Is the Trans-Caspian Corridor ready for prime time?

Timing is everything, and sometimes you just get it right. This is how one must feel these days in Azerbaijan, where the expansion of the free trade zone near Alat is scheduled to be completed in July. Alat is a municipality 70 kilometers south of the capital, where the Port of Baku was renovated and expanded in two phases from 2012 to 2020.

The port of Baku lies at the western end of the Trans-Caspian section of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR, also known as the “Middle Corridor”). The TITR runs through Central Asia and the South Caucasus and is intended to facilitate the movement of containers and goods from east to west.

It differs from the “belt” component of China stalledmaybe even fail, Belt and Road Initiative, which – however you want to characterize its progress – certainly has anyway not met his initial expectations.

At the end of May, the first block of freight to Europe from Tuanjiecun railway station in China arrived in the port of Baku on the way to Finland. Tuanjiecun Station is located in Shapingba District of Chongqing Municipality in southwest China. It is approximately 1,900 km west of Shanghai.

The cargo is owned by the Finnish company Nurminen Logistics and includes car parts, plastic products, textile equipment and other non-food products. Black Sea transit is by ferry from the Georgian port of Poti to the Romanian port of Constanta.

The total distance from Tuanjiecun railway station to Helsinki is almost 13,000 km. An alternative landfall in the western Black Sea for other transports could be Bulgaria’s port of Varna.

Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Georgia intend to do so develop this transport route more thoroughly. Its potential is estimated at 10 million tons or 200,000 containers per year. The three countries to plan To establish uniform tariffs for domestic shippers and to improve and simplify the work of freight forwarders in the corridor.

The TITR had good potential as a draft, but international sanctions against Russia and ongoing physical destruction of Ukraine’s infrastructure have reduced Russia’s importance as an export route for goods from Central Asia and China to European markets. This coincidence of events significantly increases the economic and geopolitical importance of the TITR.

plans rumored almost a decade ago that China should build high-speed rail lines in Russia never came off the drawing board. The increased cost of sea transportation over the past two years has made land transportation of Chinese goods to Europe even more competitive.

Transit via Russian railways along the China-Russia-Europe route were at about half in 2021 compared to 2020, revealing lower-than-expected capacity on main routes and bottlenecks near ports and border checkpoints.

However, Russia’s investment plans for increasingly Its railway capacity was certainly shattered by the expense of its war against Ukraine, to say nothing of Moscow’s performance militarization of the Russian railways in the indefinite future. Even before the invasion led to new international sanctions against Russia in late February, the volume of Chinese goods handled by Russian railways had already increased stretched up to the limit.

The latest events are framed by the little-noticed joint declaration on the enhanced strategic partnership signed by Kazakhstan and Turkey on May 11, underscoring their bilateral commitment to the TITR and its continued improvement.

This bilateral collaboration anchors the TITR in Greater Central Eurasia with two major countries with important geoeconomic profiles, each in its own region. Kazakhstan in particular stands alongside Azerbaijan To use from the international sanctions against Russia, for this and other reasons.

In an even broader picture, these events all unfolded as the Turkish Council, first established in 2009, transformed into a regular international body, the Organization of Turkish States (OTS), in November 2021.

Chinese official observers do not see the OTS as contributing to geopolitical stability, as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization suspects, but believe it adds “extreme uncertainty”.

For example, Yuan Peng, president of the Beijing-based China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, wrote that it is “obvious [the OTS] aims to [becoming] something beyond an ‘organization’.”

What the OTS does, of course, is to offer Kazakhstan and other Turkish states in Central Asia a foreign policy “vector” that potentially allows them to avoid being wedged between China and Russia.

It establishes Turkish identity as even more central than it already is to Central Asian self-understanding. It gives Turkey a stable platform to project its “soft power” into Central Asia, enhance its established economic cooperation and even introduce this cooperation into the military manufacturing sector.

The two countries signed during the visit of Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to Ankara, where he signed the Joint Declaration with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to produce The Turkish Anka drone in Kazakhstan, a cooperation that includes transfer, maintenance and repairs.

Cargo from China to Turkey has already been use the port of Baku for almost two years. According to Tokayev, cargo transportation from Khorgos on the Kazakhstan-China border to Istanbul took what used to take 60 days, takes now only 13 days.

Upon completion of the Port of Baku’s Phase II expansion, it will be able to handle 25 million tons of general cargo annually, including 500,000 20-foot units (TEU) in containers. All of these infrastructure developments took place over the past decade without any expectation that Russia would wage an all-out war against Ukraine.

Ports being further developed for the TITR on the east coast of the Caspian Sea include Kuryk in Kazakhstan and Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan. Kuryk’s current annual capacity is 4.1 million tons, including 240,000 TEU, which is a volume intended to be increased to almost 6 million tons by next year.

Turkmenbashi’s capacity is currently 4 million tons per year, including 400,000 TEUs. Of course, the capacity does not correspond to the actual transit volume; but the TITR comes into play as cargo transportation through Russia appears to be crumbling and the cost of sea transportation relative to land transportation costs continues to rise.

The commissioning of the TITR draws attention to the Trans-Caspian route and confirms its feasibility. This is happening under conditions of impending energy shortages in Europe and elsewhere.

The forthcoming success of the TITR is already reviving interest among world leaders in the energy industry in the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan and even in the Trans-Caspian Oil Pipeline from Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan.

The self-directed construction of Azerbaijan’s multimodal transit infrastructure over the past decade only makes such opportunities more interesting and viable.

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