As the centre of gravity of the global power play tilts towards its economic underlining,
issues like trade, connectivity and infrastructure have come to warrant greater significance in foreign policies. This holds particularly true in Central Asia where the need for investment coupled with its strategic geographical stretch has drawn increasing attention towards the potential of transport corridors as catalysts of economic integration and connectivity. While China’s colossal Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been at the centre of global attention, India, Iran and Russia have mapped out their own plans for a transcontinental transport corridor. The International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) is a landmark initiative for Eurasian connectivity. Twice as short as the traditional trade route between India and Russia, the corridor augments economic cooperation and gives sea access to land-locked member states in Central Asia. This paper seeks to advance an understanding of the development of the INSTC and examine its significance in the Asian transportation grid. In doing so, it analyses the geopolitical dynamics that underlie the project’s agenda, examines it in the context of the BRI, explores the stumbling blocks in its developments and comments on its future prospects while highlighting some recommended policy changes.
Bridging the Connectivity Gap
The International North-South Transport Corridor is a 7200 km-long multimodal transportation network that links the Indian Ocean to the Caspian Sea via the Persian Gulf onwards into Russia and Northern Europe. Launched as a joint initiative by India, Iran and Russia in 2000 and ratified by the three in 2002, the corridor has now expanded to include eleven more members, namely, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Ukraine, Syria, Belarus, Oman and Bulgaria (observer status). The 2000 agreement was set in motion with the objectives of simplifying and developing transportation services, enhancing access to global markets and coordinating transit policies while also ameliorating route security. India’s accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in 2017 and the Ashgabat Agreement in 2018 have only increased these connectivity prospects.
Figure 1: The INSTC route and the standard Suez route. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Although the original agreement envisaged connecting India and Iran to Central Asia and Russia, the potential of the corridor to gradually envelop the Baltic, Nordic and even the Arctic regions is no longer far-fetched. The first or the central branch of the corridor of the INSTC begins from the Mumbai port in the Indian Ocean Region and connects to the Bandar Abbas and Chabahar ports on the Strait of Hormuz and then passing through the Iranian territory via Nowshahr, Amirabad and Bandar-e-Anzali, runs by the Caspian Sea to reach the Olya and Astrakhan Ports in Russia. The second or the western branch connects the railway network of Azerbaijan to that of Iran via the cross-border nodal points of Astara (Azerbaijan) and Astara (Iran) and further to India via sea route. The third or the eastern branch of the corridor connects Russia to India through the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Notably, the INSTC is multimodal in nature, encompassing sea, road and rail routes in its network to offer the shortest route of connectivity for Eurasian cargo transport. Bereft of the INSTC, cargo between India and Russia moves either through the Netherlands’ port of Rotterdam or China’s Qingdao port which takes over 50 days for transit. The INSTC in its completion cuts this transit time down to about 16-21 days. It also offers a considerably shorter route than the Suez Canal transit passage which, besides being overloaded, is also much more expensive than the former. This was made apparent by the dry run conducted by the Federation of Freight Forwarders’ Association of India (FFFAI) in 2014 with the objective of discerning structural problems and missing links in the corridor. The study demonstrated that the INSTC was 30 percent cheaper and 40 percent shorter than the traditional Suez route, slashing the transit time to an average of 23 days for Europe-bound shipments from the 45-60 days taken by the latter. Although the study identified streamlining and coordination with allied agencies as some of the pitfalls, it ascertained that the corridor did not pose infrastructural or security hurdles in the maiden dry run. The second dry run, reportedly conducted in 2017, generated a similar sense of optimism.
With an estimated capacity of 20-30 million tons of goods per year, the corridor facilitates transit and bolsters trade connectivity. But besides the more obvious benefits of increased trade, the time and cost savings coupled with access to new markets also translate into increased competitiveness in exports. This holds particularly true for the INSTC because unlike the BRI, the INSTC nations have a level-playing field, allowing for benefits to be distributed more evenly. For India, the corridor also augments its ‘Make in India’ initiative. Access to nations of the Eurasian Economic Union alone can offer it a market of 173 million people. Additionally, the corridor facilitates free trade agreements, opens new opportunities to engage with more regional trading blocs and in harmonising policies while bringing about a more uniform legal climate and enhances regional stability.
The INSTC acts as a gateway for India to reconnect with the resource-rich nations of Central Asia and Eurasia. It makes for one of the most salient aspects of India’s Connect Central Asia policy which was initiated by Indian policy markers in 2012 in a bid to revamp its ties with Central Asia. In a way, the INSTC serves the more proactive stance that the Indian foreign policy has come to adopt in recent years. For a long time, India’s westward connectivity had been disrupted by its contentious relations with Pakistan. In providing a direct link to the Iranian ports of Chabahar and Bandar Abbas, the INSTC allows the nation to bypass the Pakistan hurdle. Furthermore, it presents India with an opportunity to re-engage with Russia which, in the light of India’s increasingly cordial relations with the United States, has been advancing its relations with Pakistan. In 2018, bilateral trade between India and Russia stood at USD $8.2 billion, a dismal amount compared to the envisaged target of US $30 billion in bilateral trade by 2025. The need to re-energize trade coupled with the lack of a coterminous border renders the INSTC imperative for the two.
The INSTC also makes way for India to offset growing Chinese presence in the region. The partly Indian-built port of Chabahar in Iran is not only central to India’s connectivity to Central Asia but also holds significant strategic importance. Located just 72 kilometres west of the Pakistani port of Gwadar which has been developed under the BRI, Chabahar allows India to counter the Chinese strategic foothold in the Indian Ocean Region. The port is also pivotal for land-locked Afghanistan to unlock its trade potential and reduce its dependence on Islamabad. In this context, it is worthwhile to note that, positioned at the crossroads of the North-South and East-West transit corridors, Iran is the lynchpin to the success of the INSTC. Isolation of Iran in the wake of the U.S. sanctions then can inevitably put the actualisation of the INSTC in jeopardy. However, the signing of an MoU between the state-backed Container Corporation of India (Concor) and Russian Railways Logistics Joint Stock Company (RZD) in 2020 to transport cargo via the INSTC despite the threat of U.S. sanctions indicates a promising outlook for the full operationalisation of the corridor.
The geopolitical geometries of the INSTC are complicated not only by tangled relations with extra-regional players but also amongst the members themselves. Azerbaijan’s accession to the INSTC in 2005 spurred the corridor’s spread in the Caucasus and heralded the bridging of missing links like the Qazvin-Rasht-Astara railway line. Anticipating up to seven million tons of cargo transit through its territory in the medium term, Azerbaijan has agreed to finance $500 million for the project. But besides the economic benefits, the corridor also makes for a geopolitical asset for Azerbaijan in offering an opportunity to further isolate Armenia with which the country shares adversarial relations. The INSTC undermines Armenia’s own underfunded regional railroad initiative by providing more suitable economic dividends and linking Iran with Turkey via Georgia’s Black Sea Ports while bypassing those of Armenia with the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars route. Notably, for Armenia, the completion of the Armenia-Iran Railway Concession Project would bring colossal direct benefits for its economy by allowing it to avoid the Turkey and Azerbaijan blockade. However, given the paucity of funds, the Armenian project has remained only on paper. Another case in point is the possibility of friction in Russia-Iran relations in the future if a sanctions-free Iran makes headway in becoming an energy hub and gaining larger shares in the oil and gas markets of Europe which has been striving to reduce its dependence on Russian gas. Moreover, realities of the INSTC’s geopolitical geometries may complicate even further if the corridor expands to include countries from the Baltic and Nordic regions along with other interested states like Japan under its ambit. Nevertheless, given that the main argumentation behind the corridor is to reap commercial benefits, it is unlikely for the geopolitical rationale to override economic reasoning.
The INSTC and BRI: A Harmonious Grid?
The INSTC and China’s BRI are both colossal multi-modal undertakings which enhance economic connectivity and promote infrastructural growth. However, conceived almost a decade before the launch of the BRI, the INSTC is a much older project. Unlike the BRI where China plays the role of the foreman, it follows a much more multilateral approach with multiple stakeholders participating on a level playing field. INSTC proposals are also devoid of ‘debt-trap’ fears which have often plagued the appeal of the BRI. While this makes the INSTC much more transparent and reliable and thereby increases its tenability in the long run, it also implies more constraints in its development process. The shortage of funds for constructing missing links in the corridor is one such example. As the helmsman of the BRI, China is not only willing to invest large sums into the project but is also willing to risk markedly low returns on its long-term investments. This, however, points to the concern that the entire project is a decisive strategic manoeuvre. For India, this holds particularly true for the CPEC stretch on the BRI whose Gwadar port is seen as a catalyst for China to gain a strategic foothold in the Indian Ocean Region. China’s bid to extend ties into Afghanistan and Iran have stirred these tensions further. Nonetheless, it is important to note that Iran’s growing ties with China need not necessarily come at the cost of India-Iran relations. Besides, the North-South axis of the INSTC can, in fact, complement the East-West axis of the BRI to make for a more cohesive transport grid in Eurasia. Although the INSTC and China’s BRI initiative are often pitted against each other, it must be understood that the two are not entirely incompatible with each other.
Bottlenecks and Constraints
Progress on the INSTC has taken place in fits and starts. Following the progress made in the first few years of its inception, development on the corridor slowed down from 2005 to 2012. Progress picked up the pace again after the sixth meeting of the INSTC members in 2012 and the project has been gradually gaining momentum since. Coincidently, this was the same year in which India launched its ‘Connect Central Asia’ initiative. One reason behind the sluggish pace of progress was the imposition of sanctions on Iran which isolated it on the global stage. The other major stumbling block has been the lack of financial backing. None of the three main participants has pockets deep enough to ensure unwavering funds for a project of this scale. Different stakeholders are funding different sub-projects creating structural and technical problems for the corridor owing to its disjointed nature. One such problem is the break of gauge issue. The standard railway gauge used by Iran, a central transit hub, is different from the broad gauge used by Russia and the Central Asian nations. For instance, the Rasht-Astara rail link requires a change of gauge from the standard one as the line crosses from Iran into Azerbaijan. This necessitates the need for more change of gauge facilities. The presence of multiple stakeholders creates other problems like customs control and documentation issues, lack of harmony in transportation laws and improper insurance coverage. Moreover, the project still lacks an information exchange platform. This points to the absence of adequate digitalisation and private sector participation in the INSTC. Although the corridor has garnered interest from some companies like Deutsche Bahn, private sector involvement in the corridor has largely remained dormant owing to their concerns for steady returns on investment and security fears. The corridor passes through regions with critical security risks — be it instability in the conflict-ridden Caucasus, extremism in Afghanistan, domestic discord or forms of transnational organised crime like drug trafficking. This puts the security of cargo transit into question and few companies are willing to gamble with this risk, putting the project’s economic viability in jeopardy.
The Path to the Future
While the North-South Corridor holds immense potential, its full realisation is contingent on the resolution of the bottlenecks and constraints impeding its progress. Addressing these challenges requires closer cooperation with government agencies and private enterprises at both regional and international levels. First, it is imperative to understand that the main selling point of the corridor is commercial gain from increased connectivity. To this end, the INSTC members must avail and make practical and effective use of its complementarity with the existing grid of transnational corridors in Eurasia owing to the North-South axis that the corridor operates on. Synergy with other corridors will allow the INSTC to create additional positive economic spill-overs. Synchronisation with corridors of the Trans-European Transport Network such as the North-Sea Baltic corridor, with organisations like the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) and other nations like Japan, Myanmar and Thailand can significantly enhance the outreach of the project. Second, the INSTC members must incorporate new digital technologies, launch a web portal for information exchange and build digital nodes along the corridor to turn it into a fully integrated networking system. One way of achieving this is to have India, with its robust IT sector, take the lead in the digitalisation of the corridor. The other is to push for greater participation from the private sector which is significantly more efficient in advanced technologies. Third, infrastructural and technical issues must be resolved. Integration of logistics assets, provision of visa facilities, ease of gradients, aggregation of cargo bound in the return direction and increasing availability of change of gauge facilities are some steps in this direction. Fourth, it is equally important to work towards greater harmonisation of policies. This necessitates the creation of high-level working groups and adept integration of policies and laws. It is, however, important to ensure that changes introduced in the direction of legal harmonisation must not be integrated with local laws unexpectedly in a trice but rather in a step-by-step manner to ascertain a smooth transition. Only once these steps are undertaken and the existing bottlenecks removed, can the INSTC members expand the ambit of the project to include new domains like smart energy, blockchain technology, pipeline connectivity, and consider the prospects of extending the corridor to areas like North Africa and the Arctic region.
The International North-South Transport Corridor was initiated based on the vision of India, Russia and Iran to enhance strategic partnership and economic cooperation by augmenting connectivity through Central Asia. Although the initial progress was slow, the project has expanded dramatically to potentially increase its reach up to Northern Europe. Extending its geographical stretch to such an extent and tapping into its vast potential, however, is bound to be a time taking process. Questions over sanctions on Iran and Russia, the mustering of adequate economic wherewithal and lack of private participation still linger. Nonetheless, it would be unwise to judge the corridor’s capacity to deliver before it becomes fully operationalised. Given that development on the corridor is still underway, it can be easily modified to overcome structural problems. Cargo exchange and private participation are also bound to drum up further as Asia slowly develops into a larger consumer market itself. While this presents a positive outlook for the corridor’s future, its actualisation rests on the ability of the member states to maintain sustained efforts.
 Hriday Ch. Sharma, “Turning the International North-South Corridor into a ‘Digital Corridor’”, Comparative Politics Russia, 4 (2018), 125, 10.24411/2221-3279-2018-10008.
 “INSTC Conference-India 2015”, 87-94.
 Hriday Sharma, “Turning the International North-South Corridor into a ‘Digital Corridor’”, 124-138
The dimensions of BRICS geography
Harnessing continental distance for the developing economies may be the single most important mission for BRICS and the New Development Bank (NDB) in the coming decades. The BRICS+ framework offers a platform to scale up investment cooperation through bringing on board the regional development institutions in which BRICS countries are members.
There have been numerous attempts to bring all BRICS under one common denominator — a common feature that would explain the rationale for the emergence of such a grouping. Among the many common factors for BRICS countries the more popular was the growth potential, with predictions of a rising share for BRICS in the world economy being prevalent in the initial phases of BRICS evolution. Another vision was that the BRICS economies represent the leading emerging markets (EM) with some of the most liquid assets and sizeable markets in the EM universe. But over and above some of these unifying themes, there appears to be a less explored commonality among BRICS related to their geographical peculiarities. In fact, geography in terms of the size of BRICS economies, the distance that separates them and the regional roles of BRICS in their respective continental neighborhoods appears to be one of the most fundamental and long-term themes that determines the pathways of BRICS future cooperation.
In terms of the centrality of geography as a defining and unifying feature of BRICS there is the simple fact that BRICS are among the largest countries by territory in the world. In particular, Russia is the largest country with a landmass of more than 17 million squared kilometers, with China taking the 3rd position, Brazil and India taking the 5th and 7th spot respectively. Furthermore, the top three spots in the world in terms of the number of countries that border the respective economies are taken by BRICS economies — China and Russia hold the number one spot with 14 border countries, while Brazil and India take the #3-4 ranking with 10 border countries each. Four BRICS economies also take the top 4 positions in the world in terms of the length of the border with neighboring economies. The number one spot is taken by China, followed by Russia and then Brazil and India.
Another way to picture the uniqueness of BRICS geography is the sheer distance that separates its members. If the distance were to be measured on the basis of the separation between the respective capitals, then the greatest distance among the two BRICS economies would be between Brazil and China — nearly 17000 km. The distance between Russia and Brazil is nearly 11700 km. These distances are several times higher than the longest separations of capitals within the EU (Warsaw-Lisbon separation is 2760 km) and still notably greater than the most extreme spatial separations in the developed world (London-Canberra is 10545 km and the New York — Canberra route is just over 10000 km).
But perhaps the most important common feature among the BRICS economies is that they serve as crucial regional hubs for their continental neighbors, particularly developing landlocked economies. Indeed, each BRICS economy neighbors several landlocked developing economies — in many cases these are some of the largest landlocked economies in the world. In the case of Brazil this is Paraguay and Bolivia. In the case of South Africa it is Botswana as well as Zimbabwe and Lesotho. In the case of India it is Bhutan and Nepal. In the case of China and Russia the two largest landlocked economies in the world — Kazakhstan and Mongolia — are in-between economies for the two largest countries of Eurasia (China and Russia). In Russia’s case there are also the landlocked CIS economies that border Russia (Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan). In all these cases, BRICS economies can potentially serve as outlets to the ports and global market routes for the respective landlocked economies that are their regional partners.
What do all these geographical factors mean for the vectors of economic cooperation among BRICS? The unprecedented spatial separation means that the intensity of trade among the BRICS economies will be limited by the gravity of distance (in line with the indications of the “gravity model” of international trade — the greater the distance and the smaller the size of the two economies, the less will be the intensity of bilateral trade). But at the same time there is tremendous scope for connectivity projects in view of the size of the BRICS countries and the needs for transportation connectivity in the regions of BRICS presence, most notably with respect to the land-locked countries.
The scope for connectivity projects for BRICS economies may be magnified to the scale of the landmass of the developing world via the BRICS+ platform uniting Africa, Latin America as well as Asia. This BRICS+ platform represents a formidable land mass that is significantly less connected via transportation compared to the part of territory occupied by the developed world. If in the case of BRICS+ the total land mass is nearly 100 million squared kilometers, in the case of the developed economies this is around a third of the land mass of the BRICS+ countries.
Harnessing continental distance for the developing economies may be the single most important mission for BRICS and the New Development Bank (NDB) in the coming decades. The BRICS+ framework offers a platform to scale up investment cooperation through bringing on board the regional development institutions in which BRICS countries are members. Accordingly, regional development banks, regional financing organizations together with NDB can act in concert in advancing sustainable development and connectivity across the Global South.
In sum, the two dimensions of BRICS geography, namely the intra-continental and the inter-continental expanses of the developing world, determine the pathways for future BRICS cooperation. The enormous intra-continental distances for BRICS can become an asset and an opportunity-set for advancing South-South cooperation through connectivity projects. At the same time, the scale of inter-continental divides points to the need to advance towards a Global South FTA, a project that is increasingly expedient given the rising tide of protectionism in the world economy.
from our partner RIAC
China’s economic slowdown and its implications for the rest of Asia
China’s economy has slowed down considerably since the past year. The key reasons for China’s slow growth are its stringent lockdowns, to achieve its objective of a zero covid policy. Here it would also be pertinent to point out, that many of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s policies especially tightening of credit for the real estate sector had an adverse impact on the real estate sector and the economy as a whole (according to estimates, real estate counts for 29% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). A number of Chinese real estate developers have been downgraded by Moody’s. A number of companies, including Evergrande are part of the B3 category, which denotes “speculative and are subject to high credit risk’.
In August 2022, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang while commenting on the slowdown said:
‘A sense of urgency must be strengthened to consolidate the foundation for economic recovery’
There is a growing realisation that a further slowdown could lead to serious social problems, the stringent lockdowns have resulted in growing unemployment.
A number of steps have been taken to prevent the slowdown, such as Real Estate Sector and steps for Small Medium Enterprises. In August 2022, the Chinese government offered support to the tune of US $29 billion to Chinese real estate developers so that they can complete stalled projects and deliver them to home buyers. Earlier this year, China’s government announced that it would provide fiscal concessions and tax exemptions to MSME’s to small businesses in China. One of the key factors behind this course correction by Xi Jinping was the 20th national congress of the Communist Party will be held from October 16, 2022 (Xi Jinping is likely to secure a third-term and also consolidate his hold over the party and consolidate his position as the most powerful leader after Mao Zedong)
Challenges still persist for China’s economy
Reports of multilateral agencies clearly point to China’s growth in 2022 being well below earlier estimates and targets. According to a World Bank Report, growth in 2022 for the Asia-Pacific region is likely to be a little over 3% (3.2%), while China’s growth is likely to be 2.8%. China had targeted a growth of 5%, and even multilateral agencies had estimated that the country would grow at over 5%
An Asian Development Bank (ADB) report which estimated that China’s growth will be a little over 3% states that ‘developing’ Asia (which includes Cambodia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka etc) will grow at over 5% and highlights a significant point, that the last time China grew slower than the rest of Asia was in 1990, when China grew at below 4% (3.9%) and the rest of the region grew at 6.9%. Emerging Asian economies which include China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam are likely to grow at 4.3% in 2022 and 4.9% in 2023 again a drop from earlier estimates.
It would be pertinent to point out, that a number of foreign investors in China have also complained about the lockdowns and restrictions. While in the short run, it is unlikely that they will shift their operations in a big way, they are likely to look for alternatives.
In contrast to China, the rest of the region has benefited from easing out covid19 restrictions. Says the ADB report:
‘Easing pandemic restrictions, increasing immunization, falling Covid-19 mortality rates, and the less severe health impact of the Omicron variant are underpinning improved mobility in much of the region’
Can ASEAN and South Asia benefit from China’s slowdown?
The case of Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries is especially important, because their policies with regard to covid have been fundamentally different from that of China. Opening up of borders has given a boost to the tourism sector in the region — especially Malaysia and Thailand. This is important, because tourism accounts for a significant percentage of the GDP of these economies. Here it would also be pertinent to point out, that a number of companies have moved out of China, in the aftermath of covid 19, with Vietnam being a favoured destination due to its geographical location and other economic advantages (some companies have also moved to other ASEAN nations as well as India).
Even the stock markets of these countries have been doing reasonably well. In April 2022, analysts from JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs had picked Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore as their favourite markets, while last month Credit Suisse said its favourite market in the region was Thailand.
In conclusion, while there is no doubt that China has been driving economic growth not just in Asia, but globally, it is unlikely that its economic challenges are likely to reduce in the short run. It is not just covid, but Xi Jinping’s economic policies which have been responsible for the slowdown. The biggest beneficiaries of China’s covid19 policies as well, as it’s slowdown in the longer run, would be the ASEAN region — especially countries like Vietnam and Indonesia — along with South Asian nations – especially India and Bangladesh who with investor friendly policies could attract more companies seeking to relocate from China.
Russia Struggling to Explore Africa’s Market
Building on post-Soviet relations with Africa, Russia has been struggling for strategies on how to establish economic footprints, promote investment and deepen cooperation in Africa. Despite the road map adopted at the end of the first Russia-Africa summit held in October 2019, little has been achieved since then.
Late September, the Regional Chamber of Commerce and Industry welcomed the participants to another round of conference under theme: “Russia-Africa: Prospects for Cooperation” held in St. Petersburg. That gathering featuring a few interested Russian enterprises was part of a series of steps brainstorm and discuss opportunities, developments and challenges with regards to the preparation of the forthcoming Russia-Africa summit planned for July 2023.
Additionally, the goal of this St Petersburg conference event was in line with the priorities on how to engage with credible investors who can partner with the government and private sector to exploit the market. It discussed the possibilities of strengthening partnership between Russia and Africa, as well as issues related to export/import, logistics and peculiarities of working with African partners.
Vice President of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Russian Federation Vladimir Padalko welcomed the participants via video link from Moscow. In the video, Padalko emphatically reminded that “preparations for the second Russia-Africa summit, scheduled for July 2023 in St. Petersburg, are in full swing and we should come to it with concrete results in the form of agreements ready for signing.”
According to him, the Coordinating Committee for Economic Cooperation with African Countries should focus on conducting business missions that would identify specific areas for conducting business cooperation with African countries. It is necessary to help Russians to learn what the African market is, so that they are not afraid of taking investment risks in Africa.
Padalko said that the prejudices that Russians have regarding Africa should be overcome. He referred to his own experience, emphasizing that the first trip to the African continent made him change his mind significantly about the opportunities offered by cooperation with Africa. Russia is trying hard to improve its commercial relations with its African partners. In 2009, it established the Coordinating Committee for Economic Cooperation with sub-Saharan Africa to assist in promoting Russian business interests in Africa.
Senator Igor Morozov, Chairman of the Coordinating Committee for Economic Cooperation with African Countries, called for increasing the pace and level of cooperation with African countries through, as he put it, “bringing small and medium-sized businesses to Africa.”
According to him, Russia is far behind in its activity on the African continent from such countries as the United States, Britain, China, France and even India and Turkey. These countries are developing a network of technology parks, working in the continental free trade zone, participating in the development of the infrastructure of African countries, the construction of roads, bridges and railways.
Senator Morozov noted that “Russian business does not have the tools to enter Africa and, above all, in the field of the banking system. No other banks give guarantees to Russian business. According to him, African countries are interested in the supply of agricultural machinery, and in this sense, the Kirov Plant in St. Petersburg may have good opportunities. And in this sense, we should take an example from our Belarusian friends.”
That was not the first time analyzing the development of business and trade elations with Africa. The African market is competitive and complex, therefore Russian business needs to work thoroughly and systematically in it in order to achieve success. It is necessary to help interested businesses willing to navigate African realities, find a niche for their work, learn about the conditions for entering certain markets.
According to Morozov, there is really the need for a specialized investment fund to support entrepreneurs. In general, with the prospect of working with African partners for many years, more serious state support is needed, and finally suggested that it is necessary to return to barter trade and concessions, which will make it possible to obtain minerals from Africa.
“We need to develop our international payment instruments – sanctions are already being imposed against the Mir system,” he said. A great deal of hope is being placed on the working group for developing new mechanisms in currency regulation and international settlements led by Kremlin aide Maxim Oreshkin, “which is supposed to work out these mechanisms soon,” Morozov said.
“We need to see how we will work within the framework of national currencies” and use them for settlements with African countries, he said. “We need to work in this direction, understanding that SWIFT will never again be [the main system for interbank payments] for us,” Morozov, who also serves on the Federation Council’s Economic Policy Committee, said.
Talks on options for settlements between Russia and African countries in the current economic circumstances are already being held, but “we shouldn’t get ahead of events. African central banks are already beginning to come [to Russia]. Everyone understands that we are leaders in grain exports, leaders in sunflower oil, mineral fertilizers, and it is necessary to settle up,” Morozov.
Other options for settlements could be barter and concessions. The outlook for cooperation and possible Russian projects in Africa, Morozov said Russia can offer its competencies in hydropower, electric passenger transport, automobile manufacturing, farm machinery and pharmaceuticals. Afrocom operates with the support of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Federation Council and government institutions, according to the committee’s website.
Associate Professor Ksenia Tabarintseva-Romanova, Ural Federal University, Department of International Relations, acknowledges huge existing challenges and perhaps difficult conditions in the current economic cooperation between Africa and Russia. Creating African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is the most important modern tool for the economic development of Africa, and this is unique for exploring the market and to get acquainted with the opportunities that it offers for business cooperation.
She, however, maintains that successful implementation requires a sufficiently high level of economic development of the participating countries, logistical accessibility, developed industry with the prospect of introducing new technologies. This means that in order for African Continental Free Trade Area to effectively fulfill its tasks, it is necessary to enlist the provision of sustainable investment flows from outside. These investments should be directed towards the construction of industrial plants and transport corridors.
Speaking earlier in an interview discussion, Tabarintseva-Romanova pointed to the fact that Russia already has vast experience with the African continent, which now makes it possible to make investments as efficiently as possible, both for the Russian Federation and for African countries. In addition, potential African investors and exporters could also explore business collaboration and partnerships in Russia.
Local Russian media, Rossiyskaya Gazeta also published an interview with Professor Irina Abramova, Director of the Institute of African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences, focusing on the economic cooperation with Africa. In this interview, Abramova reiterated explicitly that Russians have to do away with negative perceptions and attitudes toward Africa. The change in attitudes has to reflect in all aspects of the relationship with Africa and Africans.
“In Russians’ minds, Africa is synonymous with backwardness, poverty and hunger, which is not true at all. It is currently one of the most promising regions for foreign investment. In fact, it is a tiger ready to pounce. Africa today is in the same situation that China was in the 1990s. Today, China is the world’s number-one economy in purchasing capacity, a strong power which largely determines global development,” she explained.
“Africa is the zone where all big players overlap since its geographic location between the east and the west puts it at the peak of controversy and big game between all players, meaning between Europe and America, on the one hand, and China, India and other countries, on the other. And if Russia poses as a superpower it will lose its global influence without indicating its position in Africa as well,” she said.
According to her, seven African countries specifically Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, South Africa, Tunisia, Nigeria and Sudan, account for nearly 90% of Russia’s trade. “At the same time, China is present in almost all African countries. Millions of Chinese work in Africa today. It is a good moment for Russia now, because Western partners are trying to impose their values on the Africans, while China is dealing with its challenges at the expense of Africa,” the expert stressed.
The middle class is expanding very fast there, already amounting to 250-300 million people and this constitute a huge consumer market for products and services, according to her estimation.
Professor Abramova noted that it is a very good market for Russian products. The Chinese understood that long ago and are tapping the African market, having flooded it with their products, though Russia also has opportunities as it is fairly competitive in the energy, infrastructure and agriculture sectors, and exporting products such as fertilizers, trucks and aircraft supplies.
The fact that many prominent politicians and businessmen of the African continent graduated from Russian universities and speak Russian well contributes to strengthening of Russian-African relationship, the expert said, adding though that a new generation is about to take over in Africa, which is also reason why Moscow should maintain the existing solid social and cultural ties.
Senator Igor Morozov and Professor Irina Abramova are both members of the Kremlin’s Committee assigned the responsibility for coordinating and preparations for the next Russia-Africa summit in July 2023. Both Russia and Africa had problems finding a suitable African venue for the summit. The joint declaration adopted in Sochi says the summit be held every three years and the venue alternated between Russia and Africa.
Sampson Uwem-Edimo, President of the Nigerian Business Council and General Director of Trailtrans Logistic LLC, delivered a report “Nigeria as a Window to Africa” and further stressed that Russia does not have a common strategy on how to enter African markets, which exists, say, in China or France.
By removing barriers to trade in the region will create new entrepreneurial activities and spur innovations in technology. Now the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) seeks to create better conditions for investment. On the other hand, Russian corporate directors most often have problems with their business in Africa. The key obstacles ranging from their inconsistencies in approach, poor knowledge of the local political and business environment. Russians must also invest more in R&D collaborations with their African partners.
According to him, while Russians hope for brisk business, many African business leaders today are still Western mind-oriented, have various support from the United States and Europe. But the practical reality, Russia could still steadily transfer technologies for local processing of raw materials as a catalyst for Africa’s development.
Uwem-Edimo noted that such former colonial powers as France and Great Britain, although they left their colonies, keep control panels in their capitals. The Nigerian businessman, who spoke in Russian, introduced the conference participants to the opportunities and vast potential of the African continent, focusing on Nigeria, which makes up 18 percent of the continent’s population – 240 million people.
President of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Vladimir Katenev, also addressed the conference participants with a greeting. The moderator was Ekaterina Lebedeva, Vice-President of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce and Industry Union, who called on representatives of the business community, in spite of the emerging challenges, to consistently work towards prioritizing Africa.
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