Trans-Caspian International Transport Route or Middle Corridor: A New Initiative for Global Connectivity

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The Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, often referred to as the Middle Corridor, represent a transformative initiative in global trade. Stretching across the heart of Eurasia, this strategic corridor serves as a vital connection between Europe and Asia, fostering economic integration and cultural exchange. The Middle Corridor carries and embodies multiple significant historical trade routes with modern infrastructure and innovation which are also geopolitically important. The Caspian Sea region unlocks opportunities for efficient and cost-effective transportation of goods between Europe, Central Asia, and beyond.

This brief explores the Middle Corridor’s multifaceted potential, from bolstering regional connectivity and enhancing trade relations to promoting sustainable development and geopolitical stability. Through an in-depth analysis, this brief will delve into the history of the route, its impact on the economy and geopolitics of the connected countries, and the implications for Bangladesh and the future of global commerce and cooperation.

The Middle Corridor connects China and Europe with a network of road, rail, and ferry lines as well as a trade corridor. In light of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the Corridor—which spans Central Asia, Turkey, the South Caucasus, and the Caspian Sea—can be a way to improve connectivity, diversify trade routes, and lessen dependency on Russia.

The Northern Corridor (passing through Russia), the Southern Corridor (passing through Iran), and the Middle Corridor (passing through Central Asia and the South Caucasus), are currently the three main inland transit routes linking Asia and Europe. The Middle Corridor, which passes through Central Asia, the Caspian Sea, the Caucasus, and further into Europe, is more significant because of the unavoidable spillover effects of the ongoing military conflict in Ukraine and Israel’s war on Gaza. While cargo transportation along the Southern Corridor is problematic due to sanctions against Iran in the crisis-prone Middle East, issues regarding the safety of traffic along the Northern Corridor are also there. There are 500 kilometers of seaway and more than 4,250 kilometers of rail links along the route. Compared to the existing 19-day voyage via the overland, Russian-dominated Northern Corridor or the 22–37-day journey via the maritime Southern Corridor, the Middle Corridor may cut the transit time between China and Europe to only 12 days, which increases the significance of this route.

Source: CIRSD – Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development

The International Association “Trans-Caspian International Transport Route” was founded in December 2016. The Trans-Caspian corridor’s geopolitical significance stems from its ability to circumvent conventional routes that are subject to the influence of neighboring states such as Russia. The corridor offers more freedom and strategic flexibility to countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus by offering an alternate route for trade and transit. As part of larger measures to strengthen Ankara’s strategic position in the area, Türkiye first proposed the Corridor in the late 2000s. After the Trans-Kazakhstan railway opened in 2014 and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway (which connected Turkey with the Caucasus) was completed in 2017, the first train from Turkey crossed the Middle Corridor and arrived in China in 2020.

It is beneficial for China and other Central Asian to seek new ways to boost their exports to Europe without going via Russia, as Russia is feeling the effects of trade and economic restrictions with other nations because of its Ukraine invasion. The Middle Corridor has many advantages for Beijing. Most notably, it can lessen China’s dependence on current routes, which lowers the possibility of trade flow disruptions via economic coercion. Greater Chinese influence and regional integration could result from the Corridor in Central Asia, where the regional big powers like Moscow, Beijing, and Ankara (to a lesser extent) are in a struggle for influence. Russia does not wish to lose its sway over the area or tip the prevailing power dynamics in Central Asia or Sino-Russian ties. This might lead to an increase in Chinese investment in Central Asia and increase the region’s reliance on China.

Additionally, Beijing has shown interest in seeing the Middle Corridor developed, especially as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China may boost its connectivity for trade and economic growth with Europe by establishing closer ties with Central Asia and the South Caucasus. This would also increase the security and dependability of China’s commercial linkages with Europe. China will have the chance to engage in infrastructure development along the Corridor, including building ports, roads, and railroads—all of which are essential to the Middle Corridor. Turkey can promote the Middle Corridor to bolster economic ties with Central Asia and provide a compelling trade route. Enhancing the Middle Corridor to its maximum potential is crucial as the development of the region depends critically on increasing the number of such projects.

Leading proponents of the project, Beijing and Ankara, are both actively funding the Middle Corridor’s development to further their strategic objectives.  Turkey sees the development of the Middle Corridor as consistent with its foreign policy goals, while China sees the Corridor’s advancement through the lens of its own Belt and Road Initiative, leading to significant infrastructure investment. While there is not a direct threat of conflicting interests, there is a chance that disagreements about how the Middle Corridor will be developed in the future may cause competition between the two countries. Considering that each of them hopes to benefit more in the long run from the Corridor’s success. When talking about the future possibilities of the Corridor, it is crucial to remember that certain countries stand to benefit more than others.

The Middle Corridor’s progress indicates promising opportunities for regional collaboration. However, it is critical to recognize possible rivalry because of the disparities in gains across member nations. These elements’ effects on the Corridor’s development will primarily depend on the participating nations’ continued degree of commitment and strong long-term cooperation. However, it is crucial to recognize how the Middle Corridor has changed in light of the shifting geopolitical environment brought about by the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and Israel-Plaestine. Constant Houthi attacks in the Red Sea increased the significance of the Middle Corridor.  Given the rich energy resources in the Caspian Basin, the Trans-Caspian corridor plays a crucial role in ensuring energy security for both producer and consumer countries. By facilitating the transportation of oil and gas resources to global markets, the corridor enhances energy diversification and resilience. The Trans-Caspian corridor is part of broader efforts to promote regional integration and connectivity in Eurasia. By linking countries in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Europe, the corridor fosters economic cooperation, trade relations, and infrastructure development.

Cargo across the Middle Corridor reached over 1 million tons at the beginning of 2023, up roughly sixty-five percent from the same period in 2022. 2.8 million tons of cargo were carried by the route in 2023, an 86% increase over 2022. The goal is set at about 4 million tonnes by 2024. At the moment, this route is used by 25 railway, transport-logistics, port, and maritime enterprises from eleven different nations. Utilizing the Middle Corridor could enhance economic opportunities throughout Central Asia, where labor mobility is a frequent issue while providing more security and faster transit times. Over a million laborers from Central Asia continue to enter the Russian labor market even after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Governments in Central Asia, including Uzbekistan, are looking for strategies to increase the variety of places where labor migrants go. Renewing funding from the EU and other international organizations might provide a means of facilitating labor mobility in cycles throughout the Caucasus and Central Asia, thereby promoting increased intergovernmental cooperation along the route.

A surge in communication and transportation via the Middle Corridor will not only create more economic opportunities but also boost accompanying transit charge income. Egypt received $6.3 billion in transit fees from cargo ships that went through Suez in 2021. An increase in volume along the Middle Corridor would offer a consistent stream of income for all participating nations.

While Bangladesh is not directly located along the Trans-Caspian corridor, the development of this trade route can still have indirect impacts on the country. The Trans-Caspian corridor can provide a new trade route and connectivity opportunity between Europe and Asia. As a country heavily reliant on international trade, Bangladesh could benefit from improved access to markets in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Europe through enhanced connectivity facilitated by the corridor. By offering an alternative trade pathway, the Trans-Caspian corridor can help diversify Bangladesh’s supply chains and reduce dependence on existing routes. This diversification can enhance the resilience of Bangladesh’s trade networks and mitigate risks associated with disruptions in traditional trade routes. The Trans-Caspian corridor plays a role in enhancing energy security in the region by facilitating the transportation of oil and gas resources. While Bangladesh is not a major energy producer, stable energy markets in the region can have indirect benefits for the country in terms of energy security and access to reliable energy sources.

Despite its potential, the Middle Corridor faces challenges such as infrastructure development, and geopolitical tensions. Overcoming these obstacles requires concerted efforts and collaboration among all stakeholders to ensure the route’s long-term viability and success. As the Middle Corridor continues to evolve, it can offer a sustainable, reliable, and efficient pathway for trade. Embracing this potential will not only elevate the corridor’s strategic importance but also contribute to a more interconnected and prosperous world.

– Tahia Afra Jannati is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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