The China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Rail: Potential Challenges and A Pathway to Enhanced Cooperation
Author: Meray Ozat
Jun 26, 2023
The first China-Central Asia Summit held in Xi'an in May marked a significant step in China's ambitious plans, with the signing of deals and investments worth $3.7 billion. Among the deals signed is the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) Rail, which spans over 523 kilometers, including 213 kilometers in China, 260 kilometers in Kyrgyzstan, and 50 kilometers in Uzbekistan. After years of delays, the construction of the rail route is finally scheduled to begin in autumn 2023. However, while the project has garnered positive views from both China and Central Asian countries, it has also faced numerous obstacles.
This long-awaiting project was originally proposed back in 1996 with the construction of the South Xinjiang railway. The CKU rail route originates from Kashgar in Xinjiang, China, and terminates in Andijan, Uzbekistan, a route that is expected to unlock significant economic opportunities for the region. But with significant delays that have lasted for nearly three decades, the completion of the CKU project faces an uphill battle. Financial and political constraints have hindered the progress of the railway construction, with China and Uzbekistan favoring a shorter and cheaper option, while Kyrgyzstan sought a longer route to boost infrastructure and economy within its territory.
The challenging geography of Kyrgyzstan has also presented technical difficulties during the construction process. Construction in Kyrgyzstan’s geographically sophisticated landscape will require a significant overhaul of the environmental conditions, potentially leading to negative impacts on the local climate and ecosystem. In addition to the geographical challenges, unstable geopolitical concerns have also played a role in the project's delays.
As the project start date was made public in 2022, after the Ukraine war began and Central Asia’s geopolitical situation shifted, Russian influence has been an obstacle to Central Asian project agreements. The involvement of Russia in the project, referred to as the 3+1 agreement, was reportedly discussed during CKU negotiation meetings, as revealed in an interview with ex-Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov in 2020.
Despite the difficulties and delays, the China-Central Asia Summit provided the necessary momentum for the realization of the rail project, which will build stronger cooperation between China and Central Asia, enhancing connectivity and cultivating an economically beneficial relationship. The route holds the promise of improved infrastructure and economic opportunities for Kyrgyzstan that currently faces infrastructure challenges. For Uzbekistan, with China replacing Russia as its largest trading partner in 2023, the project will further foster bilateral relations and enhance economic confidence. More importantly, the rail routes will connect landlocked Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to Southeast and West Asia and the Middle East, and it will serve as a vital addition to the Middle Corridor, raising the region’s international reputation, and technological development.
For China, instead of relying on Russia to access the west, the CKU route will offer China an alternative path to European countries, thereby reducing China’s dependence on Russia. This rail will connect China with Europe through Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Turkey. The extensive rail track aligns with the Chinese “West China Development Project,” which aims to strengthen relations with Western countries rich in resources. In general, the launch of the project will not only open Central Asia to more economic opportunities, but it will also move China one step closer to dominance in Central Asia.
The railway is not only significant due to its capacity to bridge economic ties between Beijing and Central Asia, but it also because it comes at a time when China is making monumental efforts to increase the economic, social, and cultural relations between the two regions. Days prior to the summit that sealed the agreement for the CKU railway, the China-Central Asia Summit in Xi’an, several other agreements were signed which should not be overshadowed by the summit’s economic progress.
The most notable milestone is the bilateral visa-free regime between China and Kazakhstan for up to 30-day stays. This deal makes Kazakhstan the first country in Central Asia to have free access to Chinese territory. The previous visa regime implemented in 2022 allowed a 14-day visa-free regime only for Chinese citizens entering Kazakhstan. As a result of this policy alone, the spending of Chinese tourists in Kazakhstan reached $16 million in 2022 which is almost twice as much as the spending in 2021.
Witnessing the positive economic impacts, Uzbekistan also implemented a similar 14-day visa-free policy for Chinese citizens in 2022. Kyrgyzstan, in turn, is also considering implementing a similar policy in the near future. With the removal of China’s zero-Covid policies at the beginning of 2023, Central Asia, especially Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the two states to offer visa-free travel for Chinese citizens, are expecting an increasing inflow of Chinese tourists. This development towards a stronger social and cultural China-Central Asia relationship will allow easier access for cooperation and positive prospects of bilateral relations in the future.
While the Central Asian governments view the growing cooperation with China as an opportunity to spur economic performance and diminish Russian influence, concerns exist among the public regarding the potential negative influences of increased Chinese tourists and migration to the region. Historical grievances, such as land disputes during the demarcation and delimitation processes in the 1990s, and controversial land deals between China and Central Asia, have fueled public sentiment against Chinese influence. Striking a balance between seizing opportunities and addressing concerns will be crucial for fostering sustainable and mutually beneficial cooperation between China and Central Asia.
The China-Central Asia Summit held in Xi'an marked a significant step in China's plans for the region with the signing of substantial deals and investments. The CKU Rail project, despite years of delays and challenges, holds the potential to unlock economic opportunities and enhance connectivity for Central Asian countries. However, concerns over the growing Chinese influence among the public demonstrate the need to carefully manage the relationship and ensure a balance between opportunities and concerns. Sustainable and mutually beneficial cooperation between China and Central Asia like this can lay a solid foundation for the stability and long-term development of bilateral relations.