The Middle Corridor, an alternative to established trade norms, is a transformative force that can switch powers and roles in the global interconnected world. As geopolitical tensions increase, the Northern Corridor, once a main land trade route, is experiencing a decline due to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
The North-South Corridor is another important road connecting Europe and East Asia. However, the Middle Corridor, which passes through strategic countries like Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, offers numerous economic opportunities. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) concluded that the Central Trans-Caspian Network (CTCN) through Southern Kazakhstan is the most sustainable alternative for establishing a connection between Asia and Europe.
The Middle Corridor has the potential to reduce the time in which goods can be delivered from East Asia to Europe, from nineteen days to twelve days, compared to the traditional sea pathway through the Indian Ocean. This transformation in how Central Asia interacts with the global community has become a topic of considerable change and fascination. The Middle Corridor is not a mere choice but a necessity for countries seeking to broaden trade associations, mitigate geopolitical risks, and benefit all actors. It is an opportunity to change trade patterns in Eurasia while redefining established spheres of influence.
The European Union (EU) has shown increased interest in enhancing ties with Central Asian countries, with notable figures such as Emmanuel Macron visiting Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz hosting Central Asian leaders, and introducing policies like Hungarian “Open to the East.” The EU sees the Middle Corridor as an alternative to the Northern Corridor, offering energy security and diversified supply chains. The region is rich in natural resources, including fossil fuels and minerals, which are crucial to European countries due to the ongoing energy crisis caused by reliance on Russian energy supplies. The European REPowerEU Plan aims to shift away from Russian sources and transition towards green energy alternatives.
Energy and minerals are also playing a significant role in the development of EU and Central Asian relations. French President Emmanuel Macron and Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev have made joint declarations to enhance trade and collaboration in nuclear energy and minerals. European investors, such as Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) and Pasifik Eurasia, have shown considerable interest in the Middle Corridor project.
China, situated between Russia and China, has also shown strategic investments and commitments in the Middle Corridor. Beijing’s attraction to the Middle Corridor stems from the prospect of accessing global markets and expanding influence in Central Asia, a region historically marked by competition between Moscow and Beijing. The Middle Corridor is considered part of the Chinese “Belt and Road” initiative, prompting significant Chinese investment in logistics infrastructure.
China’s Chairman Xi announced plans to support the construction of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route and increase railway container terminal capacity along the China-Europe route. The summit also discussed regional matters such as visa exemption between Kazakhstan and China, the construction of a fourth branch of the gas pipeline in Turkmenistan, and the construction of a new railway in Uzbekistan. These discussions contribute to the development and viability of the Middle Corridor by addressing connectivity, trade facilitation, and regional cooperation.
Türkiye, the European end of the Middle Corridor, is a strategic hub and cultural ties country with a strong interest in it. It has prioritized the Middle Corridor in its foreign policy for Central Asia, aiming to strengthen economic bonds and enhance its strategic standing in the region. Projects such as the Marmaray undersea railway, the Eurasia Tunnel, and the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge are already completed. Ankara is forming strategic alliances with Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, a key player in the development of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route within the Organization of Turkic States.
The Middle Corridor is represented by states between the Caspian Sea, where cargo is transshipped through tankers. The current situation forces participating countries to take measures to increase the competitiveness of this route, including active negotiations to harmonize tariffs and streamline bureaucratic procedures.
In March 2022, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia agreed to improve soft infrastructure by aligning regulations and lowering tariffs for transit cargo. The Organization of Turkic States has also contributed to the efficiency and competitiveness of the Middle Corridor through its initiatives. Türkiye has introduced new high-speed trains and established a quadrilateral coordination council and rail transportation working group with Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary, establishing the European segment of the Middle Corridor.
During the 20th Transport Sector Coordinating Committee (TSCC) meeting, the main topics discussed included expanding physical capacity of transport routes, introducing new ports, ferries, and trains, and enhancing soft infrastructure to reduce shipment time. The Middle Corridor saw a 123% increase in cargo transit in three months from January to March 2022, compared to 2021.
Ideologists and advocates of the Middle Corridor argue that it is relevant due to the actions of Moscow in Ukraine, which disrupted supply chains through Russia and Belarus from China to Europe. However, it is important to recognize that investments in the alternative route are not solely linked to war and sanctions, as each local or external actor has its own interests.
The EU and the US are exploring alternative transport routes to bypass Russian and Belarusian territories, aiming to reduce Moscow and Minsk’s influence on global trade. The ongoing war in Ukraine provides additional incentives for this. China has contributed significantly to railway communication with Europe, reducing its dependency on the Strait of Malacca. The Middle Corridor, which aims to be faster and cheaper, requires increased capacity, advanced technologies, and enhanced soft infrastructure.
To meet competitive lead times, transit costs, and efficiency, the Middle Corridor should complement the Northern Corridor. However, in the world of increased binary categorizations, de-escalation would mean more middle ground, listening, and inclusion. To achieve de-binarization and greening, it is essential to accept that the world’s largest landmass can accommodate multiple corridors, not exclude or compete one another.