A long-discussed rail line through China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan appears to have taken a step closer to reality after months of speculation and postponements. 

At the end of March, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov met with China Railway’s deputy director general Wang Tunjun and said a joint venture with the three countries involved would build the 500km project “in the next few years.” 

The China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) rail project has been discussed at top diplomatic levels since the 1990’s, but was finally set in motion at a summit between the three nations in Xi’an, China, in May 2023.  

However, it was then delayed in October 2023, seemingly over who would finance the construction. Cost estimates for the project range from $4bn to $8bn. 

Although the current plans are not available, the route is expected to connect China’s western Xinjiang province through a new southern “Middle Corridor” route to Europe, potentially connecting to the European rail system through Azerbaijan or Turkey. 

This rail corridor has long been a target of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to recreate the ancient Silk Road trading routes. But current Trans-Asian routes rely on the Trans-Siberian railway which has been impacted by sanctions on Russia since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. 

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The southern routes, including via Kazakhstan, have therefore taken on greater importance to China as it aims to improve its trade connections with Europe. 

A feasibility study is reportedly being updated after civil engineers from China made inspections in December, and Jarapov’s announcement has heightened hopes that construction will begin in 2024.