One of the key problems of Central Asia is the uncompleted railway network. To be more precise, the current sustainable Soviet-made network no longer satisfies the countries of the region. Complicated relations of some of them made them search for new ways to communicate with the outer world, bypassing neighbors. It is no wonder that the communication issue is among the vital problems at any high-level negotiations with potential investors, and each project in this field is in the spotlight.
In December 2014, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov, who received them in Turkmenistan, attended a ceremony that kicked off the operation of a railway linking the three countries. The president of Turkmenistan said that the event marked “groundbreaking of a new space architecture that unites Central Asia, the Caspian states, the Black Sea region and the Transcaucasia, with further access to the Baltic and North Europe countries.” The new route will allow saving up to 600 km among the Persian Gulf, Central Asia and Europe. In addition, it opens up a prospect for joining the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, as well as linkage with other current and designed railroads in the south and in the east, with further access to China, India, Pakistan and the Asia-Pacific countries.
But other – political – reality is that the poor relationship among some entities of the region forces them to search for “their own” options of “а window to the world”. In particular, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are connected with the outer world via the Russian railway network, which they access through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The discrepancies with these countries over water utilization or territorial problems, for instance, have a negative effect on other aspects of cooperation. The geography cannot be changed.
Under such circumstances, China becomes the key player in infrastructure projects in the region. It has already received access to Central Asia via Kazakhstan and now it offers new ideas for construction of new trunk railways that will entwist all the countries of the Central Asian region. Due to the linkage with Kazakhstan's railroads, China has rapidly derived benefit from the import of cheap crude hydrocarbons, ore, scrap metals, as well as export of its cheap fast moving consumer goods. Now it has drawn new roads on the Central Asian map.
Kubat Rakhimov, an international consultant at the Asian Development Bank (ADB), has told EADaily that China's railway plans are unprofitable for the next 20 years at least, but this is no obstacle. China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan is one of the Chinese railway projects. China does not only hope to ensure supplies of its own goods to the local market by means of that railroad, but it is also considering possible import of Uzbek hydrocarbons, Kyrgyz ores and rare-earth metals. Kyrgyzstan is ready to “turn up the thumbs” on this road at any time, whereas Uzbekistan is more cautious.
“This matter really needs cautiousness. Kyrgyzstan puts under threat a lot of things when it wants to get benefits and overcome the transport semi-blockade. The most important thing is the rail track standard. If Bishkek agrees to the Chinese standard, the region will automatically face “Chinese security”, Chinese servicemen. This issue already runs far beyond the Kyrgyz-Chinese relations, because it seriously affects Russia’s interests in the region and will require enhancement of national security of the Russian regions adjacent to Central Asia. These are the geostrategic laws,” says Alexander Sobyanin, Head of the Strategic Planning Service of the Border Cooperation Association.
Another Chinese project in Central Asia is the China-Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Iran road. As Kubat Rakhimov says, China is the only country in the world that can allocate funds regardless of the investment situation. Tajikistan is especially interested in that road. Following the collapse of the USSR, the republic has only one railway that links Tajikistan to the post-Soviet space via Uzbekistan. The Tashkent-Dushanbe relations are so complicated that the railway is regularly blocked by Uzbekistan, with Tajikistan not only suffering direct losses, but also facing a threat of food and energy crisis. Theoretically, Tajikistan may build a 50-km railway section to Afghanistan and wait until the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan branch line starts working. In this case, it will get access to Turkmenistan, as well as access to Kazakhstan, Russia and Iran via Turkmenistan. It is better than nothing, if it is impossible to strike a chord with Tashkent. However, experts are rather skeptical about such arguments of Dushanbe.
First, the situation in Afghanistan’s regions where the railway might be laid for Tajikistan is rather fragile. Second, experts think that the challenging terrain will suggest no disciplined traffic schedule. Third, Dushanbe and Ashgabat are considering possible construction of a branch line that would adjoin the Termez-Hairatan (Mazar-i-Sharif) railroad, but it was built by Uzbekistan, with the main rail carrier being the Uzbekistan Railways. That is, Dushanbe is moving along the path it tries to diverge from. Fourth, if Dushanbe has decided to anyhow access the outer world bypassing Uzbekistan, it had better think about the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan-Russia project, which was suggested during the CSTO summit in May 2013 but has not yet received a boost.
“It is more realistic than the one through Afghanistan. I think the key obstacle is that amid the confrontation with the West, Russia has no funds for construction of that pricy railroad, whose self-repayment is also doubtful. Nevertheless, this does not prevent Dushanbe from negotiating with potential donors. It is hard to predict the results, but all the same it is better than to wait, sitting on the hands,” says Rakhimov. The ADB consultant thinks that the best possible option is to stop trying “to escape” the geography and to sit at a negotiating table with a view to removing the discrepancies with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and ensuring a consistent access to the Russian and Kazakh railway networks — there should be no hostile relations between the neighbors.
Summing up his remarks, Kubat Rakhimov says that the transport projects in Central Asia are the infrastructure projection of the world geopolitics with its advantages and disadvantages for each country of the region. The advantages are generally restricted to the access to the outer world. As regards the disadvantages, in a bid to stop the isolation, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will considerably enhance the influence of China (other railway construction options are low probable), at the same time finding themselves completely dependent on China, without getting even a multiplier effect. Chinese companies will build the trunk railways and will consequently receive the entire profit. It is not clear how the funds for the transit service will be distributed. “In addition, the authorities of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan should remember that China has never been an altruist and it never does anything just for fun,” Rakhimov says.