Op-Ed: How Kyrgyzstan became a pawn in China's game
Kyrgyzstan, in the near future, will become a part of the new Eurasian railway route. The intergovernmental agreement on the construction of the road "China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan" will be signed this summer. On April 20th, the responsible parties will meet to discuss the details of the project, which, because of its ambiguity, has already been named the "road of contradictions".
So, China is building a railroad to Europe, not by the usual routes -- Kazakhstan and Russia -- but through Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Why does Beijing need this, considering that the operating routes are much shorter and they function successfully, is unknown. Nevertheless, the project has been approved and, in Kyrgyzstan, it is regarded as strategically important. In Bishkek, it is expected that this road will connect the north of the country with the south. And at the same time, Kyrgyzstan will be able to realize its potential as a transit country for China, the countries of Asia and Southern Europe.
However, there are different opinions. In order to fully estimate the possible economic and geopolitical risks in the construction of the railway branch line and to understand how it is appropriate for Kyrgyzstan, one must answer some key questions first.
First, is the railway construction project profitable? There was a lot of controversy around this question because the theoretical assumptions of certain government officials did not coincide with the concrete practical conclusions of economists. According to the calculations of the latter, Kyrgyzstan will begin to benefit from this road not earlier than four decades later -- 2056. This is with an ideal scenario of operation and 100% accuracy of economic forecasts.
The problem is that technically this project is quite complicated. The mountainous landscape of the country significantly increases the cost of the project and its payback period. And if you consider that Kyrgyz officials trust themselves more than numbers and calculations of specialists and often try to take into account their interests, the economic effect may be postponed for years from the forecasted dates. By the way, the fact that in the last 16 years three feasibility studies have been prepared for this project, indicates that the financial part is not all that smooth. In general, answering the first question, we can say that there will be a positive effect for Kyrgyzstan, of course, but no one knows when. As a quick and effective economic measure that will affect the well-being of ordinary citizens, this project clearly does not fit.
Secondly, what are the difficulties in the implementation of this project? One can talk about this for hours. The main difficulty is technical. It is related to the track width. In the post-Soviet space, it is 1520 mm. This standard also partially is used in other countries outside the post Soviet space. But Beijing is building roads according to the European model with a narrow gauge - 1435 mm, and since this project is financed by China, the gauge will be made according to its standards. And this means that this road, on the Kyrgyz territory, will, in fact, be useless for other infrastructure.
And last but not least: if the road is unprofitable in the short term, if it does not in fact increase the transit capacity of Kyrgyzstan due to the difference in the track width, who needs it at all? The authorities of the republic thus hope to establish cooperation with an influential neighbor and attract Chinese finances to the country. But what finances are they talking about if the payback period is measured by four decades and forget about creating new jobs, China always uses its own labor force on such projects.
And one more issue: why does China need this, given that there are already similar routes, and they function successfully? Considering that the way through Kyrgyzstan is mountainous, which means that construction and transportation will cost much more? Given that this route, unlike the alternative, involves crossing four borders? The answer is simple. China's goal is not so much the road itself, as the expansionist policy.
In exchange for participation in the project, Kyrgyzstan will give China several metal deposits. This is a Chinese political strategy, successfully tested in other countries, called "concrete and railway diplomacy" of China. And as part of the implementation of this diplomacy, Kyrgyzstan provides China with mineral deposits, and the latter in exchange builds the road. That is, Kyrgyzstan takes away deposits of rare metals (including gold) and other minerals, and we will be left with a road that we, perhaps, will never benefit from.
Given all of the above, it is obvious that the project of this road is not as profitable as it may seem. Yes, Kyrgyzstan needs to establish cooperation with China. But not at the cost of our own deposits. Yes, the republic needs a North-South road. But transport communications within the country should correspond to the routes from neighboring regions of neighboring states according to their technical parameters. Otherwise, what is the point of having them?
*This article is a translation from Russian -- an opinion of a Kyrgyz political amalyst. It does not express the opinion of CAD newsagency in any way.