One Belt, One Road: How Far Will China Go for Georgia?

Georgia has historically been at the edge of empires. This has proved both an asset and a hindrance to its development. An asset because of its terrain and distance from global centers, making it difficult to invade and keep the country under rule, and a hindrance because its geography requires major investment to overcome its mountains, gorges, rivers, etc.

Last week, I wrote how Georgia has been playing a rebalancing game for more than two decades - turning to other regional powers to counter Russia. Turkey, Azerbaijan, partly Iran and larger players, such as the EU and US, are those which have their own share of interest in the South Caucasus. However, over the past years yet another power – China – has been slowly emerging in the region. But despite the fact that China is rapidly increasing its economic presence in Georgia, which may ultimately result in more Chinese security involvement, Beijing and Moscow could also cooperate in the South Caucasus.

China has close trade contacts with all South Caucasus countries and has invested extensively in the region. China is now Georgia's third-largest trade partner (the first two places being occupied by Turkey and Azerbaijan and the fourth by Russia). Trade between the two countries increased from approximately $115 million in 2006 to $820 million in 2014-2015. In 2017, China and Georgia finally signed a free trade agreement during the visit of the Georgian delegation to China in May. The country also hopes that its position on the Black Sea, with Batumi, Poti and Anaklia ports, will make it a logistics hub for the entire region and China.

China only recently set its eye on the South Caucasus and its valuable infrastructure. This was a result of China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, which is a multi-billion-dollar project, according to which the country will be reconnected (as in ancient times) to Europe through the shortest distance of Central Asia, South Caucasus and the Black Sea (although this is not the only route the Chinese are working on). Georgia can readily boast its Black Sea ports, east-west highway, which essentially connects Azerbaijan and the Black Sea coast, and existing and upcoming railway projects (Baku-Tbilisi-Kars).

Tbilisi sees intensive relations with China as yet another tool to somehow diminish Russian resurgence. With its pro-western course maintained, the country dearly needs Chinese investment to foster the creation of jobs and other economic opportunities. So far, the Chinese have built a new city on the outskirts of Tbilisi, have invested in Kutaisi, second-largest city in the country, and own ¾ of shares of Poti’s Free Industrial Zone.

Although it is difficult to see the importance of investments in Tbilisi and Kutaisi, Poti’s possession is a significant one. An ordinary observer could see a clear east-west line to the Black Sea spotted with Chinese presence all along. It is difficult at present to ascertain what the Chinese moves will be in the future, but it is also clear that as the Russian forces move the demarcation line of the breakaway South Ossetia further south and ever closer to the east-west highway, China will be more worried as it endangers its economic interconnection with Europe. Beijing will either have to find a consensus with Russia or get more involved security-wise. And there is already a precedent for China getting involved militarily in the territories important to its OBOR project. For example, in Central Asia, China has made some steps which could potentially challenge Russia's economic and political influence in the region. We know that China is already the largest trade partner of each of the Central Asian states and that Beijing has deepened its military and security ties with Tajikistan and partly with Kyrgyzstan, mainly by holding military exercises and building military infrastructure on the Tajik-Afghan border.

For Tbilisi, it would be a boon to its security if China got more involved in the South Caucasus. However, it is likely no more than wishful thinking that China will openly confront Russia any time soon. Even in Central Asia, despite inroads, Moscow still refuses to comment openly on whether Beijing is compromising the existing order.

Another reason to think that Georgia will not so easily become a land for confrontation between China and Russia is the fact that the country is only a small piece in China's OBOR. Also, although Beijing will pay more attention to the region, it may not actively invest resources into Georgian security beyond law enforcement and counterterrorism cooperation, as in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. This would be the case especially if its actions might clash with Russia's. As mentioned, Georgia is not the only transit route China has its eye on in its grand project.

Emil Avdaliani

19 June 2017 17:19