Trade on track
Since December 2020, Turkey, with the strong support and cooperation of countries along the route－especially China－has made full use of the Middle Corridor to actively explore the intermodal Trans-Caspian rail freight transport. So far there have been seven trips to China, carrying 257 containers with a total weight of 10,750 metric tons.
Although exports to China have not met expectations, the China-bound trains provide a new convenient route for the trade of goods between Turkey and China, which has effectively lifted some of the doom and gloom cast on the Turkish and global economy by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Turkey was one of the first countries to respond to the Belt and Road Initiative that was put forward in 2013. In November 2014, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly expressed his staunch support for the initiative. In November 2015, while Chinese President Xi Jinping was attending the G20 Summit in Antalya, a memorandum of understanding was signed on aligning the Belt and Road Initiative with the Middle Corridor Initiative, providing important policy support to promote cooperation in this respect. In May 2017, when President Erdogan came to China to attend the Belt and Road Summit on International Cooperation, the two countries signed the Agreement on the International Road Passenger and Freight Transport, thus clearing legal obstacles to the China-Europe transit transportation via Turkey.
In recent years, the Turkish government and people have had high expectations that the Middle Corridor will help connect the country with China's huge market in hope of resolving their domestic economic problems.
The annual trade volume between China and Europe is approximately $600-700 billion. In particular, the number of China-Europe train trips has soared since its official inauguration in 2011, from 17 in 2011 to 1,702 in 2016, and 12,400 in 2020. Over the first 10 months this year, the number has exceeded that in 2020, reaching 12,600 block trains with 1.216 million TEUs transported. Consequently, the annual cross-border transport costs of China-Europe trains have run as high as billions of US dollars in recent years, and the figure is still growing rapidly.
The main channel of land transportation between China and Europe is the Northern Corridor. In order to increase the traffic volume of the Middle Corridor, Turkey opened the Marmara Tunnel－once a passenger line－to freight trains in October 2019. As a link between the European and Asian shores of Istanbul, the tunnel has been running smoothly for years and used to be reserved for passenger trains only. On Nov 7, the first China-Europe railway express Chang'an (Xi'an-Ankara-Prague) became the first freight train to Europe through the tunnel.
This not only highlights the importance of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway (the core project of the Middle Corridor), but also makes Turkey an important node on the "Iron Silk Road"－the Eurasia railway from Beijing to London.
By attracting China-Europe two-way trains for transit transportation, thanks to its unique geographical advantages, Turkey may achieve its goal of building itself into a logistics power.
On the one hand, Turkey is focusing on connectivity by expanding its new lines connecting Europe and Asia. In particular, in view of the transportation bottleneck on the Turkey-Georgia border, Turkey's national railway company TCDD has begun to build a large modern logistics center integrating warehousing, bogie exchange, transshipment, distribution and customs clearance, so as to comprehensively improve transit processing capacity at the border. In addition, Turkey has opened new lines connecting Azerbaijan, Romania, Hungary and other countries. Increased connectivity can greatly increase the attractiveness of the route.
Regular operation of the newly expanded lines will highlight Turkey's role as an international hub connecting the East and West. The Turkish Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure has made it clear that export freight trains will be the most important factor for Turkey to become a transit hub in Asia and Europe in the future. Before the departure of the first China-bound freight train, TCDD had already made the initial goal of two export train trips to China per month, implementing the regular operation of export trains.
As one of the most dynamic and largest markets in the world, China is the second largest import source country of Turkey, but is not among its top 15 export destination countries. For many years, the trade volume between China and Turkey has been hovering around $20 billion.
The seven export trains to China carried household appliances, chemicals and melamine-coated chipboards, the first two loaded with high-quality mechanical and electrical products made in Turkey. This shows that Turkey is promoting the diversification of its export commodities and helping more Turkish enterprises to tap the Chinese market.
Meanwhile, by finding out commodities suitable for the rail transportation in the context of the soaring costs of international freight and the global supply chain crisis as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Turkey can collect operation data and accumulate experience to support its China-bound export transportation through the Middle Corridor in the future.
The regular two-way operation of the China-Turkey Trans-Caspian trains is the result of long-term communication, mutual understanding and joint cooperation between relevant departments of China and Turkey, demonstrating the dynamism, resilience and potential of bilateral trade between the two countries.
The author is an associate researcher at the Institute of West-Asian and African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
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