Will China’s rail link between Xinjiang, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan change the great power rivalry in Central Asia?

·8-min read

Lying in China’s far west, between one of the world’s highest mountain ranges and largest deserts, the city of Kashgar has long been touted as the “Shenzhen of the West” – referring to the country’s most famous boom town, on the border of Hong Kong.

Bordered by Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, the city was once an important trading hub on the Silk Road. But recent attempts to revive its fortunes, including by designating it a “special economic zone” 12 years ago, have come to little.

Instead, the prefecture, which has a predominantly Uygur Muslim population, is one of the poorest in Xinjiang – itself one of the most impoverished regions of China. Last year, per capita gross domestic product (GDP) in Kashgar was 27,266 yuan (US$4,085), which was around 40 per cent of Xinjiang’s and 30 per cent of the national level.

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But after years out of the limelight, discussion about its development has reappeared on the Chinese internet over the past week, following an announcement about the imminent launch of China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) railway – a 523km (325-mile) route connecting the three countries that starts from Kashgar.

Once built, the railway will bring enormous economic opportunities to the region, linking Europe, the Middle East and eastern China, authorities say.

But its slow road to development reflects a number of challenges, including Russian opposition to China’s expanding influence in Central Asia and messy internal politics in Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov said on May 30 that construction will start in 2023, as soon as a feasibility study is completed, according to Kyrgyz media 24.kg news agency. Ten days earlier, the country’s prime minister, Akylbek Japarov, had said building will begin this autumn.

Shavkat Mirziyoyev, president of Uzbekistan, also confirmed last month construction will begin soon.

China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan signed a memorandum of understanding on the railway in 1997.

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After years of wrangling, the recent breakthrough points to the critical influence Russia has had on the project, despite not being directly involved.

“Indeed, we have been trying to build this for 20 years,” Japarov said last month. “But its construction has never started. Before that, no one could explain to Russia that we need this railway like we need water.

“Recently, at the Collective Security Treaty Organisation summit, I spoke for half an hour on this topic with Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin]. In the end, he realised the railway was very necessary and said he did not mind.

“He said, ‘If you need it, then build it.’”

Russian opposition to the railroad is understandable as the country hopes to maintain its political and economic influence over Central Asia – its geopolitical backyard, experts said.

Russia always sees the former Soviet Union states as its sphere of influence

Pan Guang

The new rail line will provide a much faster and cheaper alternative to current routes on the China-Europe Railway Express, most of which travel through Russia.

It is estimated the rail line will reduce the freight journey between China and Europe by 900km (559 miles), equivalent to eight days of shipping time.

“Economically, the CKU railway is likely to significantly reduce the transit income of Russia,” said Pan Guang, the director of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Studies Centre at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

“From a political perspective, Russia always sees the former Soviet Union states as its sphere of influence … Therefore, Russia has always said to China that it hopes China will not replace its role in Central Asia, and China has been acting very prudently.”

But increasingly isolated following its invasion of neighbouring Ukraine, Russia may have to take a softer stance on the issue, experts said.

“Russia has fewer choices than before. They may be increasingly reliant on China. They have to do this, because the cards they hold are fewer,” said Jon Yuan Jiang, an independent international affairs analyst.

While Russia’s interests have influenced the project, they should not be exaggerated as the only reason for the 25-year delay, said Zhu Yongbiao, a professor of international relations at Lanzhou University.

One of the main obstacles has been Kyrgyzstan, which will accommodate 260km (162 miles) – or roughly half – of the new route and has long been politically reliant on Russia, Zhu said.

“For example, Kyrgyzstan’s own plan for the country’s development is north-south, while the CKU rail is east-west, so it didn’t really approve of the idea,” he said.

“Meanwhile, the country has a historical dispute with Uzbekistan. It also has disputes on funding and which track gauge to use with China.”

China wants to use the international standard gauge, which is 1,435mm (56 inches), so the rail line can be directly incorporated into the domestic railway network. Kyrgyzstan, under the influence of Russia, wants to use a wider track favoured in many former Soviet countries, citing security reasons.

At the railway’s western reaches, however, there have been few problems.

For Uzbekistan, the benefits outweigh the costs, said Yang Jin, an associate research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). Uzbek exporters will be able to reach more of China and access its east coast by building a 50km (31-mile) railway as part of the CKU.

Since China launched the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, Xinjiang and Central Asia have been hopeful their economies will take-off given their central location on the New Silk Road.

But the belt and road plan has failed to live up to its potential in the region, experts said. Instead of becoming a trading and manufacturing hub, linked by a network of roads and railways, southern Xinjiang is still an agrarian economy.

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Its potential has been limited further due to an international outcry about alleged human rights abuses against the area’s Uygur population.

Western countries, as well as United Nations’ human rights experts, have voiced alarm about China’s detention of Uygurs and other ethnic minorities in so-called re-education camps, where they have been allegedly subjected to forced labour and abuse.

China has vehemently denied the allegations, which have been the basis of a law passed by US Congress that effectively bans all imports from Xinjiang. The law will go into effect later this month.

Another pillar of the regional economy, tourism, has been hammered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

A freight train on the China-Europe Railway Express leaves Xiamen for Budapest, the capital of Hungary. Photo: Xinhua
A freight train on the China-Europe Railway Express leaves Xiamen for Budapest, the capital of Hungary. Photo: Xinhua

The current economic structure and prospects for southern Xinjiang will not change in the short term without the CKU railway, said Zhu.

“The international trade flow brought by the rail can help develop the manufacturing industry and upgrade its economic structure, bring more employment and increase the local incomes,” the professor said.

President Japarov has said once the rail line is built, Kyrgyzstan will become a transit country, jobs will appear and the economy will get a boost.

Uzbekistan, which is more economically liberal and wealthy, has developed quickly since opening up in 2016, and the new railway will help it further, according to analysts.

Chris Devonshire Ellis, founder of consulting firm Dezan Shira & Associates, said Uzbekistan was an “economic role model” for the rest of Central Asia.

“Better connectivity will enhance this,” he said.

Increased connectivity will also enhance China’s influence in the region, experts said, and its geopolitical value is likely to soar.

With greater links to Uzbekistan, which borders Turkmenistan and the Caspian Sea, the railway could give China direct rail freight access to the Middle East via the International North–South Transport Corridor, Ellis said.

The multi-modal transport corridor stretches from India to Russia and connects the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea.

“In this case, it is possible that in the near future, competition of major powers in Central Asia and surrounding areas may be further intensified, including Russia, China and the United States,” said Yang from CASS.

While momentum behind the project seems to be building, Kyrgyz politics have gotten in the way of progress in the past.

In August 2019, the Belt and Road Portal, an official Chinese website about the globe-spanning infrastructure project, published an article saying a lack of political consensus in Kyrgyzstan was a key obstacle for the railway.

“Such risks still exist,” said Zhu, from Lanzhou University.

Although technical aspects of the railway’s construction, such as topographical surveys, have been solved, funding issues persist.

China and Kyrgyzstan had originally discussed using “resource-backed loans” to fund the project, whereby repayment can be made in natural resources, such as copper and gold minerals. But the proposal has faced opposition in Kyrgyzstan.

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“Before the construction officially starts, the three countries are likely to continue passing the buck on the funding issue,” Zhu said.

Last Thursday, the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s top economic planning agency, held a video conference with transport officials from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan on the CKU railway project.

Yang from the CASS said while Russia is still distracted by the Ukraine war, now would be a great opportunity for China to do something in Central Asia it could not do previously.

“Once the construction of the railway starts, there is no turnaround,” Yang said.

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