Prospect of China’s Transportation Infrastructure Development in Central Asia Remains Challenging

China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, a key Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project, connects China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, facilitating logistics and fostering economic and cultural exchanges.

Since the beginning of the Donald Trump era, the United States has initiated a series of economic and technological crackdowns on China. Coupled with the strengthening of Western economic and trade blockades against Russia after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, China’s economic and trade cooperation relationships have had to strengthen economic and trade exchanges with Russia and Central Asian countries. China imports a large amount of energy products and minerals from these countries, and agricultural imports have also increased significantly. It mainly exports machinery, electronics, footwear, clothing, and other products to the five Central Asian countries. Moreover, trade between China and Europe via Central Asia is also increasing.

Increased trade necessitates enhanced transportation infrastructure, with China focusing on projects in Central Asia. Notably, the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, a key Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project, connects China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, facilitating logistics and fostering economic and cultural exchanges. It can link to the Trans-Afghan Railway to the south and potentially extend to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, forming a vital transport route from northwest China through Central Asia to South Asia. To the west, it can connect to Iran’s railway system, reaching the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean coast, aiding China’s westward connectivity expansion.

The China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway project carries immense geopolitical and economic implications. Initiated in 1997, its progression was hindered by Russian concerns over its influence in Central Asia. However, due to changing geopolitical dynamics, including Western sanctions and Russia’s evolving stance, construction is set to begin in October this year, as announced by Kyrgyzstan President Sadyr Japarov. Despite this progress, uncertainties loom over funding arrangements and Russia’s lingering influence.

Issues persist regarding funding and technological arrangements, particularly concerning Kyrgyzstan’s reluctance to fully finance the longest and most expensive segment of the railway. Additionally, alignment issues between China and Kyrgyzstan regarding railway gauge further complicate matters. Russia’s influence, although showing signs of decline, remains significant through political, cultural, and energy ties with Central Asian nations. Recent cooperation agreements between Uzbekistan and Russia underscore this influence, potentially impacting the China-Central Asia railway project.

Western powers’ involvement in Central Asia is notable as well, particularly through NGOs, which have expanded activities in areas such as environmental protection and human rights. Research from Tajik and Kyrgyz institutions indicates an increase in Western influence, leading to anti-Russia sentiment in regional media. Concerns over the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway project’s environmental impact, labor rights, and local employment too have prompted protests and petitions from such NGOs, potentially hindering project progress. This dynamic presents a challenge to China’s regional projects and relations as sentiments towards China fluctuate among Central Asian populations.

On the other hand, Central Asia holds strategic importance for India’s external relations, with Russia’s support bolstering India’s expansion plans. Through projects like the North-South International Transport Corridor, India and Russia aim to integrate Central Asian countries into intercontinental trade. India’s investment in Iran’s Chabahar Port creates a maritime route for Central Asian nations and enhances access to the region for coastal states. Plans for a railway linking Central Asia to Indian Ocean ports are part of joint infrastructure efforts between Russia and India. This development competes with Chinese projects, potentially impacting the effectiveness of initiatives like the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, as Russia supports India in balancing China’s influence.

Central Asia, situated adjacent to Xinjiang, serves as a crucial link for China, especially its western region, to engage with the global community. Therefore, for initiatives such as the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway and numerous other infrastructure projects in Central Asia, in China’s perspective, it would be crucial for its stakeholders to comprehensively assess their strategic importance and carefully evaluate the challenges.

Zhou Chao
Zhou Chao
Research Fellow for Geopolitical Strategy programme at ANBOUND.