Authors: Araz Aslanlı and Yunis Sharifli
The entry of the South Caucasus into the modern system of international relations coincided with the transformation of China into one of the major participants in the international economy.The process of disintegration of the USSR, which accelerated in the second half of the 1980s, and the independence of the countries of the South Caucasus in 1991, meant both certain opportunities and certain problems/risks for China. Primarily, the independence of the region’s states meant at least new opportunities for China, which wanted to have new markets and corridors on the way to becoming a global economic power. China wanted to diversify its resources using the region’s energy resources.For China, the South Caucasus was also an important part of the East-West corridor. On the other hand, certain states could pursue policies that would concern China over the South Caucasus and Central Asia. For example, through these two regions, they could create problems with Iran, one of China’s alternative energy sources, and so on.
At this stage, the war situation between Azerbaijan and Armenia enabled China, like any other external force, to increase maneuver capability and influence over the two countries. On the other hand, like any outside power, China was faced with certain choices (expressing its position on issues of interest to Azerbaijan and Armenia, especially during the voting in international organizations, etc.). At the same time, it caused certain problems in the East-West corridor, to which China attaches great importance. It was about the closure of the Azerbaijan-Armenia-Turkey line, which is a shorter route, as well as the fact that Armenia and the Armenian lobby regularly create problems for the Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey alternative projects.
In the first stage, it is possible to see traces of all this in China’s policy towards the region. The fact that China is one of the countries most committed to the principles of territorial integrity and non-interference in internal affairs in international relations has had a positive impact on Sino-Azerbaijani relations.Azerbaijan is one of the few countries whose almost all high-ranking officials have regularly expressed full support for the “one China” principle.Certain public attitudes towards the East Turkestan issue in Azerbaijan, although not at the official level, Azerbaijan’s energy relations with the West and China’s sale of Typhoon missiles to Armenia, which is occupying Azerbaijani territories, were among the notable events.
Although China was one of the first countries to recognize Georgia, relations between the two countries are not very close. However, China and Georgia (Azerbaijan can be included in this list) continue their common policy, especially in terms of the Silk Road project and the importance they attach to territorial integrity.In this context, it was interesting that after the events of August 2008, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in which China is the leading country, did not make a decision in support of Russia’s position, despite its efforts.China, which shares all its concerns about its territorial integrity, has either voted in favor of Azerbaijan’s proposals or abstained at the UN.
Belt and Road Initiative and the South Caucasus
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 in Astana, Kazakhstan (now Nur-Sultan), has aroused interest in the countries of South Caucasus from the first day.In particular, the presence of various transport projects within the initiative and plans to intensify interstate trade by promoting infrastructure development between the countries attracted the attention of the countries of the region.Each of the South Caucasus countries has signed various agreements with China to join the BRI and take advantage of this initiative.All three countries signed agreements related to the initiative in 2015.During the visit of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev to China in 2015, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the two countries on the joint promotion of the establishment of the Silk Road Economic Belt. (E-qanun, 2016). Georgia was also one of the countries that signed a memorandum on the development of the BRI in March 2015 (Agenda. Ge, 2019).Finally, in 2015, Armenia signed a Memorandum of Understanding to promote cooperation in the construction of the Silk Road Economic Belt (President, 2015).
The countries of the South Caucasus are located in the “China-Central and West Asia Corridor”, one of the six main economic corridors of the BRI, also known as the Middle Corridor (Guliyev, 2021).Covering 4,256 km of railways and 508 km of sea routes, this corridor stretches from the China-Kazakhstan border to Azerbaijan (via the Caspian Sea) and from there to Georgia and Turkey(Middle East Institute, 2019).In particular, after the re-independence of both Azerbaijan and Georgia, they focused on infrastructure development to take advantage of their geopolitical and geostrategic positions.Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) and Baku International Sea Trade Port (BISTP), two of Azerbaijan’s leading infrastructure projects, have played a key role in the active functioning of the Middle Corridor and the growing strategic importance of the region to China.
The Middle Corridor has various advantages over other corridors. First, the shipment of Chinese goods to Europe via the Middle Corridor is faster than the Northern Corridor through Russia.Goods traveling on the Trans-Siberian route reach Europe in 20 days, while goods moving through the Middle Corridor reach the same destination in 12 days. Besides, the non-compliance of roads and railways in the Northern Corridor with modern standards, while the roads and railways of the Central Corridor countries in line with modern standards, make the Middle Corridor more strategic and profitable than the Northern Corridor.Finally, the instability of US-Russia and US-Europe relations calls into question the political security of the Northern corridor.Second, the Middle Corridorhas also many advantages over the Southern Corridor through Iran.First, goods shipped from China to Europe via the Southern Corridor reach the same destination in 14 days, while goods shipped from the Middle Corridor reach the same destination in 12 days (Kamel, 2018).As in the Northern Corridor, the Southern Corridor’s infrastructure problems, strained US-Iranian relations, sanctions on Iran and instability in the country call into question the security of this corridor.Finally, the Middle Corridor has advantages over sea routes. For example, goods shipped from China to Europe by sea reach their destination in 36 days(Humbatov, 2018; CSIS, 2018). In general, the Middle Corridor can reduce China’s dependence on Russia for transport routes, and in the Southern Corridor, it can safely ship its products to Europe without the use of sanctioned Iran’s geography (The Information Corridor, 2020).
During the pandemic, the importance of air and sea routes decreased (International Finance Corporation, 2020). In contrast, during the pandemic, railroads emerged as the most reliable means of transportation.Railways are cheaper than air, shorter than sea, and safer than goods shipped by highway (Eurasianet, 2021).In this regard, the strategic value of the Middle Corridor, especially the BTK, has increased during the pandemic.During the pandemic, a container transfer system was installed at the Canbaz station on the Turkish side of the Turkish-Georgian border to increase the capacity of the railway line to 3,500 tons due to increased demand for BTK freight(RayHaber, 2020).The increase in the freight capacity of the BTK railway and the growing demand for freight on this railway have further increased the strategic importance of Azerbaijan and Georgia against the background of the BRI.The active participation of Azerbaijan and Georgia in the Middle Corridor has strengthened their strategic positions within the East-West trade corridor. However, Armenia, which is under siege due to the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict, has not been able to take advantage of this corridor, and in addition, due to the blockade, relations with China have developed weaker compared to other countries in the region.However, the Zangazur railways, which are expected to resume operations based on the tripartite agreement signed as a result of the Second Karabakh War, may change Armenia’s position in a positive direction in the future.
Zangazur railway and its impact on China’s relations with the countries of the South Caucasus
After the 44-day war, which resulted in the liberation of Azerbaijani territories from Armenian occupation, one of the most notable factors in the declaration signed between Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia was the revitalization of the Zangazur corridor (both railway and highway).The launch of the Zangazur railway will allow Armenia, which has been under blockade for years, to join the regional projects and utilize the full potential of the Middle Corridor.The reconstruction of the Zangazur railway is in line with China’s plans within the BRI and increases the strategic value of the South Caucasus region and its comparative advantage over other corridors from China’s point of view.
The Zangazur Corridor creates new opportunities for China in the region in the context of political, economic, and security aspects.First of all, the launch of an alternative and shorter railway in the region, along with BTK railways, is in line with China’s plans to diversify its export and import routes to ensure economic security (The Jamestown Foundation, 2021). In addition, the launch of the alternative railway will further increase the carrying capacity of the Middle Corridor by rail and highway, which will further increase the strategic importance of the Middle Corridor compared to other corridors and contribute to China-Europe trade through the land.
The resumption of the Zangazur railway can bring Armenia back to the region, contribute to the strengthening of stability in the region, and intensify the further development of Sino-Azerbaijani and Sino-Armenian relations.At present, goods sent from China to Armenia are shipped by sea and enter Armenia from Georgia (Vinokurov and Tsukarev, 2017).However, in the case of the relaunch of the railway, goods from China can be sent to Armeniamore shortly and profitably, which can contribute to the further development of relations between the two countries.From Azerbaijan’s point of view, the opening of the Zangazur railway could further strengthen Azerbaijan’s strategic position in the region as a transit country along the East-West and North-South corridors, and increase Azerbaijan’s strategic value from China’s point of view.Finally, the new railway could contribute to the development of China’s relations not only with the countries of the region but also with Turkey, a regional power.In particular, it can contribute to the development of relations, both politically and economically, by intensifying the flow of goods from both China to Turkey and from Turkey to China, strengtheningthe level of weak interdependence between the two countries. Additionally, to the BTK and BISTP, the launch of Marmaray in Turkey has further intensified trade relations between China and Turkey (Habertürk, 2019). In the future, the opening of the Zangazur railway can further strengthen relations between the two countries from an economic point of view.
As a result, the recent short-lived crisis in the Suez Canal, which has once again highlighted the negative aspects of sea routes, has further increased the value of railways for China.In addition, in the first quarter of 2021, freight traffic along the BTK and the Middle Corridor increased by 104% compared to 2019 to 396,778 tons, indicating that the demand for the Middle Corridor is growing every year (Azernews, 2021). In the future, the launch of the Zangazur railway will further increase the strategic value of the Middle Corridor compared to other corridors, passing through more stable countries amid existing US-Russia, EU-Russia, and US-Iran tensions.This situation could lead to an increase in China’s economic and political presence in the South Caucasus.Reducing transit costs and resolving bureaucratic problems between countries can lead to regional countries benefiting from Chinese investment, promote Sino-European trade, and develop win-win cooperation between the countries of the region and China.