses Central Asian limitations in institutional capacity [51
], environmental governance [52
], and interaction with China [3
] that are integral to a discussion on OBOR. Though land degradation and water stress are documented in the region [53
], connections between landscape, infrastructure, and land use, critical to OBOR implementation, have not been investigated. In the remainder of this paper we seek to sketch out what such a research agenda might look like.
4. Uncertainty, National Differences, Marginality, and Sino-Centrism
‘Advancing westward was “a historical necessity for the Chinese nation, and it is also our destiny.”… Central Asia should thus be regarded “as territory to be recovered in our advance, not as a border region”’ PLA General Liu Yazhou [3
] (pp. 117–118).
A massive infrastructure programme, a major Chinese westward expansion, an offering of altruistic friendship, an example of manifest destiny—evaluation of OBOR offers a tabula rasa for Central Asia and the world. Interpretations abound yet facts are few on the ground. We stress four themes in the Central Asian context: uncertainty is an OBOR hallmark, events and infrastructure will play out differently in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, capacity and marginality will challenge infrastructure development, and ultimately all roads lead back to China (see [4
]). A core tenet presented in the work of Barry [17
] is that infrastructure is constructed on real geography through living communities, rather than in presidential speeches and grand edicts, is critical in a region of 7000+ metre mountains, deserts, extreme climates, and different cultures. The ‘physical’ will meet the ‘theoretical’ in OBOR’s march westward. As Peyrouse and Raballand [35
] (p. 413) state, ‘a route on a map…does not create traffic and trade’.
Interrogation of the uncertain, muddled human dimensions will provide a more robust evaluation of a New Silk Road in Central Asia. This proffers questions about institutional transformation or subordination, external annexation or domestic-driven collaboration, and benefit defined at the mega, national, or personal scale. Issues of livelihood enhancement and increased human opportunity, environmental sustainability, community development, and economic improvement are yet to be scrutinised and integrated into the grand rhetoric. The human element exposes its darker side—marginalisation of citizens, lost or foregone opportunity and jobs, roads as pathways to migration and trafficking, a diminution of rural prospects and populations, concentration of benefit in urban hubs, and degradation of environmentally based lives as agriculture, pastoralism, and livestock raising are isolated by infrastructure or overtaken by markets manifest in land grabs. Is organic growth on offer or is this a coercive multi-state project lacking civic relevance or nation-bonding through sacrifice of public space and engagement?
Within Central Asian dynamics Kazakhstan is well-placed to profit from OBOR as it is both politically and economically close to Russia whilst a major oil exporter to China. Once over the Tien Shan Mountains geography favours infrastructure across the flat steppe and established rail routes link the three countries. Solid state finances offer Kazakhstan a buffer; it does not need OBOR for development or domestic (e.g., voting) exigencies. In comparison, Kyrgyzstan is mountain-bound, on the proposed train line to (unfriendly) Uzbekistan, without oil, and in need of what China may decide to offer. This weak hand gives little leverage for the country and few alternate development sources. Where Kazakhstan perceives itself as an equal in negotiation, Kyrgyzstan is an OBOR supplicant.
The idea of marginality runs through the rural territories that will host infrastructure. Such contexts are on the fringe of political and economic loci of control that initiate projects, are spatially isolated and often on the edge of borders, and are often further separated by poverty, social group, and livelihood opportunity. High speed rail and pipelines designed to circumvent locals may lack relevance and result in failed projects (such as the Zhonga refinery) or, opposite to development, promote further disintegration within fraying social-political contexts. Whilst citizens in Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan cannot derail OBOR, they can, and have, changed regimes in Kyrgyzstan and may again protest against the aging autocracy in Kazakhstan. If infrastructure becomes corridors without context, alters or degrades an environment, or segregates development trajectories the ‘soft power’ path will be missed whilst inequality, Sinophobia, and dispossession remain. As Diener [10
] (p. 380) states, ‘roads may separate as much as they connect’. The tantalising rewards of OBOR will come with a foundation that engages with national and local discourses. In coming years more can be done by OBOR proponents to identify standards and procedures that encourage domestic participation and acceptance rather than an external, top-down imposition of Chinese will on frontier states. This raises the spectre of nations’ abilities to digest OBOR against a host of domestic factors from stability, ethnicity, and marginality to control and external influence.
Finally, procedures, announcements, efforts at persuasion, and maps show OBOR as a China-directed, optimistic, multi-faceted expansion effort (see Table 1
). It is thus self-reflective—how can infrastructure benefit China and Chinese in state, business, employment, and citizen realms—reflected in General Liu’s presumption of ‘destiny’. Whilst the effort shows China going out into the world, in truth all roads lead back to China [39
]. This is where benefit will be determined, success claimed, and new markets or resources conquered. Central Asia is the first stop on the parade. With small populations, malleable governments, and an inability to create and drive mega-projects, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are prime candidates to accommodate China’s largess and attention. Success by flexible and undefined measures belongs to China. Failure of physical structure, economic profit, or citizen disapproval (even damage) will rest with the Central Asians. This is where grand integration meets with uncontrolled forces. These could be in the form of climate, earthquakes, droughts, famine, terrorism, conflict, or revolution—all have happened in Central Asia. Any of these can change Chinese hubris into humbleness as the New Silk Roads careen their way through Central Asia.
Tracking OBOR into Central Asia frames the possibilities and challenges the programme encounters in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Historical, cultural, and economic factors separate the nations from China whilst development differentiates the two states. Borders and geography constrain infrastructure, superpower geopolitics impede state autonomy, corridors favour Chinese interests (resources, business) over local agendas, whilst OBOR objectives and outcomes in the region remain opaque [31
]. Grounding the narrative identifies Central Asian characteristics that will ameliorate or mitigate the grand intentions of the New Silk Road.
Within OBOR several competing strands present themselves. Foremost are considerations regarding what is built and for whom. The implications of pipelines, roads, airports, etc. are tangible manifestations of Chinese prowess, development, and interstate collaboration. Secondary physical expressions—changes in water, land, and environment—are also part of OBOR. Less concrete but equally OBOR related are the suite of social, institutional, economic, and governance benefits and disruptions, with values assigned by perspective. To China, building infrastructure is a clear public good, a mantra often repeated in the Tibet and Xinjiang contexts. To Kazakhstan, infrastructure enabling trade and economic gain is positive; in Kyrgyzstan, any new construction is a boon, filling key gaps the state is unable to address. These macro-level representations extol the ‘development and prosperity’ the literature promises. These are the voices and vistas that will be shared for global consumption.
Given the scale, complexity, and inherent uncertainties regarding OBOR, identifying potential mechanisms for addressing challenges faced in Central Asian states is difficult if not unachievable. Based on our review of existing literature and analysis of geographical, social, and political contextual factors, the following key issues for further discussion emerge.
The lack of transparency regarding planned or proposed OBOR projects needs to be rectified. A first step would be ensuring that channels of communication are in place between Chinese planners/developers and Central Asian governments and, crucially, local communities that will be affected by the infrastructure developments.
Communication and coordination across China’s ‘frontier states’, including Pakistan, where OBOR projects are more advanced (e.g., CPEC), can be facilitated and strengthened.
Clear OBOR objectives, standards, and rights should be established and expressed at local, state, and transnational levels.
Whilst current research considers manifestations of OBOR in Central Asia, this paper identifies three critical research ideas for future investigation. First, OBOR has not been grounded in Central Asia’s physical landscape. Understanding the infrastructure footprint can be done through fieldwork and remote sensing to capture land area sacrificed and demands on water, and land use vis-a-vis dependent communities; Second, improved knowledge of the practical implications of OBOR on rural residents, livelihoods, and communities presents a gaping hole in current project understanding. Third, the host state institutions-citizens-Chinese outreach nexus awaits exploration. In combination, these significant research themes will offer insight, astuteness, and realistic knowledge about China’s infrastructure expansion into Central Asia.