The Chinese government is developing a new project to restore the historic Great Silk Route. According to some Chinese sources, it involves the railways, outstretching as far as six thousand kilometres and is worth 150 billion dollars. Beijing is planning to build such a railway network via Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran; with Turkey being a final destination. The starting point is meant to be the Xinjang Uygur Autonomous Region. It is also expected that this route might be connected to the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, the construction of which came into its final stage. The new line will be ready by 2030 and will provide the operation of passenger trains travelling at the speed of 200 km/h as well as the cargo trains, with speeds of 160 km/h.
This ambitious project makes us think of the dormant “economic expansion” of China towards the West. In particular, it refers to the former Soviet Union area. If we add the “demographic expansion” disguised in the same manner, we can spring to a number of conclusions and make various suppositions. This is not to mention the majority of Central Asia countries, where the citizens of China feel quite at home while it is also noted that they have recently succeeded in settling into the Trans-Caucasian states as well. This particularly affects Georgia, as real Chinese quarters appeared in its capital and some other locations – the so-called “Chinatowns”. Are we right in saying that whilst some political heavyweight champions are trying to push each other out of a particular region by means of different tricks and even by force, China is doing exactly the same but thinking more clearly and far more efficiently?
Alexander Knyazev an expert on the Middle East region and Central Asia, appeals not to dramatize the situation. “A project is called so because it does not have to be implemented by all means”, – this is what he told the correspondent of “New Eastern Outlook”. According to Knyazev, the Chinese project involves elements leading to a potential conflict – an area of the railway being planned outstretching from the Chinese city of Kashgar as far as the Uzbek Andijan via Kyrgyz Osh.
“Until the end of the last year Bishkek authorities were confirming the readiness to participate in the project. The main debates in the parliament were centred around the issues of financial participation on part of Kyrgyzstan. It was discussed that the Chinese companies would be provided access to a number of mineral deposits in the area of the proposed route as part of Kyrgyzstan’s stake in the project. The deputies did not feel very enthusiastic about it, and they were not ready to discuss other issues of concern raised during these debates”, as Knyazev informed.
According to other experts, one of the outstanding problems involves considering the width of the rail track. The Chinese side insists on the “European” one, they are more accustomed to (1435 mm), whereas Kyrgyzstan would like to use the standard (gauge) of the track which was widely used in the former USSR, thinking mainly of the development of its southern region – the so-called “Soviet standard” (1520 mm). In this case it would be possible to connect the new railways with the existing Kyrgyz routes, without huge expenses.
“In December 2013 the President of Kyrgyzstan, Almazbek Atanbayev refused participation in the Chinese project without giving any reasons, and so far the issue remains. The thing is that the Chinese project is a direct rival not only to the Russian Trans-Siberian, but also to some Kazakh communication projects: a motorway Khorgas-Urask leading from the Chinese border with the following access to Europe, and the railway route Zhanaozen (West Kazakhstan region) – Gyzylgaya and Gyzyletrek (Turkmenistan) – Gorgan (Iran). The Kazakh project is part of the international North-South corridor, combined with the Russian railway network and surely it does not provoke competition with the Russian Railways”, Alexandr Knyazev went on to say.
There is one more Kazakh route. Late last year Kazakhstan finished off the construction of the 293-km long track leading from Zhetygen to Khorgas on the China border, thus closing it as a ring for the existing national railway network and having opened another China-European railways along its territory. Apart from the troubles in the relations with Kazakhstan and Russia, the construction of the Chinese latitudinal railway would also mean a change in the development of the southern region for Kyrgyzstan, refocusing on the connections with China and Uzbekistan, a more explicit split of the South from the north of the republic, bearing in mind that the threat of splitting already exists. “That is why the attitude to the project in Bishkek is very cautious”, Knyazev claimed. According to the expert, a completely different attitude to the railway project is found in Uzbekistan, having quite a lot of export-orientated production (uranium, cotton, metals etc.).
“In Uzbekistan the implementation of the Chinese railway project is considered to be the possibility to activate the connections with China itself, as well as acquiring the much anticipated access to the Pacific ports. It follows that Kyrgyzstan’s consent to participate in the Chinese project makes the republic a direct rival in respect to those countries on which it is most dependent on – Kazakhstan and Russia”, as Knyazev believes. That is why, according to his opinion, the implementation issues of the railway project remain open even in the Central Asia region, not mentioning the South Caucasian route yet.
Knyazev’s colleague, Azerbaijanian expert Ilgar Velizade, who runs the club of political analysts “South Caucasus”, believes that in spite of the number of difficulties, the Chinese project has a certain potential to be implemented – the more is the fact that the railways are to be commissioned not tomorrow nor even in a year but only by 2030, and by this time the situation might drastically change everywhere. “It goes without saying that China pursues its own aims while implementing such a large-scale and cost-effective project, the main aim of which is strengthening its presence not only in the Central Asia region but also in the Caucasus and the neighbouring territories, mainly around the Black Sea”, Ilgar Velizade informs the author.
The Azerbaijanian expert thinks that at the same time, judging by the specific works done, involving not only laying the railway tracks but also the construction of the related infrastructure, logistics centres, storage facilities, and even objects of tourist infrastructure – motels, hotels etc., the Chinese companies will try to actively participate in their creation, and probably in their further operation. “Having said that, one can predict that we can talk about a consistent and considerable expansion of the Celestial Empire in Central Asia and the Caspian-Black Sea region within the coming fifteen years, rather than witnessing a breakthrough of China towards the West somewhere after 2030”, Ilgar Velizade reports.
Yuri Simonyan, the columnist of “Nezavisimaya Gazeta”, specially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.