When a new railway line through Kyrgyzstan last came up for serious discussion five years ago, the plan was an ambitious one. The idea was to connect Kashgar in China with Tashkent in Uzbekistan, traversing high altitudes via nearly 50 tunnels and more than 90 bridges.
But there was a major problem, complained Almazbek Atambayev, the Kyrgyz president at the time. Trains on the proposed line through Kyrgyzstan wouldn’t take a break until they had reached Jalal-Abad, a town on the western border with its larger neighbour Uzbekistan. “We don’t need a railroad that goes through the territory of Kyrgyzstan without making even one stop,” he fumed.
A railway like this looks like a classic fit with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has already delivered thousands of kilometres of new rail networks to China’s neighbours. In fact, the idea dates back to the mid-1990s, long before the BRI was launched as a foreign policy priority. For years there were disagreements between the three nations on the plan for a railway, leading to a stopgap solution in 2018, when a new link was launched between Kashgar and Tashkent but with the lengthy middle section through Kyrgyzstan relying entirely on road haulage.
But the Kyrgyz government has just announced that formal preparations are finally underway again for the railway, calling it “the largest project in Kyrgyzstan’s history”. Construction will begin next year, he promises.
The Uzbeks have championed the same project for years, seeing the chance to become a new transit point for onward travel into Iran (via Turkmenistan) and Turkey, with journeys that could extend all the way from China into the southeastern parts of Europe. A rail route like this will reduce travel distances by up to 900 kilometres and save up to eight days in journey time.
Of course, for Chinese companies the new line will offer easier access to the 34 million residents of Uzbekistan, the biggest market in Central Asia. It might also spur investment in the Uzbek oil fields, as well as some of the country’s other untapped mineral deposits.
Government officials in Kyrgyzstan have been talking about job creation and an investment boom as the railway is built. Once the railway is up-and-running there will be transit fees, too, although critics warn that it could struggle to win business from rival routes through Kazakhstan and (especially) Russia, which will have fewer borders to cross.
The planned railway raises other questions not dissimilar to concerns about the new line the Chinese have built through Laos, where there have been calls for more stations to pick up local goods (see WiC567).
The final routing is still to be confirmed but the likelihood is that the railway will still take the shortest route possible, rejecting Kyrgyzstan’s insistence on stops at a few of its larger towns. In the stripped-down version of the plan there may only be a single pause at Osh in the south of the country, before trains head directly for Uzbekistan.
There is also the challenging question of how the line is going to be financed. The Kyrgyz government spent years trying to get the Russians interested in funding an alternative project (or at least creating a little competition that might have value in negotiations with the Chinese). But Moscow offered nothing substantial.
Late last month Kyrgyzstan’s leader Sadyr Japarov says he discussed the planned Chinese railway with Vladimir Putin. He explained to the Russia president that Kyrgyzstan needs the railroad “like water” and Putin said that Russia had no objections to the project.
An offer of $6 billion in financing from Beijing was said to have been turned down by the Kyrgyz government in 2015. It now seems inevitable that the Chinese will fund the majority of the railway’s construction, with a smaller contribution from Uzbekistan. How Kyrgyzstan will meet its commitments in paying off its share of the line is unclear, however.
Meanwhile, China looks keen to bring in more BRI projects in the region, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi promising five Central Asian countries in the ‘C+C5’ meeting this week that the Chinese government will continue to support their economic development.
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