On Nov. 6, the Chang’an Cargo Train has stopped at the Turkish capital, Ankara. After an official welcoming ceremony continued to Istanbul to pass under the Bosporus, using the Marmaray tunnel and became the first direct cargo train travelling from Xian, China, to Europe, passes through Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary and Slovakia to reach its final destination Prague. Thus, finally the Turkish initiated corridor to Europe, (a.k.a. the Middle Corridor of the Belt and Road Initiative-BRI) became operational. Apart from its historical significance the Middle Corridor (MC) by creating an alternative shorter route to Europe is sidelining Russia. Yet beyond these, its activation is a significant step between Beijing and Ankara to have closer ties, as the revival of the ancient Silk Road was a matter of competition between the two capitals. Apparently, Ankara’s staying mum on a huge trade deficit between the two countries in favour of Beijing and on alleged suppression of Uyghur Turks in China for some time made this progress possible.

Turkish Silk road dreams

Reviving the ancient Silk Road that was connecting the West and East, mainly through Anatolia has been the ambition of Turkey since 1944. The independence of the Turkic states in Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, made it more likely. In order to do that – as one of the most important elements – Turkey initiated the Trans-Caspian East-West-Middle Corridor Initiative “The Middle Corridor-MC” in short, which begins in Turkey and passes through the Caucasus region Georgia, Azerbaijan, crosses the Caspian Sea, traverses Central Asia and reaches China. It passes by rail and road through Georgia, Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea, (crossing the Caspian transit corridor) and reaches China by following Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan route. In addition to these countries, the MC initiative is also supported by Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Besides the various protocols and agreements to further enhance the infrastructure of transportation between those countries, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) Railway named as “The Iron Silk Road” that was inaugurated on 30 October 2017 was also an important component of the Turkish Silk Road dream. Furthermore, in addition to the “Caravansarai Project” that aims cooperation between customs authorities in the region within the framework of the MC, major infrastructure initiatives connecting Europe with Asia was completed in Turkey such as the “Marmaray” undersea rail project.

Ankara thinks the MC initiative, “creates a natural synergy” with the BRI of China, which aims at developing connectivity between east and west. In this framework, Turkey supports the Belt and Road initiative based on the “win-win principle.” In that context, a “Memorandum of Understanding on Aligning the Belt and Road Initiative and the Middle Corridor Initiative” was signed between the two countries in November 2015, during the G-20 Leaders Summit in Antalya, Turkey. Thus the MC became the part of the BRI.

Ankara allegedly decided to align its MC with BRI in an effort to attract Chinese capital. On a trip to Beijing in July, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that there was “a natural harmony” between the two initiatives and called for further cooperation in areas including transportation, tourism, trade and investment. His Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping also called Turkey an important partner in jointly building the Belt and Road.“China is willing to move faster in dovetailing the Belt and Road Initiative with the Middle Corridor project,” he said. However, until now the MC was not operational.

MC vs NC

Beijing was preferring to ship or use the Trans-Siberian Railway the “Northern Corridor-NC” to send the approximately 10 million containers in a year to Europe, 96 % is transported by sea.

Even though Turkish officials were keen to emphasize that the MC is not meant to replace Russian routes but to diversify, Ankara has been propagating that the MC is more economical and faster than the NC:
“It is 2.000 km shorter, has more favourable climate conditions and shortens the travel time by 1/3rd (15 days) compared to the sea route. It offers great opportunities for the cargo traffic in Asia and if used effectively, important economic opportunities will arise for the Central Asian countries to benefit from the trade between China and Europe, estimated to be worth 600 billion USD annually. Moreover, the establishment of logistical centres and free trade zones at the ports of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan will facilitate the development and deepening of Trans-Caspian cooperation.”

Belt and Road Initiative

Chinese officials reportedly argue that the BRI is not a copy of the Turkish dream but rather a synergy that includes projects and strategies that could lead to creating more harmony between Turkey and China.

The BRI intends to deepen and expand the links between Asia, the MENA Region, Europe, and Africa by reviving the ancient Silk Road trade routes through both land (the Belt) and sea (the Road). Chinese President Xi, in 2013, raised the initiative of jointly building the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road, came to be known as the Belt and Road Initiative. It has attracted close attention from all over the world.
According to the “Action plan on the Belt and Road Initiative”,
it is a systematic project, which should be jointly built through consultation to meet the interests of all, and efforts should be made to integrate the development strategies of the countries along the Belt and Road. The BRI is not limited to, the area of the ancient Silk Road. It is open to all countries, and international and regional organizations for engagement.

The train made the story

Yet those nice words of Beijing are not convincing for many in Turkey. Pro-western circles concern that getting closer with China would be another blow to already fragile relations with Washington. Moreover, they warn that China should not be a replacement for the EU. Pro-Russian circles, on the other hand, assume that flirting with Beijing especially by promoting the MC against Russian NC might annoy Moscow. Despite of those discussions about the cons and pros of the BRI and the future of Turkey’s relations with China, there is no doubt that the journey of 820 meters long train with 42 containers, carrying electronic goods and solar panels, makes 11.483 kilometres in 12 days, passes through 2 continents and seas and 10 countries, is historic and it’s an important progress between Beijing and Ankara.

As Transportation Minister of Turkey, Cahit Turhan underlined during the official ceremony, “This is a historic moment for global and regional trade. This train symbolizes the beginning of a new era in railway transportation.”