China continues to diversify its land transportation options, and the Central Asian states are proactive players willing to tap into the opportunity to become connected to world transportation and trade routes at Beijing’s behest. On June 5, 2020, the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan transportation corridor was extended farther into China. A cargo train from China’s Lanzhou, in Gansu province, for the first time moved goods to Tashkent.
Tashkent, the final destination of this particular cargo train, reportedly received electric appliances from Lanzhou that traveled by way of Kashgar in Xinjiang and Irkashtan and Osh in Kyrgyzstan. For the trip back, the containers will carry cotton fabric. The route is around 4,400 kilometers and can be covered in seven to 10 days. At both ends of the trip, in China and Uzbekistan, cargo on the corridor is moved by rail, and in the middle part, in Kyrgyzstan, cargo is transported by trucks. While the railroad has been in the making in one form or another for 25 years, no rail connection exists to directly link China and Uzbekistan via Kyrgyzstan.
During a state visit to China in May 2017, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev signed an agreement on an international highway with his counterpart Xi Jinping that commenced the current transportation corridor. Soon after the trip, the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan transportation corridor was officially opened, in October 2017, and started functioning in February 2018.
While the transportation corridor presents new transit opportunities to the participants, it is also a reminder that the railroad coveted by Tashkent through Kyrgyzstan is nowhere close to reality. The proposal to connect the three countries by railroad first appeared in the mid-1990s. While Uzbekistan, with China’s assistance, completed the Angren-Pap tunnel in 2016 to link with the future China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railroad project, the final agreement in Kyrgyzstan kept experiencing delays as a result of political instability, changes of leadership, internal political disagreements on funding, and disagreements on technical aspects of the railroad.
For Uzbekistan, the transportation corridor is another option to trade with China and serve as a route for Chinese goods destined for Europe. Despite the difficulties, Mirziyoyev does not miss a chance to underline the importance of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railroad and the need to construct it. The last venue at which he brought it up was the Belt and Road Forum in April 2019. Currently, Uzbekistan is connected to China by railroad through Kazakhstan’s Khorgos via Almaty. According to Uzbek officials, that route is 20 percent more expensive compared to the existing option via Kyrgyzstan, despite the fact that midway cargo needs to be moved by trucks.
China is also interested in having the railroad through Kyrgyzstan and has been negotiating throughout the years to fund the project. In 2015, Beijing proposed to Bishkek a loan of $6 billion for the construction of the project, but it became entangled again in domestic politics over the fear a “debt trap.” Bishkek might have taken China out of the financing equation. In a recent statement from officials in Bishkek, China was not mentioned as a participant in the project. Instead Russia and Uzbekistan were highlighted as the potential funders.
There is a lot of room for skepticism regarding Bishkek’s statement. In the statement, the Kyrgyz government announced that the agreement on the railroad is almost final and that construction is about to start. This is not the first time Bishkek has promised imminent construction. Also, China is arguably the only country financially capable of funding the project. Uzbekistan has no capital to make a considerable contribution to a multibillion-dollar project; neither does Russia. And even if Russia did have the financial means, the railroad is contrary to Russia’s current monopoly on transiting Chinese cargo to Europe — the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan transportation corridor is envisioned as the first part on a path to Europe via the Caucasus, not Russia. Therefore, not only it is unlikely that Russia would participate in the project, but undermining it would be more in line with Moscow’s interest.
Ideally Uzbekistan would want to connect to China via the future China-Kyrgyzstan railroad. Faster movement of goods, lower costs, and the potential to connect to several other international railroads are at stake. From Uzbekistan, the corridor has the potential to connect to the Middle East via Afghanistan or Europe via Turkmenistan, the Caspian Sea, and the Caucasus. However, the most salient issue at present remains the financing of the Kyrgyzstan segment. Despite how strongly Tashkent wants the railroad, the current arrangement with a mix of railroads and highways might be the arrangement Uzbekistan will have to liven with for the foreseeable future.