Trial operation of China-Afghanistan railway corridor as Shanghai Cooperation Organization-Diplomatic Summit kicks off

A three-month trial period will see freight trains from China deliver goods to Afghanistan via Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Afghan merchandise exports will Follow the same path Back to China. This new railway corridor has started its trial operation September 13 When the first two containers of goods arrived, they were transported by truck from Kashgar, Xinjiang, to Osh, Kyrgyzstan. From there, the shipment will be transported by rail through Uzbekistan and then to Heratan, a border town in the northern Afghan province of Balkh. According to the Kyrgyz The national railway operator, Kyrgyzstan Temir Zulu, by September 15, ten containers carrying goods from China are expected to arrive along the route.

The China-Afghanistan New Economic Corridor trial operation agreement was signed September 11, when representatives of the national railway authorities of Uzbekistan attended, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan met in Tashkent with Zhejiang Union of Railway International Logistics Co Ltd, a private Chinese logistics company.

Zhejiang Union of Railway International Logistics is expected to carry out the transportation 3500 to 5000 containers of commercial cargo From China all round. According to the agreement, the time it takes for goods to arrive in Afghanistan from China will be reduced from two months to two weeks. The Afghan Railways also stated that import and export duties will be significantly reduced on goods transported by rail.

At present, the port of Karachi in Pakistan serves as the entry point for commercial goods into Afghanistan from China. Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Investment He said That the current route costs Afghanistan a significant amount of money, apparently due to frequent delays and transit costs. Notably, if successful, the proposed railway corridor would bypass Pakistan.

Afghanistan is a landlocked country, and has traditionally relied on Pakistani land routes and ports to conduct international trade. The Frequent disturbances at the border At major checkpoints along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, it remained a challenge for Afghan traders. While the operation of the pilot railway route could enhance China’s engagement with Afghanistan, it should not be interpreted as a disdain for Pakistan by China nor an alternative to the Afghan route to China via Pakistan. Overall, China’s economic engagement with Pakistan remains strong, and investments in Afghanistan remain relatively small.

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There are three main challenges facing the proposed railway. The first is the suspicion of Chinese investments in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. Second, there are many unanswered questions regarding project financing going forward. Finally, there are also long-standing security tensions along the common border between Kyrgyzstan and China and within Afghanistan.

As the conflict between Russia and Ukraine continues, long-term sanctions and reduced trade with Russia may redraw some supply chains and trade routes.

The need for additional transport links is a long-standing issue for landlocked Uzbekistan as well as Kyrgyzstan. For Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, the new railway corridor means the expansion of trade and transport corridors. The road will generate transit tolls, which will benefit local industries as well as an opportunity to improve their infrastructure.

This is true, especially in the case of Kyrgyzstan, where the reasons are three. First, since its independence, Bishkek has struggled to attract funds to repair and expand railway services; In addition, relative to its neighbors in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is more vulnerable to geopolitical tensions. Finally, border disputes between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have hampered previous efforts at territorial outreach, but this relationship has greatly improved.

The pilot trial of the China-Afghanistan Corridor could also see the launch of the long-awaited China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway project (commonly known as CKU). CKU is a 4,380-kilometre multi-modal railway that aims to connect Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang province to the city of Andijan in Uzbekistan via Kyrgyzstan.

In July this year, the office of Kyrgyz President Sadir Gabarov announce That China will finalize the agreement at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. The summit, which begins today, will give us a good indication of how the China-Afghanistan railway corridor fits into China’s plans for the region and how seriously it is considered.

For Uzbekistan, Tashkent has been aligning the country’s development agenda with the ambitions of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) since 2019. This railway corridor from China to Afghanistan complements not only CKU, but also another project supported by Uzbekistan, the Trans-Afghanistan Railway Project .

For China, Afghanistan has a strategic geographic location, which provides a potential land shortcut for imports of containerized goods. In 2020, China was the fourth largest export destination for Afghan goods, after the United Arab Emirates, India and Pakistan. was too Sixth largest source Of the imported goods for the Afghan markets, after the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, India, Kazakhstan and the United States.

If history is a preview, with no stability in Afghanistan, China might invest a little and make long-term promises, but it won’t do much more. However, despite the setbacks over the years, China remains interested and continues to play an increasing role in the region.

The significance of the China-Afghanistan railway test also lies in its timing. While talks about this potential path began in 2019, it has only recently been given real attention. In preparation for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping published Statement on Sino-Uzbek relations. The issue of security in Afghanistan was high on the agenda. Similarly, President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirzoyev issued a statement Emphasizing southern transportation routes, specifically highlighting the Trans-Afghanistan railway project.

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This new railway corridor is being trialled against the backdrop of disruptions to global supply routes. In light of this, the need for cooperation and diversification of global supply chains along east, west, north and south directions is gaining a strategic dimension. This also applies to the five Central Asian republics where sanctions against Russia have restricted their supply chains. While this may help add more prominence to the upcoming SCO, unity in the group remains elusive — the group struggles to address core security issues in part because it includes longstanding adversaries such as India and Pakistan. Despite enhanced cooperation, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has struggled to advance regional economic integration. It is neither a commercial agreement nor an investment vehicle, and its members often cannot meet on specific infrastructure projects.

The road between China and Afghanistan is far from open for serious commercial traffic. But this experimental experience may paint a bigger picture. With Russia’s power waning in Central Asia, Beijing could make gains on key issues such as trade routes. These efforts contribute to China’s long-term aspiration to transform global trade from sea to land trade.

With that in mind, at the summit, we can expect to see a series of trade and transport agreements, perhaps bundled together as “Belt and Road” investments. In light of the current geopolitical challenges, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit could be an opportunity for Central Asian leaders. For them, it is an opportunity to get in the driver’s seat and push for alternative trade routes, so that they too can have a seat at the negotiating table.

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