China’s aspiration to build the largest transportation and shipping network ever known to man, known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is not bypassing Azerbaijani officials in Baku, who view the Caspian country as being strategically located along the proposed route that traverses Eurasia.
Cargo passing from China to Europe is estimated to be around 240 million tons per year, and Azerbaijan is looking to collect a fee from having some of it pass through the country via the Chinese trade route, once dubbed “One Belt, One Road,” or OBOR.
"Over 100 million tons of cargo was sent from China to Europe in 2016. We expect that at least 10-15 percent of these cargoes pass through our territory,” Azerbaijan’s minister of economy Shahin Mustafayev said at a press conference in Baku on Tuesday during a conference on bilateral relations with China, according to reporting by Trend.
“All necessary infrastructures are available in Azerbaijan,” he added.
The BRI could span over 60 countries, stretching from the Pacific to as far as Portugal, via road, rail, and maritime routes that the Chinese are hoping to bring online as a 21st century variant of the ancient Silk Road. Some experts put the cost of the project at $1 trillion.
Azerbaijani authorities have been eyeing the route as a way to showcase heavy investments made in recent years in the country’s infrastructure, particularly railroads and ports located on the western shores of the Caspian Sea.
In October, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway line was launched, linking Azerbaijan to its western neighbors Georgia and Turkey. The line bypasses Russia, and Azerbaijan’s western neighbor and foe Armenia, and helps reduce the transportation time of goods leaving China and headed to Europe by as much as two week.
Thirty-five Chinese cities are linked to 28 countries in Europe via 16 rail routes, and dispatch freight trains to Europe daily. Azerbaijan looks well-poised to plug into that.
"BTK provides an easier way for Chinese goods to enter European markets,” Mustafayev said at the conference.
The initial capacity of the railway is estimated at between three and five million tons of cargo during its first three years of operation, while by the fifth year experts expect it to reach between six and eight million tons, as well as move three million passengers. At its height in 2023, around 17 million tons of cargo is expected to pass along the BTK’s rails.
Freight traveling between China and Europe by rail is on the rise, given the risks involved with sea transport and the high price of air cargo. Traffic via rail had quintupled in weight from 2013 to 2016, and as of December of last year China sent 375 freight trains to Europe – more than one per day on average – which was a 69 percent increase from 2016 figures.