The China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Railway: Three Gamechangers Enveloped in One!

Hussein Askary

Vice-Chairman of the Belt and Road Institute in Sweden

Distinguished Research Fellow at the Guangdong Institute for International Strategies

Officials from China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan signed a deal June 6 in Beijing for a new railway to connect these three countries. Signifying the project’s importance, the three national Presidents watched the signing by livestream, and each spoke. The transport corridor has already been in use for test block trains, going all the way to Afghanistan, but the Kyrgyzstan segment is by truck. It is a very important signal that Chinese President Xi Jinping personally supervises the signing ceremony, because it means that China with all its capabilities and resources stand behind this project and completing it effectively and rapidly.

Xi pointed out that the railway is a strategic project of connectivity between China and Central Asia and a landmark project of the three countries’ cooperation efforts under the Belt and Road Initiative. He said the signing of the intergovernmental agreement “marks the transition of the railway from a vision into a reality and demonstrating to the world the firm determination of the three countries to promote cooperation and seek development together”.

The rail length will be 523 km, with 213 km in China, 260 in Kyrgyzstan and 50 km in Uzbekistan. In Kyrgyzstan the project involves building more than 50 tunnels and 90 bridges in the mountains, some of which are over 3,000 meters high. While in previous times topographical difficulties were considered unsurmountable obstacles, China’ own development of massive railway and high-speed rail in some of the most difficult terrains in China made Chinese engineering and construction companies absolute world leaders. For example, in tunnelling, Chinese companies developed domestic tunnel-boring shield machines that are dominating 80% of the world market. Bridge building in difficult landscape in China has become a form of art even though it is greatly challenging physically.

President Xi Jinping, Kyrgyzstan President Sadyr Japarov and Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev stressed the intercontinental importance of the project, and the exemplary cooperation involved. The project has been under discussion for over 30 years. Now after the feasibility study was completed in 2023 by the China Railway Construction Corporation, the state railway companies of the three countries have agreed on a joint venture for follow-up.

Kyrgyz authorities stress that the connectivity created by the railway will not just serve the immediate transit corridor but will serve 4 billion people. They see an expanded “economic geography” reaching from Asia through Türkiye to Europe, through Southwest Asia, into Africa.

President Japarov called the new railway a flagship, joint project of the Belt and Road Initiative. President Mirziyoyev spoke of how the railway will become the shortest “land channel” between China and the Central Asian countries, and also serve large markets in the Middle East and South Asia. President Xi Jinping described the project as “strategic” for connectivity, and a landmark project of cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative.

Gamechangers three!

This project can be considered as three or more gamechangers enveloped within one. 1) It enhances the economic development of landlocked nations in Central Asia, 2) it transforms the central Asian region and Afghanistan from a Great Game geopolitical buffer zone of fire into a bridge for peaceful cooperation between east and west and north and south, 3) spurs the emerging, multilateral world order with Eurasia at its centre. It is important to state from the outset that the circulating reports in Western media and thinktanks, that this project somehow circumvents or undermines the Kazakhstan-Russia route to Europe or competes with it, are completely silly zero-sum mental constructs. They wish this to be the case on the one hand, and on the other are completely ignorant of the economics of infrastructure development nationally and regionally. The purpose of building infrastructure is to enhance the productivity of society, not merely for advancing trade. Therefore we will not delve into debunking such claims, because we have done that in previous articles.

First, the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Railway recreates one of the ancient routes of the Silk Road with modern characteristics, serving the economic development needs of the three countries first. For China, its development plans for turning the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Administrative Region into a major industrial and logistics hub along the Belt and Road are well underway and include connection to the central Asian nations, as I discussed in my report after touring Xinjiang. At the same time, both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan will boost their national development plans through utilizing this and other related projects. While the plans for the construction are not concrete yet, there is a feasibility study conducted by a Chinese engineering consulting company. It is of interest that the project itself might generate new industries supporting the construction work itself in both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan such as cement and steel industries and create high-quality employment opportunities.

These two countries, and the rest of the Central Asian nations, have adapted their national development plans to the BRI. Not only their trade has grown massively with China, many infrastructural and agro-industrial projects are now integral to the BRI and cooperation with China. There have been several China-Central Asian initiatives such as the Sino-Kyrgyz Regional Cooperation Plan (2015-2020), Kazakhstan’s Bright Road Initiative, Tajikistan’s national development strategy 2030 and Uzbekistan’s New Development Strategy.

In May 2023, a historic summit held in Xi’an brough together China’s President Xi Jinping with the leaders of the five Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan). This summit and the subsequent March 2024 establishment of the joint secretariat and other mechanisms of free trade and communication brough the role of Xinjiang and the Central Asian nations to new hights. Several new transport infrastructure projects were under discussion, the most important of which is the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Highway and the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan highway and phase two of the China-Tajikistan Highway. Trade between China and the Central Asian nations reached US$ 90 billion in 2023, an increase of 27% year on year, and is poised to increase even more. Xinjiang takes the lion’s share of this trade.

Second, the Central Asian nations, especially Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, are becoming more than a land-bridge between China and Europe. Their economies are booming with foreign direct investments from both East and West pouring into their emerging economies. With the New Silk Road, the disadvantage of being landlocked nations is disappearing. Their natural resources are coming into play in the international economy. The growth of their economies will be boosted by machinery and technology provided by the new industrial zones of Xinjiang. The case of Afghanistan and Pakistan, although less shiny examples than the Central Asian nations, are on a much better path towards development than the past 40 years of geopolitical proxy wars.

China and Kazakhstan have many plans to enhance the China-EU Express Rail (CEER) capacity and add new routes to it, such as the Middle Corridor (also known as the Trans-Caspian International Transport Corridor) that would link China to the Black Sea from Kazakhstan’s Caspian Sea port of Aktau to Azerbaijan, Georgia, and also with a branch to Turkey.

End of the Great Game and the Emergence of a new order

Third, the withdrawal of the U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan in August 2021 was a major watershed, probably marking the end of the Great Game that lasted for almost three centuries. Using Afghanistan and other Central Asian Khanates and “stans” as a security buffer zone and a destabilization source for both Russia and China have ended. With China managing successfully to end the threat of terrorism and separatism in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and consolidating its relations with the Central Asian nations, and now through diplomatic relations with the Taliban-steered Kabul, it is moving towards securing the realm around it. Russia’s role remains strong in the region, and its intervention in January 2022 in Kazakhstan to prevent a colour revolution was decisive. Although a certain level of tensions between these countries and Russia still exists and attempts by the EU and the U.S. to persuade them to reduce their reliance on Russia and China continue, realities of geography and history cannot be changed.

With the Arab countries, Iran, and the central Asian countries emerging as key economic partners of China, geoeconomics is emerging as the key element of foreign policy rather than geopolitics. Economy will have a final saying in many of the issues that have determined the policies of the nations of the “heartland” of the Eurasian continent

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which initially was a security organization has evolved into an economic cooperation vehicle. The Joint Commission on Facilitation of International Road Transport is one of the important platforms of the SCO, especially on infrastructure matters.

There have been feverish attempts by the U.S. and the EU to sway the nations of Central Asia away from cooperating with Russia and China. However, the lack of any economic development offers by the U.S. and the EU to these nations on the one hand, and the realities of geography and geo-economics speak louder than the political rhetoric thrown over the fence from far away Brussels and Washington. It would be more constructive for the West to engage positively and actively with China, the BRI, and the nations of Eurasia to build the infrastructure across mountains, seas and deserts, rather than attempting endlessly to move these mountains, lakes, deserts from their natural place.

Related items:

New Realities Shape Eurasia’s Economic and Strategic Space

Samarkand SCO Summit 2022 Demonstrates New Center of Power for Development       

Extending the Belt and Road to Afghanistan: The Dawn of Geo-Economics