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What does the Middle Corridor mean for Central Asia?

What does the Middle Corridor mean for Central Asia?

A region having strategic and economic importance, Central Asia attracts attention and engagements from the regional and extra-regional powers alike. Despite multiple challenges in the past few years such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine war and natural disasters Central Asia is showing economic resilience which is reflected in its growth rate.

According to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), Central Asian economies are expected to grow at the rate of 5.4% in 2024. In 2025 the growth rate is expected to reach 5.9%. Amid these resilient economic indications, the Trans-Caspian Transport Route (TITR), commonly known as the Middle Corridor, has emerged as a major phenomenon in the region. This is a trade route from South East Asia and China to Europe via Central Asia. Hence it is pertinent to consider the Middle Corridor’s role in Central Asia.

The Middle Corridor is a multimodal land and sea route that starts in China, crosses through Central Asia and the Caspian Sea, and extends into the South Caucasus and Türkiye to reach Europe. The Middle Corridor has been in existence for more than a decade. However, it has started gaining traction in the past two to three years. The Russia-Ukraine war has rendered the New Eurasian Land Bridge, a component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) passing through Russia, risky. The war in the Middle East has been disrupting the commercial traffic passing through the Suez Canal.

Amid this geopolitical instability, the Middle Corridor is emerging as an alternative trade route connecting East Asia with Europe. The Middle Corridor is also an attractive proposition for Central Asia that has to depend upon various connectivity initiatives to gain access to sea to be able to trade outside the region. The Middle Corridor offers an opportunity to the Central Asian countries to enhance their trade with Europe.

The Middle Corridor is about 3000 km shorter in length than the New Eurasian Land Bridge and is presently projected as a more viable route than the Suez Canal. The rise in the use of the Middle Corridor has caused the Central Asian countries to gain geopolitical prominence.

The importance of the Middle Corridor for Central Asia could be understood from the increase in trade between Central Asia and the South Caucasus countries. The Middle Corridor is also expected to boost Central Asia’s trade with Europe.

EBRD’s ‘Sustainable transport connections between Europe and Central Asia (2023)’ report projects that the Middle Corridor could achieve a transit capacity of 130,000 Twenty-foot Equivalent Units (TEUs) by 2040. This traffic could further increase to 1.4 million TEUs plus an additional 47,000 TEUs of container traffic between the region’s countries.

In addition to giving boost to trade, the Middle Corridor is also important for Central Asia from geopolitical perspective. As mentioned earlier, the Middle Corridor seeks to reduce the risks associated with the New Eurasian Land Bridge. While the former Soviet Republics are still engaged in purchasing energy from Russia, which the latter is offering them at a discounted price, the Central Asian countries are looking to diversify their economic cooperation. Also the Middle Corridor could help the Central Asian nations to reduce their dependence on China. While being part of the BRI, the benefits of this project have not materialized fully to these countries. Further, geographical proximity and limited connectivity options with other parts of the world had led Central Asia to excessively rely on China. China is also perceived as a threat by Central Asia owing to high debts.

As much as the Central Asian countries would want to diversify their economic engagements, it is equally important for the European countries to increase their interactions with this region. While the European Union is making some headway in this direction through the Global Gateway project, the implementation of the projects needs to be expedited.

For Central Asia to reap the benefits of the Middle Corridor, it is important to work on intra-regional coordination. One of the major challenges for Central Asia is that the region remains disintegrated. While being referred to as Central Asia in collective term with reference to the geographical location, Central Asia has not been successful in devising a mechanism of regional integration.

Central Asian countries are a part of a number of plurilateral initiatives like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Organization of Turkic States (OTS).

However, barring the United Nations, there is no other multilateral mechanism that has participation of all the five Central Asian countries together. The initiatives mentioned include participation of only some of the Central Asian countries.

In the Middle Corridor as well, Kazakhstan remains the major Central Asian country while participation from other countries could be termed as emerging. The sub-optimal level of regional integration in Central Asia is not only due to lack of diplomatic efforts or economic cooperation. Physical connectivity and uneven levels of infrastructure development remain a principal challenge for the benefits of the Middle Corridor to extend to all the five Central Asian countries.

For instance, Kazakhstan’s railway network is more developed than any other Central Asian country. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the least developed economies in Central Asia, have relatively lesser developed railway network. This is also due to the mountainous terrain in these countries which makes transportation difficult. While not totally disconnected from the region, these countries have connectivity mostly with Kazakhstan. Seeing an upswing in regional connectivity, Uzbekistan started improving its rail networks only in 2015. Turkmenistan, having access to the Caspian Sea, is taking steps to improve the connectivity between its capital city Ashgabat, which is the hub of commercial activities and the Caspian Sea.

The Middle Corridor has been operational since 2017. The Central Asian countries understand the importance of the Middle Corridor to diversify their economic engagements. However, it is imperative that these countries accelerate the development of infrastructure collectively as well as individually.

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