JUNE 22, 2019
Ahead of the recently concluded summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Chinese state media provided extensive coverage of Beijing’s recent forays into Central Asia, including into Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
On its website, the state-run Xinhua news agency splashed pictures of the Irkeshtam pass, one of China’s gateways to Kyrgyzstan, a few days before planes ferrying leaders of the eight SCO member countries, apart from observers, flew into Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital.
The lofty Irkeshtam pass, perched at a height of 2,950 m, is a geographic marvel. It is a deep gorge at the junction of the southern edge of the Tian Shan and the mighty Pamir mountains. From its impressive elevation, the pass commands several trade routes that jostle their way towards the steppes of Central Asia.
Re-imagining an ancient route
One of them weaves its way from Kashgar, a major trade node along the ancient silk route in China’s mountainous Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). This route heads westwards into the bone-dry Tarim basin.
There, the sands of the forbidding Taklamakan desert, a graveyard in the past of traders and their fellow travelers who once dared to caravan along the ancient silk road, overwhelm the area. On either side, the majestic Kunlun and the Tian Shan mountains wall the route, as it opens towards the Irkeshtam pass.
Under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the ancient route towards the Irkeshtam pass will now provide the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) a critical node into Central Asia. The CPEC runs from the Arabian Sea coast at Gwadar towards Kashgar, passing through the extremely challenging terrain of Pakistan’s Balochistan province.
Across the Irkeshtam border post, which straddles the pass, the road heads towards the northwest in the direction of the Kyrgyz city of Osh, 250 km away. Osh is located inside the famed Fergana valley. Its abundance of fruit and grain is legendary. The first Mughal emperor Babur, who was born in the nearby Uzbek city of Andijan, spent time in Osh, where he built a mosque atop the Sulayman mountain, a world heritage site.
The road from Osh leads westwards towards the Uzbek border, which is only 5 km away. Osh is also the fulcrum of other strategic routes that the Chinese are opening up in the region as part of the BRI. A brand new north-south motorway will soon link Osh to capital Bishkek in the north. Once the 250 km-road, being built by the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC), is completed by 2021, the spanking new highway will connect Osh with Kazakhstan’s Almaty. Eventually, the $698-million project, bankrolled by China’s Exim Bank, will interlink Pakistan, China and Kyrgyzstan, with strategic nodes extending to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.
Focussing on Osh, China’s telecom giant, Huawei Technologies, has recently unveiled an ambitious plan. In partnership with China Telecom, it plans to transform Bishkek and Osh into “smart cities”, powered by fast Internet and cyber monitoring systems.
Apart from highways and power projects, China is concentrating on railways in its bid to open up Central Asia and beyond as part of BRI. For instance, Osh sits along China’s West passage-3 railway project. After passing through Kashgar and Osh via the Irkeshtam pass, the railway spears towards Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Turkey, and beyond.
Separately, West Passage 1 enters Kazakhstan through Alashankou in Xinjiang. From there it hooks up with Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway and enters Belarus before reaching out to the European Union.
Similarly, the exit point of West Passage 2 is Xinjiang’s Alashankou. Kazakhstan, in this case, becomes the gateway to Turkmenistan, setting the stage for a railway link-up with Iran, Turkey and possibly Europe. China is also working on East Passage 1. This route connects Erenhot in its Inner Mongolia province, with the Trans-Siberian railway on the way to Europe.
All cross-border initiatives on infrastructure feed into China’s ‘go-global’ policy. This is a joint initiative of China’s central planners and provincial administrations to shift sections of Chinese capital and supply chains overseas.
(Atul Aneja is The Hindu’s Beijing correspondent.)