On October 8, 2023, negotiations were held between representatives of the transport and railway departments of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkey to discuss the details of the new Eurasian transport corridor, designed to connect China with the European Union along a new route. This project is a development of the China-Central Asia-West Asia-Europe corridor proposed as part of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013; however, it assumed a slightly different route configuration that did not affect the Caspian Sea and assumed the participation of Uzbekistan in it. Soon after the negotiations held on October 18, the prospects for promoting this project were discussed with the Chinese side during the official visit of Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to Beijing. Negotiations between the President of Kazakhstan and the President of the People’s Republic of China led to the signing of a number of documents, including the “Agreement between the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the development of the Trans-Caspian international transport route.”
With the further development of this initiative, Kazakhstan will have the opportunity to connect to new transit corridors within the China-Europe route. Until now, almost the entire volume of cargo passing through the territory of the Republic (almost 50% of the total volume of railway cargo sold along the route) fell on the China-Kazakhstan-Russia-Europe route. At the same time, projects of alternative China-Europe corridors through Central Asia passed further south without the direct participation of Kazakhstan (meaning the projects of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan, Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-Azerbaijan corridors, etc.). In this regard, Kazakhstan can count on both attracting investment in Central Asian projects and diversifying its participation in Eurasian routes, which is currently heavily dependent on the participation of the Russian Federation in these projects.
China’s support for the new corridor initiative is highly relevant against the backdrop of China’s existing transport and infrastructure disagreements with Kyrgyzstan, which hinder the advancement of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan corridor project. It should be recalled that Bishkek fears increased credit dependence on China, and also expresses its dissatisfaction with the route of the new transport artery far from the economic and demographic centers of the Republic. It turns out that China’s support for the China-Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran corridor initiative could become a gesture directed at Bishkek. Kazakhstan may be a greater beneficiary if this initiative fails.
The discussion and development of project details continued on November 26 and 27, 2023, when a meeting of the Kazakh-Turkmen joint working group on the development of transport and logistics was held, after which the parties signed a memorandum indicating their intentions to increase traffic volumes across the territories of the two countries. During the meeting, the parties also actively discussed the prospect of creating a transport and logistics corridor, discussed in October in a multilateral format. It is worth noting that within the framework of the corridor project, the parties discussed not only railway, but also sea transport; therefore, routes along the Caspian Sea between the ports of Kazakhstan (Aktau and Kuryk) and Turkmenistan (Turkmenbashi) can also be developed within the framework of this project. Thus, their connection, but to slightly different routes, was reported by representatives of the two countries at some multilateral events, in particular, during the summits of the Organization of Turkic States (OTS), as well as the UN Special Program for the Economies of Central Asia (SPECA), held in November, where representatives of Turkmenistan proposed promoting the Trans-Caspian Corridor, which would establish transport communications between the ports of their country and Azerbaijan. At the same time, the parties are actively attracting large foreign investors to develop port infrastructure. On November 27, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev discussed the prospects for modernizing and expanding the ports of Aktau and Kuryk during a meeting with Managing Director of Abu Dhabi Ports Group Mohamed Juma Al Shamisi in between negotiations with Turkmenistan and China. During this meeting, he mentioned the promising role of these ports in the implementation of the North-South project, which will connect Europe and Central Asia through Russia and Kazakhstan with South Asia and the Middle East through Iran. It is also planned to attract investors from the Emirates to participate in the land part of the corridor. The creation of a joint venture between ADP and Kazakhstan Railways has already been announced.
On November 27, immediately after the announcement of the results of the meeting of the working group of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, it became known that Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was holding negotiations with Ding Xuexiang, member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and Vice Premier of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, who arrived on an official visit to Kazakhstan. During the negotiations, the President of the Republic informed the high-ranking guest from the PRC about the progress of the project based on the results of the meeting of the working group with Turkmenistan.
Thus, in October-November, a new Eurasian “crossroads” began to actively take shape, so far on the basis of the preliminary consent of a number of parties, formed at the intersection of the North-South corridor line passing through the Western part of Kazakhstan with the China-Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran initiatives and the idea of the Trans-Caspian Corridor, again raised at the recent OTS and SPECA summits. And this very place, with a high probability, could become the ports of Kazakhstan or even Turkmenistan, which in November found themselves both as partners in some projects and as competitors in others.
At the same time, such a surge in activity related to the coordination of new transport corridors in Central Asia has led to growing competition between the countries of the region for participation in certain projects, as well as for promoting their own initiatives. We can already see the prospects for competition between projects of China-Europe routes, involving the participation of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, passing through the territory of Uzbekistan or across the border of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, through Iran by rail or through the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan and then through Georgia or through Armenia and Turkey.
Boris Kushkhov, Korea and Mongolia Department, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the internet journal “New Eastern Outlook”.