Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan Are About to Get Railed: the CKU Railway Deal

Written by: Layne Gebert

On September 14th, the heads of state of China, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan met to move forward with plans for a landmark railway deal among their countries. If finalized, this agreement will result in the construction of a rail line that runs from China through Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Although there has been a lot of discussion of the project for decades, the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine reduced political gridlock over the plan, and the deal has begun to progress gradually. Part of the appeal for the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway (CKU) is that it would conduct itself as a new transcontinental link between China and Europe. Not only will the new rail line cut nearly 900 kilometers off the route, but it will also bypass increasingly stringent Russian sanctions. Currently, the construction is projected to cost around $4.5 billion USD. However, given the hazardous and mountainous terrain of the route, that number could very well double. If the CKU deal is completed as planned, experts say that the construction could begin as early as 2023. 

Yet, there have been several outspoken critics of the CKU railway who argue that the cost of the rail line is not feasible for Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and they will become increasingly likely to incur debt with the Chinese government. Critics contend that these predatory loans are often given to vulnerable states as a form of “debt trap diplomacy.” To contend with their newfound and unsustainable debt, states often have to grant concessions to China or engage in other practices that gradually erode their national sovereignty. As part of its Belt-Road Initiative, China has continually invested in infrastructure and transportation projects to expand its political and economic supremacy in the third world. However, some argue that these Belt-Road Initiative loans are a vehicle for this same “debt trap diplomacy.” As evidence for this argument, opponents of the CKU cite China’s recent rail deal with Laos. After the construction of the Chinese-Laos Railway, Laos borrowed almost $12.2 billion USD from China. As a means to repay the sum, Laos agreed to a 25-year concession allowing China to control its national power grid and manage its electricity exports. As such, critics maintain that the CKU deal could set the stage for a similar predatory relationship in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Citizens of both countries have also begun to question the overall economic impact of the deal, and some are doubtful it will bring prosperity to the region.

Furthermore, a myriad of environmental concerns exist over the construction of this railway. There are broad concerns about the potential for contamination of the water supply in areas where construction is planned, especially with mineral runoff likely in the mountainous region. Overall, the pushback against the deal has been substantial.

Nevertheless, the CKU railway has many proponents as well. Supporters of the agreement assert that the infrastructure project will create a period of economic prosperity for both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The railway line would better connect both countries to international markets and may spur increased global trade. Furthermore, advocates argue that the CKU track will increase domestic employment and create new jobs in the region. This new infrastructure may even attract other foreign investments to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. In response to claims of debt-trap diplomacy, defenders of the deal zealously maintain that these accusations are either severely exaggerated or outright untrue. Moreover, they argue that past Chinese investment has a proven “track record” for spurring economic development in partner countries. 

Whatever the case may be, the polarization around the CKU deal has sparked fierce debate on the topic. Whether or not railway construction will happen at this scale remains to be seen, but one thing does not– the increasing political and economic power of the Chinese government. If the CKU plan is indeed executed, only time will tell if the concerns for the project were valid or merely hot air. 

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