As expected, earlier this month on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan moved their long-awaited railway project a step closer to realization.
Kyrgyz Transport Minister Erkinbek Osoyev, Uzbek Transport Minister Ilkhom Makhkamov, and the chairman of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, He Lifen, signed an agreement on September 14 to provide joint funding for a feasibility study in Kyrgyzstan. (He attended virtually). At present, the hoped-for China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) Railway’s biggest hurdle is the lack of tracks through Kyrgyzstan.
As demonstrated in the recent trial run of a proposed transport route from China to Afghanistan via Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, the Kyrgyz portion of cross-regional trade relies on trucks.
The exact route for rail tracks through Kyrgyzstan, however, has long been a point of contention. According to the Kyrgyz press release about the agreement, it supports a feasibility study by China Railway’s First Design and Survey Institute along the “combined version of the Torugart – Arpa – Makmal – Jalal-Abad route” through Kyrgyzstan.
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This appears to settle the long-contentious question of routes through Kyrgyzstan. Various routes have been proposed over the years, broadly categorized as northern and southern, with Kyrgyz officials aiming for an internal railway that would connect its north and south. The route suggested in the Kyrgyz press release leaves that possibility aside. It runs through the Torugart Pass between China and Kyrgyzstan’s Naryn Province, then on a northwestern trajectory through Arpa and Makmal before heading through the mountains into Jalal-Abad near the Uzbek border.
Makmal may be an important node on the railway, given that the area is home to a gold mine operated by a majority Chinese-owned Kyrgyz-Chinese joint venture. The operation faced controversy in 2018 when an estimated 1,000 protesters broke into a gold-processing plant owned by Makmal GL Developing, and set it on fire.
In Makmal, according to reporting from The Economist, the railway will break gauge, switching from the 1.435-meter track used in China to the 1.520-meter track used across the former Soviet Union.
The feasibility study is to be completed by June 2023 and paid for by the three parties equally. Financing of the necessary construction is still under discussion, though Osoyev told The Economist that the 280-kilometer route through Kyrgyzstan would cost $4.1 billion and be funded by direct investment or a public-private partnership.
News of the signing of the trilateral agreement was partially buried under other headlines from the SCO summit, from the outbreak of violence on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border and the physical attendance of Chinese leader Xi Jinping on his first foreign trip in two years. And then last week Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a “partial mobilization” and Russian authorities intensified their targeting of Central Asian migrants for recruitment into the Russian military to fight in Ukraine.
All of this provides the context for Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to push forward with the CKU, and widens the opening for China to develop ever-deeper connections in and through Central Asia. Importantly, the CKU would provide a transportation route through Central Asia that does not rely on Russia. If realized, further expansion may target Turkmenistan, Iran, and Turkey to carve out a route to the sea and further transportation links to Europe.