With Kazakhstan at its epicenter, Central Asia’s transit potential has become increasingly significant for global connectivity. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the standoff between Russia and the West have underscored the urgent need for new and alternative transit routes to facilitate trade between Asia and Europe. Central Asia’s strategic location offers an opportunity for both Asian and Western countries to diversify their economic engagements and reinforce strategic interests, creating a new nexus for global trade.
Central Asia, the crossroads of the ancient Silk Road, is reclaiming its historical role as a key transit region in global commerce. As the region’s largest country, Kazakhstan is pivotal in this resurgence. Connecting significant markets of Europe and Asia, it offers a shorter and potentially more cost-effective route for goods transportation than traditional maritime paths, especially in the current geopolitical climate. During the first ten months of 2023, 22.5 million tons of freight made their way through Kazakhstan, marking a 19 percent increase in volume. This growth is particularly notable in container transportation, which grew by 15 percent over the same period. The transit traffic through Kazakhstan is projected to rise to 35 million tons by 2029. Meanwhile, rail cargo transport, a critical component of Kazakhstan’s transit capabilities, rose by 3 percent, totaling 246 million tons.
Central Asia, and particularly Kazakhstan, has become an increasingly vital gateway for China to conduct trade with Europe and the wider world, underscored by the investments made through the Belt and Road Initiative, which was first announced by President Xi Jinping in Kazakhstan and marked its tenth anniversary in 2023. Currently, China accounts for 27 percent of Kazakhstan’s transport flow, equivalent to 6.2 million tons. In 2022, over 23 million tons of goods were transported via rail between Kazakhstan and China, a figure that has since increased by an additional 22 percent. This significant uptick in transit volume demonstrates China’s growing reliance on overland routes through Central Asia for its trade with Europe.
The surge in cargo volume is not just about numbers; it represents a strategic shift in China’s trade routes. Traditionally reliant on maritime shipping, China has increasingly turned to overland routes through Central Asia as a faster, more reliable alternative. The development of the China-Europe Railway Express, for instance, has significantly reduced the time for goods transiting between China and Europe, offering a more efficient option than sea transport. However, the ongoing war in Ukraine has adversely impacted the prospects of the China-Europe Railway Express, as its main corridors traverse Russia. The conflict has raised concerns among traders about the viability and safety of using these routes. This uncertainty has made routes through Central Asia attractive and vital for China’s continued trade with Europe.
For the West, too, Central Asia offers an important alternative route for trade with Asia, especially in the wake of the Western rupture with Russia over Ukraine. Central Asian countries, while maintaining a neutral stance in the Ukrainian conflict, are acutely aware of the benefits of diversifying away from the Russian-dominated Northern Corridor. As a result, they have embraced the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR), frequently labeled the “Middle Corridor,” seeing it as a way to improve infrastructure and boost regional trade. In the first nine months of 2023, the volume of cargo transportation along the TITR surged by 88 percent, reaching 2 million tons. Kazakhstan, a key player in the Middle Corridor, experienced a significant increase in cargo volumes, more than doubling to 1.5 million tons, in contrast to the Northern Route’s 34 percent decline, affected by the geopolitical instability around Russia. Kazakhstan’s goal is to increase the capacity of TITR up to 10 million tons by 2030.
This growing interest in the Middle Corridor from powers like the United States, the European Union, and China is not incidental; it’s deeply rooted in their long-term strategies. For Washington, supporting TITR counteracts Russia’s influence over Eurasian trade routes, a desirable geopolitical outcome post-Ukraine. It also opens up access to the emerging Central Asian markets, offering trade and investment opportunities beyond transportation. For the European Union, the Middle Corridor aligns with its strategy of engagement with resource-rich Central Asia, offering an alternative to Russian routes and enhancing energy security and supply chain diversification. Meanwhile, for China, the Middle Corridor offers a smoother commercial pathway to Europe.
Other major projects are also on the horizon. One of the key projects underway is the completion of the Second Track of the Dostyk-Moiynty Railway in Kazakhstan. Scheduled for completion in late 2025, it aims to boost the transit traffic between China and Europe, with an estimated economic effect of $8.8 billion over twenty years, according to Kazakhstan’s Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov. Another notable project is the construction of the Bakhty-Ayagoz Railway Line, which commenced in December 2023. This new 272-kilometer-long railway line, scheduled for completion in 2027, aims to increase the throughput capacity of Kazakhstan’s border crossing points with China from 28 tons to approximately 48 million tons.
Furthermore, the Darbaza-Maktaaral Railway Line, a new 152-km line connecting Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, commenced in November 2023 and is set to be completed by 2025. This line aims to increase corridor capacity, reduce transit times, and integrate regional trade routes. Lastly, the Aktau Port Container Hub project, planned for completion by 2025, is expected to increase the port’s container handling capacity from 70,000 twenty-foot equivalent units to over 300,000, significantly enhancing the efficiency of cargo transportation.
Investment in Central Asia’s infrastructure is crucial to unlocking its transit potential. This includes the development of railways, highways, and logistics hubs. Western technology and expertise can play a significant role in this development, creating a symbiotic relationship where Western businesses gain new opportunities and the region benefits from economic growth.
This investment also aligns with environmental objectives. Land-based transit like rail is more carbon-efficient than air or maritime freight. Consequently, investing in these transit routes through Kazakhstan reduces the carbon footprint of international trade.
Moreover, enhancing Central Asia’s transit capacity is a diplomatic endeavor. It offers the West a platform to strengthen ties with the region, fostering balanced regional development and stability and serving the long-term interests of both parties.
Ultimately, Kazakhstan’s transit potential is a geopolitical asset for both the East and the West. By supporting its development, China and Western countries can secure a strategic trade corridor that enhances their economic interests and diversifies international trade routes. It is also an investment in a more interconnected and resilient global economy. Recognizing and capitalizing on Kazakhstan’s strategic position is crucial for nearly all of the world’s major powers in this era of global economic realignment.
Stefan Antić is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development in Belgrade, Serbia, and Managing Editor of Horizons, a quarterly English-language magazine.