Turkey-China freight trains: A new page in bilateral partnership

By Abdulkadir Emin Onen
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail National Development and Reform Commission, July 7, 2021
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The China-Europe Railway Express marks a significant phase towards Eurasian rail transportation. The railway connection between two continents became even more vital in the pandemic era when the freight trains played a crucial role in stabilizing the international logistics supply chain, due to limited air and maritime transport options. As part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which Turkey supports from the beginning, this route has experienced a remarkable progress for the past 10 years and will continue its development. 

Turkey, thanks to her unique geographical location, historically played a significant role in connecting Europe and Asia. It is manifested with the well-known Silk Road, and other cross-regional trade routes such as the Spice Road. Turkey's strategic position at the intersection of Europe, Asia and the Middle East still paves the way for her role as the "regional transportation hub," which has gained a noticeable momentum in recent years. 

Under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, massive infrastructure projects in Turkey, including highways, air and sea ports and high speed railways have greatly contributed to achieving Eurasian connectivity. For instance, the new airport in Istanbul, one of the world's biggest, has the capacity to accommodate 200 million passengers annually. Moreover, we are constructing the Edirne-Kars High Speed Network which will enable faster and cheaper transport from China and Central Asia to Europe. The Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge over the Bosphorus, the Eurasia Tunnel and Marmaray, the Orhan Gazi Bridge over the Gulf of Izmit, logistics hubs and communication infrastructures are parts of this hybrid transportation network. With the completion of the 1915 Bridge over the Dardanelles in early 2022, Asia and Europe are will be connected six times through different means of transportation. 

There is now a special focus on transforming high-speed rail (HSR) in the country, with the goal of constructing an additional 5,500 km of HSR and rapid lines by 2023. Turkey is the 8th HSR operating country in the world and the HSR lines between major cities (Ankara-Eskişehir-Konya) are operational and others (Ankara-İstanbul) are soon to be completed. With the aim to take advantage of the railways in carrying goods and products as well, various logistics centers are being constructed across the country. 

Overall, Turkey's regional integrated transport corridors perspective focuses on: building a modern Silk Road with dependable and viable alternative routes, promoting intermodal transport opportunities particularly on the Trans-Caspian East-West Middle Corridor (MC), upgrading/development of transport infrastructure, removing bottlenecks especially on border crossings, simplification of procedures and removing administrative barriers, enhancing logistics and corridor management capacities, and finally achieving cooperation and coordination with the transit countries. 

As briefly mentioned above, some of these recent mega-construction projects in Turkey are materialized with Chinese investment, and more are being planned. Turkey has already started delivering on concrete projects in the fields of transportation, logistics, energy and trade for reviving the ancient Silk Road. Further developments in this regard will make Turkey's geographic advantage also more visible. All of these projects initiated by Turkey will be readily integrated into the MC, which will constitute a cost effective and secure route from Asia to Europe.

The China-Europe Railway Express has also benefited from this ongoing construction and improvement of railways, facilities and its services. The initiation of a direct freight train services between Turkey and China in December 2020 is the most recent and substantial example of this development. The train followed the MC via Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway. Its route covers almost 8,700 kilometers, passing through two continents, two seas, five countries and forwarding its freight from Istanbul to China's Xi'an in less than two weeks. In short, "once a distant dream" finally became possible. More trains followed the first one in recent months and there are plans to make a regular and more frequent weekly schedule of freight trains between Turkey and China. 

Xi'an, as the eastern end to the Silk Road and former capital of ancient China, was once the meeting and melting point of ancient Turks and Chinese, as well as of many others, for social and commercial interactions. Our ancestors were well aware of the importance of safe and stable transport routes for enhancing economic activities. That is why they created a road that enabled the transportation of goods between Asia and Europe. Today, after many centuries, we again follow their path. We are building a modern Silk Road, with the opportunities provided by technology and modernization.

I would like to briefly point out the developments and provide some highlights on Turkey's MC Initiative that is expected to play a bigger role in Eurasian connectivity as a reliable alternative option among others for the following reasons: 

First of all, the shift of economic gravity towards the East generates a continuous growth in the transport of goods between Asia and Europe. The pandemic did not alter this trend; it has even strengthened it. For instance, bilateral trade volume between Turkey and China has reached US$26 billion in 2020. It is one of highest figures of any bilateral commerce between European and Asian countries. Moreover, ongoing commercial, financial and investment contacts between Turkey and China points that it is very possible to surpass US$50 billion in the upcoming years.  

It should also be noted that the further use of the railway connection between Turkey and China will accelerate economic activities across Eurasia and this in return will be beneficial for our bilateral economic relations. Turkish and Chinese products will be more easily delivered through the freight trains. Highly qualified Turkish brands and products, which are well sought-after in many parts of the world, will become more available in the vast Chinese market. Particularly, they will be integrated into e-commerce platforms in China. We therefore encourage Turkish and Chinese business people to make better use of Turkey-China freight trains which opened up as a new commercial gate between the two countries. 

Secondly, with a population of 84 million, Turkey is serving not only as a regional hub but also as a bridge between three continents, and for a wide range of markets in the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. Turkey's Customs Union with the EU allows direct access to the EU market; while her Free Trade Agreements with 28 countries means a free access from Turkey to almost one billion people. 

Thirdly, the most essential infrastructure for the operationalization of the MC has been completed. BTK railway, with a total track length of 840 km became fully operational in 2017. An uninterrupted railway line now connects Beijing to London through the Caspian Sea and the Bosphorus. It was used by a China-Europe freight train for the first time in November 2019. BTK has an initial capacity of 1 million passengers and 6.5 million tonnes of cargo per annum, to be increased to 3 million passengers and 17 million tonnes of cargo per annum by 2034. Freight transportation on the BTK has significantly increased recently. While it was just around 4,000 tonnes in 2017, it has doubled from 195,000 to almost 400,000 tonnes in 2020 during the pandemic, and already reached 106,000 tons in the first quarter of 2021. 

Fourth, there are clear opportunities presented by the Middle Corridor: it brings a complementary route to the Northern and Southern alternatives as well as supplements China's Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor under the BRI. MC stands as a credible alternative by itself in China-Europe Express because relying too much on just one existing route is not a safe approach. The blockage incident in the Suez Canal in March 2021 proved once again the importance of having alternative routes. Indeed, one of the main logics behind the BRI is to create feasible alternative transportation routes. The use of MC in both directions between Europe and Asia will be compatible with this logic. Therefore, MC presents a faster and shorter connection to the Balkans, West and Northern Europe. Additionally, MC route has favorable climatic conditions during winters, which will be advantageous in transporting non-durable food and agricultural products. 

Finally, there is a strong political will between Turkey and China to enhance their cooperation in this area as exemplified by Turkish President Erdoğan and Chinese President Xi. Turkey has been one of the earliest supporters of the BRI. Our MC Initiative has a natural complementarity with the BRI. In 2015, Turkey and China signed a MoU to further harmonize the BRI and the MC. Turkey and China have similar outlooks for deepening regional economic cooperation on the vast Eurasian landmass via transport corridors. The relevant Turkish and Chinese authorities are planning to hold a "High Level Joint Working Group Meeting" in the upcoming period towards this end. 

In conclusion, the rapid global transformation is marked by the rise of the Asian continent and the connectivity projects. The deepening Turkish-Chinese cooperation in transportation and logistics sectors will surely result in more prosperity and stability across Eurasia. Much has been achieved thanks to the fruitful cooperation between the two countries. The recent initiation of the direct freight trains between Turkey-China was one of the most successful examples of this cooperation. Broader opportunities of collaboration lies in front of us as long as we continue to galvanize our joint efforts towards our common interests. 

The author is the ambassador of Turky to China.

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