Central Asia Wants to Link its Future to China
The latest Economist reports renewed interest in the construction of new rail lines in Central Asia. The new lines could create closer economic ties to China and even reduce transit times into Europe. The impetus for the new infrastructure is partly due to interest to connect Central Asian economies closer to one another. But they also represent a shift in Central Asia away from Russia and toward China. China is interested in the construction of cargo lines through Central Asia into Europe because they will avoid Russian territory and the accompanying sanctions.
The proposed route connects Jalalabad in Kyrgyzstan to the Torugart Pass on China’s border. A route already exists between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Additional routes could connect Uzbekistan to Europe through Turkmenistan, Iran, and Turkey. Currently, Chinese goods must travel through Kazakhstan into Russia to reach Europe. The momentum for the new route will likely depend on whether international investors believe the sanctions on Russia are permanent. Still, the new route will shorten transit times by 900km and save eight days, so the project has clear long-term benefits.
The plan already has China’s support. The Economist reports Xi Jinping endorses the project and plans to attend a summit in Samarknd focused on the project this week. Still, Kyrgyzstan President Japarov also claims the project has Putin’s approval too. It’s unclear why Russia might support a project destined to limit his influence in the region. It’s once again another example where Russian interests are secondary to China’s. Indeed, Russian prestige continues to decline as it becomes a junior partner in its relationship with China. Of course, the emergence of China is widely discussed in terms of the decline of American hegemony. However, China’s continued rise has also transformed Russia’s traditional sphere of influence.