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Middle Corridor countries expand cooperation beyond their region

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The United Nations Special Program for the Economies of Central Asia (SPECA) recently held its 25th-anniversary meeting, not in Central Asia but in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku.

This program, which has generally passed under the radar for most of its life, was founded in 1998 for the purpose of enhancing cooperation among the Central Asian countries and facilitating their integration into the global economy.

Beyond the five Central Asia countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan​​​​​​) plus Azerbaijan, it also includes Afghanistan.

Up to now, the most important format for cementing regional cooperation among the countries of the Caspian region has been the Organization of Turkic States (OTS). The meeting in Baku signifies their intention to expand regional cooperation through SPECA.

To that end, official Baku organized a transport forum, a meeting of the working group on trade, and a number of other meetings during the week highlighted by the Summit of Heads of State of the SPECA countries was held on November 24.

The meeting in Baku thus shed light on Azerbaijan’s key role in promoting Central Asia connectivity. Moreover, it confirmed a strategic alignment of the participants – driven in the first instance by Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan – that highlights the energy, transport, and communication sectors.

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In this context, Azerbaijan set out its vision of the country as a pivotal Eurasian transport and logistics nexus.

Baku has been leveraging its geographic centrality to promote broader Eurasian economic cooperation and regional integration. With an emphasis on the East-West “Middle Corridor” projects, such a vision goes beyond implementing programs for logistical infrastructure to embrace a fundamental recalibration of regional economic corridors.

The implications of such an ongoing development will shape the geopolitics of the region for the next 20 to 25 years.

A major focus of SPECA has been enhancing connectivity, particularly in the context of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR). This is crucial to its success, given Central Asia’s landlocked geography and correspondingly higher logistics costs.

With the TITR’s launch at the end of 2018 and the organization a year later of the Lapis Lazuli route (linking Afghanistan to Turkey via Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia), the Central Asian countries and Azerbaijan consolidated themselves as the basis for transport and logistics among China, Turkey and Europe.

SPECA’s programmatic focus has evolved over time as the region’s needs and priorities have changed. Its most recent key focus areas have included sustainable development, connectivity, and economic integration.

Enhanced connectivity

As chair of the 2023 SPECA Economic Forum, Azerbaijan indicated the future course of the program by defining its theme as “Transforming the SPECA region into a connectivity hub with global outreach.”

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This theme builds on achievements including the 2019 SPECA Economic Forum, which produced the connectivity-oriented Ashgabat Initiative, and the 2021 Forum’s Tashkent Statement, which, beyond connectivity, focused on sustainable transport and trade​​.

Regional energy networks have been another area of significant attention from SPECA. The UN Program is cooperating in initiatives to help the participating countries to diversify energy transit routes and sources, with the goal of making energy supply more affordable, reliable, and sustainable.

Specific attention is given to developing infrastructure for large-scale energy generation and integrating renewable energy sources into the mix.

Looking forward, SPECA’s plans include transforming the region into a sustainable hub for trade and transport with global outreach. After expert-level meetings and exchanges of views to formulate new initiatives on trade, transport, digitalization, and energy, the 2023 Forum’s final session focused on strategic foresight.

In this context, it gave special attention to consolidating economic cooperation and integration through harnessing international cooperation over the next 25 years​​.

The OTS was the key institutional platform through which the concerned states were promoting the implementation of these corridors. Its declaration on “Turkic World Vision 2040,” adopted in Istanbul in November 2021, has been the guiding framework document for this initiative.

Agreements have since been signed to improve the efficiency of regional transport and logistics corridors, mitigate customs barriers, develop preferential trade, implement energy projects, form joint investment funds, and undertake similar initiatives.

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The Baku meeting signals that the OTS countries have decided to use the SPECA program to expand and supplement the integration instruments for regional cooperation that they have established up until now.

In particular, the prime ministers of Georgia and Hungary were present in Baku, along with the secretary of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), at the invitation of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, who opened the summit.

In addition, he welcomed the initiative of SPECA’s members to create a multilateral partnership trust fund, under the auspices of the UN, to attract financial resources to SPECA projects.

These developments in the SPECA program signify an important shift in regional dynamics. The extension of the OTS-based partnership in the Caspian Sea region, beyond the cooperation of Central Asian countries and Azerbaijan, will ground the region’s economic integration, connectivity, and sustainable development within a broader “meta-regional” framework and context.

The inclusion of new partners like Georgia, Hungary and the GCC, as hosted by the SPECA framework, only serves to underscore the region’s strategic significance for future evolution of global infrastructure and geo-economics.

The new initiatives mentioned above – energy diversification, transport and logistics corridors, and a multilateral partnership trust fund – confirm the emergence of Central Asia and its neighbors as pivotal hubs in Eurasian trade and cooperation.

The cooperation of programs like SPECA with the vision earlier set out by the OTS seems likely to drive transformational economic growth and stability in the region, also giving it a stronger presence in the global economy.

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Source: Asia Times

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