Prague, Czech Republic (PortSEurope) April 11, 2023 – Despite the oft-touted momentum behind the Eurasian Middle Corridor circumventing Russia, China still appears not to be fully behind the project beset by infrastructure hurdles and geopolitical challenges, according to an article in China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE), run by the Prague based Association for International Affairs.
Russia’s war on Ukraine has been a game-changer for Eurasian connectivity. The route through north Eurasia running from China to Europe that served as a major conduit between the two is now less attractive as a result of the Western sanctions imposed on Moscow. China-EU shipments along the Northern Corridor have also decreased.
The Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR), also known as the Middle Corridor, combines the countries participating in the new Silk Road project and important players of the region. Its members are maritime and transport companies from Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, China and Turkey.
The organisation aims to popularise the Middle Corridor, accelerate and simplify cargo transportation procedures between Asia and Europe, and make special preferential tariffs. Between East and West, in terms of cargo, the Middle Corridor helps to compete with the north-south routes.
TITR allows European companies to bypass Russia. The importance of this route was underlined with the inclusion of Georgia and Azerbaijan in the European Union (EU) Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T).
Middle Corridor’s window of opportunity
It is rare in geopolitics that so many states in such a short timeframe would agree on advancing a certain project. The Middle Corridor, connecting China and Europe via Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Black Sea, is a good example of a vision where different countries from across Eurasia have accelerated the work not only on promoting the idea, but also laying the ground for its expansion.
No longer willing to trade with China through Russia, the EU is now pushing for the expansion of the Middle Corridor. Emerging connectivity opportunities push the governments along the corridor to reconsider their previous position on long-stalled projects such as the Anaklia deep sea port in the case of Georgia or the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, which the cooperating states pledged to begin work on in 2023.
Seeing an opening in the region, Ankara has increased its outreach to Central Asia following also Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in 2020. One of the initiators of the Middle Corridor idea in the 2000s, Turkey is now one of the critical players driving the concept. A series of “block train” transports were initiated in recent years, traversing the corridor.
After the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Turkey and China have opened more active talks on cooperation along the Middle Corridor. Yet, the pace of cooperation remains slow with few practical steps taken so far.
But China, the critical player, is largely missing. Beijing has rarely commented on the Middle Corridor. Beijing has invested very little in the actual development of the corridor.
There is a major imperative for Beijing to find alternative routes as transit through Russia becomes problematic. In that regard, the Caspian Sea and the South Caucasus are geographically the shortest link to Europe. But the route is not an easy one – it is multimodal and crosses multiple countries which have made little effort to synchronise their transit capabilities and develop infrastructure before 2022.
Currently, there is no adequate infrastructure to process the throughput which has been shipped through Russia. The lack of infrastructure in the Caspian Sea prevents convenient transit from Central Asian ports to Azerbaijan. Similar troubles beset the Georgian side of the Black Sea, especially as there is no deep sea port. In 2022, the Middle Corridor absorbed only 3-5% of the China-EU trade, which limits Beijing’s interest in the route.
Geopolitical factors, such as instability in the South Caucasus, have contributed to making the Middle Corridor not as attractive for China as it might seem at first sight. Russian influence is a primary factor.
China might eventually grow interested in the re-invigorated Middle Corridor as a part of a hedging strategy. Although the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea have not featured high in the BRI documents, the region can rise to rank higher among Chinese interests if Russia grows even more sidelined in Eurasian geopolitics and Beijing realises that betting on Russia long-term is a dead-end.
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