Editor’s note: Akram Zeynalli is the Ambassador of the Republic of Azerbaijan to the People’s Republic of China. The article reflects the author’s opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.
Last month, conflict in the Caucasus came to an end, following an internationally brokered peace settlement that offers close to a million citizens of Azerbaijan the chance to return home to Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding regions, they were forced to flee a generation ago. Whilst under international law Azerbaijan’s ownership of these lands was never in doubt, and the return of them to Azerbaijani control now opens them up to the world – and to China.
Not only that, but these provide – for both our countries – a new safe land corridor linking the East to the West. Transiting directly across the Caucasus, it will cut road transportation time from weeks and months to mere days. This opportunity to open up and speed trade and business simply did not exist even two months ago.
Thanks to this peace dividend, there will now be a cross-country route that passes from the port of Baku on the coast of the Caspian Sea, then through newly liberated territories, and – crucially – through a soon-to-be opened transport corridor arrives at Nakhchivan, the autonomous enclave of Azerbaijan. The line then continues directly into and through Turkey and onto the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.
Never before has there been an opportunity in the Caucasus for such a corridor facilitating trade and peace between East and West. Importantly, the corridor will create a direct road transportation route from China to Europe and vice-versa through Azerbaijan – and will complement the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway opened in 2017. This rail link alone has reduced the transit time of goods between China and Western Europe from over a month to merely 15 days. The addition of a new and even a shorter road link will create further opportunities for trade within the Belt and Road Initiative, of which Azerbaijan was an early supporter.
Peace also makes other planned infrastructure development possible. The repopulation of what amounts to some 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory will be an immense task, when it has been scattered with ghost towns for some 30 years, and tens of thousands of homes that once stood there are today little more than rubble. Landmines and unexploded ordnance need to be cleared, new homes must be built, water, electricity, gas and telecommunications infrastructure laid – along with new roads made, streets paved, offices and factories built, schools established, and places of worship reconstructed and renovated.
All of this will be underpinned by a new, regional rail link connecting Baku and the east of the country with the restored areas of the West. To build and rebuild this region and sustain long-term prosperity, Azerbaijan will need close partners to unite resources in construction and investment. And Chinese investors and constructors will be welcomed to benefit from the untapped potential of Azerbaijan’s liberated territories.
Fortunately, Azerbaijan and China already have friendly, multidimensional and fruitful relations. Now both our nations stand to immediately benefit from the peace dividend that the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict brings.
Already, Azerbaijan is China’s largest trading partner in the Caucasus region. 2019 saw close to $2.2 billion in trade between the two countries. And business and investment continue to grow year on year, with Chinese investment boosting the regional economy. As one example, the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank participated substantially toward the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline Project bringing natural gas from Baku through to Turkey – running largely parallel to the route of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway.
Similarly, cultural links have blossomed with the opening of a Confucius Institute at the Azerbaijan University of Languages in 2011 and continue to deepen year by year. Numerous cultural events organized in China by Heydar Aliyev Foundation of Azerbaijan, as well as concerts, art shows and exhibitions regularly held both in Azerbaijan and China bring our peoples and cultures together, bringing our countries closer.
With these connections – and the new possibilities for peace and trade – it should be no surprise that Azerbaijan is building one of its largest embassies in Beijing.
We must build upon these relations and redouble our efforts to benefit both countries. The opportunities that the peace dividend brings after the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh are clear, and they do not just stand to benefit the two nations, but rather the world. Let us seize the moment together.