The Kazakhstani delegation that visited Singapore on August 14-17 had investment and trade in mind. Apart from Minister of Foreign Affairs Mukhtar Tileuberdi, other participants included Kairat Kelimbetov, governor of the Astana International Financial Center (AIFC), and Minister of Industry and Infrastructure Kairbek Uskenbayev, among others. According to the Singaporean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, during a telephone conversation between Singapore’s President Halimah Yacob and Tileuberdi, the head of state “encouraged Kazakh companies to use Singapore as a hub to engage Southeast Asia.”
Additional meetings between the two governments included negotiations for the Services and Investment (S&I) Agreement, under the Eurasian Economic Union-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, to “boost economic links between Singapore and Kazakhstan.” Moreover, Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Tileuberdi discussed “ways to promote bilateral cooperation and explore opportunities in Southeast Asia and Central Asia, including in supply chain connectivity.”
Supply chain connectivity deserves greater analysis. The current global situation provides opportunities for new partnerships, particularly regarding trade and investment. Case in point, due to Europe’s appetite for energy from the Caucasus and Central Asia and the necessity to avoid Russian territory and reduce reliance on Russian energy, the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR) has become increasingly attractive. The Middle Corridor, as the TITR is more commonly known, is a joint venture that brings together Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey, so that East-West and West-East trade can occur between the Caucasus, Central Asia and Europe.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine commenced, governments and industries have been looking to expand the capabilities of the Middle Corridor. One example is Singapore.
In April, Kazakhstan’s Deputy Minister of Industry and Infrastructure Development Berik Kamaliev and Vice-President of Singapore’s PSA International company Lee Peng Gee agreed to “create a container hub in Aktau port.” This agreement would be very beneficial as Aktau Sea Commercial Port, Kazakhstan’s main port, transports goods across to the Baku International Sea Port in Azerbaijan. This link is arguably the cornerstone of the Middle Corridor.
Another recent transportation-related meeting occurred in August. During the aforementioned high-level trip, Kazakhstan’s national railway company Kazakhstan Temir Joly, signed a memorandum of cooperation with the Port of Singapore Authority, one of the flagship terminals of PSA International. The Singaporean company’s involvement in transport and logistics hubs in Kazakhstan will “promote access to a whole network of seaports on both sides of the continent, integration into the global transport and logistics chain, using multimodal transport,” said Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry.
Moreover, during the August visit, the two governments inaugurated the Kazakhstan-Singapore Business Council. How effective this Council will be at fomenting trade and investment remains to be seen.
Thus, what appears to be occurring is a rapprochement between Kazakhstan and Singapore based on investment opportunities in the trade and commerce sector, particularly related to transportation and the Middle Corridor.
More investment and commercial partnerships would bring Kazakhstan and Singapore closer, the two states are at present distant friends. For example, Kazakhstan has an embassy in Singapore, but Singapore only has a honorary consulate in Nur-Sultan. High-profile visits are rare. According to the Singaporean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the last senior visit to Central Asia was made by then-Senior Minister of State (Trade and Industry) Dr. Koh Poh Koon, who visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in 2020. (Poh Koon is now Senior Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment). To be fair, the COVID-19 pandemic likely prevented new visits throughout 2020 and 2021. In Singapore, Kazakhstani Ambassador Arken Arystanov, met on June 16 with Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli.
In 2021, bilateral trade reached $813 million ($773 million in exports from Kazakhstan and $40 million in imports). Meanwhile, Singaporean foreign direct investment reached $983.9 million last year, with 119 legal entities and other offices from Singapore registered in the Central Asian country. In other words, there is plenty of space for growth.
Closer Kazakhstan-Singapore relations will not dramatically alter regional geopolitics. The cornerstone of this potential rapprochement appears to be common investment interests relating to transportation, rather than defense issues. Still, much-needed investment from Singapore in Kazakhstan, particularly in transportation infrastructure like Aktau Port, would benefit Nur-Sultan and the Middle Corridor and could be very profitable for Singaporean companies.