On 5th April of 2019, a meeting of the railway authorities of Kazakhstan, China, Iran, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan took place in Almaty dedicated to advancing cargo traffic along the North-South Transit Corridor. In fact, the participation of Uzbekistan in the project will shorten the route of goods from China to Iran and forward. Being a part of the ambitious North-South Transit Corridor — a 7,200 km long multi-mode network of ship, rail, and road routes for moving freight between India and Europe —the China-Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Iran railway can shape the geopolitics of Central Asia.
The decision had been made at the time when Uzbekistan, under the leadership of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, embraced a new path for the country’s further development. Faced with a collapsing economy, international isolation, and a growing number of unemployed youth following years of Karimov’s misrule, the country had little choice but to open up. Unlike his predecessor, President Mirziyoyev adopted a clear strategy document (namely, Uzbek Development Strategy 2017-2021) with the aim of further liberalization of the economy and the development of local infrastructure and cargo routes.
It is safe to note that Uzbekistan now seeks new opportunities to be a key player in the region by promoting various transit projects. Railway diplomacy, in particular, is central to this strategy. Undoubtedly, Central Asian countries including Uzbekistan require large-scale investments in nearly all sectors, but developing regional and transnational connectivity is a sound economic opportunity to stimulate further growth and diversification. Hence, for Central Asian states these infrastructure projects are not merely grand investments but are also tickets to join a global trade and geographic reorientation toward market economies in Western Europe and South and East Asia.
Uzbekistan joined the new railway project as an attempt to regulate the flow of containers through its territory to Iran via Bolashak station. According to reports, the volume of traffic along the China-Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran corridor last year amounted to 1 thousand TEU (container in 20-foot equivalent). It is expected that the number will grow as all involved parties have agreed on integrated tariff rates for goods transportation. The total length of the China-Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran route is about 10,000 kilometers, and the total travel time is about two weeks, which is twice as fast than by sea, which takes 25-30 days.
It is not the only regional transit project that Uzbekistan joined recently. In the last three years, Uzbekistan’s new government has shown eagerness to boost cooperation with countries like India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan aiming to become a Central Asian gateway. It is worthy to note that from 2017, Uzbekistan is set to become the biggest trading partner of Pakistan from Central Asia since the bilateral trade between the two countries has improved from $36 million to over $90 million in 2018.
Moreover, in November of 2018, Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov visited Pakistan and was received by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan. Several important issues were put on the table, including the proposal of constructing a railroad connection between the two countries that would pass through Afghanistan. Considering the substantial hydrocarbon reserves of Uzbekistan in oil and natural gas, Pakistan could have particular benefits from this cooperation.
The proposed railway connection is supposed to link Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and possibly India. Uzbekistan’s government pledged $500 million from its own funds for this critical railway line, which, if realized, will become the shortest transit route to the Iranian port of Chabahar. However, the Indian government did not immediately agree to this proposition.
For Uzbekistan, the proposed trans-Afghan railway project is critical in terms of strengthening its position as a crucial transit point of Afghan goods to other Commonwealth of Independent States’ (CIS) and Chinese markets. Until now Uzbekistan has established a transit hub in its Termez city, which borders with Afghanistan. The hub includes a railway line, station, and trade center for Afghan goods. Nevertheless, Uzbekistan seemingly intends to develop the railway connection by linking it with Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat cities, which will open a direct link to the Iranian Chabahar and Bandar Abbas ports.
Additionally, Uzbekistan is keen to encourage India – a global economic giant, to take an active part in its regional initiatives. Uzbekistan’s territory opens new horizons for India as the railway will allow India a more straightforward route to the markets of Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the wider Eurasian region. Currently, in large part due to the lack of direct transport routes, trade turnover between India and the Central Asian states remains far from its potential, and does not exceed 1.1 percent. Moreover, Uzbekistan eyes to gain access to the Indian Ocean’s sea trade routes through the implementation of the trans-Afghan railway.
All regional transit projects such as the aforementioned railway plans create the necessary conditions for the further development of intercontinental transport corridors. Notably, this line of development underscores Uzbekistan’s target to attract Chinese investments and possibly to enter into Chinese markets by its development of localand regional infrastructure and railway connections. For instance, the construction of the aforesaid Mazar-i Sharif-Herat route will allow goods to get from Afghanistan to China in merely three days via Andijan city in Uzbekistan. Thus, giving Uzbekistan’s potential as a transit country, economic benefits area matter of time.
The recently initiated railway diplomacy strategy is a part of Uzbekistan’s efforts to implement long-harbored projects to diversify the economy and boost external linkages. Notwithstanding the fact, the government still faces not only geopolitical but also financial challenges that need to be resolved. Though, the new government seems to lack of practical solutions for now. This includes the ongoing economic deficit and regional security problems, in particular in Uzbek – Afghan border. Yet, railway diplomacy is poised to help Uzbekistan rekindle its relations with major foreign economic partners and will also enable it to expand its influence across the region. In order to achieve this goal, the country needs to build constructive dialogue with neighboring countries just to prevent the future possible economic or political unrest. Indeed, it is an important step for the region’s long-term development plan.