CPC - Caspian Policy Center


middle corridor: the kaleidoscopic work-in-progress has opened a door for washington

Middle Corridor: The Kaleidoscopic Work-in-progress Has Opened a Door for Washington

The Caspian Policy Center conducted its second Caspian Connectivity Conference at Arundel House in London, England, on June 11.

The Middle Corridor is the trans-Caspian trade and transportation route between China and Europe that emerged because of international sanctions against Russia as a result of President Vladimir Putin’s illegal war of unprovoked aggression, death, and destruction against the sovereign and independent nation and the people of Ukraine.  The Middle Corridor, what the Europeans often call the Trans-Caspian Transportation Corridor TCTC), is not a single set of highways, railroads, and seaports.  It’s better to think of it as kaleidoscopic:  multiple bits and pieces that, when functioning well, work together to form a fully multi-level and multi-directional base for international trade.  

Neither has the Middle Corridor emerged for the first time ever simply because of sanctions against Russia banning the standard use of the traditional Northern Corridor through Russian territory.  Contemporary China began to assemble some of the needed pieces when it announced at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan, in September 2013, a multinational trade and infrastructure investment initiative through Central Asia and the South Caucasus that has come to be called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  Much earlier than that – much earlier! – what we now call the Middle Corridor was known as the Silk Road after Italian explorer Marco Polo traveled the route, and wrote extensively about it, at the end of the 13th century, confirming for Europeans the great value of institutionalized, regular trade with Asia.

Furthermore, the Middle Corridor is still very much a work in progress.  A fair amount of the necessary hard infrastructure has been significantly upgraded or built anew, especially under the auspices of China’s BRI.  Also, The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development hosted an investment forum in January 2024 that resulted in pledges of an additional Euros 10B for the project writ large.  However, the EBRD has estimated that another Euros 8.5B would be required to make the Middle Corridor truly an effective and efficient trade and transportation route.  

In fact, the hardest part of the project to ensure that it becomes truly institutionalized and not just a temporary alternative during the war in Ukraine might be modernizing the soft infrastructure, especially of the Central Asian and South Caucasus countries, i.e., the former Soviet Socialist Republics now known as independent and sovereign Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.  Although each of these countries, each in its own way, is keenly interested in the Middle Corridor project, the very long, multi-generational project of de-Sovietizing these governments is still a work in progress.  Much has been accomplished, especially in the past decade, but more remains to be done.  Specifically, customs and tariffs – not just upgrading and building new hard infrastructure – need to be simplified and standardized across the Middle Corridor.  And, probably not surprisingly, that is still very much a work in progress because corruption, from the working level up to the very top, needs to be further reduced to internationally tolerated (if not appreciated) standards.

Where does the United States stand in this?  The honest answer is “somewhat on the sidelines.” 

The European Union and individual European states are playing much greater roles.  This actually makes a certain sense because Brussels stands to benefit concretely, especially financially, much more so than Washington, from the institutionalization of the Middle Corridor.  Even so, it would make political and diplomatic sense for Washington to become more actively and, especially, visibly involved in promoting the Middle Corridor.  It’s common knowledge that after an international upheaval like Russia’s war against Ukraine things don’t return to a previously comfortable status quo ante.  A new, on-the-ground reality develops and then, over time, becomes institutionalized as the New Normal.  

The door is open for the United States to play a larger and more visible role in institutionalizing the new reality in the Caspian Region.  Almost all of the eight countries, each in its own way, have signaled that they would welcome a closer relationship with Washington, even while maintaining to the fullest extent possible their relationships with Beijing, Moscow, and, of course, Brussels.  But tradition in U.S. foreign policy is quite stable, no matter which political party is in power, surprisingly so to those who don’t see it from the inside.  

Washington’s tradition over the past three decades, at least to a certain degree, has been to keep these countries at arm’s length.  It’s not that the United States sees them as enemies or even as part of another power’s sphere of influence, even though Putin regularly proclaims them as such.  Rather, it’s that their complicated histories of various degrees of corruption and, especially, human-rights violations have historically caused Washington to look somewhat askance and to keep them on its foreign-policy back burner.  

Now, the Middle Corridor has begun to change history.  For its own long-term national interests, it would behoove Washington, as a global power, to look at the Caspian Region through fresh eyes.   It doesn’t need to swallow hard and say, uncomfortably, that all is well.  But it would, indeed, be in the interest – over the long term! – of the U.S. government and the American people to see new, even if at first cautious, relations develop between Washington and the capitals of the eight Caspian Region nations.

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