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
Russia’s ‘Growth-Stability’ Dichotomy
Russian economic growth has underperformed the global average almost every year since the 2008-09 financial crisis. But it’s far from a homogenous pattern: in fact, since 2017, there has been a pronounced trend toward increasing divergence across the main sectors of the Russian economy. This has been significantly accentuated by the Covid crisis. The sectors exhibiting the highest growth appear to be those that benefit from Russia’s relative macroeconomic stability and are less sensitive to the country’s lack of growth momentum. This rising differentiation in growth across sectors has important implications for investment strategies, as we expect growth in sectors such as IT, agriculture and financials to continue to outperform the rest of the economy.
Since the 2008-09 financial crisis, Russia’s economic growth has underperformed the world’s average almost every year, with notable gaps observed versus the rest of EM and the CEE region throughout the past decade. The sluggish growth performance was partly attributable to the structural deficiencies, external factors, but also in no small degree to the macroeconomic policies that favoured the maintenance of macroeconomic stability over attaining high growth rates. The priority accorded to securing macroeconomic stability was in particular embodied in the operation of the fiscal rule within the fiscal policy framework, as well as inflation-targeting in the monetary sphere.
Indeed, the growth-stability dichotomy in Russia’s economy is a feature that has persisted for an extended period due to the frequency and intensity of crises erupting over the course of the past decade. After a period of attaining high growth rates in 2006-07, the paradigm of Russia’s economic policy shifted towards prioritizing macroeconomic stability after the global financial crisis of 2008-09. The geopolitical perturbations of 2014 and the most recent Covid crisis have served to reinforce this policy focus. While Russia has certainly had its periods of strong growth in the past several decades, the intensity of the external headwinds over the past 12-13 years has tilted the balance between pro-growth and pro-stability policies in favour of the latter.
Another dimension to the “growth-stability” dichotomy in Russia is the significant emphasis placed in economic policy on securing high levels of reserves. The lack of conversion of these sizeable reserves accumulated by Russia into boosting economic growth has been due to a number of factors. One was the lack of institutional capacity to ensure an efficient spending of fiscal reserves on large-scale infrastructure projects. This in turn was compounded by the pre-cautionary motives associated with concerns regarding the effects of economic crises (2008-2009 crisis) and geopolitical shocks (2014 crisis episode). As a result, Russia stands out across EMs as an economy with among the lowest fiscal deficits and government debt levels, while at the same time exhibiting a combination of high reserves but low economic growth. This pattern contrasts with the one observed in some other emerging economies during crisis periods, at which time greater efforts were made by EMs to boost growth at the expense of higher deficits and debt levels.
During the Covid crisis this pattern was yet again replicated as Russia exhibited greater caution in unleashing anti-crisis measures compared to many developed and emerging economies.
But while Russia’s overall economic growth has been rather modest in recent years — particularly since 2014 — there has been a rising asymmetry in the growth across Russia’s sectors. Over 2012-16, the divergence in growth across sectors was stable or gradually declining (except in 2015-16, when the economy was hit by the drop in oil prices and sanctions). However, the divergence began to grow markedly in 2017, and was later on significantly magnified by the Covid crisis.
Indeed, the Covid crisis generated notable differentiation across sectors as some were disproportionately affected by the pandemic and quarantine measures (tourism, travel), while others were given a major boost (telecommunications, IT and computer services). Russia’s macroeconomic policy, including sectoral taxation patterns, may have contributed to the differentiation patterns observed throughout the economy. Apart from Russia-specific factors, global sectoral factors may have also contributed to the patterns observed in Russia — in particular the rising dichotomy between manufacturing and extraction industries on the one hand and the services sector on the other.
As a result, sectors such as financials and IT have been increasingly diverging from the lacklustre performance in the transportation, construction and public sectors. The oil and gas and agricultural sectors have occupied the middle ground, broadly reflecting industry-specific and global factors. Overall, services such as finance and IT exhibited improved growth performance in 2016-19 compared to the 2011-15 period, while extraction of raw materials and transportation were among the sectors with deteriorating growth dynamics.
One of the best performers in recent periods has been the financial sector, which benefited from the organic growth in the sector via increasing financial penetration, as well as the significant expansion in the array of services offered to the population. Most importantly, however, the high real interest rates sustained by the CBR to maintain macroeconomic stability resulted in the greater attractiveness of investment in financial instruments than capital investment. The high real rates incentivized investment in financial instruments at the expense of the real sector.
The above observations concerning sectoral growth patterns suggest that greater differentiation across Russia’s sectors may be warranted in devising top-down investment strategies. If the current prioritization of macroeconomic stability were to persist, sectors such as IT, agriculture would be well positioned from a top-down perspective. Finally, it is important to note that the outperformers from the services sector that benefit from Russia’s growth-stability dichotomy also exhibit relatively good scores in the ESG ratings, most notably compared to the natural resource sectors. As investors increasingly focus on ESG issues, the longer-term implications for sectoral growth performance may prove significant.
From our partner RIAC
Virtual-Reality Leaderships Await Digital-Guillotines
When national leadership starts acting more as if Virtual-Reality based illusionary leadership games, it calls immediate testing to ensure digital future of the virtualized economies of the nation. Just as billion mile highways need cars, trillion-node digital highways need smart digitized enterprises. Just as highways and transportation need qualified Ministries dedicated to control national mobility, similarly digital platforms economies need virtualization; layers of platforms, hyper-interactive, live in action, motion and execution, floating on global digital arenas and creating mini-micro-mega trade opportunities and serving the common good of the world. Futurism demands futuristic literacy.
If there are some 200 nations outside a miniscule number, most nations along with their ministries and government departments already crushed under the weight of their own bureaucracies. Translated into simple language; when a single piece of urgent and serious business-trade query enters any government office building, decked with thousands desks and many thousands of filing cabinets, expecting quick response within a few days, if lucky may get some broken answer in many months. Those who slowly circumnavigate the world, require no proof on this, those educated exclusively on social media allowed screaming in denial. There are many such office buildings, each with many floors, in each city, in each nation. Some billion people occupy such global bureaucracies, strangling their own nations and stealing their own future from their next generations. Visible in open daylight, the barren landscapes, untapped resources, wasted talents lingering as wasted over a century. Today, against tidal waves of almost free technologies and digitalization, we need quick do or die solutions.
The cruelty of incompetence fermenting on mahogany furniture in dark offices now needs digital-guillotines.
The Paper-Processing-Age created Bureaucracies, Rubber-stamps glorified and corner offices mesmerized the fermentation process of incompetency and guaranteed permanence of seniority as gold standard. Like a tsunami, “digitization” is now bureaucracy free, office-free and tantrum free, only measured precisely in right columns with right amounts and ‘true’ numbers to evaporate filing cabinets and desks. Productivity, performance and profitability are what have been missing the last few decades bringing nations to their knees. The future of governments now measured by meritocracy will rule and manage future economies; the rest will stay hidden in the fog of confusion.
Over a century ago, H.G. Wells wrote about aircrafts and Jules Verne, the submarines. Now, we live in a time where digitally floating enterprises and virtually accessible national economies must thrive. Now, is the turn of our times to optimize our ‘mental powers’ functioning way above automation, performing our intellectualism over mechanical robotization and achieve superior commercialization while considering diversity, tolerance and common good? Now is the time to claim our rights, design our economies and better sustainable lifestyles. A brighter future waits.
Nevertheless, within the coming years, elimination of bureaucracies, digitization of enterprises and virtualization of economies will quadruple performance on a national basis for most nations; unfortunately, getting this thinking may take another decade for many other nations. Observe their starving children.
As a crude and only available measurement, amongst the 190 nations of the world, there are only top 20 nations where *GDP Per-Capita-PPP is about USD$50,000 and more. Everyone else is lower, as an example, a sample of 50 nations, where their per capita is USD$5000 or $13.00 per day. Now observe their governments, their Ministries, Institutions, Trade Associations, Chambers and various government agencies are deeply stuck in the last century, robbing their own future. Disconnected with global age, now clearly visible all across their front line teams points to continued financial calamites. Any 10% to 90% elimination of bureaucratic ponderings, indecisive floor-by-floor rubber stamp approval dances will quadruple their national performances. Nation-by-nation, strangulations due to the lack of decisive skills now make bureaucracies the most backward frontier left in critical need of upskilling and reskilling realignments, to stand up to global standards of productivity. Therefore, across the board, national economies must qualify at specified speed and accuracy with due diligence to attract FDI, collaborations and alliances to survive in global-age. Local political parties scared of their own re-elections will never tackle such issues. Immediate testing of any frontline management team of any top departments will expose the gravity.
The biggest tragedy is that all of these nations have unlimited talents, great minds and great skills potential, but crushed by bureaucracies, in darkness mode, where sun never rises, where digitization is feared for fears of exposing competency levels. The Covidians of the new post-vaccinated world with new thinking now have a real chance to ride out the storms, bring mega changes, and create highly efficient economic models. No country without national mobilization of hidden talents of entrepreneurialism on digital platforms of upskilling to foster exportability and outbound exposure will survive. This is what Silicon Valley did; study slowly to deeply appreciate the process.
Upskilling as a mandatory testing requirement drowning in crypto-economies and fictionalized as success ignoring tent cities, nation’s biggest losses hidden in the untapped entrepreneurialism of the national citizenry. Study more on Google, how business education actually destroyed businesses across Western economies.
Rules of economic revolutions:
Do not fix, just break it, and start on a new page.
Do not fire, upskill them, bring a brighter future closer.
Do not fumble, upskill yourself, become a lifelong learner.
Do not fail, there is no plan B, economic damage now commonplace.
Do not runaway, take a stand; there is no other way out.
Do not deny the bright future to your next generations.
There are some 100 national elections scheduled within the next 500 days… national leadership must demonstrate their literacy to read futurism. Identify their local teams with the right expertise to address national challenges, urgently respond with right answers, and develop clear narrative to address realities. Expothonis tabling a new agenda, in a global debate series with global experts on such bold issues to advance the discussions on such mega-change processes.
The strategy: The Covidians, survivors of bankruptcies, body bags have little or no tolerance for bureaucracies and with free rains of technology have no patience for paper-based-sluggish and dysfunctional economies. Citizens will vote for real and pragmatic truth. National leadership must face the music and learn to tango: Eliminate bureaucracies, virtualized economies and carve straight paths for climate control protocols.
Is this a perfect storm in the making or a new sunrise of the early spring?
The rest is easy
Suez Canal Shutdown revealed the importance of the Middle Corridor
On March 23 of 2021, a container ship called the “Ever Given” ran aground in Suez Canal, one of the most important waterways in the world, and blocked other vessels from using it. This human-made waterway is one of the world’s most heavily used shipping lanes, carrying over 12% of world trade. This canal is also responsible for the transportation of 7% of the world’s oil and 30% of daily container shipments. Therefore, the blockage of the canal has considerably affected global trade. According to Lloyd’s List, a London-based shipping news journal, the estimated daily value of cargos passing through the canal is $9.7 billion, with $5.1 billion traveling westward and $4.6 billion traveling to eastward directions. The incident forced some ships to use the alternative route around Africa’s southern tip, which is dangerous and increases the transportation costs and time.
Shipment delays because of the incident in the Suez Canal also negatively affected the already-disrupted global supply chain. Since the start of the pandemic, shipping delays and shortages have considerably strained the global supply chain. As the commodities become increasingly difficult to obtain and produce for the companies, customers face limited options and higher prices. Several big companies such as Nike, Honda, and Samsung have already expressed that supply-chain issueshavesignificantly impeded production volumes. Thus, the blockage of the canal made the supply chain crisis even worse.
Almost a week after the “Ever Given” halted the canal, on March 29, it became possible to free the vessel and the Suez Canal opened for business again; tugboats managed to refloat the stuck vessel away from the canal’s sandy bank. During the blockage, at least 367 vessels were left waiting for the canal to be unblocked. However, it remains unclear when the traffic in the canal will return to normal, as it will take a couple of days to clear the backlog of ships. Some experts have estimated that it could take more than 10 days.
Despite the fact that the canal was freed, it has raised questions on the risks of the world’s overreliance on this route. The economic damage of the blockade of the Suez Canal proved the fragility of global transportation architecture. This in turn brought up the issue of the development of alternative land or maritime transport routes. Hence, after the incident, Russia and Iran have called for the need to find alternative shipping routes, especially recalling potentials of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and International North-South Transport Corridor (INST).By explaining the reasons for considering the NSR, on its official social media account Russian state company Rosatomflot declared that rapid melting of the Arctic and the existence of powerful Russian icebreakers improve the accessibility of the North Sea, which could become an alternative to the Suez Canal. Iranian officials, on other hand, called for the activation of the INSTC as a reliable and “low risk” alternative.
The other alternative route that has the potential to become one of the mainland routes for the transportation of goods between Asia and Europe is the Trans-Caspian East-West-Middle Corridor Initiative, shortly called “The Middle Corridor”. This corridor is considered as one of the most important routes in reviving the ancient Silk Road. The Middle Corridor begins in Turkey, passes through the territories of Azerbaijan and Georgia, crosses the Caspian Sea, reaches Central Asia, and extends to China through the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan routes.
The formation and development of the Middle Corridor began after the November of2013, when as a part of the II International Transport and Logistics Business Forum “New Silk Road” in Astana, the leaders of JSC “National Company” of Kazakhstan, CJSC “Azerbaijan Railways” and JSC “Georgian Railway” signed the agreement on the establishment of Coordination Committee for the development of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route. In December 2016, the participants of the Coordinating Committee decided to establish the International Association”Trans-Caspian International Transport Route”, which started its activities in the following year. The main goal of this project is to increase the volume of freight transportation between East Asia, Central Asia, the Caspian and Black Sea basins and European countries by creating alternative or complement to the traditional land routes that go through the territory of Russia.
Middle Corridor has several advantages in comparison to traditional transportation routes. Compared with the Trans-Siberian Railway, which is also called the “Northern Corridor”, it is 2 thousand km shorter and has more favorable climate conditions. Compared with the traditional sea route, it shortens the travel time of goods between Europe and China by about three times, making it only 15 days. In 2015, the first pilot shipment took place and a container train, which started its trip from Western China reached Baku through Kazakhstan and the Caspian Sea in 6 days. Besides, the Middle Corridor creates great opportunities for cargo transportation within Asia and to Africa. Using this corridor, cargos from east and south-east Asia could be easily transported to the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean regions using port infrastructures of participating states.
The Middle Corridor initiative is also supported by Afghanistan and Tajikistan as this route creates new transportation opportunities for them. By integrating the “Lapis Lazuli” corridor, an international transit route that links Afghanistan to Turkey, to the Middle Corridor, these countries could easily transport their goods in all directions in Asia. Integration of these corridors is also advantageous for the participating countries of the Middle Corridor. The agreement on the establishment of the Lapis Lazuli corridor was signed by Georgia, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Turkey in November 2017, which added a new artery to the Middle Corridor in the southern direction.
Along with the mentioned advantages, the Middle Corridor also holds precedence in comparison to other proposed alternatives, which have obvious shortcomings. In the case of NSR, most of the year it is covered in snow and for transportation of goods through this road ships of special nature and capabilities are required. So, the competition of NSR with the Suez Canal could only be of seasonal nature. The INSTR on the other hand, despite its advantages, cannot become the direct competitor to the Suez Canal as it serves for the connection of the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf with Northern Europe, not for the connection of east and south-east Asia like the Suez Canal. It could compete with the Suez Canal only if it is integrated into the Middle Corridor. Hence, the advantages of the Middle Corridor and shortcomings of other alternatives reveal the importance of the Middle Corridor and make it the best alternative for the transportation route that goes through the Suez Canal.
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