0401 GMT September 16, 2019
The first freight train on the Sino-Afghan Special Transportation Railway departed the Yangtze River port of Nantong on August 25 and arrived in the Afghan river port of Hairatan two weeks later. Chinese state media said the cargo link would boost economic cooperation as the ancient caravan routes once did, WSJ wrote.
However, trains loaded with Chinese electrical supplies, clothing and other goods rattling in are returning from Afghanistan empty.
Despite diplomatic efforts by Afghan officials, Uzbekistan is refusing to allow Afghan goods to transit its territory on to Kazakhstan and China, said Afghan and foreign officials. The reason, they say is that the Uzbek government worries the trains could be used to smuggle narcotics and precious stones, which fuel criminal and terrorist networks in the region.
The region is experiencing a rise in militant activity and groups such as Daesh could benefit from narcotics smuggling in Central Asia.
The Afghan government said it is working to reassure its northern neighbors that the new railway won't become a conduit for narcotics.
"We have agreed to start working on a transit agreement" with Uzbekistan, Afghan Finance Minister Eklil Hakimi said. "The problem will be resolved."
Officials at the Uzbek Transport Ministry, railway and embassy in Kabul didn't respond to requests for comment.
The Chinese government also did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
For now, China is low on the list of Afghanistan trading partners as Afghan exports are mostly bound for Pakistan, India and Iran, according to World Bank data. Even Russia's three percent share of Afghanistan’s exports is bigger.
The Afghan government hoped the new railway would draw in investors by offering cheap means for exporting natural resources. Investment has been at a standstill due to worsening security and almost nonexistent infrastructure.
Last year officials from China's trade promotion agency told their Afghan counterparts that China was eager to import more agricultural goods such as saffron, according to the agency's report on the meeting.
Chinese buyers also are major consumers of precious stones such as lapis, found in northeastern Badakhshan Province, close to the railway port.