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The Hidden Costs of Georgia’s Partnership With China

  • Georgia's strategic partnership with China, while economically beneficial, may not provide the security guarantees Tbilisi seeks against potential Russian aggression.
  • The partnership could hinder Georgia's Euro-Atlantic integration ambitions due to growing tensions between China and the West.
  • China's primary interests in Georgia are economic, aligning with its Belt and Road Initiative, rather than providing military support against Russia.

Georgia’s strategic partnership with China may seem promising for Tbilisi on the surface, but the substance of the relationship conflicts with Georgia’s long-term ambitions. 

There are two drawbacks for Georgia. First, the partnership with China comes at the expense of Euro-Atlantic integration: the increasing rivalry between China and the West makes it difficult, if not impossible to walk the geostrategic tightrope dividing both sides. Second, Chinese engagement is unlikely to deter possible future Russian military aggression – the primary security concern in Tbilisi. Georgia is looking for security partners to ensure its survival, while China’s interests are exclusively economic. This asymmetrical relationship means that Tbilisi has more to lose than to win in the long run.

In recent years, economic and political relations between China and Georgia have strengthened, underscored by the signing of a Strategic Partnership agreement in 2023. China is investing in major infrastructure projects in Georgia, including highways and hydro power plants. Earlier in June, the government awarded a contract to a Chinese consortium to develop the Anaklia deep-sea port

Georgia’s engagement in a strategic partnership with China is somewhat surprising when keeping Tbilisi‘s official Euro-Atlantic aspirations in mind. While strategic partnerships with China are not unprecedented among EU or NATO countries, talk of a ‘new cold war‘ between China and the West is a complicating factor. European disengagement from China accelerated after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, evident by the EU Council’s “Strategic Compass”, published in March 2022. Here China is explicitly referred to as an “economic competitor, system rival and as military power impacting regional and global security”.

The Chinese-Georgian strategic agreement reads that “Georgia firmly adheres to the one-China principle”, which refers to recognition of Taiwan as part of mainland China. Most EU-countries adhere to a one-China policy, meaning they acknowledge but do not endorse China’s position on Taiwan. Denmark and Hungary “understands and respects” the claim, while Belgium and Italy “take note of” it. Georgia’s decision to support the more extensive one-China principle thus differs from the general line of EU countries – not to mention that of the United States. 

What is even more noteworthy and imbalanced is the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – the two regions de-facto controlled by Russia since the war in 2008. The restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity is not just an important public policy position for successive Georgian governments, but also a political priority in the country. Though China has never recognized their independence, the Chinese-Georgian partnership agreement omits references to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, likely because China does not wish to be at odds with Russia over this issue.

As part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an infrastructure blueprint to expand connectivity between East Asia with Europe, Georgia is a potentially important link within the ‘Middle Corridor’ – one of six BRI trade routes. This corridor, if fully developed, can serve as an alternative to the Northern Corridor through Russia and the Ocean Corridor via the Suez Canal. The Northern Corridor faces challenges due to the sanctions imposed on Russia following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. The Ocean Corridor is affected by recent instability in the Middle East, intensified by the Israeli-Hamas war. In some instances, the Middle Corridor is estimated to be quicker than the two other corridors. However, this assessment is likely overly optimistic, as the corridor is far from complete and filled with geopolitical, diplomatic and practical pitfalls

Related: OPEC: The World Cannot Run on Renewable Energy and EVs

From Georgia’s perspective a partnership with China involves two objectives. First, Georgia seeks to advance its economic interests as China is Georgia’s third largest trade partner. However, looking at the level of 2023 Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) in Georgia, China only ranked 8th. Despite China’s BRI-related initiatives, its investment remains modest. Georgia is not even mentioned in a major 2022 BRI report, probably because Beijing’s main priority for the Middle Corridor is to connect Central Asian countries internally and with China. 

Georgia’s pursuit of closer ties with China also has a security objective, probably aiming to reinforce the country’s ability to deter further Russian aggression by making offensive action costly in terms of Russia’s relations with China. Given Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s decision to wage war in Ukraine, and in light of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, Georgia faces a very uncertain security situation. Although in the short term, Russian aggression against Georgia is unlikely due to resource scarcity caused by the war in Ukraine, the continuing presence of Russian forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia serves as a constant reminder of the potential for aggression. From this viewpoint, it seems logical for Georgian leaders to pursue stronger ties with China, but as mentioned before, China probably does not wish to get entrapped on the Georgian side of any potential future Russian-Georgian conflict. 

The case of Ukraine serves as an example of this. In 2011, China and Ukraine established a strategic partnership with an emphasis on economic development. A decade later, in 2021, China was ranked first among Ukraine’s trade partners. However, as became apparent on February 24, 2022, China’s economic interests in Ukraine did not deter a Russian invasion and China even refrained from publicly criticizing it. 

Georgia’s warming relations with China conflict with its Euro-Atlantic aspirations not only for geopolitical reasons, but also amid rising tensions with Beijing and Western capitals. The Georgian government is accused of engaging in democratic backsliding with the recent passing of the so-called “foreign agents” law, anti-LGBT rhetoric and reordering of the electoral commission. Georgia’s recently acquired EU candidate status may be revoked altogether if the country remains at odds with the EU on high-profile policy areas and its relations to China. It begs the question whether accession to EU and NATO is still the political goal of the Georgian government? It would explain the general policy shift and why Tbilisi seeks a consolidated Sino-Georgian partnership. But the central points of this analysis still stand: If the relationship between Georgia and the West deteriorates significantly, Tbilisi will likely stand alone politically and militarily in the case of renewed Russian aggression. In that scenario, the case of Ukraine demonstrates that Tbilisi cannot expect any protection or diplomatic cover from Beijing.

By Anders Streubel-Kristensen via Eurasianet.org

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