China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Railway Project: Current Developments, Prospects, and Challenges
Construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway will alter the economic and geopolitical landscape of Central Asia by allowing China to cement its position in the region. Trade networks in Kyrgyzstan are divided into two sections that require transit through neighboring countries to access. However, Chinese investment could boost rail transport in Kyrgyzstan by up to 30 percent. The China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway will not only shorten the time required to transport goods between the three countries, but it will also provide an alternative route for Kyrgyz goods to reach European markets without having to cross through Russia. However, disagreements about the funding options and public discontent over increasing Chinese presence in Kyrgyzstan prevent the project from moving forward.
Proposed in the mid-1990s, plans to construct the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway reflect China’s longstanding objectives of ensuring a high degree of connectivity with the Central Asian region. These ideas have again been in vogue as a result of China’s articulation of the Belt and Road Initiative. Although attractive in theory, the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway project has stumbled upon a variety of obstacles. A major challenge lies in the construction of the railway across mountainous Kyrgyzstan. Both the Chinese and Kyrgyz parties disagree over the route and funding options. Kyrgyzstan is requesting that the railway be shifted north to service two remote Kyrgyz towns but does not possess the $1.5 billion in additional funds needed to enact this change. This lack of funding raises concerns for Kyrgyzstan that accepting financial assistance from China will place it into a “debt trap.” Kyrgyzstan has already encountered issues with debt repayments to China. In April 2020, Kyrgyzstan initiated talks with the Export-Import Bank of China to restructure $1.8 billion of debt. In addition, increased Chinese presence in the country is often met with contempt. In February 2020, Kyrgyz authorities canceled construction on a $275 million Chinese logistics center after protests erupted. Some protesters held large banners that read, “No Kyrgyz Land to China,” displaying heavy pushback due to the Kyrgyz government’s attempts to accept Chinese investment projects. Moreover, the railway would run through the turbulent Ferghana Valley, a region already home to recurring clashes between the area’s ethnic groups. As a result of these factors, the prospect that this railway will ever become a reality remains grim.
However, according to a Kyrgyz Ministry of Transport report, “this project is strategically important for the economy of the country, and its prompt implementation is among the top priorities of the Kyrgyz railway.” In addition, Kyrgyz Temir Zholy, the country’s national rail company, is going to undertake the implementation of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway initiative, as noted by the Director General of the enterprise Vasily Dashkov. He also emphasized that both Russia and Uzbekistan would help fund the project, which is estimated to cost about $4.5 billion. Although these statements foreshadow possible movement toward the line’s completion, it is still unclear how the situation will unfold. Notably, it is unlikely that Russia will provide assistance for the construction of the railway since it would significantly undermine its position in the region and pave the way for China to increase its power within Russia’s hold on Central Asia.
One of the recent developments in the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan route has been the opening of the new multimodal service that combines rail and truck transport methods. This service debuted on June 5 when a container train left Lanzhou, China en route to Tashkent, and traveled through Kashgar, Erkeshtam, and Osh before reaching the Uzbek border. While goods were transported via train from Lanzhou to Kashgar, the goods were transferred to trucks at the Chinese-Kyrgyz border and transferred back onto trains at the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. The trip took about 7-10 days, almost five days fewer than previous transportation routes. This transport corridor is the first part of the international corridor going from China to Europe without transits through Russia and Kazakhstan. The second part – through Turkmenistan and the Caspian Sea to Turkey and Europe – is yet to be realized. The successful launch of the new corridor can be hailed as a new milestone for China’s attempt to ensure increased connectivity with Central Asia and Europe. However, Kyrgyz concerns about the route agreed upon, financing options, and public opinion continue to be significant barriers to the railway’s completion.