China Connects Rail to Europe without Russia as BTK Route Runs South via Caucasus and Turkey
China’s Belt and Road Initiative has taken a strategic path south as the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) rail link has opened for high speed rail traffic. The route, which crosses East-West via Aktau, Kazakhstan’s only Caspian Sea Port, enters Baku, then traverses the Caucasus to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia and then runs south into Kars, on the Turkish border. From there goods can be dispersed across Turkey, into Iran and Europe. The route is strategically important as it bypasses Russia and offers China an alternative southern route.
The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars project completes a transport corridor linking Azerbaijan to Turkey (and therefore Central Asia and China to Europe) by rail. (In late 2015, a goods train took only 15 days to travel from South Korea to Istanbul via China, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia—considerably less time than a journey by sea). The line is intended to transport an initial annual volume of 6.5 million tons and 1 million passengers, rising to a long-term target of 17 million tonnes and 3 million passengers. Sleeping cars will be available.
In total, 105 km of new line have been built between Kars and Akhalkalaki, with 76 km within Turkey and 29 km in Georgia. The existing railway line from Akhalkalaki to Marabda, and onto Tbilisi and Baku has been modernized. In total, the line extends for 826 km.
While the line provides a southern alternative to Russia, the main loser in this is Armenia, which has historical conflict with Turkey to the south and is in territorial dispute with Azerbaijan to the north. The heavily militarized region of Nagorno-Karabakh remains disputed territory. The BTK route avoids these issues and bypasses Armenia altogether.
Of additional connectivity interest is the North-South International Transport Corridor, which runs from India, has an ocean freight route connecting with Iran at Chabahar Port then runs north, and ultimately also connects with Baku.
Chris Devonshire-Ellis of Dezan Shira & Associates comments: “the emergence of Turkey and Iran as transshipment and modal container partners with China and Europe is an exciting part of the development of the new Silk Road routes and offer plenty of opportunities for both shipping, rail, and port development facilities. The Caucasus nations of Azerbaijan and Georgia will also benefit, as will Armenia, in terms of some improvement in trade access. How these routes then fan out across Turkey will be interesting to evaluate”.
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