Beijing Postpones China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Railway Line

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Financing and other Asian regional tensions mean the CKU project has been indefinitely postponed

China has postponed indefinitely the construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway line, which was scheduled to start construction this autumn. This is positive news for Kazakhstan, as the route was supposed to be an alternative for the delivery of Chinese goods to Russia, depriving Astana of customs clearance fees, Gennady Bessonov, secretary general of the International Coordinating Council for Trans-Eurasian Transport has stated.

“The project is ready, but Beijing, Bishkek and Tashkent have not yet been able to agree on money, or rather on the proportions of its financing. This may drag on for a long time. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have no money to finance the project. While China could build everything itself, the railway is not a current priority. It is not intended for deliveries to Europe, as they already have trains travelling along the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Dostyk (Kazakhstan)-Orenburg-Brest route, with the volume of about 600 thousand TEU (equivalent of a 20-foot container) per year. Now there is a lot of discussion of transport projects in all Central Asian republics, everyone wants to become a freight hub, but everything is based on money.”

Professor Rayymkul Mendekeyev, director of the Research Institute for Earthquake-Resistant Construction at KISI said that the construction of this railway is not profitable for Russia and Kazakhstan. “We don’t have a railway, we pass through Kazakhstan. There are significant interests for Kazakhstan here. We transport goods through their railway and they benefit from it. You can understand them too, they have their own interests, as we are a close neighbour. It will be good for them if we are economically dependent on them. Speaking openly, they do not want us to have our own railway which will bring us economic benefits and development. After all, even relatives have their own interests.”

Professor Mendekeyev believes that Russia does not want to lose its influence in Central Asia either, as there are political reasons for this.

The 454-kilometre China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway project is designed to connect the railways of China and Uzbekistan through the territory of Kyrgyzstan and then link them with the European railway network via Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkiye as part of the New Silk Road transport system.

After a long discussion of the route through Kyrgyzstan, the northern direction was chosen from the Chinese city of Kashgar, the terminus of the railway in southern Xinjiang, through the border town of Torugart, the Arpa Valley (Fergana Range) and then through Makmal and Jalal-Abad to Uzbekistan. The planned length of the Kyrgyz section is 268.4 kilometres, while the Chinese section is 165 kilometres.

China and Kyrgyzstan have not yet reached a consensus on the width of the railway track. Bishkek insists on the application of the standard 1520 mm, the Chinese side on the width of 1435 mm. As of May 2011, the bogie replacement point was expected to be Tuzbel station in Kyrgyzstan.

This project is not any breakthrough miracle of modern technology. The railway would be single-track and non-electrified, which makes it a weaker link in the transit of Chinese goods to Europe.

In 2003, China allocated 20 million yuan (US$2.4 million) to develop a preliminary feasibility study for the railway line. Chinese experts who developed the pre-feasibility study for the railway noted a number of advantages of the new route over existing transport corridors: the new railway is shorter than the existing transport corridor by more than 900 kilometres, the construction of the railway will improve transport links between Central Asian countries and provide them with convenient access to sea ports. According to preliminary estimates, Kyrgyzstan would receive about US$200 million annually from the transit of goods through its territory. According to the best estimates, the volume of domestic cargo within Kyrgyzstan will be no more than 5%.

The cost of building a railway line through Kyrgyzstan is estimated at US$1.34 billion. Since Kyrgyzstan does not have its own sources of financing for this line, it is assumed that the construction would be financed by China.

According to intergovernmental agreements, the construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway was to be carried out by the Chinese company China National Machinery Import & Export Corporation (CNMIEC).

The idea of building a China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway has been subject to well-founded criticism. Kubat Rakhimov, an expert on Central Eurasia infrastructure projects and author of the book “Construction of the Chui-Fergana trans-Kyrgyz railway”, noted that there would be eight state borders on the route, two bogie replacement procedures: first on the Kyrgyz-Chinese border and then on the Turkmen-Iranian border, and a ferry crossing in Turkiye across Lake Van.

“In the 1990s, the EU initiated the TRACECA project: transit between Europe and Central Asia via the Caucasus. This project also had two ferry crossings across the Black and Caspian Seas and a number of other intermediate borders in the Caucasus and Central Asia, which contradicted the laws of logistics. Therefore, the project quietly died.  Politicians in Bishkek are already suggesting US$200 million in annual revenues from transit via the future railway to China, when railway crossings on the Kazakhstan-China border with cargo volumes much higher than those planned for the CKU do not bring such revenues.” Rakhimov added.

Kyrgyzstan badly needs such a project however is unable to assess all the risks involved. The Kyrgyz government is essentially broke. Of Bishkek’s US$4.8 billion total foreign debt, at least US$1.8 billion is owed to China’s Exim Bank. Beijing is increasingly wary of granting new multi-billion dollar loans for infrastructure projects in Central Asia.

But it’s not just about money. A few extra billion dollars is not a problem for China.

However, the inevitable deterioration of relations with Kazakhstan and Russia due to the construction of a railway bypassing these geopolitical neighbours, which China does not really need, is a serious secondary issue.

The situation has been made less stable against the backdrop of the growing US expansion into Asia, which impacts Beijing. The situation with the United States over Taiwan is becoming increasingly real for the Chinese leadership, and in the conditions of growing escalation every hypothetical ally is important. Here, Russia firmly supports China. This is clear to everyone.

However, Kazakhstan is trying to sit on two chairs, pursuing a multi-vector policy, in which it is attempting to become a centrepiece listening both to Washington in addition to Beijing and Moscow.

But by postponing the construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, China has made a real gesture of goodwill towards Kazakhstan.

Source: Vladimir Prokhvatilov for the Eurasian Info League 

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