Source: The New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy.
The 'Middle Corridor'
90s trends have been making a comeback lately - low-rise jeans, cell phones that are too big to fit in your hand, and Central Asian countries trying to escape the geopolitical influence of Russia.
Simplifying supply routes
Today, the main supply route across the Eurasian continent is The Trans-Caspian International Transport Route or the 'Middle Corridor'. The route passes through China, Kazakhstan, the southern Caucasus region, Turkey and on to Europe.
- But the Middle Corridor is a complex route - cargo must be shipped over large bodies of water at two points during the journey, making it an expensive and inefficient way to ship goods between China and Europe.
The solution: A 100% land-based railway project linking China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan, allowing the shipment of goods across Eurasia while bypassing Russia.
Cutting Russia out
Uzbekistan and Georgia have enthusiastically embraced the prospect of attracting millions in foreign investment to develop and modernise their rail infrastructure.
Not only would this new route grant them more economic independence from Russia, but there are also some tasty earnings to be had:
- Cargo transhipment through Central Asia and the Caucasus is expected to increase sixfold in 2023.
China also stands to benefit from stronger trans-continental freight links, although Beijing has kept that fact a little more low-key for PR reasons. As analyst Alberto Rizzi puts it:
- "[D]espite the pledge of "friendship without limits", China plans to build a railway to Europe through Iran and Turkey, effectively bypassing Russia. And expanding Chinese influence in Central Asia, Moscow's backyard."
Easier said than done
To no one's surprise, building a transcontinental railway that would dramatically alter the geopolitical landscape is no easy task. There are at least two main problems:
1. 💰 Who's gonna pay?
China is likely to cover some of the tab, but its recent mixed experiences with lending as part of its Belt and Road Initiative have made Beijing reluctant to take on huge investments alone.
2. 🐻 The angry bear in the room
Russia has a bad case of FOMO. That's understandable because the proposed railway projects threaten Russian revenues and influence over a region it has long considered firmly within its sphere of influence.
- As Professor Avdaliani notes, "it remains to be seen how far China would be willing to go. It may not want to anger Russia and has generally deferred to Russian geopolitical interests in the South Caucasus."
President Putin will meet President Xi at a summit in Uzbekistan next week - the first time the two presidents have met since Xi announced a 'partnership of no limits' in early February, three weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine.
President Putin will be hoping to convince his dear friend to put the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway project on the back burner, but whether Xi will be in a mood to listen is another matter entirely.