China’s “railpolitik” into Central Asia
The China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Railway (CKU) provides an alternative to the Russia-reliant China-European Railway (CER), the flagship land corridor of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. The CKU not only carries freight traffic across Central Asia, but also Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions in the region through the projection of its “railpolitik”.
Off the back of Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the China-Europe Railway (CER) was launched nearly ten years ago. The railway formed the “belt” of the BRI, forming the flagship land connection between the two continents, running from Northeastern China along the Trans-Siberian Railway, through to Belarus and into Europe.
In 2020, lockdown-induced disruptions to air and sea routes, combined with exorbitantly high ocean shipping fees, culminated to divert freight traffic to rail. China’s National Rail Group saw a 22 percent increase in freight trains sent from China to Europe between 2020 and 2021 and overall a nine-fold increase from 2016 to 2021.
Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine abruptly disrupted East-West rail traffic, and the Russia-dependent CER was dust-bined due to European avoidance of Russia and its sanctioned-related stigma. With Moscow’s aggressiveness on full display, European and Chinese exporters and logistics firms transporting a myriad of goods between the two continents looked to avoid land routes passing through Russia or the combat area. The need for alternative routes began to mount among both East and West, particularly among a possible European boycott of products transported via Russian rail.
Enter the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Railway
As the Chinese proverb reads, “opportunity knocks only once” (機不可失，時不再來), and in late September 2022 on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Samarkand, opportunity knocked for Beijing. China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan resuscitated plans for a new railway link bypassing Russia. The CKU will form the southern arm of the CEr, with the northern and middle routes traversing through Russia. Once the CKU southern route is completed, it will establish an even shorter transit time, looping southward to connect China and Europe via the Caspian Sea, Iran, and Turkey. The CKU is more than 500 kilometres shorter than its northern and middle counterparts, decreasing transit time by approximately one week.
The idea of the CKU was first floated in 1997, but was stymied by Russian geopolitical and economic interests in Central Asia, with Moscow apprehensive of China’s growing role in the region. With the Kremlin now preoccupied with its flailing war against Kyiv, Beijing has received Moscow’s go-ahead to proceed with the project, and now more than two decades later, China has the opportunity to proceed with the CKU. Another Chinese proverb sums up Beijing’s opportunities: “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is now.”
Russia’s distraction is China’s opportunity
Xi Jinping’s decision to visit Central Asia as his first destination since the pandemic indicates Beijing’s intention to strengthen ties with its neighbouring region. The Central Asian states have grown in strategic significance in terms of trade and location, particularly considering their crucial geographic location vis-á-vis China’s BRI.
As a region of historical Russian influence, forming parts of the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union, the international position of the Central Asian “stans” have been inseparably tied to Moscow for centuries. However, with Russia seen to be on a downward decline, the region has sought greater independence in foreign policy decision-making and moved to diversify economic partners.
Faltering Russian influence in the region now provides Zhongnanhai the opportunity to deepen its own influence. In this regard, Beijing acknowledges that the CKU will not only carry cargo and economic benefits to the region, but also carry the geostrategically important cargo of China’s railpolitik.
Views from Bishkek and Tashkent
Prior to Xi’s visit, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi visited Tashkent, meeting with Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov pledging to deepen China’s cooperation with not only Kyrgyzstan but all the former Soviet “stans” in infrastructure, transport, energy, agriculture, finance, and regional security, among others. The meeting also affirmed the commencement of the CKU’s construction in 2023 via a memorandum signed in September 2022.
In response to the CKU agreement, Japarov commented, “there will be jobs. Our economy will boom.” This mood is widely reflected across Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, where many, including Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, view the CKU as their ticket to economic advancement and a crucial connection to the global market. There is also a possibility for the host nations to generate transit fee revenue for the anticipated freight traffic, forming a new source of much-needed income.
For Bishkek and Tashkent, the CKU emerges as a new concrete link to the greater Eurasian markets, opening access to regions such as Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Europe. There are also prospective socio-economic benefits, including the modernisation of the countries’ domestic transportation infrastructure and rail services. Chinese Deputy Minister of Commerce Wang Shouwen noted that Beijing is eager to implement the CKU memorandum and has pledged to increase Kyrgyz agricultural imports and to assist in upgrading the country’s highways and roads.
However, this positive view is not shared by all. Despite government-level support, some Kyrgyz and Uzbek residents are sceptical toward the CKU. It is their view that their countries are included only as a means to an end for China and co-opted simply out of geography.
Many in Central Asia believe China is more interested in shipping its own freight through the region, rather than economically engaging in the host countries by investing locally or creating jobs. Former U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu observed evidence of local resentment of the Chinese presence in the country, with the view on the ground being that China is “exploitative, corrupt, and non-transparent.” Kyrgyz citizens also fear that Chinese loans create unsustainable debt and Chinese workers who are flown in displace jobs for local workers.
Kyrgyzstan watcher Sovetbek Zikirov recognises that “China is an economic superpower in the region,” arguing that Bishkek could do little to insist on its own national interests and needs, instead kowtowing to Beijing for the ostensible benefits the CKU may bring.
The risk of the CKU derailing
Beyond public sentiment and opinion, there are other hurdles in the way of China’s railpolitik. The shallow fiscal strength of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, combined with the backward transport infrastructure system may delay the realising the dream of a 15-day Eurasian transport corridor that bypasses Russia.
Not only does Kyrgyzstan still rely on Soviet-era narrow gauge railway, itself incompatible with China’s international gauge, Kyrgyzstan is woefully short of any rail infrastructure entirely. In a recent demonstration of the CKU’s proposed route, the Kyrgyz portion of the rail relied on trucks.
Bishkek’s 280-kilometre section also faces engineering and logistical challenges. Kyrgyz officials have admitted that their portion may prove costlier, given that nearly 100 tunnels and weather-resistant infrastructure may be necessary to traverse the country’s unforgiving mountainous and desert topography.
Future of the CER and CKU
The CKU’s touted benefits have been widely reported, shared, and embraced by those in power in Bishkek and Tashkent. The supposed economic benefits and intangible advantages have seemed to win over the Kyrgyz and Uzbek governments. Nonetheless, the CKU faces the same challenges as the CER prior to the Ukraine War.
Most of the CER’s freight stems from Russian orders and PRC imports of Russian commodities, including crude oil, coal, fertiliser, gas and agricultural goods. In 2021, the CER made up only 4.45 percent of all China-Europe oceanic trade. Prospects for trade-by-rail have been further clouded by slowing EU demand, economic certainly, and declining confidence in China. The imbalance between eastbound and westbound trains leaves many containers empty on their return leg to China.
With the CKU forming the southern route of the CER, it will inevitably inherit the already limited traffic previously flowing through Russia. But given the sorry state of the CER, sceptics in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan may have valid and legitimate arguments in their apprehensiveness towards the railway project. The CKU, similar to other Chinese infrastructure projects abroad, may be relegated to white-elephant status, with a financially tolling effect on Bishkek and Tashkent.
Be that as it may, the CKU undeniably provides a crucial gateway for Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to reach the wider regions of the world, and allows their products and goods to be shipped to previously inaccessible markets. If realised, further expansion of the CKU may carve out a route for China to reach the Persian Gulf and other transportation links in Europe.
The railway also provides Beijing with unique inroads into the Central Asian region, all while the region’s own historic hegemon is distracted. Despite the risks and unfavourable economics, Zhongnanhai will likely persist with the project, viewing it from a geopolitical rather than economic lens. After all, as the Chinese proverb reads, “it is foolish to refuse to eat just because of a chance of choking.” (因噎廢食)
Samuel Ng is currently in his final year of a dual Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and Bachelor of International Business at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia. He is also a Westpac Asian Exchange Scholar for Taiwan, previously studying at the National Chengchi University having undertaken units in Taiwanese international relations, diplomacy, and political history.