Sevinç İrem BALCI
In June 2022, President of Kyrgyzstan Sadyr Japarov has declared that the construction of China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Railway (CKU Railway), which is on the table for two decades, will be started in the following year. The construction of this railway includes economic and political benefits for the transit countries, and for the region as well. The CKU route, which will become the southern part of China-Europe freight rail, will link China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan to Central and Eastern Europe via Iran and Turkey. According to proposed plans, the total length of the CKU railway is about 523 kilometers, including 213 kilometers in China, 260 kilometers in Kyrgyzstan and about 50 kilometers in Uzbekistan.
It is known that China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) prioritize the transportation and accessibility in the Central Asia and neighboring regions. In fact, the CKU Railway project was opened to discussion in the mid-1990s; however, there was not a concrete step to realize that project. Pure logistical and technological challenges, as well as the hefty expense, have caused delays. Due to the country’s rugged terrain and challenging winter weather, approximately 90 tunnels will need to be bored for the railway. Access to China will come from the West Xinjiang Province’s Kashgar Rail Terminus, which is already linked to the country’s extensive rail network.
Last month, leaders of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan declared that CKU Railway will begin soon. Kyrgyz Leader Caparov has used these words to explain the importance of the line: “We will start in 2023 after the feasibility study is completed this year. The feasibility study is being prepared with the participation of three parties. There will be jobs. Our economy will boom.” Also, he clarified that, “all agreements, including with all interested countries, have been completed. We expect that during the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in September, the leaders of the three countries will sign a document to begin construction of the railway. The Kyrgyz government, the Uzbek government and the Chinese government are preparing for the document.”
On the other hand, according to Uzbek officials, when the railway is finished, it will be the quickest way to send products from China to Europe and the Middle East, shaving 900 kilometers off the shipping distance and seven to eight days off the transit time. Officials from Turkmenistan, Iran, and Uzbekistan have already begun preparing for bilateral transit connectivity along their respective sections of the CKU line. Additionally, Iran and Qatar have been talking about INSTC connectivity.
In the former years, it was discussed that whether Russia will be included to the construction of the railway project. Firstly, it was mentioned in 2018, later in 2020 Russia participated negotiations in 3+1 format. However, it remained unclear of Russia’s participation, and still is, that now Russia is focused on the War in Ukraine, which continues over five months, frays out the Russian economic power. Given that Russia receives no direct economic advantage from the initiative, their involvement in it is even more troubling. The train creates a different path for Beijing while avoiding Russian territory, breaking Russia’s current monopoly on the passage of Chinese goods to Europe. Therefore, it seems that Russia will be left out in this project due to the current international conjuncture.
The other aspect of the railway is that a part of Asia could reach Southern Europe and the Middle East more easily. All involved nations have a lot of interest in the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway corridor. First, a rail link between Xinjiang, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan will cut the distance between China and Uzbekistan even more. The railway between China and Uzbekistan eventually connects to Turkey, Iran (through Turkmenistan), and Europe, particularly Southeast Europe. This might shorten the travel time from China to Southeast Europe by up to 900 kilometers, or about seven or eight days.
In conclusion, the construction of this railway is quite important for both member countries of the project and many countries in the region. Firstly, China will benefit for enhancing the transportation related to BRI, as she could reach Central Asia, the Middle East and even Southeast Europe easily. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan also could seek for their interests economically. The enhanced transportation will also increase economic transactions. However, Russia’s position on this remains unclear due to the conditions under ongoing war with Ukraine, and willingness of member countries to include Russia in this project.