Turkey reverses Silk Road to Beijing

The Ottoman country plans to develop a rail transport network that would advance the "Chinese Silk Road" plan to connect Beijing with Europe
El presidente turco Tayyip Erdogan en Ankara, Turquía, el 5 de abril de 2021

PHOTO/CETINMUHURDAR/PPO vía REUTERS  -   Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, Turkey, 5 April 2021

Turkey is redesigning a railway line that aims to facilitate the transit of goods between China and the West in what would form the "economic belt" of a new Silk Road. The route of the new rail line would bring the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea within reach of Europe, bypassing Russia and border states and linking Turkey, Greece and Azerbaijan.

On the other hand, Armenia would be one of the states through which the new railway would not pass as a sanction due to Armenia's occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia's exclusion from the new corridor has had consequences that have had repercussions on financing from the European Union and the Central Bank, and this has led Turkey to begin to weave its own network of influence with its sights set on the East and the Mediterranean.  In this regard, the Minister of Transport and Infrastructure, Adel Karra Ismailoglu confirmed the increase of Turkish rail freight to Europe by 25% in 2020 compared to 2019.

The rail corridor along which the Baku - Tbilisi - Kars Railway runs, a result of the partnership between Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, transported "154,836 tonnes of goods in the first quarter of this year through 2,468 train wagons, compared to 78,000 tonnes in the first quarter of 2020," according to Ismailoglu.

El ministro de Transportes e Infraestructuras de Turquía, Adel Karra Ismailoglu
PHOTO/ARCHIVO - Turkey's Minister of Transport and Infrastructure, Adel Karra Ismailoglu

Ismailoglu noted that demand is increasing "day by day for transport trips bound for Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Hungary, Poland, Austria, Slovenia, Czech Republic, France and Germany". Similarly, he noted that there is "an increase in demand for container truck transport from Turkey to Europe".

In addition to this, the minister claimed that "the countries through which the line passes will make huge economic gains in trade between Europe and China", which would amount to 710 billion dollars annually. He also emphasised that the government wants to "turn Turkey into a central country and a logistical base for rail freight transport".

Mapa que muestra la Nueva Ruta de la Seda, un enorme proyecto chino de infraestructuras por carretera, ferrocarril y barco
AFP/AFP - Map showing the New Silk Road, a huge Chinese road, rail and ship infrastructure project

This move is intended to dispel doubts about Turkish management's inability to revive the transport corridor connecting East and West. In this regard, it would aim to establish a safe and efficient line connecting the two continents, with a special focus on the connection to China, which is running a similar railway project and seeking international support.

In this context, the Chinese project would aim to connect China with Europe and the rest of the world through safe and alternative trade routes that avoid crossing the Bab al-Mandab pass, which is notorious for the presence of maritime piracy and regional tensions. Turkey is thus attempting to reverse this plan with the intention of creating a new reality in the region that would open the way for a Turkish economic presence in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Una plataforma petrolera en alta mar se ve en el mar Caspio cerca de Bakú, Azerbaiyán
REUTERS/GRIGORY DUKOR - An offshore oil platform is seen in the Caspian Sea near Baku, Azerbaijan

The "Chinese economic belt" project would be financed by a special fund issued by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Along these lines, Russia and China agreed to build a high-speed railway extending from Beijing to Europe via Russia. With this strategy, Russia would initially extend the Russian city of Kazan as part of the project.

El ministro de Defensa turco, Hulusi Akar, y su homólogo azerí, Zakir Hasanov, inspeccionan las tropas durante unas maniobras militares conjuntas turco-azeríes en la provincia oriental de Kars, Turquía, el 11 de febrero de 2021
PHOTO/ARIF AKDOGAN/MINISTERIO DE DEFENSA TURCO vía REUTERS - Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and his Azeri counterpart Zakir Hasanov inspect troops during joint Turkish-Azeri military exercises in the eastern province of Kars, Turkey, 11 February 2021

 However, Turkey's latest moves in this regard warn of a new geopolitical strategy that seeks to shift the rail direction towards Europe to focus on Asia and thus open up new trade markets as well as position itself to rival the Chinese giant with a new 'Silk Road' that would have Turkey as a protagonist.