Uzbek, Chinese leaders attend a ceremony of opening of the Kamchik railway tunnel

24/06/2016 11:14
Asia-Plus
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DUSHANBE, June 24, 2016, Asia-Plus -- On Wednesday June 22, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Uzbek President Islam Karimov participated in a ceremony marking the opening of a 19.2-kilometer railway tunnel that will join Uzbekistan’s populous Ferghana Valley with the rest of the country.

According to UzDaily.uz, the tunnel is the largest of its kind anywhere in Central Asia and is also the biggest Chinese-led project ever completed in the region.

“This unique tunnel will become an important link in the international, China-Central Asia-Europe railway transit corridor,” Xi said.

China Railway Tunnel Group completed the project in May at a cost of $455 million. The tunnel is part of the 124-kilometer Angren-Pap line, which should eventually be linked into a network passing through Kyrgyzstan and into China.

Meanwhile, EurasiaNet.org reports that there is an irony here in that the Angren-Pap route is being built so Uzbekistan can stop relying on an existing Soviet-built section of railroad that passes through Tajikistan.  Tashkent and Dushanbe have long had a testy relationship.  But creating transportation links with China requires double-landlocked Uzbekistan to increase connectivity with Kyrgyzstan — another problem neighbor.

Such instances of grand cooperation tend to paper over the nuances, however.  Beijing’s appeal to Tashkent lies first and foremost in its ability to offer investment and technology with little or no political strings attached.

As in other countries of Central Asia and elsewhere, China has pursued a tentative soft power strategy in Uzbekistan, according to EurasiaNet.org.  In 2005, it opened its first local branch of the Confucius Institute — the overseas Chinese culture-promotion organization that is an equivalent to the British Council or Germany’s Goethe-Institute.  The institute has a reasonably robust following and provides scholarships for Uzbeks looking to study in China. Graduates from Chinese universities typically end up working in Chinese companies, so Uzbekistan is like its neighbors, bereft of dependable China specialists in academia.

According to a translator at a company working on the Angren-Pap railroad, jobs created at their project have been equitably distributed, minimizing potential for disgruntlement among Uzbeks.

“Out of the 1,500 or so railroad workers, around half are Uzbek laborers and technicians.  The government likes the Chinese because most of them are atheists, unlike the Turks who get involved in religious propaganda. The Chinese need nothing here but business,” the translator, whose name has been withheld, told EurasiaNet.org.

The government provides no transparent labor data, or even figures about how many Chinese laborers actually live and work in Uzbekistan, so it is anybody’s guess if that picture is the same across the board.

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