Connecting Afghanistan to Europe via the Black Sea route, the Lapis Lazuli Corridor just became operational a few weeks ago. Inaugurated by the Afghan President Ghani in Herat, the first track is ready and shipments have already been sent to Europe using the Turkmenbashi port on the shores of the Caspian Sea.
Interestingly, this identical route was used to export blue lapis lazuli and other precious stones from Badakhshan in Afghanistan to Turkey, Russia, North Africa and the Balkans over 2000 years ago.
Funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the cost of this project is more than $2 billion and the official agreement was signed between the member countries Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Georgia in Ashgabat only last November after three years of talks.
Since transport infrastructure was already operational, members simply focused on streamlining the legal and diplomatic aspects as decided previously at the 7th Regional Economic Co-operation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA VII) conference at Ashgabat in Turkmenistan.
Welcoming the development, the Afghan MoFA Economic Cooperation Director Hassan Soroosh said: “The Lapis Lazuli Corridor agreement is one of the most important agreements in the region. Trade expansion in the region, regional connectivity, resolving transit and trade problems will be the long-term impact of this corridor.”
Reducing land-locked Afghanistan’s dependency on Pakistan for trade access to the Arabian Sea, it provides it with an alternate option via the Turkmenbashi port in Turkmenistan, Central Asia across the Caspian Sea to Turkey. Additionally, in the event of a US troop withdrawal from the country it can help the country survive economically as infrastructure is added and trade channels are more diversified.
Synchronizing with each other at some point, CPEC, Lapis Lazuli Corridor and the Ashgabat Agreement all serve to open land-locked Central Asia and Afghanistan to the rest of the regionSabena Siddiqui
Ostensibly, for Afghanistan, the Lapis Lazuli is the shortest trade route with fewer transit hurdles and a cheaper option for trade with Europe. Though it may not be as reliable as the route via Pakistan due to the ongoing security situation within Afghanistan, it provides some choice.
Having said that, considering the security situation in Afghanistan, this route might face some problems initially. Not only that, a trade route via the Black Sea and Caspian Sea may have more weather issues in winters in comparison to the temperate weather of the Arabian Sea.
Notably, the corridor can integrate Eurasia as it connects to Turkey’s Middle Corridor, the East-West Trans-Caspian Trade and Transport Corridor project and it has potential to facilitate the Five Nations Railway Corridor or the International North South Transport Corridor as well.
Encompassing part of the CAREC Transport Corridor 2, the Lapis Lazuli route has linked up Central Asian and Afghan cities via road and rail routes. Providing Turkmenistan with new economic opportunities at a time when it wishes to lessen its dependence on the hydrocarbon industry, the route holds opportunities for each of the five participants.
Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey also derive benefits from connecting to the energy supplies of Central Asia and a Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline could become a possibility, making these countries an important energy transit hub.
Confirming Pakistan’s decision intentions to join the Lapis Lazuli corridor at the Global Sustainable Transport Conference in 2016, ex PM Sharif had said, “I would like to take this historic opportunity to announce our agreement in principle to join the Ashgabat Agreement as well as the Lapis Lazuli Corridor.”
Gateway to Central Asia
If this happens, Pakistan could also benefit from the route as its central geo-strategic location makes it the natural gateway to Central Asia in the emerging global and regional scenario.
Once the flagship corridor of the BRI, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is fully operational, it virtually unlocks Central Asia as it links to an extensive highway network from Xinjiang province in China which has common borders with three Central Asian states. Most routes converge at some point in Pakistan as it lies at the very heart of an intricate network of corridors working their way through land and sea to connect vast regions.
Ever since the Belt and Road Initiative(BRI) kicked off, it is observed that global trends are more concentrated on geo-economic connectivity. In fact, it is a positive new trend and it could bridge the infrastructure gap in Asia as well as speed up the development of neglected and isolated regions.
Even though this part of the world is the fastest growing economic region, it requires a yearly investment of $1.5 trillion in infrastructure and connectivity is exactly what it needs. Moreover, most of these roads and trade corridors have similar goals.
Synchronizing with each other at some point, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Lapis Lazuli Corridor and the Ashgabat Agreement all serve to open land-locked Central Asia and Afghanistan to the rest of the region.
Whether it is Gwadar, Karachi, Chahbahar or the Turkmenbashi port, they all work in tandem towards inclusive regional development and improve the economic perspective.
Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist and geopolitical analyst with special focus on the Belt and Road Initiative, CPEC and South Asia. She tweets @sabena_siddiqi.