|ავტორი: დავით ბატაშვილი, რონდელის ფონდის მკვლევარი|
China Radar: South Caucasus is a monthly publication by Rondeli Foundation (GFSIS) dedicated to China’s activities and influence in the three nations of South Caucasus.
With the global rise of great power tensions and competition related to China’s role in the world, Rondeli Foundation began to take a closer look at China’s role in our own region. Since July 2020, we have been publishing China’s Activities in the South Caucasus digest that exhaustively covers events and developments in this regard. China Radar builds on China’s Activities digest to provide experts, researchers, civil servants and other observers of China’s foreign strategy with a comprehensive summary of China’s political, diplomatic, economic, informational, soft power and other activities towards Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia as well as these nations’ stances and actions concerning China.
Sources of information provided in China Radar can be found in the issues of China’s Activities digest covering the relevant months unless indicated otherwise. All issues of both China Radar and China’s Activities digest can be found on Rondeli Foundation’s China Watch page.
Prior to starting with China Radar’s first monthly issue covering May 2021, we present this Introductory Overview that summarizes the period of monitoring conducted through China’s Activities digest from July 2020 to April 2021.
China’s Presence, Activities and Influence in South Caucasus
We have seen very little visible and direct interference in the internal political affairs of the South Caucasus states by China in the ten months that we cover here. A notable exception to this rule occurred, however, when on 21 April 2021 Chinese Ambassador to Armenia Fan Yong met with the former President and Prime Minister of Armenia and the present leader of the opposition Republican Party Serzh Sargsyan. Fan Yong said in the meeting that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was interested in inter-party cooperation with the Republican Party of Armenia as a “friendly party” of the CCP. The main purpose of the cooperation according to Fan Yong is “to enhance the exchange of experience in party building and governance.”
It merits mention that internal political situation in Armenia was very tense as of April 2021, with the opposition including the Republican Party trying to achieve removal of the government under Nikol Pashinyan in the wake of Armenia’s defeat in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War against Azerbaijan in the fall of 2020. The fact that an early general election was to take place in Armenia on 20 June 2021 also adds to the context of this meeting.
Chinese diplomats in the three South Caucasus states engage in a consistent messaging according to the general line of the CCP. They systematically promote the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the South Caucasus countries’ participation in it. Chinese Ambassador to Azerbaijan praised, in this context, that country’s “unique geographical advantages to become a regional hub” within the BRI framework.
Other standard messages include self-praise regarding “obvious advantages of the socialist system with Chinese characteristics,” China’s successes in poverty alleviation, its response to the COVID-19 pandemic and good economic performance despite it. Chinese diplomats in the South Caucasus also defend and praise their government’s policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Lately, following calls for international boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics due to atrocities in Xinjiang, crackdown in Hong Kong and Beijing’s other policies, China’s diplomatic representatives in the South Caucasus have engaged in preventive messaging, promoting Beijing 2022 to preempt any potential traction of the boycott campaign.
One of the most persistent Chinese diplomatic messages in the South Caucasus is the promotion of Beijing’s foreign strategy doctrine of “community with shared future for mankind” which aims to give conceptual basis to China’s global leadership. Against the background of the pandemic, Chinese diplomats have also introduced this term’s thematic variation, “community of common health for mankind.” At least one of China’s representatives in the region, Ambassador to Georgia, has also employed the term Tianxia yijia, meaning “under heaven is one family” which is a concept frequently described to signify a Sino-centric international order.
Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, issued a notable message on 7 March 2021, when, speaking about China’s cooperation with Russia, he said that China and Russia would jointly oppose “color revolutions.” Usually it is the Russian leadership that employs this kind of rhetoric. In the countries of the Russian neighborhood engaged in the struggle against Moscow’s imperial designs, including in the South Caucasus, such wording translates as support for authoritarianism and Russian domination as well as opposition to democratic movements in this part of the world.
We have not seen a major systematic Chinese disinformation effort targeting the South Caucasus during the period of our monitoring. A notable separate instance of such Chinese disinformation was a 2 September 2020 article published in the Chinese state media outlet China Daily. The author attacked U.S.-backed biological laboratories including the one in Georgia, repeating a Russian disinformation claim “that American scientists working at the Lugar laboratory in Georgia were ‘testing local residents for toxic chemicals in the name of treatment.’”
Economic Involvement and Connections
Local political environment in the South Caucasus is rather favorable for China’s economic presence. Political leadership, officials and diplomats of all three of the region’s nations consistently express support for more trade with China, more Chinese investment and the Chinese companies’ activities in their respective countries.
In 2020, China was the second trade partner of Armenia by total turnover, the third trade partner of Georgia and the fourth – of Azerbaijan. China held the same respective places in the trade turnover of these three states in the first quarter of 2021. China exports various kinds of industrial produce to South Caucasus. The main trade items of the local states acquired by China are natural resources – crude oil from Azerbaijan and metal ores from Georgia and Armenia.
In Georgia, concerns have been voiced that decisions regarding tenders for various infrastructure projects might be favoring Chinese companies. In December 2020, the Ambassador of Poland to Georgia said he was surprised by how many Chinese companies were building roads and tunnels in Georgia, adding that European companies could do a better job. The Georgian government’s public response to these concerns was dismissive.
Railroad transportation from China to Turkey and Europe through Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Georgia has been developing actively. New railroad routes of cargo transportation between China and South Caucasus have begun to function during the period of our monitoring from and to the Chinese cities of Jinhua (Zhejiang Province), Qingdao (Shandong Province) and Xi’an (Shaanxi Province). Cargo transportation by air is also developing including a new route between Tbilisi and Urumqi (Xinjiang) launched by the Georgian Airways in April 2021.
South Caucasus Actors Expressing Support for China
During our monitoring for July 2020-April 2021, we noted a number of actors in the three nations of South Caucasus exhibiting support toward policies and influence of the Chinese government and toward China’s presence in South Caucasus. Such actors include nominally non-government organizations, think tanks and media outlets. Among individuals in South Caucasus supporting China there are active or former officials and civil servants as well as leaders in media organizations and educational institutions. Numerous specific examples of activities and rhetoric of such organizations and individuals are provided in the issues of China’s Activities in the South Caucasus digest.
Five Confucius Institutes existed in South Caucasus as of the spring of 2021. Of these Institutes, two existed in Azerbaijan – at the Azerbaijan University of Languages (in Baku) and the Baku State University; two in Georgia – at the Free University of Tbilisi and the Tbilisi Open University; and one in Armenia – at the Yerevan Brusov State Linguistic University. In addition, plans existed to establish a third Confucius Institute in Georgia, at the Kutaisi University (UNIK) which was a joint project of the Kutaisi University and the Xinjiang Medical University.
The Institutes organize various events, especially targeting university and school students, designed to popularize China, its culture and language, including language proficiency competitions and events dedicated to various aspects of the Chinese culture and China’s cultural links with respective South Caucasus countries.
Occasionally, however, Confucius Institutes go beyond the cultural sphere, promoting messages in support of the Chinese government and its interests. The Institute at the Azerbaijan University of Languages, for instance, held a seminar in July 2020 dedicated to the cooperation between Azerbaijan’s ruling party and the Chinese Communist Party, to mark the 99th anniversary of the founding of the CCP. On 1 August 2020, China’s Army Day, this same Institute held an event promoting the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and military cooperation between China and Azerbaijan. In early December 2020, this Institute held a seminar celebrating Chinese Dream Day (a national holiday) with its head Rafiq Abbasov talking “about the three main goals of the Chinese Dream: national prosperity, the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, and the happiness of the people.” The Belt and Road Initiative also was promoted at this event as well as at another event held by this Institute in April 2021. On 23 March 2021, Georgian Ambassador to China Archil Kalandia gave an online lecture hosted by the Confucius Institute at the Free University of Tbilisi. The ambassador “reportedly discussed ‘how China managed to maintain economic growth during the pandemic, what preventive measures have been taken to effectively manage the spread of the virus and what were the prospects for the Global Belt & Road Initiative.’”
The Confucius Institutes strive to prepare cadres that subsequently go on to function in various spheres of the given country’s life. In a letter published on 28 August 2020, Chinese Ambassador to Georgia Li Yan mentioned the fact that graduates of the Confucius Institute at the Free University of Tbilisi had been “working in political, business, education and other fields” in Georgia. Among such graduates Ambassador Li Yan particularly noted Georgian Ambassador to China Archil Kalandia and Director of the Confucius Institute at the Free University of Tbilisi Marine Jibladze.
China has been providing certain amount of aid to the South Caucasus countries. During the COVID-19 pandemic, medical supplies became a notable item in Chinese donations to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, including free batches of the Sinovac vaccine. In April, Armenia reported that in January-February 2021 China was the second-largest source of humanitarian aid delivered to Armenia after the United States.
Stances and Activities by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia Benefiting China’s Foreign Policy
Support for the Belt and Road Initiative
All three South Caucasus states publicly support China’s Belt and Road Initiative with their official representatives regularly making statements to this effect. This includes Georgia which continues official and public support for the BRI even though its primary strategic partner, the United States, has made it clear that it views the BRI as a geopolitical project by its main strategic rival China designed to help Beijing’s goal of replacing the U.S. as the globally preeminent power.
President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev and Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan have both personally endorsed the BRI, and their diplomats maintain this same position. Armenian parliamentary leaders – speaker of the National Assembly of Armenia Ararat Mirzoyan and chairman of the Standing Committee on Regional and Eurasian Integration Mikayel Melkumyan – have engaged in promoting some kind of combination between the BRI and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union of which Armenia is a member.
Georgian Embassy in China is active in promoting the BRI with Georgian diplomats consistently saying they wish their country’s involvement in it to grow. Ambassador Archil Kalandia is making a particularly robust personal effort to this effect. Kalandia has been pushing the notion that Georgia has an important role in the BRI and using the need for further development of the Georgia-China cooperation under the BRI framework as a key talking point in his public statements and reported conversations with Chinese diplomats.
One of the latest developments concerning Georgia’s connection to the BRI occurred on 15 April 2021 when China’s Gansu province and Georgia’s Shida Kartli region signed a cooperation agreement. During this event, CEO of the Partnership Fund of Georgia David Saganelidze and the head of Shida Kartli region Mamuka Saghareishvili said it was important to be a major participant of the BRI and expressed hope to further deepen exchanges and cooperation with Gansu province to jointly promote the BRI.
Other Support for China and its Policies
Official representatives of South Caucasus states have been engaging in rhetoric and activities supportive of various aspects of China’s foreign policy besides the Belt and Road Initiative.
Armenia is particularly consistent in its public statements of support for the One-China policy. In July, 2020, the Chinese Ambassador to Georgia Li Yan stated that China appreciated “Georgia’s consistently right attitude on the Hong Kong issue.”
A number of pro-Chinese messages were delivered by the Georgian Ambassador to China Archil Kalandia during a lecture on 7 December 2020. He praised China’s success in fighting against the novel coronavirus and also the “vertical that exists in the state of China” which Kalandia said had brought about that success. Referring to China as a country of global importance, Kalandia also stated: “even though this global pandemic created some new clichés about China, believe me, the pandemic has further enhanced China’s global standing and international role in so many areas”. Besides, the Ambassador praised socialism with Chinese characteristics, attributing to that system China’s successes in economic growth and elimination of poverty. At the same time, he added that the market in China was not politicized.
A notable instance of support for China’s international position occurred from 30 March to 2 April 2021 when a delegation of more than 30 diplomats from some 21 countries visited various places in Xinjiang. According to Chinese sources, among the diplomats participating in this tour designed to gain international support for China’s actions in Xinjiang where ambassadors of Armenia and Azerbaijan and a representative of Georgia’s embassy. The program included an exhibition dedicated to “Xinjiang’s anti-terrorism and de-radicalization fight” and an event entitled “Xinjiang is a good place”. Armenian Ambassador praised local conditions in a school in Kashgar, and Azerbaijani Ambassador did the same in a textile enterprise in Aksu.
In an example of the Chinese diplomacy using this tour for its purposes, on 15 April 2021, Chinese Ambassador to Estonia, Li Chao, published an article in the Estonian media, mentioning positive statements about conditions existing in Xinjiang made by the Armenian and Azerbaijani ambassadors during the tour.