Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Will China Finally Build a Rail Link with Central Asia?

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 13 – Chinese, Kyrgyz and Uzbek experts have reached agreement on the route of a railway line between China and Central Asia and say that they expect an inter-governmental agreement to be signed next month, but this project, which would transform the geopolitics of the region, still faces some serious technical and political obstacles.’s Irina Dudka reports that experts have agreed on the 268.4 km route (Kashgar-Torugart-the Arpa valley-the Ferghana crest-Uzgen-Kara-Suu) and on the location and on a transfer station to cope with the difference in width between the Chinese and CA rails ( e0c3aa).
According to the head of Kyrgyz railways, the draft accord has already been sent to Beijing, and after it is signed, the sides plan to prepare the final description of project to be put out for bids by international companies, something Chinese, South Korean, and American companies have already expressed an interest in.
Kyrgyz and Uzbek officials told Dudka that they are enthusiastic about the project, viewing it not only as a way out to world markets which bypasses Russia but also as a direct stimulus to their economies overall and to particular branches such as iron and steel and regions such as Kyrgyzstan’s Naryn oblast.
But the project still faces several major problems. First of all, there is the question of financing. The project, which was initially projected to cost 1.35 billion U.S. dollars, is now estimated to cost as much as two billion, but all of the governments involved hope the private sector will finance this, something that may or may not happen.
Then, there are a large number of technical problems. Part of the route is situated at more than 3600 meters (12,000 feet) above sea level, and plans call for the construction of 48 tunnels and 19 bridges, all of which pose daunting construction challenges and make the project all the more difficult to complete.
And finally, there is serious opposition to the project from both the Russian Federation and Kazakhstan, each of which views the construction of such a rail line from China through Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan as a threat to its own interests -- economic and geopolitical -- as transit routes for Central Asian goods and as economic partners with China.
Even more to the point, Dudka says, the Kyrgyz and Uzbek supporters of this project have not yet addressed three questions that others involved are now mulling. First of all, is China still interested in this project given “the explosiveness” of Muslim populations in Xinjiang and the danger that this rail link would expand contacts between those groups and Central Asia?
Second, are the Europeans and the Americans going to be supportive of such a rail line given their concerns about Islamist challenges in Central Asia and Iran when they have other routes available them via either the sea lanes or across the Russian Federation and Kazakhstan which are more stable?
And third, given tensions between Tashkent and Bishkek over water and cross-border ethnic groups, is it in fact the case that Uzbekistan is really as supportive of the construction of this railway as the Kyrgyz say, especially given that the volume of trade Uzbekistan could reasonably expect it to carry may not be that large?
Dudka says in her article that she asked the Kyrgyzstan foreign ministry for official answers to these questions, but that agency rejected her request apparently “considering [these questions to be] too sharp,” an indication that progress toward the construction of such a rail system may be further off that other Kyrgyz officials have suggested.

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