Belt And Road Initiative (BRI): Role Of South Caucasus In Connectivity Cooperation Between China And Europe – Analysis


China’s Belt and Road Initiative

In 2013, China’s president Xi Jinping announced the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st -Century Maritime Silk Road. After two years, an action plan was issued by the National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Commerce of China, which officially proposed the Silk and Road Initiative, also known as One Belt One Road.

China’s economy is closely connected with the world economy. China will stay committed to the basic policy of opening up, build a new pattern of all-around opening up, and integrate itself deeper into the world economic system. The Initiative will enable China to further expand and deepen its opening-up, up and to strengthen its mutually beneficial cooperation with countries in Asia, Europe and Africa and the rest of the world. China is committed to shouldering more responsibilities and obligations within its capabilities and making greater contributions to the peace and development of mankind.1

The proposal of “One Belt One Road” generally has both China’s domestic background and international background. The domestic background is that China’s economy needs to be transformed and upgraded, and China’s diplomacy needs a new cooperation platform to coordinate and arrange numerous existing or future programs. The international background is that after the Subprime Crisis in 2008, the world economy has been impacted and suffered from anaemic growth. Because of the weakness of original International or regional mechanisms, a new mechanism was expected. The Belt and Road Initiative starts by thoroughly improving the development environment of countries along the silk road, builds new growth momentum by encouraging internal development, provides new impetus for world economic growth, as well as provides a platform for China to play a special role.2

The Belt and Road are not only an inheritance of China’s ancient Silk Road, which began during the Han Dynasty but also a regional initiative to expand the breadth and depth of cooperation with Eurasian and African countries. To a certain extent, it is a response to the transportation development plans of the United States, the European Union and other major powers. The EU has funded the Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRACECA) project since 1993, with the aim of creating an alternative transport corridor bypassing Russia and improving member states’ access to European and world markets and also established the Interstate Oil and Gas Transportation to Europe (INOGATE) program. Russia focuses on north-to-south connectivity centred on Russia, the United States emphasizes south-to-north connectivity centred on Afghanistan, and both the EU and China advocate east-west connectivity.

However, China’s initiative of the Silk Road Economic Belt is not a restoration of the historical route but is intended to inherit the spirit of the Silk Road and build closer ties between China and neighbouring, as well as other Eurasian countries which could connect with China. At the same time, through the BRI, China with other countries created a new type of cooperation model and a new model of international relations. China will realize a land-ocean geographical connection and in-depth cooperation between China and the world will be promoted. First, the BRI will let other countries hitch a ride (not free-riding) with China’s development.

Second, China will play the role of promoter and leader for countries along the Belt and Road and help them jointly develop. The Belt and Road aim to realize “Five Connectivity” (Cooperation Priority) – Policy Connectivity, Facilities Connectivity, Unimpeded Trade Connectivity, Financial Connectivity and People-to-People Connectivity. Connectivity is the foundation of the Belt and Road. To realize true and comprehensive connectivity requires three systems: First, infrastructure, that is, the network system of roads, railways, waterways, and air traffic; Second, legal framework, that is, a system of rules based on mutual recognition and coordination; Third, the people’s turnover.3

Connectivity Cooperation between China and the EU

Europe’s attitude towards the Belt and Road has changed: waiting – participating – preventing – competing and cooperation.4 When China initially proposed the Belt and Road Initiative, the EU and its member states generally took a wait-and-see attitude. In March 2014, Chinese President Xi paid the first visit by a Chinese head of state to the EU headquarters since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the EU. China and the EU decided to jointly form partnerships in peace, growth, reform and civilization. The two sides expressed their willingness to strengthen cooperation in infrastructure connectivity and reform policy communication mechanism, also mentioned “China and the EU have great potential to strengthen transportation relations, and the two sides have great potential to strengthen transportation relations and have decided to jointly explore the convergence between China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and EU policies, and cooperate along the Silk Road Economic Belt.”5 However, in second China’s EU Policy Document released at the end of the visit, Beijing did not mention the Belt and Road Initiative.6 The Initiative has been responded to by the EU positively, but the two sides have not yet found a specific docking point.

In 2015, the EU began to make a formal response to the initiative, hoping to connect the EU Investment Plan with China’s Belt and Road Initiative at the macro level and the technical level, mainly reflected in: (a) In 2015, during the China-EU summit, China Premier Li proposed a series of measures of cooperation, including establishing connectivity platform with EU; (b) EU member states joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank led by China; (c) China is the first non-EU country to invest under the framework of EU Investment Plan; (d) China and the EU agreed to set up a Joint Working Group in order to promote the all-dimensions cooperation between the two sides in the field of investment, the members of the working group are composed of experts from the China Silk Road Fund, the National Development and Reform Commission of China, the European Commission and the European Investment Bank; (e) China and the EU were discussing about the model and structure of Sino-European Cooperation Fund.7

Since 2016, the EU and some of its member states began to guard against the Initiative, conducting security reviews on Chinese corporates’ investment, strengthening the protection of the European market, and broadcasting China Threat Theory. They superficially declared that they support for the Initiative, but actually doubted the motivation of it, believing that it is a threat to the Western-dominated international system and global standards. In some occasions such as Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, the China-EU summit, and bilateral meetings, China and the EU have repeatedly failed to reach an agreement on the Belt and Road- related documents.

In 2018, the EU released Connecting Europe and Asia – Building Blocks for an EU Strategy, which Chinese scholars call the EU version of the Belt and Road. On the one hand, it is believed that the strategy aims to establish an efficient and sustainable connectivity partnership between Europe and Asia and to ensure the quantity and quality of connectivity.8 On the other hand, it is believed that the Belt and Road Initiative and the China and Central and Eastern Europe Cooperation stimulate the EU to introduce its own strategy, which will change the EU’s prevention against BRI from an ideological level to concrete actions. By selectively cooperating with the BRI, the EU will protect its rules and standard from China’s attack, and consolidate the normative community.

Chinese scholars who have positive attitudes towards China-EU transport cooperation believe that: First, there is a positive sign for cooperation sent by the EU. The European version of the BRI policy document listed China as the initial country for strengthening bilateral relations to promote connectivity, and prioritized coupling with China’s BRI. Second, although the Connecting Europe Facility was released by the European Union, the Jointly Developing Infrastructure Plan (under discussion) and International North-South Corridor (under discussion) have differences with China’s connectivity Initiative in cooperation religions, values, norms, partners selection and other issues, all of them aim to promote connectivity in Eurasia and enhance countries’ ability for independent development.9 

Third, Su Bin believes that based on the same goals of constructing intercontinental corridors and common development concepts, through unified negotiation and planning, it could achieve Eurasian infrastructure connectivity and transportation facilitation. China and Europe initially carry out cooperation in railway technology and equipment manufacturing, which built a foundation of mutual communication. Connectivity by connecting transportation corridors can enhance this kind of communication and cooperation deeply and precisely. The interconnection of channels can make this technology exchange and equipment manufacturing cooperation more in-depth and accurate. In Connecting Europe and Asia – Building Blocks for an EU Strategy, the EU realized that transportation networks need the connectivity of working systems and the same technical norms and standards. At the same time, in the field of environmental protection and sustainable development, there is also common sense between China and the EU. They all believe that railway transportation is beneficial for protecting Eurasian Ecology. The shared environmental protection and development idea gives an opportunity for transportation cooperation.10

Suggestions for the connectivity cooperation between China and the EU: (a) China adheres to the principle of extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits of BRI and coordinates with EU’s norms and standards; (b) Comprehensive planning and researching at the national level, evaluating the possibilities and impacts of cooperation; (c) Sharing the same engineering and technical standards, and promoting cooperation in specific fields such as technology, engineering, building standards through enterprises cooperation; (d) Promoting consultation and coordination of rules and regulations in customs, data, logistics;11 (e) Using the third- party platform, such as China and EU cooperating under the framework of Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) mechanism by Asian Development Bank.

The role of the South Caucasus in connectivity cooperation between China and Europe

The South Caucasus has been an important region on the Silk Road that traverses east and west and connects north and south since ancient times. China has great potential for cooperation with the three countries in this region. According to the transportation routes of the Silk Road Economic Belt planned by China, the central line of the New Eurasian Land Bridge passes through Azerbaijan and Georgia, and connects China and Europe (Hungary); the China-Central Asia-West Asia-Europe Economic Corridor passes through Armenia and Georgia, finally arrives in Istanbul, Turkey.

The South Caucasus countries support China’s Initiative, especially Georgia. In October 2015, Georgia proposed and held the first “Silk Road International Forum”. The declaration adopted at the meeting emphasized that the Silk Road Economic Belt is the most important international cooperation project at that time, and it plays a very important role in promoting economic, and social development, people’s well- being and political stability. This is the first international forum themed on the Silk Road Economic Belt and hosted by a foreign government. Georgia is the first country in the South Caucasus to sign the Memorandum of Understanding on the Silk Road Economic Belt with the Chinese government (March 2015), Armenia signed this Memorandum in August 2015, as well as Azerbaijan signed in December. In April 2015, Georgia and Azerbaijan became the founding members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) initiated by China, which provides financial investment for the Belt and Road, later Armenia joined in March 2017.

On December 10, 2015, China and Azerbaijan signed the Memorandum of Understanding on the Transportation Field. In February of this year, the Xinjiang- Georgia international railway from Kuitun City, Xinjiang, China arrived in Tbilisi, the Capital of Georgia. It took 9 days and was about 5,500 kilometres, 36 days shorter than ocean transportation. 12 On December 13, 2015, the first “Silk Road” transiting container train from Lianyungang, China crossed Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan to Georgia (and then arrived in Turkey).13 In January 2018, the China- Europe Railway Express using The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway line arrived in Europe, spending 8 days.14

Chinese scholars believe that the implementation of the Belt and Road in the South Caucasus has great natural advantages: First, geographical advantage. Transportation through the South Caucasus to Europe has comparative advantages in railway line length, transportation practice and level of facilitation; Second, the advantage of the investment environment, business operating environment with low tax burden; Third, the security situation in the South Caucasus is generally controllable; Fourth, China has a relatively good relationship with the South Caucasus countries, with no historical grievances and entanglements between business and practical interests.15 

China’s rapid economic development, abundant capital and technologies, and huge domestic market are necessary for the economic development of the three countries. China does not interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, does not pursue self-interests in geopolitics, and may even balance outside influence from other countries on the Caucasus. The more “players”, the more helpful it is to maintain geographic balance. 16

Aytan Aliyeva graduated from the School of International Relations and Regional Studies at the Azerbaijan University of Languages.


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  2. Yunling, Z., Nanquan, Lu., Xiangyang, Li., Shuhua, Zhang., Weitao, Zhao., & Liancheng, Guo. (2018). “The Belt and Road Initiative” Is in Line With International Development Environment and International Cooperation, Research on Financial and Economic Issues, (10), 3-20. doi:10.19654/j.cnki.cjwtyj.2018.10.001. 
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  12. (2015, December 10). International Logistics Is Greatly Shortened, and Western Cities in China Usher in New Opportunities , China Daily,
  13. Ministry of Commerce People’s Republic of China. (2018, February). Trans-Caspian Transportation Corrid or Connecting the Belt and Road. 66.html
  14. Deng, H. (2019, March). The Belt and Road Initiative and Cooperation in the South Caucasus. The Belt and Road Initiative Construction and Development Report (2019), cn/skwx_ps/databasedet ail?SiteID=14&contentId=10792414&contentType=literature&type=&subLibID=
  15. Aijun, H. (2019). Security Risks Faced by China in the Transcaucasian Region and Its Risk-aversion Efforts. Journal of International Security Studies(02). 68-90.

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