Author: David Batashvili, Research Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
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.
China’s Presence, Activities and Influence in the South Caucasus
The Chinese Communist Party and World Political Parties Summit in early July 2021 were attended by Ali Ahmadov, Deputy Prime Minister of Azerbaijan and Vice Chairman of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party as well as by the head of the Republican Party of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan.
Chinese ambassadors delivered mixed messages regarding the Zangezur corridor through Armenian territory in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Guo Min, said in a 1 July meeting with the Azerbaijani Minister of Economy that the Zangezur corridor would contribute to the BRI. However, when asked about this statement by the Armenian media the next day, the Chinese Ambassador to Armenia, Fan Yong, said: “The Chinese side has not expressed such an opinion… In connection with the issue you raised, I can say that we have already discussed it with our Azerbaijani counterparts.”
Chinese Embassy in Georgia created a special website, cn.ge, for the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. In her statement placed on this website, China’s Ambassador to Georgia, Li Yan, said China promoted “creating a more rational international order,” and spoke of the Belt and Road Initiative and the concept of the community with a shared future for mankind as “the new vision of world development.”
Chinese Ambassador to Georgia, Li Yan, pushed forward Chinese foreign policy messages during the final of the Chinese Bridge Language Proficiency Competition for students held at the Tbilisi Free University’s Confucius Institute. Li Yan said China sought to establish “a new type of international relations,” also pushing the concepts of community with a shared future for mankind and Tianxia yijia (“under heaven is one family”) – a concept frequently described to signify a Sino-centric international order.
Economic Involvement and Connections
According to the Geostat report from 19 July, China remained the third trade partner of Georgia by the total turnover in the first six months of 2021. Trade with China constituted $652.6 million amounting to 10.5% of the total Georgian trade turnover. China also remained Georgia’s first trading partner by exports.
On 2 July, Deputy Secretary-General of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route International Association (Azerbaijan), Leila Batyrbekova, stated that “some 47 container trains have moved along the China-Azerbaijan/Georgia/Turkey route while four trains have moved along the Turkey-China route from early 2021 up till now”.
ADY Container company reported on 12 July that during the first six months of 2021, 2,915 TEUs from China were transported to Turkey through the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway.
Georgian Railway reported on 20 July that the volume of container shipments in the direction of China-Europe through Georgia was at a record high with 4,679 containers (TEUs) transported in the first six months of 2021 amounting to 266% growth compared to 2020.
South Caucasus Actors Expressing Support for China
In a statement on the cn.ge website, CEO of Georgia’s Partnership Fund, Georgian Dream party member and the Chairman of the Georgia-China Intergovernmental Commission on Economic Trade Cooperation, David Saganelidze, called China “undoubtedly one of the determiners of the global politics and economics of the 21st century” and praised the Belt and Road Initiative which he said aimed at “the promotion of worldwide prosperity, unified, systemic development and the establishment of common values.” Repeating Xi Jinping’s quote from 2019, “the stronger the world, the stronger China; and the stronger China is, the stronger the world will be,” Saganelidze made an addition of his own: “The stronger the world and China, the stronger my Georgia will be”.
Adviser to the Georgian Minister of Agriculture and the director of the Research Institute of China Studies at the Georgian Technical University, Jemal Putkaradze, former Ambassador of Georgia to China, David Aptsiauri, director of the Confucius Institute at the Free University of Tbilisi, Marine Jibladze, president of Media Holding Georgian Times, Malkhaz Gulashvili, executive director of TV-Radio Company TV 24, Badri Nachkebia, and the director of news agency News Day, Avtandil Otinashvili, in their own statements at the cn.ge website, praised the achievements of the Chinese Communist Party.
Giorgi Verulidze, the president of the Georgian National Wushu Federation, was particularly enthusiastic, saying: “The Chinese Communist Party is the vanguard of the Chinese working-class people and the Chinese nation, the core of socialism with Chinese characteristics. The highest ideal of the party and its ultimate goal is the realization of communism”.
China-Eurasia Council for Political and Strategic Research organized a conference in Armenia in early July dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, in partnership with the Institute of Oriental Studies at the National Academy of Sciences, and with support by the Embassy of China in Armenia.
The Council’s director, Mher Sahakyan, said during the conference that Armenia needed “to understand what political and economic goals Beijing is pursuing” and to participate in the Belt and Road Initiative in a more concrete manner. Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies, Robert Ghazaryan, also spoke at the conference, praising the CCP.
Chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan, Armenia, Benyamin Poghosyan, published an article in Chinese state media outlet China Daily. Poghosyan accused the “US-led West” of “double standard and hypocrisy” for sanctioning and criticizing “Russia, China and other countries, which do not accept the US’ global hegemony” due to their human rights violations. He also wrote that “China stands alone as the sole power which strives for fair international relations” and that “Chinese President Xi Jinping’s concept of building a community with a shared future for mankind is the only alternative to the predatory policies of the great powers.” Rather ahistorically, Poghosyan claimed that “China is the only power that has never bullied or invaded any country.”
Pohgosyan also tried to promote in his article “the ‘Persian Gulf-Black Sea’ international multimodal transport corridor” running through Iran, Armenia and Georgia to Europe saying it could be “integrated into the Belt and Road Initiative, providing another route for China to reach Europe via Iran, Armenia, Georgia and the Black Sea.”
In addition, Poghosyan wrote that “Armenia could consider withdrawing from the ‘International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance’ or issue a statement that Armenia will not sign any declaration or document of the alliance criticizing China, as the alliance was established by the US with the motive of using it as a propaganda tool against China and exploiting the issue of religious freedom, in order to interfere in China’s internal affairs.”
On 30 July, Chinese Foreign Ministry speaker Zhao Lijian cited remarks made by Poghosyan: “Armenian scholar Benyamin Poghosyan said that the US, driven by narrow-minded geopolitical purposes, has used origin-tracing to engage in anti-China propaganda, which undermines the international solidarity against the epidemic, and runs counter to the vision of justice and human rights that the US claims to champion.”
Another South Caucasus author who published an article in China Daily in July 2021 was the director of the Eurasia-Azerbaijan (EurAsiaAz) international expert club and editor-in-chief of Azerbaijani news agency Baku Tribune, Seymur Mammadov, who promoted further closer partnership and cooperation between China and Azerbaijan, saying that “Azerbaijan attaches particular importance to the development of transport and logistics cooperation, primarily within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative.”
Georgian Health Minister, Ekaterine Tikaradze, said that the construction of two new psychiatric hospitals and rehabilitation of two existing ones was planned in Tbilisi with the funds of the Chinese government.
Stances and Activities by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia Benefiting China’s Foreign Policy
Support for the Belt and Road Initiative
In a 1 July meeting with the Chinese ambassador, Azerbaijani Minister of Economy, Mikayil Jabbarov, stressed his country’s support for the Belt and Road Initiative, speaking in this context of Azerbaijan’s transit potential and the Zangezur corridor through Armenia’s territory.
Deputy Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan, Elnur Mammadov, said on 7 July that implementing infrastructure projects in the territories regained as a result of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War of 2020 was one of the priority issues for his country, adding in this context: “the Belt and Road transport corridor project being implemented jointly with China is of particular importance”.
Georgian Ambassador to China, Archil Kalandia, praised the Belt and Road Initiative cooperation between his country and China during his 7 July visit to the Peking University.
Archil Kalandia also praised Georgia’s participation in the BRI in his statement on the cn.ge website, in which he also said that “socialism with Chinese characteristics proves its efficiency” while complementing policies of the Chinese Communist Party.
Other Support for China and its Policies
Chairman of Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream party, Irakli Kobakhidze, called Georgia “an unwavering supporter of the One-China policy” in his statement placed on the cn.ge website.
Yashar Aliyev, Permanent Representative of Azerbaijan to the UN, said in a 2 July interview that China has shown itself during its 50-year UN tenure “a steadfast builder of peace, vital contributor to global development and staunch defender of the international order,” adding there was no doubt China would “continue to play this crucial role in the 21st century”.