As negotiations drag on between Beijing and Bishkek over the technical and financial aspects of constructing the Kyrgyzstani part of the planned China–Kyrgyzstan–Uzbekistan railway, Uzbekistan, with Chinese monetary and technical assistance, is nearing the completion of its section of the railroad.
In early September 2015, the Uzbekistan Railways Co. announced that it finished the construction of 104 kilometers of the 129-kilometer-long Angren–Pap railway line, which is expected to be commissioned in the second half of 2016 (Uzdaily.com, September 8). The Angren–Pap railway will connect Uzbekistan’s eastern provinces bordering on Kyrgyzstan to the rest of the domestic rail network.
If realized, the China–Kyrgyzstan–Uzbekistan line is expected to become part of the shortest railway link connecting the modern “factory of the world” with the oil rich Middle East and the enormous European market via Central Asia. Notably, the Uzbekistan–Turkmenistan–Iran railway is already in place (see EDM, October 3, 2014).
Despite apparent benefits as a transit country, Kyrgyzstan’s government has been slow and indecisive in implementing its part of the China–Kyrgyzstan–Uzbekistan railroad, while the country’s president, Almazbek Atambaev, keeps changing his mind on the project. In 2012, Atambaev called this railroad “the single most important infrastructure project,” which he strongly desired “to see implemented” (Azattyk.org, May 24, 2012). However, by late 2013, he reversed his position and dismissed the project as being of “little use for Kyrgyzstan itself and [solely benefitting] neighboring countries” (Azattyk.org, December 19, 2013).
Even so, according to estimates by the Kyrgyz Republic, during its construction, the railway line will create 30,000 temporary jobs and, once completed, more than 3,000 permanent jobs domestically. In addition, annual transit revenues to Kyrgyzstan are estimated at around $200 million (Gezitter.org, May 22, 2013).
According to regional observers, this constant vacillating by Kyrgyzstan’s government is a negotiating strategy aimed at extracting as many concessions as possible from the Chinese side. However, continuous delay could cost Kyrgyzstan precious time and might undermine President Atambaev’s reputation as a reliable interlocutor (Atimes.com, May 17, 2012).
The future of this railway project began to appear more uncertain after Kyrgyzstan joined the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), in May 2015. Since Kyrgyzstan joined the EEU, its trade with China dropped 90 percent drop in re-export-related activity at Bishkek’s Dordoi market—a hub for the re-export of Chinese goods (EurasiaNet, June 16, 2014).
Activists of the Facebook community “Kyrgyzstan Against the Customs Union” fear that EEU membership may become a straightjacket for the Central Asian republic, forcing it to forego any opportunity perceived as harmful to Russia’s interests. The case in point is has been the curtailing of Kyrgyzstan’s re-export of Chinese goods—one of the main preconditions for joining the EEU (Vecherniy Bishkek, April 8, 2014). Similarly, Moscow might pressure Bishkek to drop the construction of the China–Kyrgyzstan–Uzbekistan railway, arguing that it contradicts Kyrgyzstan’s obligations toward the other EEU members.
To date, the Kremlin has seemed indifferent toward this particular railway project. Indeed, while in talks with Chinese leaders during a bilateral summit in Moscow on May 8, 2015, Russian officials assured their counterparts that the aims of the EEU and China’s Silk Road Economic Belt Initiative—of which the China–Kyrgyzstan–Uzbekistan railway line is an integral part—do not contradict each other. Russia has also stepped up efforts to promote itself as a bridge between China and Europe by agreeing to build a Moscow–Kazan–Beijing high-speed-train line in the future (Thebricspot.com, May 9).
Yet, despite Moscow’s apparent open attitude, some Russian analysts openly argue against the construction of the China–Kyrgyzstan–Uzbekistan railway line by claiming that it runs counter to Russia’s own efforts to position itself as the bridge between Asia and Europe. If realized, they claim, this railroad project will weaken Russia’s regional and perhaps global influence (Vestnik Kavkaza, September 29).
The commissioning of the Turkmenistan–Uzbekistan–Kazakhstan–China natural gas pipeline in 2009 is illustrative of such fears. It deprived Russia of its monopsony status in the Central Asian gas markets, forcing it to agree to a higher purchasing price. More importantly, access to Central Asian gas provided the Chinese government with additional leverage in its protracted negotiations over the purchase of Russian gas (The Diplomat, December 23, 2014).
The China–Kyrgyzstan–Uzbekistan railroad’s potential hurdles are not limited to Kyrgyzstan’s EEU membership, however. Bilateral disputes between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan related to border demarcation, trans-boundary river usage, gas supply disputes, or growing state-condoned discrimination against the ethnic-Uzbek minority in Kyrgyzstan, can also act as spoilers for this important railway project.
Tellingly, Kyrgyzstani officials recently unilaterally renamed the railway the “China–Kyrgyzstan line,” thus symbolically excluding Uzbekistan (Gezitter.org, March 3). Proposals also exist to opt for a China–Kyrgyzstan–Tajikistan–Afghanistan–Iran route (Gezitter.org, September 8), with the same goal of excluding Uzbekistan.
Kyrgyzstan’s internal north-south divide is another obstacle to quickly building the railway. First of all, authorities in Bishkek want the proposed railroad to connect the north and the south of the mountainous country, which will be much longer and more costly to build than the route currently proposed by the Chinese side that is to cross mainly through southern Kyrgyzstan in an east–west direction (Vechernyy Bishkek, February 6, 2013).
Behind the rhetoric of overcoming the geographical divide between northern and southern parts of the country, there lurks the fear that if the railway runs only through southern Kyrgyzstan, southern Kyrgyz elites will grow more economically powerful compared to northern political clans. The north-south rivalry remains a potential trigger for instability, especially after the bloody overthrow, in 2010, by northern political groups of former president Kurmnabek Bakiyev, whose power base was located in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Second, cash-strapped Kyrgyzstan expects Chinese companies to foot the bill and to be more lenient in setting the terms and conditions for the exploitation of the railway line. However, some observers caution that Kyrgyzstan’s government might be overplaying its hand with China (see EDM, February 13, 2014). In other words, Bishkek’s belief that Beijing will agree to all its demands because, as Kyrgyzstan’s authorities claim, “China needs Kyrgyzstan more than it needs China” is misguided. For China, commercial benefits not geopolitical calculations are at the center of its regional considerations.
At the same time, Kyrgyzstan’s authorities will need to acknowledge that without Uzbekistan’s participation, the proposed railway line loses its strategic importance. Indeed, all other alternative routes bypassing Uzbekistan are doomed to fail, not only due to the higher initial costs, but also because of security-related challenges in some transit countries of the region.