China is schmoozing in Kazakhstan and talking up trains

Foreign Affairs

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned of “major power conflicts” in Central Asia, and hinted at a greater role in the region as China eyes rail connections with Europe.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Image via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wáng Yì 王毅 and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev met this week in Nur-Sultan ahead of the third China+Central Asia (C+C5) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting.

The two discussed Ukraine, with Wang unsurprisingly but implicitly criticizing the United States. According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s readout, Wang said that “the region should be on guard against attempts by forces outside the region to draw regional countries into major power conflicts and force them to take sides.”

  • Wang’s striking description of “major power conflicts” appears to be unprecedented in the context of Ukraine: The Foreign Minister has previously characterized the situation as a “confrontation between blocs.”
  • Wang also suggested Chinese support for the construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) railway, an initiative that would bolster China-Europe trade by facilitating transport between the two markets.
  • The Chinese state tabloid Global Times, citing Uzbek officials, claimed that the CKU route would cut freight distances by 900 kilometers (560 miles) and save seven to eight days of shipping time.

While the overwhelming majority of China-Europe rail trade traverses Russia, and will likely continue to do so even after the CKU is built, the planned railway would boost the “Middle Corridor” route, which bypasses Russia.

  • An expansion of the Middle Corridor rail route would have limited but important economic effects that could grow over time. While rail’s share of EU import trade value from China stood at only 4% in 2020, this figure rose sharply from less than 1% in 2011.
  • Rail-borne trade could also become more competitive vis-à-vis airborne trade in Europe due to EU carbon pricing.

The EU is keen to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and increase long-term carbon prices through its Emissions Trading System, which will likely benefit rail and marine transport modes.

  • Air cargo accounts for approximately 35% of all international trade value, but also emits more greenhouse gases than alternative transportation modes, such as rail or marine transport.
  • While marine transport is the least greenhouse-gas-intensive mode of transport, it is slow, creating opportunities for medium-speed rail routes like the Middle Corridor.

How does one make sense of the contrast between Wang’s comments, which appear unambiguously pro-Kremlin, and Beijing’s substantive maneuvers in Central Asia, which could sharply reduce Russian regional influence? Just as Moscow often loudly criticizes the U.S. and the Quad whenever it tries to cozy up to India and hedge against China, Beijing issues some strident, anti-U.S. rhetoric of its own — even as it takes steps that could displace Russian influence in Central Asia.

However, one shouldn’t overstate the importance of the Middle Corridor (or even Central Asia) in the relationship between Russia and China: The region is a secondary priority for Moscow and of tertiary importance for Beijing, and the overwhelming majority of rail-borne China-Europe trade will likely go through Russia for the foreseeable future. Still, a more robust Middle Corridor route would reduce Beijing’s reliance on Moscow and represent an important marker in China’s gradual displacement of Russian influence across Central Asia.