The inauguration of a "strategic partnership" between Tbilisi and Beijing has been widely celebrated by Georgian government circles but viewed warily by critics.
The announcement, made last week by Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, came as a surprise to some.
While the intensifying ties logically follow Georgia's newfound role as a transit and energy corridor connecting Europe and Asia, the wording of the relevant joint statement left the country's pro-Western voices fearful that it could signal a bigger geopolitical shift.
"The two sides had an in-depth exchange of views on bilateral relations and international and regional issues of mutual interest and reached broad consensus. The two sides decided to elevate bilateral relations to a strategic partnership," reads the lengthy July 31 statement, which goes on to lay out the political, economic, cultural, and international domains of the future bilateral partnership.
The announcement came during the Georgian prime minister's long official visit to China, which he himself described as "historic."
Garibashvili was given a warm and ceremonial welcome as he arrived on July 27 in Chengdu, Sichuan province in China's southwest, to take part in the opening ceremony of the World University Games.
Accompanied by several ministers from his cabinet, the Georgian leader met with China's President Xi Jinping on the next day, stressing support for the "One China Principle" (which implies China's right to sovereignty over Taiwan) and speaking about "deepening trade and economic relations" with China.
Xi, in turn, also welcomed the advancement of relations "to a completely new level."
"No matter the developments in the international arena, the attitude of China towards developing its relations with Georgia will not change," the Chinese leader said, as cited by the Georgian government's press office.
Garibashvili and his delegation held further high-level meetings in Chengdu and Beijing, including with Chinese Premier Li Qiang. The Georgian prime minister addressed a China-Georgia business forum and unveiled a bust of Shota Rustaveli, a prominent Georgian medieval poet, at Beijing Language and Culture University.
Georgia-China relations gained new importance amid geopolitical shifts resulting from Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.
Moscow's isolation has made overland trade routes crossing Russia less favorable for international shippers, who have diverted cargo to the so-called Middle Corridor that links China to Europe via Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the Black Sea.
Georgia has enthusiastically embraced its newfound transit role and has openly tried to take advantage of it, including through new infrastructure projects and more frequent visits and meetings with officials from relevant regions (indeed, Garibashvili headed to Kazakhstan after his China visit).
But China, which signed a free trade agreement with Georgia in 2017, has long been active in the region, including through large infrastructure projects. Beijing has also long shown interest in the Middle Corridor as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Currently, China is Georgia's fourth-largest trading partner, and Georgian exports to China have seen solid growth over the past four years.
Yet while acknowledging the need for better economic ties with Beijing, the Georgian government's pro-Western critics have raised questions on what "strategic partnership" might mean in terms of the country's foreign policy orientation.
And particular fears concern the future of the relations with the United States, Georgia's key strategic partner, which has been competing with China on the global scene. In the statement on strategic partnership, Tbilisi expressed support for China's global initiatives, including the Global Security Initiative, viewed by various observers as its ambition to contest the Western-led international order. The statement also envisages more cooperation between various governmental bodies. Yet it is unclear what this could mean in practice.
"The talk is not about partnership and cooperation, the talk is about strategic partnership, which in turn means, if China is willing, military cooperation and intelligence-sharing," Tina Khidasheli, former Georgian defense minister, wrote on Facebook on July 28th.
While welcoming partnership with China in general, Khidasheli expressed fears about risks that the new announcement might pose to Georgia's relations with the West, as well as potential economic and political risks should China gain more influence in Georgia.
Some opposition MPs also echoed these concerns and are pondering summoning the foreign minister to report to the parliament about just what being China's strategic partner will mean.
This apprehension about closer ties with China comes amid Tbilisi's increasingly strained relations with the West and generally concessive policies towards Russia since the Ukraine war started. While some Western voices expressed dissatisfaction over Garibashvili and Xi shaking hands, the official Western position has been far from clear.
"It looked like it was an important visit for Georgia and it's Georgia's choice, who its partners are going to be. The United States will remain a strong supporter of Georgia as we have for the past 30 years," Kelly Degnan, the U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, told reporters on July 31.
The diplomat, however, added that "many countries are turning away from the Belt and Road Initiative after a few years seeing that it actually isn't very beneficial to other countries."
There is speculation that Georgia might be using its relations with China as a bargaining chip to put more pressure on its traditional Western partners. And some fear Tbilisi might invite China to invest in the recently revived controversial Anaklia deep sea port, a project of major strategic importance where the government plans to have a controlling share.
Georgia's ruling party politicians, on the other hand, have portrayed the recent visit as an opportunity for Georgian-Western relations as well. They also argued that China has similar strategic partnership agreements with other countries, including Ukraine.
"We are a country that has free trade agreements with both China and the EU at the same time," ruling Georgian Dream party MP Beka Davituliani said at the start of Garibashvili's China visit. "We should be able to use this potential to the fullest."
By Nini Gabritchidze via Eurasianet.org
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