Chinese plans to construct a railway from Xinjiang through Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan and onward to Turkmenistan will, if realized, transform the geopolitical situation in the region. This rail corridor promises to open up new possibilities for regional countries to bypass Russia in pursuit of foreign markets. And if completed, this railway will accelerate China’s gradual displacement of Russia as the dominant power in post-Soviet Central Asia, particularly given that Beijing has already demonstrated its willingness to use its economic might to extract political concessions from governments there. Finally, this railway will reduce Chinese dependence on routes passing through Russia, thus increasing Beijing’s freedom of action.
At the same time, however, Beijing’s plans have the potential to promote instability in Kyrgyzstan, where the proposed route will pass through the predominantly ethnic-Uzbek south of the country. Southern Kyrgyzstan still does not have any rail links with the north or the capital, Bishkek. Consequently, some Kyrgyzstanis worry that the planned Chinese project could eventually threaten the territorial integrity of their country. To that end, Bishkek is seeking to invite Russian involvement into the project.
But Moscow is reluctant to do so both because of the project’s enormous direct costs and because such a Chinese line would significantly reduce Russian influence in the countries along its route, effectively ending Russia’s ability to dominate the region. At present, most existing transit corridors to and from Central Asia must pass through Russia given that other routes, through unstable Afghanistan or politically isolated Iran, are anything but attractive.
Consequently, Moscow is seeking to block or at least slow the Chinese project by playing up the fears in Kyrgyzstan and promoting the development of a north-south route that would keep the Kyrgyz Republic firmly rooted in the Russian camp. Yet, at present, Moscow lacks the funds required to build it—in striking contrast to Beijing, which is reportedly prepared to spend $1 trillion on transport corridors like this new east-west railway, as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (Poistine.org, Accessed: March 20.
Ongoing discussions of the possibility that China might build a rail line connecting it with Uzbekistan and the West date back to the 1990s; and in 2006, expert commissions in Beijing and Bishkek even agreed on a specific route. But beyond talk, there has been little movement until now. At the beginning of March, TASS reported that Kyrgyzstan was encouraging Russia to become involved lest the project result in growing Chinese dominance (TASS, March 1). Kyrgyzstani, but not Russian, news outlets have been reporting that Moscow is interested (Ehokg.org, March 1).
That Russia has still not officially confirmed its willingness to take part in this effort reflects both the enormous cost of the proposed rail line—now estimated at $7 billion—as well as Russian convictions that the route, as envisaged, threatens “the national interests of Kyrgyzstan” in three ways, Moscow commentator Aleksandr Shustov writes (Ritmeurasia.org, March 8).
First, the construction of such a line, even if China were to bear the overwhelming costs, would put Kyrgyzstan in debt to China and result in an influx of more ethnic Chinese, something many Kyrgyz do not want (Ritmeurasia.org, November 14, 2018). Second, by linking the southern portion of the country to China and Uzbekistan rather than to Bishkek, the Chinese plan could spark new ethnic-Uzbek protests in the south and threaten the central government’s control. And third, it would reduce Kyrgyzstan’s ties with Russia, links the Kyrgyz Republic needs to maintain its existence as a landlocked state. Many Kyrgyzstanis are worried about the same thing, Shustov says, citing the words of several indigenous experts on this point (Vb.kg, February 4, 2013).
However, lurking behind even these concerns in Moscow and, to a lesser extent, in Bishkek is something else that could transform more than just Central Asia, the Moscow commentator suggests. Beijing insists that the new line have tracks the width of the international standard (1,435 millimeters), which China and most of the world uses, rather than the Russian gauge (1,520 millimeters), found throughout Central Asia and the rest of the post-Soviet space. China wants the change to make the route more profitable by eliminating the need for transitions at the Chinese-Kyrgyzstani border and then again at the Turkmenistani-Iranian one.
If China succeeds, there will be even more pressure on these countries to shift away from the Russian standard track width, thus driving them further away from Russia unless it too decides in the future to make such a shift—a highly unlikely prospect.
These problems are certainly helping to slow down any movement on this project, but Beijing seems committed, setting the stage for more actions by Moscow, including potentially stirring up trouble in Bishkek or in Kyrgyzstan’s south as it works to delay or even block the Chinese plan (Rossyiskaya Gazeta, May 16, 2015). That said, China has the money and the political will to continue to push for what would be not only an economic advance but a geopolitical triumph. And Moscow, as worried as it is by both, may find itself on the losing side.