Full steam ahead for China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway

By bne IntelliNews September 12, 2012

Clare Nuttall in Astana -

The latest change of government in Kyrgyzstan has not resulted in any delays to plans for the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, which after years of fruitless discussions are now going full steam ahead. Just days after his election, Kyrgyzstan's new prime minister, Zhantoro Satybaldiyev, met with Chinese officials on the railway, and indicated that talks on the $2bn project could be wrapped up by the end of this year.

Progress on the railway is, however, a setback for Iran and Tajikistan, which both had hoped to get backing for a rival line that would run from western China to Iran, via Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Although an Iranian-funded feasibility is due to be finalised in September, the scheme may already be dead in the water, as interest from Bishkek - and more importantly Beijing - has steadily waned.

Both lines were proposed to link China to the resource-rich markets of Central Asia, which are also hungry for Chinese consumer goods. The first would run from the Chinese market town of Kashagar across Kyrgyzstan, and enter Uzbekistan near Kara-Suu, Kyrgyzstan's second largest bazaar. It would connect to the main Uzbek rail network at Andijan.

Meanwhile, the other line would run from the Iranian rail network to Herat, across Afghanistan into Tajikistan, then through Tajikistan's Rakhsh Valley and Kyrgyzstan's Alai Valley, finally through the Irkeshtam Pass into China, where it would also terminate at Kashgar.

Despite initial interest in both lines, Beijing has increasing favoured the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan route, which would provide a rail link to Kara-Suu bazaar, a regional distribution hub for consumer goods. At the same time, it would build upon China's already good relationship with Uzbekistan, an exporter of gas, uranium and other commodities.

Kyrgyzstan, which inherited minimal railway infrastructure from the Soviet Union, has been keen to see the line built for the last decade. Both President Almazbek Atambaev and his two predecessors wanted to improve transport links across the mountainous country to give a much-needed boost to the economy - especially if China was footing the bill.

Balancing act

After his appointment on September 5, Satybaldiyev quickly dispelled fears that the change of government would delay decision-making. One of his first actions on assuming office was to meet Chinese Vice Premier Hui Liangyu on September 10. Hui is reported to have told Satybaldiev that the process of securing finance for the railway needed to be accelerated. Negotiations on the railway could be completed by the end of this year, state news agency Kabar reports.

Policymakers in Bishkek are, however, having to balance the benefits of the railway against the increased influence of Beijing - an unpopular move in Kyrgyzstan's increasingly nationalist political scene.

In June, Kyrgyzstan's then transport and communications minister Kalybek Sultanov announced that Bishkek was not interested in the Iran-China line, which would mainly cross the remote Alai Valley. "It doesn't interest us much at this time, because there's another project, the China-Kyrgyzstan railway - that's more important economically and strategically," Tazabek.kg quoted Sultanov as saying.

Despite Kyrgyzstan's lack of interest, Iran has been stepping up its efforts to persuade the Central Asian countries to join the China-Iran project. The idea has been around for a while, but Teheran has only put real weight behind it recently, spurred by the need to find new allies in Asia as western sanctions bite. It also has enthusiastic backing from Tajikistan, which was excluded from the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan project.

Teheran has offered to fund feasibility studies of the Tajik and Kyrgyz sections of the line. Iranian and Tajik officials are currently waiting for the results of first feasibility study, which is being carried out by Iranian engineering company Metra and is due to be completed in September.

A clearer idea of the cost of this section of the line will be key to determining whether the line, which will pass through some of Central Asia' highest mountain regions, is economically viable. The Tajik section is expected to be most technically difficult, and it will also pass through the volatile Rakhsh Valley. Another technical issue is that China, Iran and the former Soviet republics of central Asia all use different rail gauges.

After an initial report highlighted the difficulties, however, Tajik Transport Minister Nizom Khakimov told journalists that he believed that they were surmountable", although he also pointed out that, "The problem is that in our territory the railway will run through a number of important facilities, in particular the Roghun hydropower plant."

While Teheran and Dushanbe are united behind the project, a spat over Metra's work has already erupted. Tajik officials have complained about Metra's slow progress on the feasibility study, while Metra says the delays were caused by the Tajik government's reluctance to hand over maps deemed too secret to share with the Iranian company. In addition, Iran's record of building infrastructure in Tajikistan is not great. Iranian engineers were, for example, responsible for building a road tunnel under Tajikistan's Anzob pass, which is so dangerous it has been dubbed the "tunnel of death".

For Tajikistan, however there is a firm case for going ahead with the railway, since access through its only existing international rail route, to Uzbekistan, has been plagued by political problems. The two countries have an often troubled relationship, and Dushanbe has several times accused the Uzbek government of holding up freight wagons to exert political pressure on its neighbour. As a result, the Tajik government is exploring its options for international transit routes, but assuming that Beijing and Bishkek continue their support for the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, Tajikistan will be left scrabbling for alternatives.

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