The Fate of China’s Rail Line to Uzbekistan Likely to Be Decided in Kyrgyzstan

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 172

A 1,520 mm Russian gauge train track running alongside the narrower 1,435 mm international standard track (Source: International Railway Journal)

As a part of its Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese plans to construct a railway from Xinjiang through Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan and onward to Turkmenistan has been under discussion for two decades. If realized, the railway would transform the geopolitical situation in the region. This rail corridor would open new possibilities for China and the countries of the region to bypass Russia in pursuit of foreign markets. Moreover, this railway would 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 (see EDM, March 21, 2019 and April 23, 2020).

For these reasons, Beijing and Tashkent are enthusiastic about the plan, but Moscow is opposed and has been exploiting fears in Bishkek that the proposed route would pass through the southern part of Kyrgyzstan rather than through the capital, in the north. The government of the Kyrgyz Republic worries that such an outcome could not only intensify secessionist attitudes in the long-restive south but also undermine chances for laying down a north-south rail route, which Bishkek sees as essential to its control of the country as a whole. As a result of Russian persuasion, Kyrgyzstan in the past has been less willing to support the idea of a China–Uzbekistan railroad across its territory. But in recent days, leaders in Bishkek announced they favor going ahead after all, raising the possibility that the construction of said rail line could soon begin. If so, the prospect of tensions between Moscow and Beijing as well as between Moscow and Bishkek will likely grow (see EDM, May 24, 2017 and July 6, 2020; Stan Radar, November 8, 2021).

Looming behind these problems is an even bigger predicament, as far as Moscow is concerned: Beijing has long insisted that the new line through Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have tracks the width of the international standard (1,435 millimeters) which China and most of the world use. This would be incompatible with the Russian gauge of 1,520 millimeters, which Moscow imposed throughout what was the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. China wants the new route to either be the international standard width or double-tracked with the narrower international gauge run inside the larger Russian one to reduce costs by eliminating the need to make transitions at the Chinese-Kyrgyzstani and Turkmenistani-Iranian borders. Not surprisingly, Moscow views this as a direct attack on its dominance of Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia more generally (Rhythm Eurasia, March 8, 2019).

On November 8, Kyrgyzstan’s Prime Minister Akylbek Zhaparov said that Bishkek is ready to proceed with the Chinese-Uzbekistani project. He said his government has reached an agreement with Tashkent on all outstanding issues, and it expects to do the same with Beijing in the near term, possibly during a pandemic-delayed visit by Kyrgyzstani leaders to the Chinese capital sometime in the next few months (Arassa Nusga, November 8; Darakchi, November 6). If Bishkek supports the project, it will mean that the government is willing to risk the wrath of both Moscow and its own people, many of whom are opposed to Chinese involvement in their country (, November 11, 2020; EDM, March 30).

The Stan Radar portal reports, however, that the political class in Kyrgyzstan remains divided about the project. Many feel that regardless of what Bishkek is saying publicly, it lacks the will and resources to proceed in opposition to Russia. Furthermore, Moscow can be counted on to provoke protests and general unrest to block the construction of a Chinese railway into the heart of Central Asia (Stan Radar, November 8). Some argue that the project can only go forward if Bishkek finds some way to appease Moscow—a possibility they suggest will be open if and only if China and the Russian Federation reach an agreement first. If that happens, then the Chinese project will be completed quickly and easily. But if Bishkek and Moscow remain at loggerheads, then the project will likely remain on hold, however much Beijing and the current Kyrgyzstani government would like to go ahead.

Nonetheless, the announcement that Bishkek and Tashkent have reached an agreement is significant. It suggests that the era of good feeling between the two neighbors, which arose from progress on border delimitation, is extending into other areas of cooperation. More significantly, it suggests that Chinese influence in both Central Asian countries is growing while that of Russia is declining. This is true especially given that, until now, no official from the Kyrgyz Republic would have risked making any statements of the kind Prime Minister Zhaparov has.

Moscow will certainly respond, but its options are less promising than they were. The Russian authorities could provoke new protests in Kyrgyzstan; but in the wake of the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, Moscow is unlikely to want to risk spreading instability in the region. As a result, Beijing, Tashkent and Bishkek seem set to pursue a course more independent of Moscow than at any time in their recent histories—a course that flies in the face of Vladimir Putin’s continuing insistence on a Russian droit de regard across the post-Soviet space.