How Azerbaijan established a link between Europe and Asian belt? (Part I)

Hassnain Javed

NOVEMBER 28, 2019

Azerbaijan is situated at the junction of main routes of Eurasian land and air transport. The Azerbaijani government has deliberately tried to turn the country into a link between Europe and Asia since it gained independence. It has invested billions of dollars in commercial infrastructure and transport projects over previous decade. It is trying to finalize the construction of the fastest growing port in the Caspian Sea (60 kilometers south of Baku in Alyat), it has helped establish the Baku-Akhalkalaki-Kars railway, and it is transforming the Baku airport into a modern hub. Dramatically reducing travel times between both the Caspian Sea and the Azerbaijan-Georgian border, 550 kilometers west of Baku, have invested a lot of money in the road system.

The key idea of these initiatives is to place Azerbaijan as a promising linkage between Asia, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and Europe. Baku recognizes the importance of instituting methodologies for diversification in anticipation of the degradation of hydrocarbon reserves in the country. Many ventures, indeed, may not be feasible or necessary by their peers. Political dynamics, too, can unnerve the plans of Baku.

With America’s declining engagement in the South Caucasus and the EU’s weak position in dealing with Brexit, the vacuum has started to be filled by other major powers and key centers of gravity. Even as powerhouses like Russia are using hard power to continue in the region, others are investigating alternative means of reinforcing their local hand. China is among the new forces that has gradually raised its power in the region and are now seeking to play a significant role.

China have never risen to the level of concentration and coordination with the region as it has with traditional partners such as the EU, the US, Russia, or the states of Southeast Asia. Institutionally, China-Armenia, Azerbaijan-Georgia relations have been good, yet none of the countries deemed the relationships long-standing or strategic.

Advisor (Pakistan Industrial Technical Assistance Center, Lahore operated under Federal Ministry of Industries and Production, Islamabad) and Foreign Research Associate (Centre of Excellence, China Pakistan Economic Corridor, Islamabad)

Geographical proximity and the lack of substantial Chinese investment did almost nothing to move the partnership forward. Indeed, China’s strong interest in hydrocarbon resources, and also the possibilities for transport routes through Azerbaijan and Georgia to broaden its trade (and influence), has led it to pierce the region with its massive economic resources continuously. Even though other stakeholders such as the US and the EU have undergone difficulties in ties with the South Caucasus, the popular Abraham Lincoln quote could best describe Chinese policy: “I walk slowly, but I never walk backward.” China is the dominant world power for Azerbaijan today, that can sometimes invest much-needed funds in infrastructure projects and help combat Russia’s growing influence.

Since 1992, bilateral relations between certain two countries have been developed and collaboration around them has formed positively from here on. In parallel to the Karabakh conflict, China has mostly defended and acknowledged Azerbaijan’s territorial sovereignty. Such unquestioning support for Azerbaijan comes from the repudiation of any regionalism by Beijing’s own status. Considering its own issue with Taiwan’s power play region, China has overwhelmingly supported the Azerbaijani government in UN territorial integrity-related voting, and has obtained corresponding attitudes from Baku. In Azerbaijan, Beijing was caught up in only a few oil projects, often for purposes of governance rather than economic benefits; it wanted a presence without massive suspension of disbelief. Relationships were good, but neither side saw it as a critical partner.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project launched in 2013 (known as One Belt, One Road until 2016) gave catalyst to strengthening interactions between states along the new Silk Road. When China launched this revolutionary plan, Azerbaijan responded positively because Baku desperately needed players willing to fill the vacuums left by an extremely disconnected West. It anticipated that land routes and high-speed rail connectivity between East Asia and Europe would carry in Chinese funds and enable Azerbaijan to take a share of the transport benefits.

Beginning in 2015, their political ties commenced to strengthen in Beijing and Baku. President Ilham Aliyev visited China in December 2015, met with the democratic establishment of the country, and called on Chinese firms to invest in Azerbaijan. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, created by the Chinese initiative, accepted a $600 million loan in 2016 to establish a segment of the Trans Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline Project (TANAP) which transports natural gas from fields in Azerbaijan via Turkey and to markets in Southern Europe.

Aliyev went on a struggling visit to China in April 2019 to attend the second international forum of the BRI and met with the leader of China. A week subsequent, Azerbaijan’s defense minister paid an official visit to China and the sides communicated further military cooperation, specially buying Chinese military equipment from Azerbaijan. The activity ended with a contract signed on Chinese arms purchase and joint military assistance.

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