Three Central Asian leaders — the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan — attended the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing last weekend. For Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, the forum was an opportunity to dangle the long-stalled China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway for potential inclusion in the Belt and Road initiative; for Kazakhstan, lingering questions about the long-term benefits of the initiative and its investments in the region remain unasked and unanswered at the highest levels.
It has to be said that the forum overall was underwhelming. As Shannon Tiezzi noted, “It was more a celebration of the project… than an expansion of its parameters or a serious consideration of the challenges that face the Belt and Road.”
“In other words, the [Belt and Road Forum] was all about optics – the sheer number of attendees and agreements signed – rather than substance,” Tiezzi wrote.
Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and the Railway Revival
Making his first state visit to China, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev had kind words for the Belt and Road and for Central Asia’s place in it. “I am convinced that the implementation of this large-scale project, now covering more than 60 percent of the world population, will contribute to the formation of a common belt of peace, prosperity, progress, cooperation, and friendship between our countries and peoples,” Mirziyoyev said. Reportedly he signed agreements worth $23 billion in various sectors.
Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev reportedly lauded the Belt and Road for opening new opportunities in the region and Kyrgyz press highlighted agreements signed, such as one on small and medium business development. It’s not exactly clear what the agreement actually contains.
Interestingly, all three Central Asian leaders highlighted the potential for projects beyond infrastructure, though they also praised existing and past infrastructure projects.
According to the head of the foreign policy department of the Kyrgyz president’s office, Aizada Subakozhoeva, Atambayev “noted the importance of expanding fiber-optic communication lines from China to Europe via Kyrgyzstan, e-commerce, and the creation of logistics centers. The project of construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway was noted as promising.”
Mirziyoyev urged in his remarks that “our common priority should be the creation of interconnected industrial technoparks, scientific and innovation clusters, and free economic zones along the Silk Road Economic Belt.” Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev also mentioned technological and scientific development along with agriculture as areas of cooperation.
Mitziyoyev also mentioned hopes that the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway network (including Afghanistan in his remarks), could be integrated into the Belt and Road, via connections to ports in Pakistan and Iran.
Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, in particular, mentioned the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway — hoping for its inclusion into the Belt and Road framework. Notably, the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway projects predates the Belt and Road. The Chinese initiative has certainly accumulated preexisting projects, but it’s important to note, first, that the impetus for the rail line does not originate with Beijing’s present initiative and, second, that the project has been stalled for years.
In 2012, Atambayev said he strongly supported the project, but critics pointed to the lack of a funder and regional antipathy toward greater Chinese investment. By 2015, Fozil Mashrab, writing for the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Monitor, noted that while the Uzbek portion of the project — the Angren-Pap railway — was making solid progress, “Kyrgyzstan’s government has been slow and indecisive in implementing its part of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railroad, while the country’s president, Almazbek Atambaev, keeps changing his mind on the project.” Atambayev may have swung back to the railway idea, but it’s best not to count railroad ties before they are laid.
Mashrab noted that one problem with the railway’s progress, in 2015, was Russia’s ambivalence. In public, then and now, Russia and China have emphasized how their separate regional projects — the Eurasian Economic Union and the Belt and Road — are not in competition, but analysts are not completely convinced by this bonhomie.
“Privately, Russians will tell you they are very concerned about [the Silk Road initiative], but publicly they put on a very brave face,” Theresa Fallon said on the subject in a recent interview with RFE/RL.
Kazakhstan and the Big Questions
While Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan push for inclusion, Nazarbayev and Kazakhstan already hold a special place in Belt and Road parlance. It was in Astana in 2013 that Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled the overland portion of the grand plan, after all. Nazarbayev had kind words for the project and its place in reviving the global economy.
“Paternalism and application of politically motivated sanctions have worsened economic activity and the lives of millions of people. As a result, the world economy and trade have declined. In these conditions, the world needs a new driver to stimulate international cooperation,” Nazarbayev said, with the Belt and Road as the “new driver.”
According to the Astana Times, “Nazarbayev stressed that Central Asia has regained its strategic importance and has become the main bridge between the world’s largest markets.”
Central Asia, especially Kazakhstan, may be a bridge between markets but are there benefits beyond transit fees? As Fallon pointed out in her RFE/RL interview, “China’s investment in [rail links and connectivity] could be beneficial for connecting these various economies. But some are concerned that the trains will just go through Central Asia and bring these goods to Europe and not really help Central Asian economies as much.”
The big question — what happens after initial infrastructure investments and projects are completed? — remains little asked by regional leaders and unanswered by Beijing. Additionally, as Fallon noted, a number of the regional megaprojects have already been completed.
“In Central Asia, there are concerns that [the Belt and Road Initiative has] kind of peaked,” she said.
While some projects have been completed, others have stalled. Neither Turkmenistan nor Tajikistan attended the Belt and Road Forum. Furthermore, nothing public was said about the fate of Line D of the Central Asia-China pipeline. Construction on the line, which would have been the fourth in the network connecting Turkmenistan to China and would have traversed Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, was stalled indefinitely earlier this year.
China’s investments in Central Asia have been serious. One need only look at the rapid increase of trade between the region and Beijing over the last few years to know that. But while the list of agreements piles up, so does the number of unrealized projects and proposals. Similarly, no matter how many times Beijing and Moscow say the EEU and the Belt and Road can be connected, how in detail to achieve that amid an air of competition is never quite explained .