Plans are finally in motion for a railway that runs from China to Europe through Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, after being on the table for two decades. Some Central Asian residents remain skeptical of the project, while others anticipate it will be an economic boon for the region.
The deal, reached in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization's summit last month, cements a feasibility study that requires the transportation authorities of all countries involved to complete an assessment of the project by the middle of next year, then begin construction.
The new route, costing roughly $4.5 billion, would be an alternative to China's current dependence on a route through Russia and Kazakhstan for overland transit to Europe. That route has become politically problematic because of Western sanctions on Russia prompted by President Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine.
Central Asian skeptics
Some Central Asian residents say their country has been included as a means to an end for other countries and are doubtful the latest rail project will benefit them.
"Central Asians have always waved at containers carrying someone else's freight elsewhere," said a young attendant on Uzbekistan's Afrosiyob domestic express train who calls himself Aziz and does not want to use his real name.
"Another document taking us nowhere," said Hikmat, a 33-year-old trader in the Southern Uzbek city of Samarkand, who prefers not to use his last name, fearing his criticism could hurt his partnerships in Kyrgyzstan and China. "What are we getting from this? Weren't the governments already studying feasibility?"
VOA heard similar cynicism from residents in Kyrgyzstan. Analyst Sovetbek Zikirov pointed out that many in Central Asia believe China is more interested in shipping its products through the region than in investing locally or creating jobs.
"It's not seeking more presence in our market," Zikirov told VOA.
Hopeful rail supporters
The adoption of a memorandum on September 14, however, has renewed hope among some officials in Central Asia that a new railway will connect their goods to faraway markets, and some urge Bishkek to move faster.
Kyrgyz observer Bektemir Ziyadinov wrote via Facebook that infrastructure projects would elevate the country's image and credibility.
"This railway is not just a great opportunity for Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan but will create an awesome alternative for China, which currently transits goods mainly via Kazakhstan," said Zilola Yunusova, head of the Uzbek Foreign Ministry's research unit. "This new route is 900 kilometers shorter. Such new corridors are especially relevant now when big economies face global supply chains and pandemic bottlenecks."
Yunusova, whose center tackles regional projects, told VOA the deal "demonstrates strong political resolve. Now, the governments will consider each other's proposals and come to agreement on the route and investments."
She admitted that the document lacks details but said it commits to steps for the next year so that construction can begin in 2023.
Uzbek, Kyrgyz, and Chinese officials stress that their governments are eager to collaborate on mapping and funding of the railway project.
"We all know China is very interested to realize this project as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)," Yunusova said.
Kyrgyz Transportation and Communications Minister Erkinbek Osoyev, who signed the deal, said Kyrgyz specialists are already working with Chinese counterparts.
"The deadline for the technical and economic assessment is no later than June 1, 2023," a September 14 Kyrgyz statement noted. "The sides are to equally share the expenses for the technical and economic justification of the project."
China's Foreign Ministry calls the agreement "important progress in the construction of a major transport route in the Eurasian continent."
For Bishkek and Tashkent, this "faster and shorter" railway should emerge as a southern branch of the Eurasian continental link, opening access to Southeast Asia, Western Asian and Middle Eastern markets while delivering Chinese goods to Kyrgyzstan and other parts of Central Asia en route to Europe.
Tashkent and Bishkek put high hopes on the railway's social-economic impact, such as expanding domestic transportation services and infrastructure.
The idea for this railway has been under discussion for 20 years, but never took concrete shape until about 2018 when the leaderships in Tashkent and Bishkek started pushing for it together.
China-Central Asia relations
China's state media Global Times quoted Zhao Huirong at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who said the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway project could be "one of the most important multilateral economic cooperation projects yielded by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization," although the deal only includes three of its eight members.
"More trade and logistic collaboration will develop in Xinjiang after the railway is put into operation. … The rail line is conducive to expanding the exports of the two countries' agricultural and mineral products," Zhao told the Global Times.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu said Washington is closely watching Chinese engagement with Central Asia.
"When I served as ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, I witnessed local resentment of the Chinese presence, which was often seen as exploitative, corrupt, and non-transparent," Lu told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on September 14. "There exists a genuine fear that Belt and Road Initiative loans are creating unsustainable debt. There is fear that Chinese workers are displacing jobs for Central Asian workers."
Lu saw significant concern in Central Asia that Beijing's ambitions are not purely commercial.
"Fighting corrupt PRC business deals is sensitive and dangerous work. Our embassy in Kyrgyzstan has spent years working to shine a light on PRC organized crime activity, in league with former Kyrgyz corrupt officials, that robs the people of Central Asia of billions in customs revenue each year."
The Chinese embassy has not responded to VOA's request for comment, but Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin has said, "The so-called 'Chinese debt trap' is a lie made up by the U.S. and some other Western countries to deflect responsibility and blame."
In June, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi highlighted the agreements made in the regional foreign ministers' meeting in Kazakhstan for "win-win results." Wang said important points at the meeting included "connectivity," "the safe and stable operation of the China-Europe freight train," improved customs and ensuring a "continuous supply chain."
Many Uzbeks, while skeptical about the construction of a railway that has been in discussion for so many years, do hope to benefit if the cargo route becomes reality.
As Aziz, the young train attendant, remarked on the way to Samarkand, "East or West, we want the best, because we deserve the best. We want businesses transiting their goods to stop and shop here. These freight trains should finally start carrying our goods as well."