Silk Road’s middle corridor growing in importance
Three routes were identified when China disclosed its gigantic Belt and Road Initiative. All of them started from Beijing. The southernmost is called the ocean road. It skirts Southeast Asia and India and goes through the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. The full length of the route from Beijing to Rotterdam is about 20,000 km and is by far the longest. However, as it is a sea route, freight costs might still be lower. The average duration of the trip is 45 to 60 days.
The second is called the northern corridor and it goes through Mongolian and Russian territories. It is about 10,000 km and the trip takes 15 to 20 days.
The third route, the middle corridor, has now become prominent because of the reduced appetite of EU countries to do business with Russia. Just as the Ukrainian crisis has changed several paradigms in the international arena, it has also affected the comparative advantages of land transport routes. The northern corridor has the advantage of running mainly through Russian territories, meaning cargo is not subjected to regular border crossing formalities. Despite this, China-EU shipments through this corridor have decreased 40 percent since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Therefore, the middle corridor becomes promising, but it has its own problems.
The first problem is that it has to cross several borders in Central Asia. One branch goes through Kazakhstan, the other through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. It then crosses the Caspian Sea by ferry and splits into two, one going across the Black Sea from Batumi, Georgia, to Romanian and Bulgarian harbors and the other overland through Turkiye to the Balkan countries. This route is the shortest — about 7,000 km — and it takes 10 to 15 days to reach European destinations.
The second problem with the middle corridor is that it is multimodal, which may create coordination problems when shipments are not properly managed.
The third problem is a bottleneck in the Zengezur corridor in Armenia. The Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan is separated from the country’s main territory by a corridor of about 60 km that belongs to Armenia. After the Nagorno-Karabakh war of 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin brokered a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Article 9 of the ceasefire agreement reads: “All economic and transport connections in the region shall be unblocked. The Republic of Armenia shall guarantee the security of transport connections between the western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic in order to arrange unobstructed movement of persons, vehicles and cargo in both directions.”
It has become prominent because of the reduced appetite of EU countries to do business with Russia.
If Armenia overcomes its Turkiye entanglement, it could reactivate this corridor and create thousands — if not tens of thousands — of jobs for its citizens and draw the benefit of increased trade. The corridor follows the northern bank of the Aras river. Iran is interested in constructing a road between Nakhchivan and Azerbaijan on the southern bank of the same river. However, Tehran is interested in this project not because it wants to link Azerbaijan proper to Nakhchivan, but to have control of the road Turkiye will use to reach both Azerbaijan and the Central Asian Turkic republics beyond the Caspian Sea.
On a similar controversy regarding the Lachin corridor in Armenia, unlike Yerevan’s negative attitude, Azerbaijan refrains from imposing any restrictions on Armenians wishing to travel to the autonomous Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan and vice versa.
Turkiye has an alternative land route connection with Azerbaijan through the Kars-Tbilisi-Baku railroad. Therefore, the Armenian blockade does not hamper Turkiye’s reach to the Central Asian Turkic republics, it only makes the transport more difficult and expensive.
European and Asian investors have shown an interest in improving the infrastructure for cargo transport in the middle corridor. The Austrian Federal Railways and Pacific Eurasia have cooperated to make Turkiye’s Izmit Bay a central hub between Asia and Europe. Cargo transported through this route has increased by more than 120 percent this year.
There were efforts even before the Ukrainian crisis to improve the efficiency of cargo traffic in Turkish harbors. Danish shipping company Maersk, Finnish company Nurminen Logistics, Dutch company Rail Bridge Cargo, Germany’s CEVA Logistics and Chinese logistics operators and freight forwarders are already using the middle corridor. The volume of cargo transported on this route is expected to grow sixfold to 3.2 million tons in 2022.
The appeal for increased connectivity will probably force the companies and public authorities of the middle corridor countries to make additional efforts to overcome technical and administrative obstacles. After the Ukrainian crisis, these efforts are more visible. They now are trying to build new ports, ferries and railroads and also improve soft infrastructure by facilitating border crossing formalities.
Once such improvements are carried out, they will probably stay in practice and this will become an indirect outcome of the Ukrainian crisis.
• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkiye and founding member of the ruling AK Party.