A cargo train carrying a test shipment along the recently completed China-Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railway is bearing in on its final destination in a landmark event for Eurasian trade.
State media in Turkmenistan reported that the train, which departed from the Chinese city of Yiwu, just south of Shanghai, at the end of January covered 7,908 kilometers over nine days, and crossed the border into Iran on February 10.
The entire railroad extends around 10,000 kilometers and requires two weeks to cover, which is estimated to be around twice as fast as the sea route.
“The cargo, loaded with all kinds of consumer goods, traversed the Turkmen section in 28 hours, instead of two days, as had been expected. This significant reduction in travel time translates into substantial savings on transportation costs and makes the route more cost-effective,” state news agency TDH reported.
The overall route could, as its proponents argue, radically increase the efficiency in the transportation of goods from China’s eastern seaboard to markets in the Persian Gulf.
A final link in the mammoth railroad was put into place in December 2014 when the presidents of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran officially inaugurated a 930-kilometer line running from Ozen in western Kazakhstan through Turkmenistan to Gorgan in northwestern Iran. That sped up cargo transit between the countries by cutting 600 kilometers off the journey on the previously existing route from Beyneu in western Kazakhstan to Mashhad in northern Iran.
With international sanctions lifted, Iran is ready to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, senior Iranian officials said Monday.
Iran applied for full membership in the SCO in 2008, but has been blocked by rules in the organization's charter that forbid membership for any country under United Nations sanctions. Those sanctions were lifted on Saturday as a result of Tehran's compliance with its nuclear deal with world powers including the United States, China, and Russia.
The organization has been eager to get Iran on board. "The organization wishes success to Iran in the finalization of efforts related to the nuclear program so that the essential legal procedures leading up to the lifting of sanctions were implemented as soon as possible," said SCO Secretary General Dmitry Mezentsev last month. "I'd like to believe the SCO will take up Iran's request for the status of a full member immediately after that."
And with the sanctions lifted, Iranian officials said that among their priorities would be gaining full SCO membership.
"The lifting of sanctions opens for Iran the opportunity to become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and eliminates other limitations, which the Islamic Republic has been facing in the regional foreign policy," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari told a press conference on Monday.
"For several years Iran has been an observer state in the SCO and is interested in strengthening that organization. The removal of sanctions creates new possibilities for acquiring full membership for Iran in the SCO," wrote Iran's ambassador to Moscow, Mehdi Sanai, on his blog.
Chinese soldiers at the opening ceremony of the SCO Peace Mission 2012 military exercises in Tajikistan. (photo: MoD, Russia)
China places a priority on Central Asia as a site for training its military to operate abroad, with nearly half of its military exercises abroad involving Central Asian and Russian militaries, a new U.S. government report has argued.
The analysis of China-Central Asia relations in the report, by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, won't surprise too many close watchers of the region. It argues that Chinese activity in Central Asia is largely economic, that Chinese military activity there is relatively limited but growing, and that China's economic and security policy is oriented towards maintaining stability in the ethnically Uyghur and frequently restive province of Xinjiang, which borders Central Asia.
But there are a number of interesting observations in the report, which was based on interviews with experts and government officials from the U.S., China, Central Asian countries, and elsewhere.
For example, the priority that the Chinese military apparently places on Central Asia as a training ground. It notes that most of Beijing's security cooperation with Central Asia is conducted under the auspices of the Shaghai Cooperation Organization, which is dominated by China but also includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
While the SCO military exercises had over the years seemed to be declining in importance, as the organization took on more of an economic role, the last major exercise, in 2014, was the organization's biggest in ten years. And SCO exercises play an outsized role in preparing the Chinese military to operate outside its borders, the report argues:
The long-running drama over Turkey's controversial decision to buy a Chinese missile system appears to have ended with a move to scrap the purchase altogether.
An unnamed Turkish official told Reuters on Sunday that the $3.4 billion program has been canceled. Daily Sabah, a pro-government newspaper, cited its own sources saying that Turkey would now pursue building the system by itself.
The program had been a geopolitical touchstone, with the original competition pitting four competitors from the U.S., Russia, China, and a European consortium. The announcement, in 2013, that Ankara was choosing the Chinese HQ-9 air defense system, set off a massive, twisting controversy. Ankara's original justification for choosing the Chinese system was that it was the cheapest, and also included the most generous offers of technology transfer, which would allow Turkey to acquire the blueprints for the system so that it could eventually build its own system.
But that decision angered Turkey's NATO partners, which objected that they couldn't integrate the Chinese system into NATO's larger air defense umbrella because it could compromise the security of NATO data. Many in China and Turkey complained that this was merely a pretext, and that Western governments were trying to bully Ankara into choosing a European system for commercial reasons.
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev meets with Chinese defense minister Chang Wanquan in Astana. (photo: akorda.kz)
China is giving new military aid to Kazakhstan and the two countries are planning joint special forces training, as Beijing slowly but steadily increases its military presence in Central Asia.
Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan visited Astana on Monday and met with Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Kazakhstani defense officials. There, Chang announced that China was donating some military trucks to Kazakhstan, according to Kazakhstan's Ministry of Defense.
Especially intriguing was the discussion of special forces training: "Training and exchange of experience in the sphere of combating asymmetric threats (training special forces units) is an important aspect of cooperation," the MoD announced. ("Asymmetric threats" is a military euphemism for unconventional warfare like terrorism and guerrillas.) "Kazakhstan is interested in organizing joint events on mountain training, training of military swimmers, actions in urban environments for special forces. In the near future joint tactical antiterror exercises are planned on the territory of China and Kazakhstan."
Kazakhstan has carried out these kinds of training exercises before with China, but it's almost always been within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. These exercises appear to be purely bilateral.
The press release from Nazarbayev's office announced that ties with China are "at a new level of cooperation," and Chang laid on the praise for the president: "We consider you to be a great politician and strategist. You have made a great contribution to the formation and development of Kazakhstan, enjoying enormous authority among the population."
In a Tbilisi restaurant this week, 16 contestants from the Miss Chinese Cosmos Pageant waited expectantly for a dish of pelamushi, a grape-juice pudding and traditional Georgian dessert. The 12 who were served it made it to the semifinal. In compensation, the remaining four were presented with plates of jewelry and got — who could resist this? — a photo memento with Georgian government officials.
The duel between the West and Russia for the Caucasus might just be becoming a truel. In its continued fervor to embrace China and attract Chinese hunger for global investment and exports, Georgia has launched talks on free trade with Beijing.
“Our main goal is to make the most prudent use of our strategic location,” said Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili on September 10 at the World Economic Forum in the Chinese city of Dalian, where the Georgian leader met his Chinese counterpart, Li Kepiang.
Dalian is on the ancient East-West trade route known as the Silk Road, which China is looking to bring back to life by investing in transportation and energy infrastructure along the way.
“Georgia is Europe’s natural gateway to Asia, as it is Europe’s eastern most [syc] point both by land and sea,” Gharibashvili elaborated in a September 10 op-ed in the English-language China Daily, seen as a Beijing mouthpiece.
In his commentary Gharibashvili went through the selling points for Georgia as a critical hub in the Chinese government’s transnational project for integrating Chinese and Eurasian trade and investment.
With its economy still struggling for a breather, Tbilisi hopes that Georgia’s investment-friendly tax policy and free-trade agreement with the European Union will encourage more Chinese business to provide a much-needed financial boost. Gharibashvili’s office said that Chinese officials will visit Tbilisi in mid-October for a Silk Road conference.
Kazakh soldiers drill in preparation for the September 3 military parade in Beijing commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Asia. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Central Asian soldiers and presidents took part in a massive Chinese military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Asia, the guest list of which provided some grist for speculation on China-Central Asia relations.
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan were among the 11 countries sending relatively large contingents (of about 75 soldiers each) to take part in the September 3 parade. The Central Asian soldiers started arriving in China more than two weeks ahead of the parade, and rehearsed six hours a day. Soldiers from those three Central Asian states also participated in a similar event May 9 in Moscow.
But there were some intriguing inconsistencies in the turnout of Central Asian presidents who showed up. Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, who skipped the Moscow parade, did appear in Beijing. And Turkmenistan's Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who appeared at Moscow's parade, skipped Beijing's. (The presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan took part in both.) As the parade was about to begin, Chinese state television showed Karimov standing on the reviewing stand just to the right of his regional rival, Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev. (The cameras did not catch any conversation between the two men.)
Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev is on a state visit to China hoping to shore up Astana’s tight-knit relations with a key strategic partner and drum up investment for his country’s ailing economy.
With China fighting its own battles, however, it may fall short of the largesse that is being expected.
As Nazarbayev made clear during a Sino-Kazakhstani business forum on September 1, Astana is eager for Beijing to broaden its investment portfolio — hitherto concentrated in Kazakhstan’s energy sector — and start pouring cash into the industrialization projects on which the government is pinning its hopes for recovery.
“I believe this visit is a turning point in Sino-Kazakhstani ties,” Nazarbayev said inremarks quoted by his office. “For over 20 years we have been actively cooperating with China, predominantly in the energy and natural resources sectors. In the new stage, we are starting to step up cooperation in the manufacturing sectors of the economy, including engineering and the processing of resources.”
Nazarbayev said that during talks on August 31 with Xi Jinping, the host president, the two leaders signed deals worth $23 billion to set up 25 joint projects. Another 20 deals are in the pipeline, he said.
Ever a strategic crossroads, ardently pro-Western Georgia on August 25 became the site where the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, billed as the Chinese counterweight to the World Bank, chose its first president.
China's former deputy finance minister, Jin Liqun, got the pick at the August 24-25 meeting in Tbilisi, but it’s the longer term implications of the bank’s role that could prove more intriguing.
Initially meant as an Asia-only lending club, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has fast expanded to attract members across Europe and is set to help China build international clout.
The US has tried to discourage allies like the United Kingdom and South Korea from embracing the bank, a financial institution that Washington reportedly fears will lower international banking standards, but did not react publicly when Georgia, its strongest ally in the strategic South Caucasus, also decided to help midwife the AIIB into existence.
Granted, Georgia, which holds a mere .05 percent share in the bank, does not have the banking or economic muscle of the UK or South Korea, but its geo-strategic location means that those with influence here tend to keep a wary eye out for potential rivals.