Op/Ed By Chris Devonshire-Ellis
Our team now leave Turkey, heading east, where they have made a quick trip to the Armenian border, before heading north and entering the Caucasus through Western Georgia. From there they will pass through Georgia, across Azerbaijan, heading for Baku on the Caspian Sea. Next stop: Kazakhstan.
The stop at the Armenian border is not an accident. Turkey has very poor relations with the country, while Armenia also has territorial disputes and poor relations with Azerbaijan. As such, Beijing has essentially omitted the entire nation from its Belt & Road plans, despite the country being China friendly and wanting to be involved. China, for its part, essentially eyes Armenia as geographically unimportant and politically awkward. That's rather unfortunate for Yerevan, to say the least, which instead retains closer ties with Moscow than Beijing. That is a reverse policy to Georgia, which when contemplating membership of the EU and NATO in 2008, coupled with disturbances in Muslim ruled parts of the Caucasus in Abkhazia and Ossetia, endured a brief war with Russia. Georgia's capital, Tbilisi was bombed, and the Russian army generally trashed the place. That conflict continues to upset the Georgians, although Moscow made its point about NATO. Georgian relations with Moscow remain cool, but EU membership, although still discussed in bars, is proving a step too far from Moscow's perspective.
The future of the Caucasus then includes many different dynamics. Previously Soviet, self-regarded Europeans, Orthodox and Muslims, with a vital Belt & Road corridor running through it. It is a uniquely complex, yet culturally fascinating region that sits on the divide between west and east. It has long been fought over, invaded and loved in equal measures. The Belt & Road to many locals here is just another example of an overseas power play. Eventually, China will loose interest and just go away. But will it?
Signs that partial connectivity at least is occurring is with the BTK rail route that links Turkey (Kars) heading east through Georgia via Tbilisi and into Azerbaijan at Baku. The line then extends further east, crossing the Caspian,through Kazakhstan and into China. It is also economically viable, tests performed in 2015 involving 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.
The route is strategically important as it bypasses Russia and offers China an alternative southern rail route. 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.
Baku then - with all its oil and gas wealth (a pipeline runs alongside the BTK line to feed Turkey) is developing as the regions wealthiest city - thumbing its nose at isolated Yerevan, and swaggering it over Tbilisi. Cannily played relationships with both Beijing and Moscow, together with its strategic position as the main port on the Caspian have certainly helped. Yet for all that, the region remains volatile, and Baku would do well to keep the peace with its neighbours, including Armenia. Azerbaijan also has a tendency to tolerate corruption, which extends from the time honoured tradition of "bakshish" - a tip for a business favour - and extends into multi-million dollar deals for oil and gas. It's a different way of getting things done, and the ever-financially pragmatic Chinese recognize that too.
Resolving the Azerbaijan-Armenia issue meanwhile will involve humble pie being eaten by both sides as the situation concerning Nagorno-Karabakh is unsustainable in the longer term. It is possible China might at some stage wish to broker a deal, if only to develop the admittedly small domestic market and potentially keep Ankara on its toes.
Regional collisions also arise here due to religious differences - Azerbaijan is 96% Muslim, Georgia and Armenia staunchly Orthodox. Yet to the south, Turkey, long a secular nation, is also growing in Islamic influence, a situation that could alter the regional balance of power away from Moscow and towards Sunni Islam, a movement that includes most of Turkeys Muslims and represents about 90% of all Muslims worldwide; about 1.2 billion people.
History here though takes a bow - there has been no Sunni Muslim Caliphate since 1924 and the demise of the Ottoman Empire, effectively leaving this massive force prone to factional infighting and without a spiritual head. The on-going ebbs and flows for influence over religion runs deep, the Head of the Orthodox Church remains the Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, yet the original main temple, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was converted into a mosque in 1453, was de-consecratedin 1934, and today operates as a museum. The Patriarch however continues to reside in Istanbul in a predominantly Muslim country yet overseeing Orthodox Christians throughout Armenia, Georgia, The Balkans, Eastern Europe and Russia itself. East meets West.
Beijing however understands these religious undulations, and is consequently wary of religious power in any form diluting its own right to rule and influence, especially over territories it calls home. In the Caucasus however, East meets West, and the collision and cultural entanglements become increasingly obvious. How Beijing, and to some extent Ankara, Moscow and Delhi manage this volatile region essentially holds the key, with influence over maintaining a moderate, liberal sense of purpose in Baku a vital political component. There is however a regional body that brings all these disparate factions together - the Shanghai Co-Operation Organisation. China, Russia, India, and Iran are all full members, while Turkey is a dialogue partner. It will be the SCO who ultimately decides the future makeup of the Caucasus.
Chris Devonshire-Ellis is an Advisor to the New Silk Road Project. He is the Chairman of Dezan Shira & Associates, www.dezshira.com a professional services firm advising European countries in Asia, and the Publisher of Asia Briefing, www.asiabriefing.com which includes the Silk Road Briefing www.silkroadbriefing.com website. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.