Armenia: China’s Link to Get to Europe

As China continues to attempt to spread its soft power across developing countries in East Europe, Armenia has become a focus as direct way for Beijing to spread its links to Europe directly.

The most compelling element about Armenia over its counterparts is its favorable geography, which would allow it to function as a unique connecting link not only to Europe but to the Middle East and Asia as China spreads its Silk Road plans across the world.

The country historically was on the original so-called “Silk Road,” the network of roads, trails and tracks for a cavalcade of traders who took silks, spices and other Asian goods over the thousands of kilometers that stretched across Asia and Eurasia eventually to Europe and even London, trading as they went in both directions.

Today the projected revival of the Silk Road put forward by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 has motivated the two countries to deepen bilateral relationships. Over the past decade, much of Central Asia has grown from a marginal position in Beijing’s strategic calculus to the top of its diplomatic priorities: China is fast emerging as a vital economic and political player in this strategically located and resource-rich region. In 2013, Xi visited several Central Asian countries bringing billions in investment.

One of the major projects said to have caught China’s attention is an Armenian-Iran railroad, ostensibly to be funded by the Chinese government, in addition to the one that now runs through a part of Armenia controlled by Azerbaijan. Such an agreement gained credibility after a visit by the Prime Minister of Armenia, Hovik Abrahamyan, to Beijing last week. Abrahamyan came at the invitation of China’s premier, Li Keqiang, to participate in the Euro-Asia Economic Forum taking place September 24-26, in Xi'an, the capital city of northwest China's Shaanxi province.

Although Armenia and Iran have different religions and controversial general histories stretching back to the Middle Ages and even before, they have been considered to be loyal neighbors for decades. The new railroad between the two countries could increase trade turnover and would have a great impact on their economies as well as China’s.

A preliminary estimate of the expense of building the railroad is approximately US$3 billion. Analysts assigned by Li Keqiang is reportedly now researching projected returns of the project, according to Karen Chshmarityan, Armenia’s Economics Minister, who joined Prime Minister Abrahamyan during his visit to China.

China has its own special economic-political interests in an Armenian-Iran railroad given its ties to Iran in addition to providing a direct rail path to Europe. As for Armenia, it would give the country immediate access to Central Asia and China.

Chinese organizations are also considering involvement in an ongoing Armenian project, the ''North-West road corridor,' 556 km of freeway which will stretch to the Iranian border. The freeway is designed to deliver goods to the Georgian border, then to Black Sea ports. The budget of the project is estimated at US$1.5 billion. The deadline for completion is 2019. The Armenian government believes the project will improve European-Caucasus-Asian road communication, at the intersection of Western Asia and Eastern Europe. Armenia has been cooperating with the Asian Development Bank. China is not only interested in launching a smooth way for future trading opportunities, but also is motivated in spreading Chinese culture and language in East Europe, especially in Armenia. After ongoing layout process, during this autumn, the construction of the first Chinese school in the region, in Yerevan, is expected to kick off.

The school is designed for 600 students. The school will cost about 8 million USD according to the Minister of Education Armen Ashotyan briefed last year. It will be provided by a hall, museum, theater, and dormitory. In the future, Chinese language may also be on the schedule of secondary school program as a selective foreign language.

China assists also Armenian military field. Based on the memorandum signed by Armenian and Chinese Defense Ministers, in 2013, Republic of China provides Armenia with annual military assistance for 5 million Chinese Yuan.

In the recent years, Chinese government has assisted the economic and social development of Armenia in equipping buses and ambulances, as well as lent one hundred million Yuan financial aid. Overall, as reports, a state news-agency, from 2012 to 2014 Chinese government has donated Armenia 230 million Yuan assistance.

And also, both countries have confirmed their attitude towards each other’s national sensitive issues. Two presidents have announced it during the visit of Serj Sargsyan, President of Armenia, in China,in March, this year. Summarizing the visit, particularly, reported that two sides will not participate in any alliances or coalitions that focus on either the sovereignty, security or territorial integrity of China or Armenia.