VScentral asia first railroad was a military enterprise. Russia began laying tracks in 1880, primarily to transport troops around the Karakum Desert, to better crush resistance to its rule in what is now Turkmenistan. In eight years, trains traveled 1,400 km from the Caspian Sea to Samarkand. George Curzon, who rode the railway in 1888 as a young British legislator (and future Viceroy of India), wrote that it helped Russia dominate local trade and doubled its ability to attack India. British strategy, he warned, was not “suited to a position where the Cossacks are at your doorstep”.
Since then, the railways have supported Russian influence in the region, but today the balance of power is changing. America left Afghanistan, leaving a power vacuum. Russia is concerned about Ukraine. China sees an opening to expand its influence and diversify trade routes to Europe. Central Asian nations are also seeking new connectivity, with each other and with China. Two new railways will be an integral part of these efforts and will be discussed at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a group of regional powers including Russia and China, in Samarkand on September 15-16.
The first sign of progress came in May when Sadyr Japarov, President of Kyrgyzstan, announced that construction would begin on a line connecting China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in 2023. Chinese railways are already connecting to the Central Asia via Kazakhstan. The route from there through Russia to Europe has become a major trade channel in recent years. It carries the vast majority of China’s rail trade with Europe, which has grown from $8 billion worth of goods in 2016 to around $75 billion in 2021.
The new line would open a route from China to Europe via Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkey, shortening the journey by around 900 km and eight days. More importantly, it would bypass Russia, which has become difficult to transport goods due to sanctions imposed following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Yang Jie, from the China Communications and Transport Association, said the war had caused “great uncertainty” among European customers. Some switched to a slower and more expensive rail and sea route, crossing the Caspian Sea by boat to bypass Russia. The new line would provide an alternative, non-Russian rail route between China and Europe.
Kyrgyzstan’s Transport Minister Erkinbek Osoyev said the trans-Kyrgyz connection “will increase competitiveness in the international transit market”. It estimates that it will transport 7 to 13 million tons of freight per year, mainly to other destinations. The jobs, taxes and transit fees generated would give Kyrgyzstan a strong economic boost; the mountainous former Soviet state of 6.7 million people is heavily dependent on remittances from Russia.
The concept is not new. Plans were first drawn up in 1997. But Russia never liked the idea, and China and Kyrgyzstan couldn’t agree on costs and the route, whether it would serve a large swath of Kyrgyz or whether it would cut straight to Europe. There were differences as to where to switch from the 1.435 meter gauge track used in China and Europe to the 1.520 meter standard of the former Soviet Union. The idea was repeatedly dismissed.
Mr Osoyev said China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan finally agreed on a compromise route of 280 km. It will cost $4.1 billion and will be financed either through direct investment or through a public-private partnership. The route runs from Torugart Pass on the Chinese border to Jalalabad in western Kyrgyzstan, which is already connected to Uzbekistan by a railway built by the Russians in 1916. The gauge would change at Makmal, site of a gold mine in which Chinese investors have a stake. Geological studies are due to begin soon and a feasibility study will be completed by March, Osoyev said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has publicly endorsed the project. He is attending the Samarkand summit after a day in Kazakhstan, on his first trip abroad since the start of the pandemic. Some 80 Chinese experts arrived in Kyrgyzstan in August for site surveys. Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev also gave his blessing, saying it “will connect us with Asia-Pacific countries, paving the way for new economic opportunities.” As for Russia, Mr. Japarov says he has Mr. Putin’s personal approval. The plan was also endorsed in July by the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union.
Many foreign diplomats and experts are skeptical. They say there have been too many false starts, that Mr. Putin’s word is unreliable, that Kyrgyzstan is politically unstable, laden with Chinese debt and plagued by anti-China sentiment. Critics also note that many of China’s foreign borrowers are struggling to repay their loans and that China is scaling back its Belt and Road infrastructure program as a result. It will also have to extend its own railway line by 160 km.
Yet even skeptics admit there is momentum behind the latest rail plans. Central Asian governments provide much of it. They want to improve connectivity with neighbors to guard against future dominance by outsiders. Uzbekistan is the main cheerleader. Mr. Mirziyoyev is in a strong position. He has won the respect of Western governments and international agencies since seizing power in 2016 after the death of a Soviet-era despot. “Uzbekistan is the real engine of all this, financially and logistically,” says Niva Yau from osce Academy, a think tank in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital.
Mr. Mirziyoyev will defend another rail project at the Samarkand summit, a line linking Uzbekistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan. A short pass already from the Uzbek border to Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. The new one would stretch 573km, via Kabul, to Peshawar in Pakistan, linking the existing railway infrastructure built by Britain in the late 1800s. Landlocked Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, would benefit from faster and cheaper access to the sea via Pakistani ports. Backers estimate this would cut the time it takes for goods to travel from Uzbekistan to Pakistan from 35 days to around four. Pakistan and Afghanistan would earn transit fees. China’s plans to turn Pakistan’s port of Gwadar into a maritime hub would get a boost. He would also gain an export route for a copper mine near Kabul in which he has an interest.
The idea of a trans-Afghan railway predates the trans-Kyrgyz one. Russia and Britain considered it in the early 20th century, as did Iran and the Soviets in the 1970s, and Western governments after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Familiar obstacles remain. : dangerous terrain, serious security risks and questionable commercial viability. “Can you imagine building a railway through Afghanistan when you don’t have full control over the political situation? says Temur Umarov of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank. The World Bank warned against a similar route in 2012, citing the state of Pakistan Railways.
But the Taliban are now in power and support the railway. The new security concern is a local branch of the Islamic State. Afghan and Uzbek authorities are trying to work together to solve this problem and create new economic opportunities. China has poured billions into infrastructure in Pakistan since 2012. Many projects have stalled, but the railway could revive them, especially if other countries and multilateral lenders get involved. Uzbek, Afghan and Pakistani officials say they have asked the World Bank and other donors for help.
The fate of the two railways may hinge on their ability to attract funding from sources other than China; its belt and road problems made it reluctant to fund infrastructure projects on its own. The trans-Afghan railway therefore seems more fragile than the trans-Kyrgyz, because America and its allies still refuse to engage with the Taliban. There is a good chance that no project will succeed. But if either does, it will be a step towards making the region better connected to the world and less dependent on Russia. ■