TCSS Security Commentaries #018

After the G7 and NATO summits, the question arises once more how much influence China will exert in its plans for global connectivity in trade, infrastructure, and investments. The Middle Corridor Project (MC) is in a position to harmonize and perhaps keep grounded infrastructure plans in the region.

Diren Dogen, Visiting Scholar at the Taiwan Center for Security Studies

Credits: Google Earth, 2021

The “Belt Road Initiative (BRI)”, announced by Xi Jinping in 2013, is a project that caresses the pragmatist motivations of countries within it. However, there are countries in the Asian geography that are not content with the roles that China has assigned to them and have their own national interests. The Middle Corridor Project (MC), in other words the Iron Silk Road, which is being led by Turkey, is an initiative created for this purpose. Its main motivation is to provide an alternative to Belt and Road Initiative, ensuring uninterrupted transportation connection between Europe and East Asia, and to diversify the options of countries without sea exits in continental Asian geography.

For this purpose, goods arriving in Turkey from Europe must reach Baku-Alat Port via Georgia and Azerbaijan. From there they must cross the Caspian Sea by roll-on-roll-off transport to the Ports of Turkmenistan (Turkmenbashi) or Kazakhstan (Aktau/Kurk) where they are to be forwarded to China. The MC is not just a trade corridor that reaches China, but there are also different trade veins that diversify this artery. For example, the Lapis-Lazuli route allows goods arriving from Anatolia to reach Afghanistan after the Georgia-Azerbaijan-Turkmenistan connection. On the other hand, the Istanbul-Tehran-Islamabad freight train which has been announced by Turkey serves as a reinforcing role in Turkey’s relations with Iran and Pakistan in particular. Another corridor connecting the Aktau Port of Kazakhstan and the city of Shihezi in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is the Nomad Express Route.

Credits: Wiki Commons

In theory, it is worth remembering that this project, which seems flawless in theory, needs some requirements at the point of processing it at maximum capacity; first, it is important to know that the MC is not only a standalone project but also an add-on to the BRI. For this reason, the project needs to be recognized by China.  This appeared to have been resolved by the memorandum of understanding signed between Turkey and China on 14 November 2015. However, China seems to be reluctant to accept the MC except for some infrastructure investments.

It can be understood when profit-loss calculations are made with other actively used trade corridors that China’s distance stance is not related to the physical structure of the MC. Compared to the Northern Corridor for example, goods transported via Trans-Siberia connection arrive in 20 days, while the MC lasts only 12 days. At the same time, climate conditions; the fact that the efforts to modernize the Trans-Siberian line have not yet been completed by Russia and the dependence on an actor like Russia with this line presents the multi-actor MC as a more reasonable option.

Another main line, the South Corridor has two days longer journey time than the MC more importantly. However, the fact that this corridor passes through Iran brings restrictions and security threats in the shadow of various economic sanctions. On the other hand, when it is thought that more than 90% of the goods transmitted to Europe through the region are transmitted by sea; the Covid-19 pandemic disrupts sea transportation, the incident of the Evergiven in the Suez Canal reduces confidence in sea transportation, and in addition, the fact that the products arrive 1/3 earlier through the MC than sea transportation points to the MC as the most reasonable trade corridor.

However, beyond all concrete outputs, there is disappointment in seeing the expected interest and support on the MC Project. First of all, when the reason for China’s standing in the background is examined, it is encountered the fact that the Northern Corridor and the Southern Corridor, which are currently active and these corridors pass through two countries such as Russia and Iran, which have advanced relations with China. Another reason for China’s distant approach towards the MC is Turkey’s relationship with the EU and the fact that it is a NATO ally. This situation makes us feel that Turkey’s relations with China will continue on an economic axis and that possible rapprochement will involve some challenges. China was identified as a challenger at the NATO Summit in 2021 and in the NATO 2030 Report. At the same time, at the G7 leaders’ summit, China’s investments in BRI were considered suspicious, and it was decided to take steps to balance it.

While this is the case, China is keeping a distance from Turkey, which has been pursuing policies parallel to these formations for many years. The air defense system development tender or Sinop nuclear power plant experiences, which were canceled by Turkey in 2015, have led China to lag behind in investing in strategic projects in Turkey, even though it entered the Turkish market through telecommunications companies or banks. In addition, the indicators show that investments in countries have decreased significantly with the increase in the number of countries participating in the BRI. This situation is likely to provide funding for priority investments rather than investments that offer additional options to the current situation, such as the MC. (See Chart-2 from CSIS, Reconnecting Asia Project)

Credits: CSIS, Reconnecting Asia Project, 2021

Currently, Beijing is in a waiting period against the MC, on the other hand, the determination of the countries involved in the project increases the prestige of the MC, day after day. Especially after the Second Karabakh War, the Zengazor Corridor which provides the connection between Azerbaijan and Turkey was revived after the Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire earlier this year. Thus, a new and shorter trade route emerged on the axis of the MC.  Likewise, the possibility that Turkey will secure Kabul Airport by replacing the United States withdrawing from Afghanistan after the NATO summit and Turkey’s request for the participation of Hungary which is an observer member of the Turkish Council, and Pakistan which is Turkey’s ally is important. This possibility shows the reality that the Lapis-Lazuli Corridor could extend to Pakistan. And this indicates that different options have been discussed, as well as Beijing which has not yet clarified its vision about MC.

Consequently, the MC continues to exist as a potentially high-potential project where more participation will be achieved as countries develop bilateral cooperation and harmonize the commercial/bureaucratic stages between each other.