China Moves Deeper Into Europe With the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR)

Eyeing a four-fold increase in container volumes this year, China has been pushing cargo via its Middle Corridor rail services and the Caspian Sea. Just last week, the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR) was launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. The new China-Europe Railway Express service aims to capitalize on a hybrid model to speed up Europe-bound services.

The TITR begins at Lianyungang in China and crosses Kazakhstan, the Caspian, Azerbaijan, and Georgia en-route to Europe. It has even been labeled as a ‘vital artery’ by Gaidar Abdikerimov, Secretary General of the TITR International Association. Yet, others have challenged the assertion, pointing to its limited capacity.

In fact, after Russia invaded Ukraine, there was a surging concern from shippers about rail volumes being caught in sanctions as they passed through Russia. Add on to it transit times. Clearly, adopting the hybrid sea-rail model via the Caspian Sea (taking just 12 days to reach Europe from China) the Middle Corridor seemed like a strong contender. But, in reality, the route appeared to lack the necessary infrastructure and capacity to meet demand.

Since the beginning of 2024, the Middle Corridor has seen the movement of around 60 freight trains, but the new service is intended to encourage greater uptake by shippers. According to sources, trains are to run daily and China is eyeing 250 more services by the end of the year to “bolster regional infrastructure to accommodate more services across the Caspian”.

Local media quoted the two leaders as pledging to “improve the level of interconnection and continue to deepen cooperation”, as they announced plans to open more border ports along the route and tout for greater uptake from forwarders.

The Belt and Road Initiative and the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route both seek to enhance Asia-Europe connectivity but differ significantly in scope and ambition. The BRI extends beyond economic goals to reshape global trade patterns and expand geopolitical influence. In contrast, the TITR is a regional collaboration focused on improving trade efficiency without the overarching strategic objectives of the BRI. Through the BRI, China is not only economically “conquering” Europe by strengthening trade and investment ties but also strategically expanding its influence and fostering dependencies.

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