The China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway: Between optimism and concern

The ceremony of signing the agreement on the joint construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway in Beijing, China. Photo from the website of the Cabinet of Ministers of Kyrgyzstan. Fair use.

This article was written by Andrew Gundal for and published on June 21, 2024. An edited version is published on Global Voices under a media partnership agreement.

The China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) railway plans are back on track. On June 6, representatives from the three countries signed off on the project in Beijing, setting in motion a key transportation project that has been in talks for the last 27 years and was more recently included in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The construction of the CKU railway was first proposed by the Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia Initiative (TRACECA) in 1997 but has remained in talks since then due to the complicated nature of the project.

The railway will begin in the city of Kashgar in western China, then enter Kyrgyzstan through the Torugart pass in the east, continuing to Kazarman and back down to Jalal-Abad in the southwest. The final destination will be Andijan in southeastern Uzbekistan, connecting with existing rail routes.

Upon its completion it will provide an alternative trade route between China and Uzbekistan. Additionally, the CKU will save around 900 kilometers on the route to Iran and the Middle East from Kashgar by avoiding passing through Kazakhstan via Khorgos. The proposed route will further integrate Kyrgyzstan into Central Asian trade routes and potentially open new transport avenues to European and Gulf countries.

“[Central Asian countries] want to develop more routes interconnecting Central Asia and external markets to lessen their economic dependence on Russia,” Oyuna Baldakova, a research associate at King’s College London focusing on China-Central Asia relations, told Vlast.

Political, financial, and technical challenges were stumbling blocks between the three countries. According to Omirbek Hanayi from the Eurasian Research Institute in Kazakhstan, the revolutions of 2005, 2010, and 2020 brought political instability to Kyrgyzstan and stalled negotiations.

“Before allocating funding on projects from international institutions like [China’s EXIM Bank], Chinese institutions assess risks, and financing the section of the railway in Kyrgyzstan presented financial risks,” Frank Maracchione, PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield, told Vlast.

A major obstacle for the project was the share of financing among the three states. The solution to this long-standing issue was found in the agreement according to which China will cover 51 percent of the total cost, while Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan will each bear 24.5 percent. Answering questions from the parliament on June 18, the director of Kyrgyz Temir Zholu, the national railway company, said that Kyrgyzstan will finance construction through loans provided by Chinese banks.

China is Kyrgyzstan’s largest creditor. As of 2023, Kyrgyzstan’s external debt was just under USD 4 billion, with 43 percent owed to China’s EXIM bank, which makes up around 40 percent of the country’s GDP and raises concerns over the government’s ability to repay its debts and potentially falling into China’s debt trap.

The different rail gauges between China and post-Soviet countries have made negotiations more difficult. China uses the world standard gauge width of 1,455 millimeters. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan use a gauge width of 1,520 millimeters. It is unclear which device could be used to bridge the difference for the CKU railway.

Kyrgyzstan’s terrain also poses serious challenges. The plan for the railway is to travel through 81 new bridges and 41 tunnels, across the country’s mountainous territory.

Despite these challenges, political leaders continue to display optimism. The head of Kyrgyzstan’s Cabinet of Ministers Akylbek Japarov has stated that the CKU will bring Kyrgyzstan into the “world market,” and transform “Kyrgyzstan into a major trade and industrial hub.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping was optimistic from a different angle, highlighting that the CKU “demonstrates to the international community the firm determination of the three countries to join hands to promote cooperation and seek common development.” According to the agreement, construction will begin in October, but only time will tell if and when the project will come to fruition.

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