In September 2013, China’s President Xi Jinping announced the launch of the country’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) during his visit to Kazakhstan. A one trillion US dollars grand plan is set to connect Asia, Africa and Europe through multiple transport corridors and infrastructure projects on land and at sea. The place for the announcement had its historical symbolism: over 2.000 years ago the first Chinese envoy was sent “to open the door to friendly contacts between China and Central Asia as well as the transcontinental Silk Road”, according to Xi Jinping. This founding myth has since become part of the official BRI narrative (Hoering, 2018, 48).
But the strategic importance of Kazakhstan goes beyond its role in the Silk Road. Located in the middle of land routes from Western China to Europe, the country often refers to itself as the ‘buckle’1 in the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), one of the two BRI pillars. As the strongest economy in the region, it has a potential to become a major trans-Eurasian transport and logistics hub. Kazakhstan is also a close partner of Russia and member of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). At the time of the BRI announcement it was the only country in the region which could provide access for China to the EEU market.