Russia's position in railway project China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan changed

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What is the fate of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan construction road project that has been unable to start for many years?

In early March 2024, a delegation from Kyrgyzstan led by Prime Minister Akylbek Japarov visited the city of Kashgar in Western China and met with high-ranking officials from China and Uzbekistan. The Kyrgyz government's press service reported that discussions also took place regarding the construction project of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, Azattyk material about the project says.

During the trilateral meeting in Kashgar, Akylbek Japarov stated that at this point, a technical and economic justification for the project has been developed and approved with joint financing from the involved parties.

"We fully support the initiative of the Chinese President Xi Jinping 'One Belt, One Road.' In this context, the construction project of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway will have an invaluable positive impact on the dynamic development of trade and economic cooperation among the three countries. We are pleased that the work of the participating countries in implementing the project is intensifying. Final consultations on the start of the project are currently taking place in Beijing. Working groups are active," said Japarov.

Prime Minister of Uzbekistan, Abdulla Aripov, in turn, initiated the establishment of a joint venture for the construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway and expressed Uzbekistan's interest in improving multimodal transportation.

The technical and economic justification for the project was prepared by the project design institute of the Chinese Railway Construction Corporation. In July 2023, the parties announced the completion of the work and confirmed the technical and economic feasibility of building the railway.

"No Russian influence is visible in the project anymore"

On March 7, a video conference discussion on the topic "Geopolitics of Central Asian transport corridors in the modern era" took place in Bishkek. Experts from Bishkek, Astana, and Tashkent participated in it.

Kubat Rahimov, the Director of the Center for Strategic Solutions "Applicata" in Bishkek, pointed out that Russia is no longer visible in the construction project of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway. During the discussion, he emphasized the need for fresh perspectives on the project's significance.

"There are two circumstances here. Firstly, Russia withdrew from the working group. Previously, it was a four-party group. We did not understand why and when Russia left the group. I believe it would be beneficial if 'Russian Railways' participated in discussing this project, at least in terms of professional exchange of opinions. Secondly, financing is needed. We need to change the perception of the project. It is an interesting and necessary project. However, it seems we are looking at it in an outdated way, as in the 90s. It would be right to look at it from a different angle – as part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization corridor. In other words, we should view it within the SCO framework, not locally. Then there will be an opportunity to expand its significance from small regional frameworks to a continental level," said the expert.

According to the concept, the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway project, considered the "Southern corridor," will enhance the competitiveness of the participating countries in the international transit market by reducing the time and distance for cargo delivery. It is expected that the construction of the railway will have a multiplicative effect on the development of other sectors of the economy.

In early 2023, it was reported that an office for coordinating the construction project of the railway was opened in Bishkek.

"Project implementation is delayed"

President Sadyr Japarov stated at the December People's Kurultai that the construction of the railway would begin in 2024. Prior to this, Prime Minister Akylbek Japarov reported that China is independently constructing a section to Kazarman, and Kyrgyzstan, in collaboration with Uzbekistan, is determining funding sources for the road construction from Kazarman to Jalal-Abad.

The total length of the road will be 311 km, with an estimated cost of $4.7 billion.

The director of the Center for Research Initiatives "Man'o" in Uzbekistan, Bakhtiyor Ergashev, believes that the Middle Corridor, passing from China to the West through Kazakhstan, has been heavily politicized and cannot compete with the "Northern" and "Southern" corridors due to its high cost. The expert noted that the construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway is delayed and missing convenient opportunities.

"It is evident that we are behind schedule in implementing this project. Despite the project's importance, its implementation is delayed. In fact, the Middle Corridor is what we call the politicization of transport issues, transport and communication issues. It is clear that as long as the Ukrainian case exists, it will also develop. In the system of sanctions and counter-sanctions, there is a need to search for new alternative transport corridors. Here, the railway corridor China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan would develop very well if it were already operational," the expert remarked.

The question of building the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway has indeed stretched out over decades. Russia attempted to participate in the project, taking part in discussions in the 3+1 format. However, significant changes occurred in Russia's position in 2022, being under international sanctions. Since the possibilities of the "Northern Corridor" passing through its territory have considerably narrowed, the "Southern Corridor" might come to the rescue.

In September 2022, at the SCO summit in Samarkand, a trilateral agreement on cooperation in the construction project of the "China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan" railway on the territory of Kyrgyzstan was signed. According to the Ministry of Transport and Roads of Kyrgyzstan, the railway will follow the route "Torugart – Kosh-Dobo – Kazarman – Jalal-Abad."

Statistical data indicates that in 80% of cases, road transport is used for freight transportation in Kyrgyzstan, with rail transport accounting for only 18%.

The Kyrgyzstan government claims that, in the case of building the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, the budget will receive billions of dollars solely from transit fees. However, some experts consider it a misconception to expect benefits only from transit if the country cannot export its own goods.

March 11, 2024