China Seeks to Link Central Asia by Railroad

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 30

In the late 1990’s, the Chinese government opened official talks with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan on the construction of a railroad that would connect all three countries. The idea was born almost simultaneously when the Shanghai Five –the forerunner of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – was formed in 1996. Since then, economic cooperation between China and the five Central Asian states has expanded rapidly. Although it remains unclear when the railroad will be constructed, the project is likely to succeed in the foreseeable future.

The railroad project has been repeatedly discussed at SCO meetings. Initially, two main options (southern and northern) were considered. The first option would link China and Uzbekistan through southern parts of Kyrgyzstan, while the northern option entails crossing Kyrgyzstan’s heartland. Tashkent lobbied for the northern route, but Bishkek regarded the southern route as more attractive since it might provide much needed over-land infrastructure within the country (www.tazar.kg, August 27, 2007). After continuous negotiations, all parties agreed to build the southern route.

In 2009, it was agreed that China’s National Machinery Import & Export Corporation will be responsible for constructing the railroad, with the Chinese side providing equipment and the work force (www.geo.gov.kg, September 22, 2009). The estimated construction cost is over $2 billion and will take roughly 12 years to become profitable (www.for.kg, May 31, 2009).

If constructed, the 268 kilometer (km) railroad would considerably shorten the 900 km connection between China and the rest of Central Asia and provide better access to the sea for the landlocked Central Asian countries. Potentially, Iran and Turkey might also join the railroad. According to the Chinese and Kyrgyz governments, the railroad will help connect the region to Europe. Overall, it would take about one week to transport cargo from the Chinese Pacific coast to the European market.

Lacking its own efficient railroad system, Kyrgyzstan will greatly benefit from the project. The railroad would connect Naryn oblast with Osh oblast, potentially also linking Issyk-Kul (www.tazar.kg, August 27, 2007). In addition, Kyrgyzstan will profit from cargo transit levies.

Two years ago Beijing planned to complete the construction of the railroad by the end of 2010 (Tsinghua Shibao, November 20, 2008). Yet, several unresolved issues stood in the way of successfully implementing the project. First, the terms of the contract between China and the Central Asian countries remained ambiguous. Beijing is clearly interested in receiving access to Kyrgyzstan’s minerals in exchange for railroad construction. Since both the Chinese and Kyrgyz governments lack transparency, details of this railroad-to-minerals agreement are hidden from the public.

Moreover, several former Kyrgyz government officials told Jamestown that Moscow has opposed the railroad’s construction. Although the Russian government has not voiced any direct criticism of the railroad, Moscow has repeatedly said that the China-Central Asia railroad is unlikely to become a serious competitor to the Trans-Siberian railroad (www.24.kg, January 27). Meanwhile, railroad links have been expanding between Central Asian countries and Russian cities.

Finally, all three countries must agree on the track width. The Chinese insist on building a narrow track to meet European standards. Uzbekistan has already been adapting its rails to meet international standards and it is now up to Kyrgyzstan to comply with Beijing’s request. Unlike Bishkek, which fully relies on Chinese investment, Tashkent will pay for its own segment of the railroad.

Despite these difficulties, negotiations between China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan are ongoing. During his visit to Beijing last month, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s son Maksim, discussed the railroad project with the Chinese government. Once all the details are settled between the three governments, the railroad is likely to be completed within a short period of time. As the railroad’s prospects became clearer two years ago, Chinese investors’ activity in cities that will be linked by the railroad has noticeably increased –new hotels and shops are being built (www.ca-oasis.info, April 2008).

To date, Beijing has demonstrated its capacity to enter into joint projects with the Central Asian states. Most recent examples include building roads between China, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as gas pipelines with Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Chinese companies are also involved in the construction of hydropower plants in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The speed with which China-Central Asia trade relations have been growing in the past decade seems to considerably surpass those of Russia, Europe, and the United States.<iframe src=’http://www.jamestown.org/jamestown.org/inner_menu.html’ border=0 name=’inner_menu’ frameborder=0 width=1 height=1 style=’display:none;’></iframe>