KHORGOS, Kazakhstan — China’s largest shipping company has poured billions of dollars into buying seaports in Greece and other maritime nations around the world. But the location of its latest big foreign investment has given a curious twist to the expanding ambitions of the China Ocean Shipping Company: The nearest ocean is more than 1,600 miles away.
The state-owned Chinese shipping giant, known as COSCO, became the 49 percent owner this past summer of a patch of frost-covered asphalt bisected by railway tracks and lined with warehouses in landlocked Kazakhstan. The barren wilderness close to the border with China stands near the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility, meaning that nowhere on the landmass of Europe and Asia is more distant from the sea.
But it is here, where huge, Chinese-made cranes load containers onto trains instead of ships, that China and Kazakhstan are embracing what they see as the new frontier of global commerce.
Forbidding as it is, the place is a central link in what President Xi Jinping of China trumpets as the “project of the century” — a $1 trillion infrastructure program known as “One Belt, One Road,” which aims to revive the ancient Silk Road and build up other trading routes between Asia and Europe to pump Chinese products to foreign markets.
The gamble is not only reshuffling global transport routes, but also shaking up Kazakh and global politics as China inserts itself deeper into a region that Russia considers squarely within its area of influence. Not least, it is testing the economic logic of China’s ability to carry out its grandest of ambitions.
Creating a transport hub — the Khorgos Gateway, a “dry port,” or terminal without water for handling cargo for trains rather than ships — in one of the world’s most remote places has involved an expensive exercise in social engineering.