The Platform

Kyrgyzstan government

China needs a trade route that bypasses Russia. This is where Central Asia enters the picture.

In an era where economic resilience is as coveted as influence, China finds itself at a pivotal juncture. Amidst its fiscal tribulations, the nation is carving out innovative pathways into the European economic theatre. This comes in the wake of sanctions imposed on Russia, which have cast shadows of doubt over President Xi Jinping’s hallmark Belt and Road Initiative.

Beijing is acutely aware of the untenable nature of transiting goods through the tempest of a Russia embroiled in conflict. Ukrainian drones, now venturing into Russian airspace, ominously signal the potential vulnerability of the transit routes that serve as lifelines between China and Europe. It is this precarious scenario that propels Beijing’s search for alternative conduits to the European Union’s marketplace.

It is noteworthy that during the height of the pandemic—a period defined by isolation—the trade turnover between China and the EU burgeoned, marking a 27.5 percent year-on-year increase at $828 billion in 2021. Yet, as the specter of the pandemic receded by the close of 2023, this figure subtly dipped to $782 billion, a trend that has since gathered pace.

In response, Beijing has been compelled to revive and reimagine older initiatives. A concept that emerged in the early 2000s, which envisaged a railway traversing through the heartlands of Central Asia—specifically Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan—proposes to link China with Europe, circumventing Russian soil. This “time-honored” project, dusted off from the shelves of forgotten plans, now pulsates with renewed vigor.

This newly charted route holds the promise of further cementing Beijing’s strategic ambitions under the Belt and Road Initiative, bolstering its burgeoning clout in the region. For Kyrgyzstan, the potential financial windfall of transit fees is enticing, albeit tinged with the peril of financial overreach, given its current reliance on Chinese loans which constitute 38 percent of its external debt. Uzbekistan, too, is flirting with the allure of transit revenues, all while balancing the delicate act of wooing both Russian and Chinese investments.

Yet, seasoned analysts cast a skeptical eye on this ambitious railway route, citing its technical intricacies and questionable profitability. More daunting still is the geopolitical labyrinth that lies beyond Uzbekistan. The gateway to Europe wends through either the instability of Afghanistan or the sanction-laden landscape of Iran via Turkmenistan—a pair of land routes fraught with uncertainty.

Iran, straining under the weight of Western sanctions, discerns in this venture an avenue to circumvent its economic straitjacket, displaying an eagerness to champion the project.

The scale of investment needed to breathe life into this rail vision is colossal. The architects behind the “China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan” railway line are anticipated to court international financial institutions, seeking to tether them to the project’s fortunes—and misfortunes. Such a move, according to financial luminaries, would potentially entangle Western investors in a web of risk and dubious ventures, making involvement a matter not just of finance, but of foresight.

Theo Casablanca is a blogger who lives in Brasília.