China's spreading ties may lead to tensions with Central Asian states

Baku, Azerbaijan, Jan. 22

By Ali Mustafayev – Trend:

The opening of the Iran-China railway has strengthened the already strong political and economic ties between the two countries, Gianluca Pastori, associate professor of history and political relations in Sacro Cuore Cattolica University in Italy, told Trend.

“Currently, China is Iran’s main trading partner accounting for some 45 percent of export and for more than 40 percent of import, and their mutual exchange is growing. By railway, the trip between the two countries is far shorter than on the sea route from Shanghai to Bandar Abbas, although two breaks of gauge (Central Asian track gauge is different from the Iranian and Chinese one) have a negative impact on costs. Moreover, as part of the ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) project, the railway could have a positive impact on Iran-Europe relations, as well as foster greater regional integration,” said the Pastori.

From this point of view, OBOR can make Central Asia a little less ‘landlocked’, greatly extending the scope of the already existing infrastructures, according to the expert.

“However, there are two problems. First: there is a structural imbalance between China and its partners, and the distribution of the benefits arising from greater integration may be uneven, leading to tensions especially with the Central Asian republics. Moreover, interdependence among the different Central Asian economies is quite low, and this state of things can give China an even more prominent position. Second: the strengthening of China’s regional role may upset Russia; OBOR is in direct competition with the Russian-inspired Eurasian Economic Union, of whom Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members,” said the interlocutor of the agency.

Worth noting, EEU is active in the infrastructure sector too, especially with the Eurasian Land Bridge project (in which China is involved), and with the UN-backed Trans-Asian Railway and Asian Highway Network.

“There are lots of projects to connect Europe and Asia via Central Asia and Iran. The European Union too is actively engaged in this sector. However, many projects are sapped by rivalries while it is not even sure if some of them are really profitable. China is on the forefront of this process, largely due to its massive investment and political commitment. However, to strengthen it and make it a potential tool for regional integration Beijing must provide incentives to other countries to enter the project, allowing them to pursue both economic and diplomatic gains”.

Another key aspect, in expert’s opinion, is whether the different regional organizations will be able to develop effective coordination, taking advantage of their complementarities and avoiding measures that could hurt non-member states or would duplicate their efforts.

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