Planned Rail Connection With China Will Elevate Kyrgyzstan’s Strategic Importance
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 45
For many years, the successive leaders of Kyrgyzstan could not capitalize on their country’s strategic location along the shortest route connecting China to Central Asia and further onward to the Middle East and Europe. Now, hopes are cautiously mounting that this might be changing. Current Kyrgyzstani President Sadyr Japarov is determined to redefine his country’s role in regional and wider international relations, as evidenced by his signing of agreements with the likes of Uzbekistan and China, among others, regarding improved cooperation on infrastructure and transit development (Akipress.com, February 7, 2022; Newscentralasia.net, January 28). This renewed optimism is based on the announced plans that, by the end of 2023, Kyrgyzstan will begin the construction of its part of the strategic China–Kyrgyzstan–Uzbekistan railway line (The Diplomat, September 26, 2022). Although the details of the funding mechanism for this project remain unclear, Kyrgyzstani officials are confident that all matters will be gradually resolved.
When Japarov was elected president of Kyrgyzstan in January 2022, he identified nationalizing the Kumtor mine, one of the largest gold mines in the world; settling border disputes with neighboring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan; and completing the China–Kyrgyzstan–Uzbekistan railway as his top foreign policy priorities. So far, his record has been rather impressive on these fronts. Last year, the Kyrgyzstani government reached a formal settlement with Canadian mining company Centerra over the nationalization of Kumtor, which had been bogged down in corruption and environmental disputes for more than two decades. Full control of the mine and its gold export revenues will significantly increase the country’s economic and financial independence (President.kg, April 4, 2022).
In late January 2023, during Uzbekistani President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s state visit to Bishkek, both leaders exchanged notifications on the completion of domestic procedures for the ratification of a historic border demarcation agreement between the two neighbors, whose relations have even grown to the level of comprehensive strategic partners since then. The Kyrgyzstani-Uzbekistani border deal could potentially give a strong push for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to reach a similar compromise on their border dispute, despite the fact that the two fought at least two short, but extremely violent border wars in the Ferghana Valley in April 2021 and again in September 2022. These clashes resulted in the combined deaths of over 150 people on both sides. The fertile lands of the Ferghana Valley are shared by Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and foreign experts have long regarded it as a potentially conflict-prone territory at the junction of these three states. Japarov has repeatedly stated that the treaty on the Kyrgyzstani-Uzbekistani border serves as an example for negotiating a similar agreement on the delimitation of Kyrgyzstan’s border with Tajikistan (Gazeta.uz, January 27).
It is believed that China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have settled all technical issues related to the construction of the railway line, including considerations on the railway’s route inside Kyrgyzstani territory and the size of the railway track gauge (Eurasianet, September 15, 2022). This leaves only the funding mechanism to still be negotiated after the feasibility study by China is completed this summer. The fact that Chinese engineers have set up offices in Bishkek and are active on the ground attests to the fact that, this time, all parties seem committed to seeing this project through. The final feasibility study by the Design and Survey Institute of the China Railway Group is expected to be complete by June 1 (24.kg, January 22).
Once the railway line is completed, it will not only bring hundreds of millions in transit revenue to Kyrgyzstan but will also turn the country from landlocked to land-linked, connecting the East with the West. This connection will also completely redefine Bishkek’s geopolitical position not only in Central Asia but also throughout wider Eurasia.
Due to these circumstances, Bishkek could be looking beyond Central Asia. In 2023, Japarov is expected to travel to Iran and Pakistan. Both are Shanghai Cooperation Organization members that have been attempting to woo the Central Asian countries due to the potential linkage of regional transit corridors to Iranian and Pakistani seaports for trade with the wider world. Notably, both Tehran and Islamabad are supplying various military equipment and arms, including drones, to Tajikistan, currently Kyrgyzstan’s regional rival (24.kg, February 2; Ru.irna.ir, February 5).
During meetings in September 2022 between Kyrgyzstani and Iranian officials to boost trade and transport links, as a goodwill gesture, the Iranian authorities allocated a plot of land at the Port of Bandar Abbas for Kyrgyzstan. Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi also pledged to share with Bishkek his country’s scientific and technological achievements and expertise, including in the military sphere (Ru.irna.ir, September 15, 2022). The fact that Iran stayed neutral during the Kyrgyzstani-Tajikistani border clashes and did not openly support Tajikistan, which is linguistically close to Tehran, was noticed by Bishkek, which accused its neighbor of initiating the fighting. Iranian military officials gave their assurances to the Kyrgyzstani government that they consistently reiterate to Dushanbe that the Iranian Ababil-2 drones being supplied to Tajikistan are not to be used against Kyrgyzstan. They also reassured Bishkek that these drones are only equipped to carry out reconnaissance functions (24.kg, November 10, 2022).
Linking up the railway networks of Central Asia with Iran’s and Pakistan’s seaports has been a long-standing strategic goal of the Central Asian countries (Nikkei, March 18, 2021; Eurasianet, May 4, 2021). Currently, railway lines from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are connected to the Iranian Port of Bandar Abbas through Turkmenistan. The importance of these linkages has increased as the northern routes passing through Russia have become untenable due to Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine. Possible railway connections to Pakistani ports through Afghanistan are still on the drawing board, with Uzbekistan doing most of the heavy lifting (The Diplomat, July 26, 2022).
Overall, if the political situation in Kyrgyzstan remains stable with Japarov at the helm, beginning construction on the China–Kyrgyzstan–Uzbekistan railway line will mark yet another key milestone for the country in achieving its delineated foreign policy goals.