China-Azerbaijan: 2,000 Year History of Bilateral Connections

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In an exclusive interview the Chinese Ambassador to Baku, Ms. Guo Min, tells Azeri Observer how China managed to succeed in the fight against COVID-19 and what cooperation in this sphere the country offers to Azerbaijan. She explains why China-Europe rail freight transportation increased in 2020 despite the impact of the pandemic, speaks about the prospects of cargo transit via Azerbaijan and touches upon the 2,000 year history of bilateral connections, current cultural and educational exchanges and “Chinese language fever” in Azerbaijan.

BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA

AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER

Question: China was the first country affected by the coronavirus. However, it was able to keep the situation under control. What measures allowed China to succeed in the fight against the pandemic?

Answer: Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic in early 2020, China has always – first and foremost – prioritised their people’s lives and health, coordinating efforts for epidemic prevention and control, as well as providing medical treatment. By taking the most comprehensive, stringent and thorough prevention and control measures and mobilizing national resources to conduct large-scale medical treatment, China eventually managed to bring the epidemic under control and achieved significant and strategic results in the fight against the disease. Looking back at those trying times, I believe the following points were the key to China’s successful response to the epidemic: the centralized and efficient command system, a tight prevention and control system involving all sectors of society, all-out efforts to treat patients and save lives, and the science and technology that underpinned China’s efforts. In this war against the virus, China has mobilized resources across the country to save lives on a scale never seen before, showing the extraordinary “Chinese strength,” “Chinese speed” and “Chinese warmth” to the world. As the pandemic is still unfolding around the globe, we are willing to work with all the other countries to overcome the difficulties together, to promote the building of a community with a shared future for mankind and to safeguard the wellbeing of all humanity.

Q.: Tell us about the work of the Chinese doctors in Azerbaijan and their assessment of the health situation here.

A.: In August 2020, the Chinese government sent a team of medical experts with extensive experience in epidemic prevention, control, diagnosis and treatment to Azerbaijan to help the country fight the pandemic. During these two weeks, the team carried out its work in Baku, Jalilabad, Sumgait and other places, and went to the anti-pandemic front line, visiting many local health institutions such as hospitals, testing laboratories and blood centers. The Chinese experts exchanged views with the Azerbaijani authorities and colleagues on the country’s pandemic situation, response measures, as well as diagnosis and treatment procedures, provided training and guidance for Azerbaijani medical staff, and shared China’s experience in tackling the virus by submitting to the Azerbaijani side, several targeted reports in English. The medical team also effectively helped achieve breakthroughs in the bilateral cooperation in the research and development of vaccines and traditional Chinese medicine. The team interpreted the traditional friendship between China and Azerbaijan with concrete actions and practiced the concept of a community with a shared future for mankind.  Their outstanding work has been fully recognized by the government and people of Azerbaijan. The Chinese medical team highly commended the COVID-19 response efforts made by the Azerbaijani side, stressing that the country is generally capable of controlling the pandemic and treating the patients. The Chinese side is truly delighted to see the significant results achieved by the Azerbaijani side at the present stage, and sincerely hopes that the government and people of Azerbaijan win the ultimate victory over the pandemic very soon, under the strong leadership of President Ilham Aliyev.

Q.: How do you assess the political dialogue between Azerbaijan and China? What has been done in this sphere over the last year? What are the aims for 2021?

A.: During the 28 years since the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and Azerbaijan, the relations between the two countries have maintained sound momentum of rapid development, especially with the attention and promotion from Presidents Xi Jinping and Ilham Aliyev. The China-Azerbaijan high-level exchanges have been frequent and the political mutual trust has continually enhanced. 2019 was a landmark year in the history of China-Azerbaijan relations, marked with a visit of President Ilham Aliyev to China and several Chinese high-ranking officials to Azerbaijan. In 2020, despite the temporary suspension of mutual visits by the two sides, the two heads of states and all government departments have kept close communication. The two sides have also further deepened international cooperation. For example, China actively responded to President, Ilham Aliyev’s initiative to convene the UN General Assembly’s special session on COVID-19, and highly commended the important measures taken by Azerbaijan as the rotating chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement to adhere to multilateralism and safeguard the authority of the WHO. In 2021, China begins to implement the 14th Five-Year Plan and embarks on a new journey to fully build a modern socialist country, whereas Azerbaijan enters into a new era of pioneering and development. Hence, 2021 is of great historic significance for both countries’ national development and we will continue to promote a greater development of China-Azerbaijan relations.

Q.: The shortest route from China to Europe is through Azerbaijan. How does the transit cargo turnover by this route change, year over year? Was it affected by the pandemic? Do you see prospects of increase in the cargo transportation via Azerbaijan?

A.: China-Europe rail freight transport – a landmark achievement of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative – has seen a leapfrog development in recent years, driving countries along these routes to cement their business ties. The international trade and logistics suffered from the severe impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, but China-Europe rail freight transport bucked the trend by registering an increase in turnover. As of November 2020, the number of China-Europe freight trains grew by 64% year-over-year, which was indeed unexpected, yet logical. China-Europe rail freight transport applies a segmented transport model, with personnel quarantine rendered unnecessary. In the context of the pandemic, when sea and air transportations are severely impacted, such a special advantage is naturally preferable. Surely, the large volume, stable timeliness, and moderate price are also important reasons for its popularity. I am also gratified that the pandemic has not hindered the two countries’ cooperation in this sphere. In September 2020, the first China-Europe freight train linking Jinhua, China, and Baku, Azerbaijan (loaded with Chinese goods), arrived in Baku after 18 days’ journey. Not long ago, in late December, the China-Europe freight train that departed from Istanbul, Turkey, arrived in China’s Xi’an City via Azerbaijan. This, come and go, highlights the potential of bilateral cooperation in railway transportation. I believe that the continuous development of the China-Europe rail freight transport via Azerbaijan will exert a beneficial influence on the growth of Azerbaijan’s transit cargo turnover.

Q.: What are our main trading products? How did our bilateral trade change in 2020? What is the forecast for the future?

A.: Electromechanical products have always accounted for about 50% share of China’s exports to Azerbaijan, with vehicles, auto parts, and clothing, also among China’s top-ranking exports to the country. The year 2020 was unusual. In addition to these products, we also exported a lot of medical equipment, and the growth of this category of products is relatively remarkable. In terms of China’s imports from Azerbaijan, crude oil generally represents more than 90% of total imports, followed by plastics, chemicals and wine. According to the Chinese statistics, the bilateral trade volume between the two countries dropped by 16.2% in the first 11 months of 2020. Given the slight increase of 1.9% in China’s exports to Azerbaijan, the reduction in the total bilateral trade is mainly attributed to the decrease in China’s imports of crude oil from Azerbaijan. This shows that the China-Azerbaijan trade structure needs to be improved, for there is still a huge space for expanding import and export categories, and the risk management ability should also be further improved. We are pleased to see Azerbaijan’s active participation in each and every edition of China International Import Expo and its enthusiasm to strongly promote its products. As President, Xi Jinping affirmed, China will unswervingly expand every trade channel possible, and we welcome more Azerbaijani products to the Chinese market. The Chinese Embassy in Azerbaijan is willing to make concerted efforts with the Azerbaijani side to expand bilateral trade. We believe that the trade cooperation between the two countries will grow deeper and stronger.

Q.: China is one of the world leaders’ in renewable energy. Azerbaijan, in turn, has aimed their development in this direction. Is there any cooperation in this area under discussion?

A.:In 2019, a report issued by Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century shows that China remains the world’s largest investor in renewable energy for seven consecutive years. China’s supply of renewable energy keeps increasing, and China is leading the world in renewable energy technology. As far as I know, the cooperation between China and Azerbaijan in renewable energy is still in its infancy. Some companies have done research on the development of renewable energy in Azerbaijan, but formal business cooperation has not yet started. China attaches great importance to renewable energy and has made a commitment to green development. We are willing to share this experience with other countries in the area and look forward to further exchanges and cooperation between the two countries.

Q.: What spheres of Azerbaijani economy do Chinese investors find attractive?

A.: Azerbaijan is rich in oil and natural gas resources, and the energy sector is highly attractive to Chinese investors. Chinese companies have already developed some oil and gas exploration projects in Azerbaijan. In addition, they show interest in oil and gas transportation, petroleum refining and other mid- and downstream industries. In recent years, Azerbaijan has also seen great development in the fields other than oil and gas. It has promulgated and revised, related policies and regulations, and built a number of industrial parks. I believe that as Azerbaijan’s business environment continues to improve, Chinese companies will find more investment opportunities.

Q.: How do you assess the prospects of tourism exchange between our countries after the pandemic? Can Azerbaijani tourists hope for visa facilitation from China?

A.: Both China and Azerbaijan boast a long history and abundant tourism resources. China attaches great importance to increasing cultural exchanges and tourism cooperation with Azerbaijan. In the past year and a half, since serving as the Chinese Ambassador to Azerbaijan, I’ve been purposefully deepening the friendly exchanges between the two peoples as an important mission; striving to facilitate personnel exchanges between the two countries and lower the threshold of visa policies for Azerbaijani citizens. Through unremitting efforts, the relevant Chinese authorities have approved the further simplification of China’s Business Visa (M) requirements for Azerbaijani citizens. Moreover, application for China’s Individual Tourist Visa (L) by Azerbaijani citizens will be resumed. We have faith in broader prospects for tourism cooperation between the two sides after the steady implementation of these policies.

Q.: Tell us about bilateral exchanges in cultural and humanitarian spheres.

A.: In recent years the two countries have achieved fruitful results in cooperation in cultural and humanitarian spheres. In July 2020, the two countries renewed an educational cooperation agreement, increasing the number of government scholarships for exchange students between the two countries to 100 each year. The “Chinese language fever” continues to heat up in Azerbaijan – the two Confucius Institutes established in the country have become important bases for cultivating Azerbaijani Chinese language talents. Several universities in China have also set up the specialty of Azerbaijani language. The cultural authorities and art groups of the two countries have maintained close exchanges, and carried out extensive cooperation in the fields of traditional culture transmission, mutual learning, and cultural heritage protection through various forms such as group visits, cultural performances, and academic seminars. The Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, and the China Public Diplomacy Association and some other non-governmental organizations have established good cooperative relations with the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, Nizami Ganjavi International Center and other Azerbaijani institutions. Although cultural exchanges between the two sides have decreased dramatically in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe that when the coronavirus is defeated, China-Azerbaijan cultural cooperation will soon regain its booming momentum and further advance the mutual understanding and traditional friendship between the two nations.

Q.: You have lived in Azerbaijan for a year and a half and have had time to get to know the country and its people. What are the biggest cultural differences between Azerbaijan and China? What are the similarities?

A.: The ancient Silk Road connected China and Azerbaijan over 2,000 years ago. The people of the two countries have continuously learned from each other and developed a deep friendship through long-term close exchanges. Both China and Azerbaijan are ancient Eastern countries, enjoying many similarities in cultures and traditions, national characters and values. Proud, patriotic enthusiasm, strong family values, respect for the old and young, passion and hospitality, diligence and innocence… these are the virtues shared by both Chinese and Azerbaijani people; passed down from generation to generation, which constitute the national cultural heritage the two nations will always be proud of. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s location at the juncture of Europe and West Asia, characterized it. Deeply influenced by the fusion and collision of Eastern and Western civilizations, Azerbaijan’s national culture has absorbed the great achievements of the East and the West, creating a unique style. The Azerbaijani people have, not only kept the calm, reserved and introverted personality from Eastern nations, but also uphold the freedom, openness and diversity of the Western world. Additionally, Azerbaijani civilization embodies the perfect fusion of classical and modern cultures in many aspects, which also makes Azerbaijan fairly unique.

Q.: What are your impressions about living and working in Baku? What makes this country unique from the other places you have worked in?

A.: Before coming to work in Azerbaijan, I spent most of my diplomatic life in Russia. I had worked and lived in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Irkutsk and many other cities. I also visited many other countries for work-related reasons. In my view, each country and city has its unique charm. Azerbaijan is blessed with a long history and splendid culture. The radiant sun that never sets, the peaceful Baku waterfront, the urban landscape where tradition and modernity integrate, and the fire-like hospitality of the people are the deepest impressions that Azerbaijan has conveyed to me. There are many historical sites and scenic spots in Azerbaijan, and I am longing to walk around the country and enjoy the unique local customs. I genuinely look forward to visiting historical cities such as Ganja and Shusha, and experience the colorful cultures and traditions of each region. Working and living here is as warm and comfortable as in my home. Over the year and a half since coming to work in Azerbaijan, I have received strong support from the top leader and various government departments of this country, and I have also felt the warm welcome and sincere love from ordinary citizens here. All this fully reflects the high-level China-Azerbaijan relations of cooperation, as well as the deep friendship between the two nations. I would like to express my sincerest gratitude to all institutions, organizations and individuals who care about and support the development of China-Azerbaijan relations, and provide assistance and convenience to the Chinese Embassy, and to me! I hope that in the new year of 2021, we will continue to work together to push the friendly cooperation between China and Azerbaijan in various fields; to reach a higher level for the benefit of the two nations.