Central Asia: is the China-Kyrgyz-Uzbek Railway Project Encountering a Red Signal?

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An ambitious Central Asian railway project is facing growing uncertainty. Kyrgyz cabinet chief, Akylbek Japarov, told members of Kyrgyzstan’s parliament recently that the process of updating a feasibility study for the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway is nearly complete, Radio Azattyk reports. Japarov indicated that construction on the Kyrgyz portion of the railway could launch in 2024 but acknowledged that funding for the project has not yet been secured. “We are looking for money,” Azattyk quotes Japaraov as saying. Another publication, the Kyrgyz financial news portal Akchabar, suggested that China’s enthusiasm for the project may be waning, as Beijing grapples with deepening domestic economic woes, including a local debt crisis and mass youth unemployment. “As you know, geopolitics has changed, alliances have changed. All this is an obstacle to the progress of the project,” Akchabar quotes Japarov as telling MPs. “We and Uzbekistan need this road. And China, our friends, is dissuading us from the project.”

Russia’s state-controlled TASS news agency reports that during the first 10 months of 2023, Turkmenistan was the top supplier of natural gas to China via pipelines, with exports totaling $8.1 billion. Russian was second in China-bound gas export earnings via pipeline at $5.4 billion. Kazakhstan earned $1.1 billion from gas exports to China, while Uzbekistan’s China-bound export total amounted $454.4 million. TASS cited China’s General Customs Administration as the source of the earnings report.

Uzbekistan

China is set to boost its soft-power presence in Uzbekistan, after education officials from the two countries signed an agreement to open a Luban workshop in Tashkent, the Chinese media outlet CGTN reports. Chinese-funded Luban workshops focus on vocational training and promoting cultural exchanges. The new workshop will be housed at Tashkent State Transport University (TSTU) and will “train modern engineers in the fields of logistics management and information technology,” according to CGTN. China opened its first Central Asian Luban workshop in Tajikistan in 2022. Plans are in the works to open additional workshops at educational institutions in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Globally, China has launched over 16 Luban workshops, which the CGTN report described as China’s “calling card for professional education.”

Kyrgyzstan

Beijing is also improving educational inroads in Kyrgyzstan. In late November, Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University (KRSU) in Bishkek announced the reopening of an expanded center for Chinese language and culture. At the re-dedication ceremony, China’s envoy to Kyrgyzstan, Du Dewen, said the center is expected to “make a great contribution to strengthening friendship between China and Kyrgyzstan.” Meanwhile, Bishkek State University (BSU) marked the 15th anniversary of the Confucius Institute’s presence on campus. Confucius Institutes are Chinese state-funded entities that sponsor cultural and other programs at universities around the world. They are widely perceived as an instrument of China’s soft-power projection.

Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan intends to expand two railway hubs at Altynkol and Dostyk, potentially enabling the doubling of cargo traffic at those two points between the Central Asian state and China, according to government officials. The expansion is expected to begin in 2024 and take two years to complete. Currently, the hubs handle about 28 million tons of rail freight per year.

Kazakhstan and China are exploring ways to reduce wait times at land border crossings. The Kazakh Finance Ministry’s State Revenue Committee (SRC) announced expanded hours at several border checkpoints. For example, the Nur Zholy automobile checkpoint on the Chinese border will operate around the clock, and the remaining checkpoints will switch to a 12-hour mode. The SRC also said the implementation of the Qoldau electronic queue service helped reduce wait times.

Three Chinese airlines – Air China, China Southern Airlines and Loong Airlines – plan to increase flights in early 2024 and/or open new routes to Kazakhstan, according to Kazakhstan’s Transport Ministry. China Southern Airlines plans to operate three flights per week between Almaty and Beijing. Loong Airlines wants to increase flights “on the Almaty-Hangzhou route from three to four per week” and is considering options for new routes, including Astana-Hangzhou, Astana-Chengdu and Almaty-Chengdu. Meanwhile, Air China is looking increase flights “from two to three per week on the Astana-Xi’an-Beijing route.”

Source : Eurasianet