Uzbekistan gains access to Gwadar Port and Turkey by rail

Victoria Panfilova, columnist of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, specially for Vestnik Kavkaza
Uzbekistan gains access to Gwadar Port and Turkey by rail

The next round of talks on the construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway will be held in Bishkek soon, deputy chairman of the board of directors of the O'zbekiston Temir Yo'llari (Uzbek Railways) Akmal Kamalov said. According to him, the main parameters of the project implementation have already been agreed. The construction start date and funding are yet to be confirmed.

The intergovernmental agreement on the construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway will be signed by autumn 2018. The large-scale project has been under discussion at a high level for 22 years. It was suggested by the first president of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov in 1996, but only now there is hope that the road will be built. In particular, new SCO Secretary General Vladimir Norov described the support of the project for building the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway as one of the organization's priorities for the near future.

Cargoes will be shipped from China via Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to Eastern Europe and the Middle East by this road. The route will pass through Turkmenistan, the Caspian region, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.

Akmal Kamalov told reporters that several rounds of meetings have already been held both at the working and the ministerial levels. "The route has been preliminarily determined, negotiations continue on the issue of a track gauge and funding," Kamalov said. According to him, a preliminary feasibility study of the project has been already carried out. Specialists are determining in detail the number of tunnels, bridges and other artificial structures. At the next meeting in Bishkek, we plan to discuss the project, the period of construction, contractors and subcontractors more closely," the official said.

Kyrgyzstan insisted on a route that would connect the north and south of the country to obtain the maximum multiplier effect on the country's economy. For this purpose the Kyrgyz side proposed to build a track from Bishkek to Osh through the Naryn Oblast, which would make the route much more difficult, since the railway was planned through the highlands, which is rather expensive. Today, according to the director of the Tashkent Center for Research Initiatives "Ma'no" Bakhtiyor Ergashev, Bishkek agreed on the "southern route", i.e. the railway through Osh. The idea of ​​conjugation of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and China's One Belt One Road Initiative was used to receive the go-ahead for the road's construction from Russia. The railway will bypass Russia - through Turkmenistan to the ports of the Caspian, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. As for the cost of construction, in the 1990s this project was estimated at about a billion dollars. Today, it "has swelled" up to 7 billion dollars. But since the SCO took 'patronage' over the project, the money will almost certainly be allocated from the Silk Road Fund.

According to Bakhtiyor Ergashev, the railway is beneficial because it will help to reduce cargo transit costs for Uzbekistan almost twofold, the speed of cargo transit will increase, the cost of cargo transit along the entire route will decrease. "Uzbekistan has already prepared internal communications. If they are connected with the rail, we will get a through transport and communication road from Turkey to China's seaports. This is another serious project of the East-West highway. It should be considered as a whole in order to understand the deep logic of development transport corridors in the region. This is not the sum of some individual projects. In fact, it is about the transformation of Central Asia into a transport-transit hub of continental significance. Uzbekistan has no access to the sea, and forming transport corridors is a matter of economic survival and economic development for it. Both exports and imports of Uzbekistan are very expensive. If we want sustainable economic growth, then we need to address issues of transport and transit communications. Make them cheap, ensure competition between routes to optimize transport flows - both export and import ones," Ergashev told Vestnik Kavkaza.

There are also benefits for Kyrgyzstan. Speaking with the article's author, Kyrgyz expert Kubat Rakhimov said that the Ferghana Valley will be linked to China, there will be an opportunity to develop mineral deposits, trade will be intensified - both regional and with neighboring countries. In this case, Kyrgyzstan will join the logistics and production chains of China's Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Beijing, according to the expert, systematically embodies a grandiose plan dubbed "Go west". Xinjiang plays one of the main roles in it. In addition to the fact that the autonomous region has really changed in recent years, a network of railways was built there. China plans to turn Kashgar, a city in Xinjiang, into a powerful industrial and logistics center. Its development implies the construction of a railway from XUAR towards the Indian Ocean with access to the water area through China's Gwadar Port in Pakistan (Islamabad gave the port to China to repay the debt). If the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway is added to this "artery", the picture of international transport corridors in the region will be radically changed. As a result, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan will have access to the two oceans through the territory of China.

Director for cultural, scientific and educational projects of the Center for Traditional Cultures (Moscow) Alexander Sobyanin told Vestnik Kavkaza that the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway will not be built in the near future: "It does not mean that the road is not needed. The region's economy need this road. The question is which of the projects will be implemented first: China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan or Chui-Fergana from Siberia to the Ferghana Valley, which further branches into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. If the road from Siberia will be first, it will become the European vector of Central Asia, including Uzbekistan. The countries will develop within the framework of the Eurasian integration project, and it will be a new level of cooperation within the EEU. If the  road from China will be first, it means that the countries will reorient to the Chinese integration project, that is the American one. But I am convinced that this the road will not be built," Sobyanin said. According to him, the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway is associated with geostrategic risks. The most important question is the gauge of track. If Bishkek agrees with the Chinese standard, then the "Chinese security", the Chinese military will appear in the region automatically. And this issue extends far beyond the limits of the Kyrgyz-Chinese relations, since it seriously affects Russia's interests in the region and will require raising the national security of the Russian regions neighboring with Central Asia. These are geostrategy laws." The expert believes that Moscow should pay serious attention to the economic development of Central Asia.