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New railway will turn Central Asia into a major Eurasian hub

By DJOOMART OTORBAEV | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-06-20 07:55
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A trilateral intergovernmental agreement on the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway project was signed at a ceremony in Beijing on June 6. President Xi Jinping, President of Kyrgyzstan Sadyr Japarov and President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev hailed the event as a sign of unity and shared progress.

In his address, President Xi underscored the railway project as an epitome of strategic cooperation within the Belt and Road Initiative. The signing of the agreement establishes a robust legal foundation for the project and signifies a major shift from a mere vision to a tangible reality. China's dedication to collaborating with the two Central Asian countries to accelerate the construction of this strategic transport corridor is a clear indication of the collective progress of the project, which is set to bring substantial benefits to all three countries.

The governments of China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan agreed to embark on constructing the new railway at a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit held in the Uzbek city of Samarkand in September, 2022. The project feasibility study was updated following the completion of field surveys by Chinese engineers in December last year. All three countries have diligently prepared for the construction, which is expected to commence later this year.

The new railway, a beacon of hope and optimism, will start in China's Kashgar and traverse Torugart, Kosh-Dobo, and Kazarman in Kyrgyzstan, culminating in Andijan in eastern Uzbekistan. It is estimated that the railway will shorten the route between China and Europe by about 900 kilometers and reduce freight transit time by eight days. This transformative railway, with its potential to enhance trade and economic cooperation between the countries along its path, holds the promise of a brighter future and instills optimism due to the potential economic benefits it will bring.

According to an earlier announcement, the planned 523-km railway will be constructed through a joint venture involving three countries. The estimated total cost of the project is $8 billion, with $4.7 billion allocated for the Kyrgyz part.

In a testament to the project's significance, Japarov emphasized that this project is crucial for Kyrgyzstan's global connectivity, allowing his landlocked country to connect with the rest of the world.

The project was first proposed in the 1990s, and the three sides signed a memorandum of understanding on constructing the railway in 1997. Some experts believe political and geopolitical problems have hindered the project's development. However, we don't share this view. China is a pragmatic partner, and economic feasibility is crucial for making any decision. This time, practical considerations again played a critical role. The launch of this project occurred thanks to the unfolding Eurasian railway revolution, a clear demonstration of which are the facts listed below.

On May 25, a significant event occurred: the 90,000th trip was made on the China-Europe freight rail link, mainly through its northern route via Kazakhstan and Russia. Since its inception in 2011, the service has transported over 8.7 million twenty-foot equivalent units containers carrying goods valued at more than $380 billion. This impressive accomplishment highlights the success of that railway link. Currently, China-Europe freight trains connect 223 cities in 25 European countries and over 100 cities in 11 Asian countries, creating a service network spanning almost the entire Eurasian continent.

Between 2016 and 2023, the annual number of China-Europe freight train trips increased from 1,702 to over 17,000. The value of goods transported by this service rose from $8 billion in 2016 to $56.7 billion in 2023.This rapid growth reflects the growing market demand for this efficient and dependable mode of transportation, especially when compared to air and sea routes.

The traffic's rapid growth continued this year. From January to April, 6,184 China-Europe freight trains operated, delivering 675,000 TEUs of cargo. It represents a 10 percent increase in the number of trains and an 11 percent increase in cargo compared to the same period of last year. The set-scheduled service has further improved transit time, with a journey from Xi'an to Duisburg, Germany, now taking only 12 days.

The rapidly growing rail traffic volume shows that developing an additional rail transport route between China and Europe, this time through Central Asia, the Caspian Sea, and the South Caucasus, will be economically feasible. The construction of this railway line will create the shortest land route between the two economic centers of the Eurasian continent along the Middle Corridor. At the same time, it will establish direct rail connections between China and Central Asia, the South Caucasus, Iran, Turkiye, and Europe, transforming Central Asia from a landlocked to a land-connected area.

The new railway lines will intersect in Central Asia with planned and under-construction railway lines in the North-South direction from Russia and Central Asia through Afghanistan, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, and Iran to the deep-water ports of the Indian Ocean. President of Uzbekistan Mirziyoyev specifically highlighted this potential during the signing ceremony on June 6 by saying that the railway will become the shortest land channel between China and the Central Asian countries and open the big markets of the South Asian and Middle Eastern countries. If this plan comes to fruition, the intersection of the East-West and North-South railway routes in Central Asia could transform the region into a major transport hub for the entire Eurasian continent. If this happens, the Great Silk Road revival could become a reality.

The author is former prime minister of the Kyrgyz Republic and a distinguished professor at the Belt and Road School at Beijing Normal University. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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