Central Asia’s Regional Caspian Sea & Trans-Afghan Ambitions
Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan hold trilateral Heads of State connectivity summit
Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, has been hosting the first Heads of State trilateral summit, including Turkmenistan President Serdar Berdimuhamedov, Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon, and Uzbekistan’s Shavkat Mirziyoyev to discuss mutual transport connectivity issues that impact upon each of them. These have included water and energy cooperation and the development of transport corridors.
Neither the Kazakhstan, or Kyrgyzstan Presidents were invited to the summit. This is due to two main reasons, one being that Astana is not interested in alternative corridors that do not pass through Kazakhstan, and is not ready to discuss issues of transit through Turkmenistan in East-West projects as these to some extent compete with Kazakhstan’s transport corridors. The second is that the Heads of State of all five countries are due to meet in person anyway at the upcoming Afghanistan consultations due to be held in Kazan next month.
Securing peace and trade with Afghanistan is a major concern for each of these countries. There has been some dissatisfaction with high Kazakh rail transportation costs of getting Kazakh grain through Uzbekistan and into Afghanistan, meaning alternative routes to support Afghanistan supplies have been discussed. This has resulted in an agreement reached at the summit whereby Turkmenistan has agreed to provide a 30% discount on rail transport costs to transport grain from Kazakhstan to Afghanistan via the Turkmenistan rail routes.
This also has implications for the growth potential for Afghan aid and trade routes from the West, including the EU, Turkiye and Azerbaijan, as well as the Middle East, as the Turkmenistan-Afghan route is the most direct. Spurred by Kazakh grain transit, the routes from Turkmenbashi Port on the Caspian overland by rail to the Afghan border may well become the preferred access route.
The Southern Transport Corridor: Turkmenistan to China
The Southern Transport Corridor is the eastbound section of the INSTC which extends from Turkmenistan into Uzbekistan, transits Kyrgyzstan and heads towards China. At present, the Kyrgyz-China link does not exist – although trains can reach Uzbekistan directly from China via Kazakhstan.
The development of an alternative routes bypassing Kazakhstan is important for Uzbekistan as it reduces the exposure of Uzbek supply chains – and costs – in avoiding the Kazakh route and would keep their western supply chains competitive.
However, the Kyrgyzstan issue needs to be resolved to provide Uzbekistan with non-Kazakh routes to China. Bishkek has been holding off on this development for over 25 years, mainly due to issues over the cost – Kyrgyzstan is highly mountainous and any rail route from China, through Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan and beyond involves the creation of several hundred tunnels let alone the laying of high-altitude track. Bishkek simply doesn’t have the available capital.
There are signs that solutions may be found. China is close to completing the practical plans for the implementation of the railway, with Bishkek and Beijing both having agreed on suitable route plans a couple of years ago, allowing topographic assessments to take place.
In fact, the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan highway has been operating since 2019. But this remains seasonal as the movement of trucks is difficult in winter. Hence the need for the railway corridor.
The next steps will be to convince the Kyrgyz government of the benefits of the route, ranging from revenues from rail freight transit fees to the possibility of creating local development hubs within Kyrgyzstan, such as special economic zones and processing facilities that could add value to transiting goods either from or on the way to China. Should Kyrgyzstan appear amenable to this, and the constant issue of financing the route be raised (Uzbekistan would need to contribute) then it is possible that the Kyrgyz President Sadyr Zhaparov will be invited to discuss the Southern Route in the future.
Much of these initiatives lie with Uzbekistan, as the country is landlocked. There are plans in place to develop a trans-Afghan railway north-south through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the latter’s Persian Gulf port at Gwadar however the situation in Afghanistan is still fragile and work has not yet begun due to high financing and civil unrest risks. This means that the most active expansion of the network of transport outlets, corridors and new routes from and too Uzbekistan lies via Turkmenistan and west to the Caspian; and is therefore likely to be the basis for all foreign policy activities for Tashkent. This approach includes dealing with both the Afghan issue and the issue of Caspian Sea access. Uzbekistan is not a Caspian state, nevertheless it is increasingly tied to it, and is interested in establishing access to seaports through Turkmenistan with subsequent advancement to the north, west and south.
Previous Engagement Discussions
Two other recent visits have taken place that will also have influenced these plans. The Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev recently visited Tajikistan, while Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev visited Iran.
Turkmenistan borders Iran and is a key link in the formation of the Trans-Iranian Corridor section of the INSTC from Uzbekistan to Iran. Given that Afghanistan is still far from the establishment of complete peace, it appears irrational at this stage to build the proposed Mazar-i-Sharif (Iran) Herat-Haf (Afghanistan) railway due to unresolved security issues.
Instead, the Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-Iran route is currently being considered. Turkmenistan is a key link for the Central Asian countries to access the seaports of Turkiye and the Mediterranean through the Trans-Caspian International Transport Corridor. The role and importance of Turkmenistan in this matter cannot be overestimated, meaning that Ashgabat will be an active participant in this project.
Tajikistan is also interested in this project. Geographically, Tajikistan can access the Caspian port network only through transiting Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, making the connectivity of these three countries a logical progression. But again, the issue of Tajik railway development costs begins to arise. However, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are all partially located in a topographical feature known as the Amu Darya basin. This can be a boom for connectivity
development – but there are also development problems. The construction of the Kosh-Tepa bypass canal on the Afghan side will result in about 25% of the water supply from the Amu Darya will be redirected to the Kosh-Tepa canal, which may lead to a serious shortage of water on Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan agriculture, with predictions of a loss of up to 15% of irrigation water. The heads of the three states are expected to agree on a position on this issue in due course. Here, the Central Asian powers are somewhat conflicted – developing interconnectivity doesn’t always match with the sustainable settlement and development of Afghanistan.
The Regional Emergence of a Turkmenistan Voice
There is plenty of food for thought. Of particular note however is the emergence of Turkmenistan, traditionally a non-committal and regionally neutral player, now having convened a summit of three states, effectively announcing a change in foreign policy from remaining a closed country and a difficult partner, to being more predictable and reliable, and actively taking a lead in regional affairs. This is especially true in its efficient use of the national transport and transit potential. Turkmenistan is the key link for Central Asia looking both east, and west.