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Central Asian countries are considering the advantages and drawbacks of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Central Asian nations are weighing the pros and cons of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Central Asian countries are considering the advantages and drawbacks of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Central Asian nations are weighing the pros and cons of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Some individuals from Central Asia have expressed their weariness towards Beijing’s political goals and worries about relying too heavily on China. However, they also acknowledge the advantages of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which was introduced in 2013 as China’s international infrastructure project.

Since being established, China has provided financial support for at least 112 initiatives in Central Asia. Numerous projects have focused on enhancing transportation and connectivity, such as the Qamchiq mountain highway.

“I earn my livelihood from this mountain pass,” said Majid, a taxi driver from Uzbekistan. The highway links Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, to the Ferghana Valley and continues to southern Kyrgyzstan and northern Tajikistan. Majid, like others interviewed by VOA, preferred not to disclose his full name due to fears of potential repercussions from authorities.

Majid owns a Chevrolet Lacetti sedan, which was made in Uzbekistan and the U.S. It can accommodate up to four people. He typically requests $14 from each passenger for a trip to Kokand, which is approximately 130 kilometers (81 miles) away from Tashkent, in the southeast direction.

“I strive to complete two round trips per day, which typically takes eight to nine hours during less congested times. It’s a more favorable option than being employed by the government,” he informed VOA. “As this is my personal vehicle, I am able to keep a majority of my earnings to support my extensive family.”

Driving commerce

In Osh, the second-largest city in Kyrgyzstan located on the opposite side of the Ferghana Valley, the impact of China’s economy is so prevalent that residents often refer to any new infrastructure developments as being “Chinese.”

Muzaffar, who often works as a migrant, sees Beijing as the dominant “superpower” in this region.

The speaker pondered about China’s significant presence, achieved without much promotion. He suggested that China may want to familiarize us with its widespread influence. He also expressed his desire for his four children to learn Chinese in addition to English and Russian.

A trade center in Khujand, Tajikistan, shown here on Sept. 4, 2023. Khujand has become a commercial hub where merchants from neighboring countries come for Chinese goods. (VOA/Navbahor Imamova)

On September 4, 2023, a photo shows a bustling trade center in Khujand, Tajikistan. Khujand has emerged as a major destination for merchants from surrounding countries seeking Chinese products. (VOA/Navbahor Imamova)

In the city of Khujand, Tajikistan’s second largest city, renowned for its Panjshanbe market, merchants informed VOA that they primarily trade in Chinese goods.

Mohira, who travels from Ferghana, Uzbekistan to Khujand, emphasizes the importance of Chinese goods as they are the most accessible, affordable, and essential for conducting any business. She praises the efficient and dependable service of Chinese cargo, which arrives within a day or two through the Andarkhon-Patar border crossing.

However, traders like Mohira have doubts about the potential effects on the regional economy of an upcoming railway undertaking that will link China to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Government officials have stated that a feasibility study will be finalized in the near future.

China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railroad

The suggested 523-kilometer (325-mile) route will transport both travelers and cargo from Kashgar, located in China’s Xinjiang province, to Andijan in Uzbekistan, passing through Kyrgyzstan’s Karasu.

In a statement from Umidulla Ibragimov, an official from Uzbekistan Railways, Chinese media announced four months ago that construction would begin this year.

According to Yicai Global, a website that provides financial news in English and is supported by the Chinese government, the railway will provide the most direct and convenient route for Central Asian countries to access global markets. It is being described as a connection between Europe and Asia.

The 523-kilometer (325-mile) China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railroad would depart from Kashgar, Xinjiang, and arrive in Andijan, Uzbekistan, via Karasu, Kyrgyzstan.

The train route connecting China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan covers a distance of 523 kilometers (325 miles). It starts from Kashgar, Xinjiang, and ends in Andijan, Uzbekistan, passing through Karasu, Kyrgyzstan.

According to Xinhua, China’s state news agency, Beijing sees the new connection as a way to speed up the West China Development Project and boost the growth and utilization of oil in Central Asia and the Caspian Sea regions. It is also expected to provide China with access to new sources of oil imports and potentially alter the country’s energy development strategy. This was emphasized at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s summit in Samarkand last year.

According to Frank Maracchione, a doctoral student at the University of Sheffield in England studying China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Central Asia, numerous experts in Uzbekistan view China’s actions as an endeavor to reconstruct the historic Silk Road.

Reworded: “Minerals, commerce, and more”

Extraction, processing and transportation of natural resources, including minerals, represent a large chunk of Chinese investment in Uzbekistan, which amounted to $3.8 billion in 2022, just behind Russia’s $4.8 billion.

Maracchione stated that a significant portion of funding is allocated towards transportation infrastructure, primarily to enhance regional trade connectivity. He also mentioned that China has a strong emphasis on agriculture and technology, which will result in investments in education and expertise. This will contribute to long-term development and is highly appreciated by Central Asian nations, according to Maracchione.

China’s perspective on Central Asia has shifted from solely viewing it as a supplier of raw materials. According to Maracchione, it is now becoming a hub for manufacturing. This can be seen in various examples in Uzbekistan such as the Pengsheng industrial park where locals are predominantly employed, the SCO Center for Agriculture in Sirdarya, Nukus Herbal Technology pharmaceutical producer, the import-export Lanextract Sino-Uzbek joint venture in Karakalpakstan, and the Uzbek-Chinese electric vehicle production cluster in Jizzakh.

Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan, shown here on July 24, 2023, is home to several Chinese businesses, including the import-export Lanextract Sino-Uzbek joint venture. (Navbahor Imamova/VOA)

On July 24, 2023, this photo shows Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan, which houses multiple Chinese companies such as the Lanextract Sino-Uzbek joint venture for import and export. (Photo by Navbahor Imamova/VOA)

Angst growing

Lately, there has been an increasing amount of public outrage towards Chinese companies and influence in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. However, countries like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, which are also known for their violations of human rights and strict censorship of speech and media, have not experienced such obvious displays of anti-Chinese feelings.

One retired government official, identified as Qodir, expressed a desire for more Chinese companies to invest in their country. They believe this would help sell off old state assets that have been difficult to privatize.

He highlighted the construction of the Olympic village, a massive sports complex, in the rapidly growing area of New Tashkent. The construction site features logos of Sinomach and CAMCE, which are subsidiaries of the China National Machinery Industry Corporation.

Funded by the Export-Import Bank of Beijing, the project worth $289 million is one of many recent agreements, including a chemical plant worth $440 million in Navoi, located in central Uzbekistan.

Human rights advocates have expressed alarm over inadequate working conditions at businesses owned by Chinese companies in the Uzbek cities of Bukhara and Margilan.

In Maracchione’s field research, it was discovered that the pay was inadequate, the work hours were lengthy, and there were chemicals present in the environment.

In September, Sinomash and the local government in Ferghana, Uzbekistan agreed to extract drinking water from Kampirobod dam located on the border between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The Uzbek government also revealed that they have signed 32 trade and investment contracts with Beijing totalling $1.37 billion.

Bread sellers display their goods at the Rishton Farmer's Bazaar in Ferghana, Uzbekistan, on Aug. 29, 2023. (Navbahor Imamova/VOA)

On August 29, 2023, bread vendors showcase their products at the Rishton Farmer’s Bazaar in Ferghana, Uzbekistan. (Photo credit: Navbahor Imamova/VOA)

Marrachione expressed concerns about the potential negative effects of China’s investment in Central Asia, specifically the potential for creating dependency on Chinese investment and unsustainable lending practices that could result in excessive debt and a volatile financial situation.

According to him, this is especially the case in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. In Kyrgyzstan, loans from the Export-Import Bank of China make up nearly half of the country’s external debt, specifically 42.89% as of May 2021. In Tajikistan, these loans account for approximately 40% of the country’s external debt.

Despite only accounting for 17.6% of the external debt last year, China has become the top bilateral creditor in Uzbekistan.

In a business conference in Washington, Uzbekistan’s Minister of Digital Technology, Sherzod Shermatov, stated that China is a valuable investor and collaborator, according to his conversation with VOA.

Shermatov stated that he is willing to collaborate with any party that brings benefits to Uzbekistan. He emphasized that what is important to them is the gains they will receive, rather than what America, Russia, or China may obtain. Their main focus is on their own interests and the interests of Uzbekistan.