Foreign Relations / Kyrgyzstan / Uzbekistan

Chinese railway project viewed as expansion campaign in Central Asia

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30-08-2018, 13:31
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Chinese engineers managed to make a train go as fast as 400 kilometers per hour and promised that this was not the limit. The Chinese government is now actively developing railway technologies and are planning to build thousands of kilometers of new routes inside the country and abroad. China’s railway network has entangled all of Eurasia through trade routes. The volumes of supplies along the railways are growing each month.

Chinese railway project viewed as expansion campaign in Central Asia

But Beijing is planning to build a new route, essentially duplicating existing ones, but more expensive and geopolitically risky -- the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan project. Chinese officials assure the project will diversify the Eurasian routes to help the Central Asian nations with infrastructure. However, if everything is so simple, then hasn’t the road been built yet?

The project, which is designed to connect the Chinese railways with Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and further through Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey with Europe, will soon turn 25. In different years, its relevance was up and down it became a key issue for the political campaigns in the above-mentioned Central Asian countries and at the same time subject of heavy criticism.

More than a dozen feasibility studies were conducted for the project in China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in that time. Not one kilometer of the road was built. Disputes of potential project participants were in the way, as well as arguments about the expenses, then about the route, then about the need. All had doubts except for Beijing. The Chinese always supported the idea and tried to force it in every possible way.

At the end of last year, the long-awaited project began to take shape. Representatives of three countries met, talked and even voiced the approximate terms of construction -- at that the negotiations stalled. Despite China's apparent persistence, which some experts find suspicious, rightfully.

Why would China want a new route, when there are already transport arteries connecting China with Europe -- the Transsib and other ways that go through Mongolia and Kazakhstan. Moreover, the preliminary cost of the new project through Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan is more than $2 billion -- for Kyrgyzstan that is one third of the entire GDP. It is clear that the country can not afford such expenses.

China is ready to give Kyrgyzstan a loan, on the condition that Kyrgyzstan will give Beijing access to its natural deposits. That is why, according to the first version of the road project developed in China, it should have passed through Torugart, Jailoo Arpa, Uzgen and Kara-Suu regions. That is, at a significant distance from the settlements, but it is close enough to the deposits of precious metals. And this explains the persistence of Beijing in the matter.

The Chinese authorities are not afraid of the fact that it would take 95 bridges and 48 tunnels to finish the project -- a total of 268 kilometers. That is, one tunnel or a bridge for every two kilometers. On top of that the difference in the width of rails.

In general, over the entire length of the new route from China to Europe, the convoys would have to cross eight state borders, change wheel pairs twice and undergo two ferry crossings in Turkey.

In this scenario, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are not so much transit countries as infrastructure expansion facilities for China, and the railway itself is its tool that opens up new geopolitical territories to China along with access to the fields, which gives markets and jobs (according to the Chinese practice participation in foreign projects, all of them are realized exclusively by Chinese workers).

One of such examples is Sri Lanka. The country borrowed from China a large sum for the construction of a new port -- Hambantota, but after it failed to pay off in due time was forced to give it to China for 99 years.

Sri Lankan authorities simply overestimated the possible economic potential of the new port. However, even after the port changed its flag, it wasn’t profitable. But China didn’t need it for profit. The port is a strategically important object in the underbelly of India, and China now occupies a favorable position there.

This may well happen in Central Asia. Even in the best case scenario and switching supplies from the old routes from China to Europe on a new path through Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, the road will not be as profitable as the authorities of these countries expect. They will be indebted for 25 years. Add the maintenance costs for the tracks and locomotives. It is clearly -- not profitable.

In the short term, the construction of the railway will bring both Bishkek and Tashkent a certain profit, but in the long term it will cause financial dependence on China. Taking into account that neither Kyrgyzstan nor Uzbekistan has its own funds to implement this project. Apparently, both countries understand all that and are not in a hurry to implement the project. In Kyrgyzstan, the Chinese railroad is constantly criticized, and in Uzbekistan, the authorities prefer not to touch this subject. 

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