SAMARKAND – Interconnecting Inner Eurasia is an exercise in Taoist equilibrium: adding piece by piece, patiently, to a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. It takes time, skill, vision, and of course major breakthroughs.
A key piece was added to the puzzle recently in Uzbekistan, bolstering the links between the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the International North South Transportation Corridor (INSTC).
The Mirzoyoyev government in Tashkent is deeply engaged in turbo-driving yet another Central Asian transportation corridor: a China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan-Afghanistan railway.
That was at the center of a meeting between the chairman of the board of Temir Yullari – the Uzbek national railways – and his counterparts in Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan, as well as managers of the Chinese Wakhan Corridor logistics company.
In terms of the complex intersection of Xinjiang with Central and South Asia, this is as groundbreaking as it gets, as part of what I call the War of Economic Corridors.
The Uzbeks have pragmatically spun the new corridor as essential to cargo transport under low tariffs – but that goes way beyond mere trade calculations.
Imagine, in practice, cargo containers coming by train from Kashgar in Xinjiang to Osh in Kyrgyzstan and then to Hairatan in Afghanistan. Annual volume is planned to reach 60,000 containers in the first year alone.
That would be crucial to develop Afghanistan’s productive trade – away from the “aid” obsession of the US occupation. Afghan products will finally be able to be easily exported to Central Asian neighbors and also China, for instance to the bustling Kashgar market.
And that stabilizing factor would bolster the Taliban’s coffers, now that the leadership in Kabul is very much interested in buying Russian oil, gas and wheat under vastly attractive discounts.
How to get Afghanistan back in the game
There’s also the possibility of spinning off a road project from this railway that would cross the ultra-strategic Wakhan corridor – something that Beijing has already been contemplating for a few years.
The Wakhan is shared by northern Afghanistan and the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region of Tajikistan: a long, barren, spectacular geological strip, advancing all the way to Xinjiang.
By now it’s clear not only to Kabul, but also to members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), that the humiliated Americans will not restitute the billions of dollars ‘confiscated’ from the Afghan Central Bank’s reserves – something that would at least mitigate Afghanistan’s current, dire economic crisis and imminent mass famine.
So Plan B is to bolster the – for the moment devastated – Afghan supply and trade chains. Russia will be in charge of security for the whole Central-South Asian crossroads. China will provide the bulk of the financing. And that’s where the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan-Afghanistan railway fits in.
China sees a road across the Wakhan – a very complicated proposition – as an extra BRI corridor, linking to the China-repaved Pamir highway in Tajikistan and China-rebuilt Kyrgyzstan roads.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has already built an 80 km access road from the Chinese stretch of the Karakoram Highway – before it reaches the Pakistan border – to a mountain pass in the Wakhan, currently only available for cars and jeeps.
The next Chinese move would be to proceed further on down that road by 450 km, all the way to Fayzabad, the provincial capital of Afghan Badakhshan. That would constitute the roadside back-up corridor to the China-Central Asia-Afghanistan railway.
The key point is that the Chinese, as much as the Uzbeks, fully understand the extremely strategic location of Afghanistan: not only as a Central/South Asian crossroads, connecting to key ocean ports in Pakistan and Iran (Karachi, Gwadar, Chabahar) and to the Caspian Sea via Turkmenistan, but also helping landlocked Uzbekistan to connect to markets in South Asia.
That’s all part of the BRI corridor maze; and at the same time interlocks with the INSTC because of the key role of Iran (itself increasingly linked with Russia).
Tehran is already engaged in building a railway to Herat, in western Afghanistan (it already rebuilt the road). Then we will have Afghanistan inbuilt in both BRI (as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, CPEC) and the INSTC, giving momentum to yet another project: a Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan (TAT) railway, to be linked to Iran and thus the INSTC.
From the Karakoram to Pakafuz
The Karakoram highway – the northern part of which was rebuilt by the Chinese – may sooner or later get a railway sister. The Chinese have been thinking about it since 2014.
By 2016, a railway from the China-Pakistan border to Gilgit, in the northern areas and then further down to Peshawar, was enshrined as part of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) blueprint. But then nothing happened: the railway is not included in the 2017-2030 CPEC Long Term Plan.
That may eventually happen in the next decade: the engineering and logistics are an enormous challenge, as they were for the building of the Karakoram highway.
And then there’s the “follow the money” angle. The top two Chinese banks financing BRI – and thus CPEC – projects are the China Development Bank and the Export Import Bank. Even before Covid they were already toning down their loans. And with Covid, they now have to balance foreign projects with domestic loans for the Chinese economy.
The connectivity priority instead shifted to the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan (Pakafuz) railway.
The key stretch of Pakafuz links Peshawar (the capital of the tribal areas) to Kabul. When it’s finished, we’ll see Pakafuz directly interacting with the upcoming China-Central Asia-Afghanistan railway: a new BRI maze directly connected with the INSTC.
All of the above developments reveal their true complexity when we see they are simultaneously inserted into the interaction of BRI and the INSTC and the harmonization between BRI and the Eurasia Economic Union (EAEU).
Essentially, in geopolitical and geoeconomic terms, the relation between BRI and EAEU projects allows Russia and China to cooperate across Eurasia while avoiding a race to reach a dominant position in the Heartland.
For instance, both Beijing and Moscow agree on the supreme need to stabilize Afghanistan and help it to run a sustainable economy.
In parallel, some important BRI members – like Uzbekistan – are not members of the EAEU, but that is compensated by their membership in the SCO. At the same time, the BRI-EAEU entente facilitates economic cooperation between EAEU members such as Kyrgyzstan and China.
Beijing de facto got full approval from Moscow to invest in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia, all EAEU members. A future currency or basket of currencies bypassing the US dollar is being jointly discussed between the EAEU – led by Sergei Glazyev – and China.
China focuses on Central/West Asia
There’s no question that the proxy war in Ukraine between the US and Russia has been creating serious problems for BRI expansion. After all, the US war on Russia is also a war against BRI.
The top three BRI corridors from Xinjiang to Europe are the New Eurasian Land Bridge, the China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor, and the China-Russia-Mongolia Economic Corridor.
The New Eurasian Land Bridge uses the Trans-Siberian and a second link through Xinjiang-Kazakhstan (via the dry land port of Khorgos) and then Russia. The corridor via Mongolia is in fact two corridors: one from Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei to Inner Mongolia and then Russia; and the other from Dalian and Shenyang and then to Chita in Russia, near the Chinese border.
As it stands, the Chinese are not using Land Bridge and the Mongolian corridor as much as before, mainly because of western sanctions on Russia. The current BRI emphasis is via Central Asia and West Asia, with one branch then bisecting toward the Persian Gulf and on the Mediterranean.
And this is where we see another – highly complex – level of intersection quickly developing: how the increasing importance for China of Central Asia and West Asia mixes with the increasing importance of the INSTC for both Russia and Iran in their trade with India.
Call it the friendly vector of the War of Transportation Corridors.
The hardcore vector – real war – is already being deployed by the usual suspects. They are predictably bent on destabilizing and/or smashing any node of BRI/INSTC/EAEU/SCO Eurasia integration, by any means necessary: be it in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Balochistan, the Central Asian “stans” or Xinjiang.
As far as the major Eurasian actors are concerned, that’s bound to be an Anglo-American train to nowhere.