Jemal Grdzelishvili, analyst
In March 2021, the Center for Economic Policy Research published a book by Ian Kelly and David Kramer entitled “A Country on the Verge: The Case for Supporting Georgia.” The book dwells upon the important moments of recent Georgian history, as well as the authors’ perspective of the current situation in the country. The work covers many important details, but their point on Georgia’s relations with China and Russia is especially noteworthy. The authors note that “Georgia should not view China as an alternative to Russia, because unlike these countries, the West can open more economic and political doors for Georgia.” When, for the first time in history, China became Georgia’s number one export market, and it already has the second largest economy in the world and has created analogues of all Western institutions, does it make sense to use close political relations with China to balance the Russian occupation regime? This view becomes even more legitimate if we look at the history of relations between China and the Soviet Union.
As we know, during the border conflict between China and the Soviet Union over the island of Zhenbao, China surprised the United States and its allies. Following the order of Mao Zedong, Chinese soldiers ambushed their Soviet counterparts at the disputed island and killed 91 Soviet soldiers on March 2, 1969. Angered by the Chinese actions, the Soviet authorities began to contemplate a nuclear strike against China, but changed their minds after facing opposition from US President Richard Nixon. This was not the only time that China did not forgive the Soviet Union for intrusion in its sphere of influence.
In June 1978, the Vietnam Politburo passed a resolution calling China a “principled adversary.” In November of the same year, Vietnam signed a “Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation” with the Soviet Union, which also contained articles on military cooperation. That December, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew the pro-Chinese government. This fact was assessed by China as an attempt by the Soviet Union to besiege it, precipitating China’s military attack on the Soviet satellite Vietnam on August 25, 1978.
The two examples show that the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China have a lot of experience of confrontation, but it is interesting to see what their relationship is today. The nature of their current relationship is revealed by the events unfolding in the South China Sea.
The South China Sea basin is one of the major hotbeds of tension in Asia. China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia are contesting waters rich in natural resources. China claims about 80 percent of the basin and demonstratively rejects the ruling of The Hague Arbitration Court, which accused China of violating the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and called on them to respect the territorial waters of other countries. Today, Western countries are unanimous on this issue and call on China to do the same. However, in this case, the Russian stance is interesting, seeing it changing its original neutral position and expressing its support for the People’s Republic of China against the judgment of the Arbitration Court, which unequivocally indicates that the parties have decided to respect each other’s significant spheres of influence. The above example of the Vietnam War shows that the Soviet Union, throughout its history, tried to contest Chinese spheres of influence, which ended in war. It seems that Russia, as the legal successor of the Soviet Union, correctly reassessed the actions of its predecessor and, in the face of Western sanctions, rather than exacerbate relations, it gave preference to the redistribution of its spheres of influence with China.
What does all this mean? As it is known, Russia considers the countries of the South Caucasus, including Georgia, as its “backyard”. Consequently, Russia expects reciprocal action from China. This fact completely excludes the confrontation between Russia and China because of Georgia. Further proof of this view is the issue of Ukraine. Namely, China is investing millions of dollars in the port industry in the Ukrainian cities of Berdyansk and Mariupol. This fact is made significant by one event. The only way to get to Berdyansk and Mariupol is to cross the Russian annexed Crimea and the Kerch Strait (including the new bridge connecting Russia and Crimea). As this example illustrates, China and Russia operate in the Black Sea region quite harmoniously, and there has been no confrontation between them.
In conclusion, the aforementioned examples clearly show the nature of Sino-Russian relations and precludes the possibility of China balancing Russian power in the region. Consequently, the importance of Georgia’s western integration becomes even clearer, which is not a whim of any person, but rather the only way for Georgia to develop and survive.