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Reviving an Ancient Route? The Role of the Baku – Tbilisi – Kars Railway

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Though the initial idea about the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway project was raised in the early 1990s, it was not taken seriously due to regional instability and economic difficulties. However, with the realization of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipelines in 2006, the idea of a railway connection became real once again.

The BTK, covering 850 km with a capacity of 5 million tons of cargo (upgradable to 15 million) per year and one million passengers (upgradable to three million), and connecting Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, was launched in 2007 (Klimas and Humbatov, 2016:38; Uysal, 20 October 2014).It was launched without any international backing mainly because Armenia was left out due its occupation of nearly20 percent of Azerbaijani territory after a war in the early 1990s that ended in a cease-fire in May 1994.

Though initially the plan was to be completed in 2010, financial challenges as a result of falling oil prices meant that it became operational only on 30 October 2017. Azerbaijan was the driving force behind the BTK railway project.  The BTK is an important step in reviving the historical Silk Road. The Silk Road refers to an ancient network of trade routes that was used from 130 BC, when Han China opened trade with the West, to 1453 AD when the Ottoman Empire decided to end trade with the West and closed the routes. However, the term is far more recent. It was coined by the German geographer and traveler, Ferdinand von Richthofen, in 1877 AD, who designated this network of trade routes ‘Seidenstrasse’ (silk road) or ‘Seidenstrassen’ (silk routes) (Mark, 28 March 2014).

However, the trade routes carried far more than silk. Trade included textiles, spices, grain, vegetables and fruit, animal hides, tools, wood work, metal work, religious objects, art work, precious stones and a lot more. It carried ideas and people too(UNESCO, nd.). Ideas and culture were transmitted changing the face of Eurasia. Many of the cities along the Silk Road became hubs of culture and learning. It connected the Han Chinese Empire with the Roman Empire. Starting at Xi’an (Sian), the 4,000-mile (6,400-km) road, in reality a caravan tract, followed the Great Wall of China to the northwest, bypassed the TaklaMakan Desert, climbed the Pamirs (mountains), crossed Afghanistan, and went on to the Levant; from there the merchandise was shipped across the Mediterranean Sea. Not many merchants travelled the entire route. In fact, the trade was handled by a series of middle men (Encyclopedia Britannica, 30 October 2017).

With changing regional and geopolitical constellations, the historic Silk Road is on its way to revival, with a strong geo-political motive.In this respect, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which plans to improve Chinese rail and sea transportation to better connect with the global economy, strengthens the future perspective of the BTK. The Belt and Road goes through 65 countries, includes 70% of the world’s population, three-quarters of its energy resources, a quarter of goods and services and 28% of global GDP—some $21 trillion (Campbell, 2017). 

Map of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railway

btkr

Source: Twelves, R., 01 November 2017, From Baku with Love: The New Transcaucasian Railway.

Hence, the importance of the project is manifold, ranging from economic to strategic interests. Being a part of traditional Silk Road route plays an important role for freight and passenger transportation between Asia and Europe.The BTK increases the strategic importance of Azerbaijan by enabling it to become a transport hub between Europe and Asia. Azerbaijan has already secured its energy independence thanks to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipelines, both supported by the West and transnational oil companies such as BP and ExxonMobil. However, the same support could not be secured for the BTK railway project.

The BTK has faced serious challenges including a lack of support from international donors or Great Powers. Indeed, under pressure from the Armenian lobby, possible funding from the USA was blocked for the BTK (Tsurkov 13 November 2017).Thanks to the decisiveness of Azerbaijan, the biggest hurdle, thelack of finances to carry out the construction/reconstruction works in Georgia was solved with Azerbaijan’s offer of a loan of $775 million with concessional terms to Georgia (Klimas and Humbatov, 2016:22). It is important to note that the total cost of the BTK was above $1 billion. Thus, Azerbaijan indeed took the lion’s share of responsibility in realization of the BTK project. This showed how important a small state could be in big regional projects without international backing. 

There are still many uncertainties ahead the entire Belt Road project. It passes through some of the world’s most volatile borders—Iran-Turkey, Russia-Ukraine, and the de-facto border between Western and Eastern Ukraine. China expects countries like Vietnam and Malaysia, with whom it competes for maritime influence to co-operate on the project. Another problem is that this ambitious attempt to connect the world’s richest regions in the West and the East through a swathe of poorer territory might mean that China has to extend geopolitical commitments, including military, which may not be welcome (Bohl, 2017).

In addition, the new Silk Road project has the potential of upsetting China’s regional rivals such as Japan and India. In an indication that such a challenge would be addressed Japan and India recently announced the AAGC (Asia Africa Growth Corridor) an initiative led by a partnership between India and Japan to better integrate the economies of South, Southeast, and East Asia with Oceania and Africa. In contrast to the land based routes of the New Silk Route this will be series of intersecting sea based economic triangles interconnecting cities in Central Asia which is expected to have rapid economic growth (Shepard, 2017a)

Such moves risk upsetting the traditional power in Central Asia—Russia—which as a legacy of the Tsarist and Soviet Empires has considerable influence in the region. Russia has cooperated with India on its own continent-crossing plan the North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC). This 7,200-kilometer multimodal trade corridor is expected to run from India to Russia, linking the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea, improving India’s connections to Iran, Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia(Shepard, 2017b)

A Russia, no longer under sanctions, could become a serious rival for the BTK. Additionally, China should fully commit to send goods to Europe mainly through the historic Silk Road route rather than through the Suez Canal (Twelves, 1 November 2017). Furthermore, so-called ‘frozen conflicts’ in the region should be taken into consideration. A possible restart of an armed conflict can put regional projects into danger. Therefore, in the long term, some grave challenges remain.

However, standing up to these challenges could open up new perspectives. In other words, with full-fledged commitment by China and regional countries and the solution of threatening ‘frozen conflicts’, the BTK has the potential to bring back the trade potential of the historic Silk Road and substantially contribute to the development of economies lying along the route.

The main significance of the BTK is that it will reduce Russia’s monopoly on overland transportation and boost the travel between Asia and Europe. Most importantly, the transportation cost and time will be reduced substantially. Being a piece of historic Silk Road, BTK will transport goods from China to Kazakhstan, and then through the Caspian Sea to Baku, from where it will be taken to Turkey via BTK and finally to Europe, as far as London. The time required for the trip will be around 13-15 days which is almost twice as fast as sea transportation to the same destination. Moreover, it is 50 percent cheaper than air transport (Rick, 1 November 2017; Klimas and Humbatov, 2016:11). China has been strengthening the Central Asian part of the historic Silk Road. In terms of trade turnover with the Central Asian countries, China already overtook Russia in 2008. In other words, China is Central Asia’s biggest trade partner. In 2013 China achieved a trade balance of $ 50 billion, whereas Russia had $31.5. Interestingly, in 2001 China’s trade with Central Asia was only $1.5 billion (Muzalevsky, 27 April 2016).  In 2015, the Chinese president Xi Jinping mentioned that Chinese government aims at investing $46 billion in Central Asia in order to develop trade, transport and energy infrastructures (Muzalevsky, 27 April 2016). Until 2015 China have already invested nearly $40 billion to the Central Asian countries.Such a level of investment backs up the belief that Silk Road project is going to be revived in the coming few years. Benefiting from concessional loans from China and its own energy revenues, Kazakhstan have improved its transport infrastructure and build new railway connections which also includes the railway crossing the country from west to east.

Turkey is another country that eagerly supports the historic Silk Road expecting to become a transport hub between Asia and Europe. Apart from BTK, the famous Marmaray project is Turkey’s other contribution to the revival of historic Silk Road. The Marmaray project aims at connecting Europe and Asia by rail with a tunnel under the Bosphorus. This project, transporting both passengers and freight, is expected to be completed by February 2018 (Uysal, 4 July 2016).The BTK will be a crucial project to increase transport between Turkey and the CIS countries.

Initially Iran could lose out if the BTK project is realized as Turkey coulduse it to re-route goods that are currently transported to Iran via the CIS. However, in the long-run, if sanctions are liftedonce and for all, Iran will also benefit from the revival of historic Silk Road. Indeed, Iran has expressed its interest in building railway lines to Azerbaijan (Uysal, 20 October 2014).

Among others, the ministers of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan also attended the opening ceremony of the BTK railway in Baku (Mahmudov, 3 November 2017). This demonstrates the interests of all Central Asian countries to join the transportation route to transport their goods to the promising European market.

To conclude, the BTK will not only help the economies of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, it will also contribute to the trade between Asia and Europe bypassing Russia’s overland transportation monopoly. Therefore, it is not only an economical but also a strategic project. The major importance of the project is its positive impact on helping small countries to avoid Russian overland transport manipulations.

The BTK will increase both passenger and freight transportation between Asia and Europe outside Russian grip. It is the first regional non-energy project in South Caucasus connecting Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. The BTK railway proved an alliance build around an infrastructure project involving small states can shape greater economic as well as political regional realities which impacts great players as well. Azerbaijan, taking the biggest responsibility for the completion of the BTK, will also take the lion’s share in terms of benefits. It will become a transport hub, if it further develops its transport infrastructures, and it will also get access better access to Europe by using the transportation infrastructures, e.g., ports of Turkey.

Previous energy projects have shaped the regional triangle between Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey, and BTK will further strengthen this network. BTK is a purely economic project. Yet, it certainly has political and cultural consequences as well; it can contribute to strengthening trust between nations. Historical mutual mistrust among the Chinese andCentral Asians can be challenged with growing people-to-people encounters due to trade and travel along the historic Silk Road.

Moreover, besides the establishment of new partnerships and better integration of Eurasian countries into global value chains, the BTK will also help in attracting Foreign Direct Investment to countries like Georgia and Azerbaijan. Last but not the least,the BTK will encourage construction of free economics zones and infrastructures along the route. 

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Eastern Europe

Armenia: Lies and realities

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The OSCE Minsk Group was established to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which arose as a result of Armenia’s brutal interference in Azerbaijan’s internal affairs and military aggression. However, the activities of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs have been fruitless for almost 30 years. Armenia did not comply with the UN Security Council Resolutions No. 822, 853, 874 and 884 on the unconditional, prompt and complete withdrawal of the Armenian occupying forces from the territories of Azerbaijan. Armenian was trying to impose occupation fact and to bring it to a “fait accompli.” At the same time, Armenia was preparing to occupy new territories of Azerbaijan and commit provocations. Armenian Defense Minister David Tonoyan confessed: “We will not return an inch of land to Azerbaijan and will occupy new territories.”

In July 2020, the Armenian leadership committed another provocation in the direction of the Tovuz region of the Azerbaijani state border. There were several purposes in this provocation. First, to occupy the territories, where the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan main export oil pipeline, which plays a vital role in Europe’s energy supply, the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline, TAP and TANAP lines pass, and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway connects Europe and Asia. Furthermore, as a result, to obstruct the access of the Republic of Azerbaijan to Europe. Second, to divert attention from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and involve the CSTO, especially Russia, in the war. However, the Armenian occupying forces were repulsed and failed to achieve any of the above purposes. Armenia’s intentions against European countries and peoples have failed.

Later, Armenia committed provocations again, in response, when Azerbaijan took action, the Armenian leadership began to spread slander and false news in order to deceive European public opinion. Let us look at just two of them. First, the Armenian side tried to cover up their aggression policy and abuse the religious feelings of Christians around the world by spreading false information about the alleged attack of the Azerbaijani army on the church in Shusha. Even those unfamiliar with military science know that if the church had been hit by a rocket, it would have collapsed. However, the church was in place. On the other hand, mosques, churches and synagogues have coexisted in Azerbaijan for many centuries. Even the Armenian church, which is located in the centre of Baku, including its library, is protected by the Azerbaijani state and its guard also is Armenian. It can be questioned that what did Armenia do in return for Azerbaijan’s care for the church, the house of God? Armenians intentionally kept pigs in mosques in the occupied Aghdam and Zangilan regions of Azerbaijan. Their photos and videos are available on the Internet. The church, the mosque and the synagogue are the houses of God. By treating mosques as an object for insults, Armenia is tarnishing Christians, and Christianity, which is a religion of peace and coexistence. Russians, Jews, Georgians, Ukrainians and others, who are Azerbaijani citizens in the ranks of the Azerbaijani army, are fighting for the liberation of Azerbaijani lands from occupiers. Prayers for the Azerbaijani soldier are being held in all churches and synagogues in Azerbaijan. His Holiness Pope Francis, who visited Baku a few years ago, praised the policy of Azerbaijan in terms of inter-religious and inter-civilizational dialogue as an example.

Secondly, Armenia is lying about Azerbaijan’s alleged “genocide” of Armenians, which is nonsense. Because currently, more than 30000 Armenians live in Azerbaijan peacefully. If there was any discrimination policy against Armenians, how could so many Armenians live in Azerbaijan? However, the situation is different in Armenia. Since 1988, over 250000 Azerbaijanis have been savagely expelled from Armenia. Today there is no single Azerbaijani in Armenia and Armenia is a mono-ethnic state. At the same time, more than 750000 Azerbaijanis were expelled from the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories of Azerbaijan and became internally displaced persons.

Thus, on the one hand, the Armenian leaders pose a direct threat to Europe’s energy supply, and on the other hand, they try to use the religious feelings of the European people for their own interests by spreading false news and figments. However, they forget that the world is very small now, and everyone sees everything well. So, the question is: what is the name of Armenia’s policy? The answer is clear!

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Eastern Europe

Ceasefire Violated, Civilians of Ganja, Azerbaijan Hit –Again

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Image source: Azerbaijan Ministry of Defence

Authors: Julia Jakus and Anar Imanzade

Intensifying rocket and artillery fire exchanges between Armenia and Azerbaijan have driven military overtures from both sides as well as mutual accusations that civilians are being unlawfully targeted. The disputed region Nagorno-Karabakh has long been the catalyst of periodic clashes, but the situation dramatically deteriorated over the last several weeks. Why is Nagorno-Karabakh so ardently contested, and what are the implications of recent escalations in this conflict?

The Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts were occupied by Armenian forces between 1988-1993 (Council on Foreign Relations, 2020). One year prior to the end of this occupation, Armenian forces massacred over 600 Azerbaijani civilians in Khojaly on February 26, 1992. Following the military occupation of the region as well as its seven surrounding districts, over 1.000.000 people were displaced – most of whom had immediate family members and relatives who were killed during the 5-year occupation.

Since 1992, the Armenian military has occupied upper Karabakh laying claim to the territory on the basis that the region harbors an ethnic majority of Armenians. However, no less than four UN Security Council resolutions (822,853, 874, and 884) recognize the Nagorno-Karabakh region as being a part of Azerbaijan and actively call for the immediate withdrawal of the Armed Forces of Armenia from occupied territories within Azerbaijan. Although a ceasefire was signed in 1994, the region has remained under Armenian occupation (Jeyhun Aliyev and Ruslan Rehimov, 2020).

From Border Clashes to Bombings

In July,the border clashes near Tavush of Armenia (Tovuz of Azerbaijan)resulted not only in 16 deaths (12 Azerbaijani, 4 Armenians) but also spiked these long-simmering tensions between the two countries. Azerbaijan responded by shelling military objects in Stepanakert (the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh). The most recent operations recommenced on the 27th of September when Azerbaijan took the city of Hadrut (which is geostrategically important because of its proximity to the heart of Karabakh). Since then, the Armed Forces of Azerbaijan have liberated some of its territories namely via targeting military components such as artillery batteries and other facilities. While Azerbaijan proclaims that they are liberating the region, Armenian officials decry that Azerbaijan and Turkey are conspiring to commit another genocide against the Armenian people.

Although memories of 1915 still burn painfully in the hearts and minds of Armenians, many might argue that mobilizing memories of the 1915 Genocide with reference to the Nagorno-Karabakh actively ignores the fact that geopolitical conditions have markedly changed over the last 100+ years. Because Armenia is a member of the CSTO, if Armenia is attacked, then Russia and other members of this organization bear an obligation for military interference on their behalf. Likewise, more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians live in Azerbaijan in relative peace while veryfew Azerbaijani live in Armenia which means that very little threat should emanate from within Armenia’s borders. From this angle, it certainly appears that the main aim of Azerbaijan remains exclusively the liberation of its occupied territories.

The last week of September and the first week of October were marked by particular ambiguity as both sides ardently claimed to have succeeded in gaining the upper hand. However, the dynamic changed significantly on the 9th of October when both the Azerbaijani and Armenian Foreign Minister were invited to Moscow. There, they each agreed to a humanitarian ceasefire and promised to exchange the bodies of fallen soldiers beginning on October 10th. However, on the 11th of October between 2:00 and 3:00 am, Armenian Forces launched another missile attack on Azerbaijan’s second-largest city Ganja (the first occurred on the 5th of October). In the second attack, a missile struck a civilian residential building and resulted in the deaths of 10 people, more than 35 injured. Children were among both the fatalities and casualties. By targeting residential areas in the city of Ganja immediately following a ceasefire agreement, this military overture not only violated the Geneva Conventions but also upended over 30 years of negotiations presided over by the Minsk Co-Chair Group of the OSCE.

The city of Ganja lies in the West of Azerbaijan, just North of the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region. It is seen as an energy corridor from the Caspian Sea to global markets, and for this reason, bears a strong geostrategic value. On the heels of 3-decades of diplomatic stagnancy, the Armenian Prime Minister NikolPashinyan has made provocative remarks that steer away from rather than toward conflict resolution such as, “Karabakh is Armenia…full stop” (Eurasia.net, 2019). The deaths of Azerbaijani civilians in recent attacks appear to have had the greatest unifying effect on the Republic of Azerbaijan since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The Azerbaijani demand to end Armenian occupation has even garnered the support of opposition leaders for Ilham Aliyev, the president of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

Global Implications

As Armenian-Azerbaijani tensions escalate, both Russia and Iran have offered to broker peace talks. Macron and Trump have also publicly advocated for a ceasefire, in spite of powerful Armenian lobbies residing in both states. Azerbaijan has indicated that it is not willing to wait another 30 years without action. The ceasefire, to Azerbaijan, is tantamount to the permanent withdrawal of Armenian troops from the Nagorno-Karabakh region. To Armenia, stepping away is associated with abandoning ethnic Armenians living in the Azerbaijani territory—in spite of the international resolutions demanding them to.

External actors have also played a complicating role. For example, while Moscow publicly advocates for a ceasefire, Russia maintains a military pact with Armenia to the extent that they have continued to send military equipment to Armenia… while simultaneously bearing otherwise good politico-economic ties with Azerbaijan. This, in turn, raises Russia-Turkey tensions. Erdoğan recently pledged his allegiance with Baku on the basis both of historic alliances and existing economic ones. This is not surprising given the historic animosity between Yerevan and Ankara as well as the fact that vital oil and gas pipelines run from Baku to Turkey. Global responses have been mixed. All foreign powers watching the violence escalate have kept a keen eye on the pipelines, but some surmise that –until oil and gas are impacted – those same powers are likely to try to dismiss the issue as an internal clash. Still, other world leaders to UN Secretary-General António Guterres have been calling for a true ceasefire.

The dispute presents a situation riddled with competing narratives, but one thing is certain: as military overtures bleed beyond the traditionally contested region and into civilian cities of Azerbaijan, the prospects of fruitful diplomatic relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh recede. 

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Eastern Europe

A Chill in Georgia-China Relations

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Photo: Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia at the Tbilisi Silk Road Forum, Tbilisi, 22 October 2019. Credit: Prime Minister of Georgia

A sense of growing disenchantment is starting to dominate China-Georgia relations. Given China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Georgia’s geographical importance to the realization of China’s plans, Georgian elites had high hopes for the future. Today, few people are as enthusiastic.

The relationship used to look promising. In 2017 China and Georgia signed a free trade agreement to remove customs barriers, in a move Georgian leaders hoped would boost exports and help develop the Georgian economy. The Georgian government also expected an increase in Chinese investments into Georgia’s infrastructure, specifically its Black Sea ports of Poti, Batumi, Anaklia, as well as east-west rail and road links. Several large-scale investment forums were held in Tbilisi for that purpose.

Fostering closer ties with China was also seen as a vital component of Georgia’s quest to balance Russia’s regional influence, and as a hedge against Russian military moves in occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The hopes for improvements in trade have not panned out. While there has been a steady increase in overall volume, statistics show that Georgia mostly exports raw materials to China, such as copper and various chemicals. A market for goods higher up the value chain has not materialized. Similarly, concerns over corrupt practices have increased, especially tied to how Chinese companies have been awarded contracts. One illustrative case concerns Powerchina’s subsidiary Sinohydro winning a €26.3 million tender for the reconstruction of a 42-kilometer section of the Khulo-Zarzma road. Sinohydro has a long record ­– both in Georgia and abroad – of corruption, environmental degradation, and of generally shoddy work. And yet it keeps winning new tenders.

Furthermore, it has become apparent to policymakers in Tbilisi that China will not go out of its way to harm increasingly important relations with Russia. For example, China has been generally unhelpful on key diplomatic issues critical to the Georgian side. It repeatedly failed to back Georgia’s UN vote on refugees forcefully expelled from Abkhazia and South Ossetia by separatists and Russian troops. It repeatedly failed to denounce de-facto presidential or parliamentary elections held in Georgia’s occupied territories. China has also stayed silent on Russian cyber-attacks against Georgia over the last few years, as well as on Russian “borderization” policies in South Ossetia. Its Ministry of Defense even announced that it would participate in the Russian-led “Kavkaz-2020” exercises, alongside troops from Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

China has also helped the Kremlin seed destabilizing disinformation in the country. On September 2, the Chinese state media outlet China Daily questioned the utility of the U.S.-funded Lugar Laboratory located near Georgia’s border with Russia and alleged that it both represented a biohazard risk to Georgia and that Georgian citizens were being unwittingly used as test subjects.

All this stands in striking contrast with Georgia’s Western partners, who continuously stand up for Georgia’s foreign policy priorities, as well as for its territorial integrity. Though increasingly disenchanted with China, Georgian leaders continue to walk a diplomatic tightrope, keen to not draw ire from China while preserving its ties to the West. But as America’s stance on China hardens, it will be more and more difficult to maintain this balance. In a series of public letters addressed to the Georgian government sent earlier this year, U.S. congressmen and senators have been explicit that Georgia needs to avoid deep entanglements with China and hew closely to Western standards and trade practices.

The balancing act is simply unsustainable. Georgia’s NATO and EU membership aspirations, the cornerstone of its geopolitical orientation, are an irreconcilable irritant for China, especially as the Alliance expands its scope to face down China’s growing military ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region. Georgia will be forced to pick sides eventually.

And the outcome is a foregone conclusion. At this point, criticizing China openly would cost Georgia a lot, which means that Tbilisi taking a firm stance on Taiwan or on human rights issues is not likely. But as tensions ratchet up between the West and China, expect Georgia to side more firmly with the West, not only politically, but also increasingly economically, by embracing Western 5G technologies as well as its trade and investment standards.

Author’s note: first published in cepa.org

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