Shifting Geopolitics Threaten to Shelve China–Kyrgyzstan–Uzbekistan Railway Project

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 70

(Source: The Third Pole)

Executive Summary:

  • Beijing, Bishkek, and Tashkent have been discussing the construction of a joint railway project for almost 30 years, which runs the risk of completely unraveling due to geopolitical and alliance changes in Central Asia.
  • Moscow and Astana are happy with the project’s delays, as the railway could take away significant economic revenues for Kazakhstan and Russia.
  • Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan face financial restraints in funding the project, and China, which could unilaterally finance it, has lost interest and seemingly does not view the project as a priority.

On April 2, Erkin Tuniyaz, chairman of China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, arrived in Bishkek for an official two-day visit. Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov met with Tuniyaz and noted the successful progress in developing portions of the much-anticipated China–Kyrgyzstan–Uzbekistan (CKU) railway project (The Times of Central Asia, April 2). Yet, despite Kyrgyzstan’s government optimism, the CKU railway could now become a victim of changing geopolitics in Central Asia. The railway, a mega-project meant to connect the three countries and ease east-west transit, dates back to 1997, almost 16 years before Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The project had struggled to make much headway due to political instability in Kyrgyzstan until 2012, when then-Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev visited Beijing. The visit revitalized the project, and Uzbekistan began to show keen interest in implementing the project (Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, July 4, 2022). Now, although China could fund the project on its own, Beijing seems to have deprioritized the project, possibly to avoid disrupting Russia’s and Kazakhstan’s respective positions in regional transit.

The CKU railway was once considered a crucial component of China’s ambitious BRI. The 454-kilometer (282 miles) railway was planned to traverse western China and Kyrgyzstan and would involve the construction of at least 50 tunnels and 90 bridges through Kyrgyzstan’s highest mountain range (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, October 31, 2023). With an estimated cost of $4.5 billion, the CKU project was meant to connect the railway systems of China to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and ultimately to railway networks in Europe via Turkmenistan, Iran, and Türkiye (Caspian Policy Center, October 6, 2023).

In 2023, various media outlets reported that the CKU project had been postponed indefinitely due to ongoing disagreements among the three parties. Kyrgyzstan Railways, however, denied such reports and made it clear that negotiations on the project’s development were progressing nicely (Rail Freight, October 3, 2023). The CKU has been under discussion for more than 25 years, but construction has not started primarily due to the failure of the three countries to reach a consensus on the railway’s route. China and Uzbekistan favor the southern route, which would represent the shorter transit route to Europe and the Middle East. Bishkek, however, has insisted on the northern route—a longer passage that would connect Kyrgyzstan’s north and south and boost its economy. Uzbek experts have criticized Kyrgyzstan for proposing a less-efficient route to serve its own interests. Bakhtiyor Ergashev, director of a Tashkent-based think-tank, argued, “The option that [the Kyrgyz government] offers is simply longer and more expensive and does not work for the idea of ​​a fast and affordable railway(Third Pole, January 13, 2021). More recently, under pressure from China and Uzbekistan, Bishkek has demonstrated its potential willingness to settle on the less costly southern route (VOA News, April 11).

Additionally, the project continues to face severe funding hurdles. Beijing, Bishkek, and Tashkent have yet to agree on how financing should be broken down for the project. In October 2023, Gennady Bessonov, secretary-general of the International Coordinating Council for Trans-Eurasian Transport, pointed out, “Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan currently face financial constraints that hinder their ability to independently finance the project. Although China possesses the capability to undertake the construction unilaterally, the railway project does not currently occupy a position of top priority for them”(Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, October 31, 2023). Bessonov speculated that Beijing may be dragging its feet so as not to disrupt Russia Kazakhstan’s central role in regional transit.

Moscow’s war against Ukraine has caused pivotal upheavals for regional trade and transit. Western sanctions have compromised traditional Kremlin-dominated routes, causing Russia’s partners to become creative in circumventing restrictions. The shifting geopolitics in Central Asia may have contributed to China losing interest in the CKU project. If constructed, the railway could curtail the use of transit routes that pass through Russia and Kazakhstan, Beijing’s more influential partners in the region. China may be reluctant to affect its ties with Russia and Kazakhstan, as this development could compromise its access to European markets in the immediate term (Caspian Policy Center, October 6, 2023).

In November 2023, Japarov expressed disappointment that China was losing interest in the CKU project. At a meeting with Kyrgyz members of parliament, he lamented, “Geopolitics have changed, alliances have changed. All this is an obstacle to the progress of the project. … Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan need this road. And China, our friends, is dissuading us from the project.” Japarov also disclosed that Kyrgyzstan had earmarked $500 million from its own budget for the CKU railway. In April, a Bishkek-based expert concluded, “If the CKU is shelved, this will be a big public embarrassment to the Kyrgyz government”(VOA News, April 11).

Kazakhstan and Russia are pleased with the CKU’s delays, securing handsome economic revenues for the foreseeable future (Caspian Policy Center, October 6, 2023). Uzbekistan is already connected to Turkmenistan and Iran. Thus, the CKU railway has the potential to become the shortest route between China and Europe. If the project is ever completed, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, over Russia and Kazakhstan, could become central transit partners for Chinese exports (Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, July 4, 2022). Astana and Moscow hope to avoid this as such a development could cause significant economic losses for both (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, October 31, 2023).

Realization of the CKU railway project remains under thick geopolitical clouds that do not look to dissipate anytime soon. While some issues have been solved, Bishkek, Tashkent, and Beijing remain locked in disagreements over the project’s funding and the railway’s route. Much will depend on China’s actions in the near term, with Beijing seemingly keen on maintaining and potentially expanding trade and transit cooperation with Moscow and Astana.