Rail link with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan key to China raising Central Asia influence and skirting Russia sanctions
By Genevieve Donnellon-May and Zhang Hongzhou
- Rail link with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan key to China raising Central Asia influence and skirting Russia sanctions
- After decades of delays over logistical and geopolitical disagreements, a rail link between China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan is set to begin construction
- With Russia no longer objecting to it, the way is clear for a project that will boost Beijing’s economic ties and diplomatic influence within Central Asia
Premier Li Qiang is expected to undertake an official visit to Kyrgyzstan in October. During the trip, he is expected to discuss the construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway project.
After decades of delay and amid concerns the railway might never be built because of conflicting interests, the three governments signed an agreement on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit last September. With significant progress achieved since then, construction of the project is expected to start within this year, not only reshaping Eurasian trade but also creating major regional economic and geopolitical impacts.
First proposed in the 1990s, various technical, political and geopolitical considerations, such as financing and an inability to agree on the track gauge and route, have held back the railway’s construction, partly because of Moscow’s geopolitical and economic concerns.
Geopolitically, Moscow had long worried that the project could upset the current balance of power in Central Asia, where growing Chinese investment is likely to leave the region more dependent on China. Economically, Russia’s regional Trans-Siberian Railway considered the proposed railway as direct competition. Russia also reaps economic benefits from the China-Europe Railway Express, which passes through Russia en route to Europe.
In recent years, apart from China’s repeated attempts to review the project, Kyrgyzstan has also shown great interest in reviving the project. In 2020, then Kyrgyz president Sooronbay Jeenbekov stressed the importance of railways for the country, with the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway the most strategically important.
Additionally, Kyrgyzstan sought to promote Russia as a partner for the track through a 3+1 format. Even so, little progress has been achieved since then.
Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Russian roads and railways served as major arteries for trade between China, Central Asian countries and the European Union. Following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, the landlocked Central Asian countries inherited a railway network gravitating towards Moscow and, from there, to the rest of world.
However, the Russian invasion and subsequent sanctions have upended Eurasian connectivity, with transporting goods across Russia no longer a viable option. In response, the affected parties have been searching for alternative routes, one of which is the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway. As Kyrgyzstan President Sadyr Japarov said in 2022, Kyrgyzstan needs “this railway like water”.
With Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China showing more interest in the project as an alternative route, Russia has changed its long-held stance and no longer opposes it. Japarov reportedly brought up the project directly in talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Collective Security Treaty Organization summit in 2022, with Putin giving his approval.
Following reports that Moscow no longer opposed the project, China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan signed an agreement to reaffirm their commitment to build the railway and begin the feasibility study. The study was completed in time for the China-Central Asia summit in May this year.
It appears the three countries have resolved various differences regarding railway routes, financing and gauges. While Kyrgyzstan had pushed for a route that would serve more populated areas further north, it has settled on a southern route instead. Although the official route has not been disclosed, a Kyrgyz National Railway proposal suggests the railway in Kyrgyzstan will connect to China’s Kashgar Rail Terminus in Xinjiang and Uzbekistan’s rail network in Andijan via the Torugart-Arpa-Makmal-Jalal-Abad corridor.
Also, a decision was made on the width of the railway track. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, like most post-Soviet republics, have a wide railway track of 1.52 metres, while China uses a narrow railway track of 1.435 metres. To address this issue, trains will change wheels at an unloading station by the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border.
Finally, the estimated US$6 billion cost of the project will reportedly be shared equally between the three countries. When the 523km railway route is completed, it is expected to become part of the southern route for freight rail between China and Europe, with trains making the trip via Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkey.
Doing so would significantly reduce travel time, providing an alternative to the current Kazakhstan-Russia route. From Uzbekistan, the railway can connect with Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan rail to the Turkmenbashi port on the Caspian Sea or to the port in Baku, Azerbaijan, and onto markets in Georgia, Turkey and even Black Sea nations such as Bulgaria.
The railway holds significant potential for both landlocked Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and creating a new strategic Eurasian logistics network along the Belt and Road Initiative’s route while simultaneously contributing to trade with other Central Asian countries. It could become part of a central corridor connecting China to Iran, Turkey and Europe while also steering clear of sanctions against Russia.
Likewise, the railway offers Beijing multiple advantages. Aside from giving China an alternative route into Central Asia, it reduces China’s dependence on transiting via Russia and is also an important conduit for China’s New Eurasian Land Bridge. From a geopolitical perspective, the railway aligns with China’s broader foreign policy objectives which seek to strengthen connectivity and economic cooperation across Eurasia.
Amid an increasingly fractured and complex geopolitical environment, Beijing is continuing to diversify its supply routes and trade partners. To this end, the railway project is another step in stronger cooperation with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan while also expanding its influence in Central Asia.
This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post.