There are different approaches for raising the railway cargo movement capacity between China and Europe. It is not just an end-to-end situation – all the territories between China and Europe stand to benefit from the expansion of the railway infrastructure.
The space of Kyrgyzstan is in the centre of some of the plans. Everyone interested in this railway route is in favour of early implementation but there are some points of disagreement. The dialogue continues.
The segments from this planned network branch out to Uzbekistan and Caucasus.
The president of Kyrgyzstan, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, recently mentioned the desire to build this railway line on priority basis. He said that as a landlocked country, Kyrgyzstan is interested in the successful development of the transport routes that fully link the trade between the east and the west. His statement came during the summit of the cooperation council of the Turkic-speaking countries in Cholpon-Ata, making it clear that Kyrgyzstan is ready and willing to go to great lengths for the sake of hosting this transit route.
China has expressed readiness to invest in the railway infrastructure in the territory of Kyrgyzstan. Since Kyrgyzstan does not have the financial strength to do the railway construction on its own, it is possible that China will do the work under an economic give-and-take scenario.
China has implemented this strategy in the African continent and several other countries. It is the ‘concrete’ and ‘railway’ diplomacy of China, built around the concept of mutual benefit. There is no wonder that every third country in Africa is of the Chinese origin.
In Kyrgyzstan, the railway route is supposed to move toward Uzbekistan, bypassing Kazakhstan and Russia. Even though it would be expedient to use the territories of Kazakhstan and Russia for the shipment of railway cargo to Europe, Chinese planners are probably working on some different economic considerations.
Currently about 95% of the Chinese cargo is delivered to Europe through the sea route. Only about 5% is transport through the land routes, mostly through the Russian Trans-Siberian Railway.
However, China is not satisfied with the performance of this route and wants to test other ways for cargo delivery to Europe.
The transportation of rail freight through the Trans-Siberian Railway is cheaper compared to other options such as through Turkey or Azerbaijan. However, the Trans-Siberian Railway is mainly busy with the Russian cargo and doesn’t have the spare capacity for the cargo of other countries.
Moreover, the goods move along the Russian railroad extremely slowly. The average speed of goods train along the Trans-Siberian Railway is 12 km per hour whereas the average speed of cargo trains in China is at least 40 km per hour.
Logically, China could have considered investing in the Kazakhstani or Russian railway systems for their improvement and upgrading to make it the main route for China-Europe cargo delivery. However, the preference of China to build the rail network in Kyrgyzstan and onward to Uzbekistan seems geared toward some future implications. This idea has been under negotiations for a couple of decades and some movement is visible now.
There is also the question of the railway gauge. — In the post-soviet space the standard gauge is 1520 mm whereas China follows the European standard of 1435 mm.
While Kyrgyzstan may have given China the access to some of its metal deposits, the question of reducing the gauge to the European standard is perhaps still not fully resolved one way of the other.
Uzbekistan is clearly not willing to give up the Soviet standard gauge, mainly for the traditionally known military reasons associated with the railway movement when crossing the international borders.
This raises the question as to where will the gauge-change take place in or near Uzbekistan. The tripartite alliance of China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan still hopes to solve this and other outstanding issues. The progress of the dialogue is, nevertheless, points to the possibility of an amicable solution at some point in the future. The leadership of Kyrgyzstan has discussed the matter with China and Russia.
Russia, meanwhile, is preparing to actively participate in the parallel process of building and modernizing railways in Kyrgyzstan. This was recently announced by the deputy head of the Russian Railways Alexander Misharin. He noted the benefits that will open with the construction of railroads in this Central Asian republic. First of all, a business that will be able to transport its cargo faster, safer and more transparent than it does now will win, said Misharin. Kyrgyz experts talk about the future prospects of such a route for Moscow. They understand that Kyrgyzstan is not a final destination for Russia, but a transit one. According to the Russian project North-South, there are plans to build a transport corridor from India to Europe through Iran, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. And here again Kyrgyzstan itself wins, for which such infrastructure projects are only a plus, not a minus.
According to analysts, the projects of Russia and China do not contradict each other, and the construction of Russian roads in Kyrgyzstan does not cancel the implementation of a long-standing project with the participation of Beijing and Tashkent. It only says that both Russia and China are looking for opportunities to get out of this railway deadlock with minimal losses for each other. /// nCa, 3 December 2018