Author: Medea Ivaniadze, Junior Researcher at Rondeli Foundation
On July 31, 2023, the joint statement of the People’s Republic of China and Georgia on the establishment of a strategic partnership was published. The Georgian government, in parallel with its anti-Western policy, decided to establish a strategic partnership with China at a time when relations between Communist China and the free world have deteriorated the most. This article discusses the purpose of establishing this partnership and why such a move with China is dangerous for the national interests and security of Georgia.
“The One-China principle”
The document begins with a general statement that the sides reaffirm their respect for the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of “all countries”. Then there is a statement supporting the view of Communist China that “Georgia firmly adheres to the one-China principle”, however, this is not followed by a statement by the Chinese side to recognize the territorial integrity of Georgia, which is damaging to Georgia’s interests. It is obvious that the general statement about “all countries” is produced by China because in this way Beijing actually takes into account Russia’s interests. It should be noted that in the pro-Russian document of China’s so-called political settlement about the Russia-Ukraine war, it is similarly written about respecting the sovereignty of “all countries,” where China’s recognition of Russia’s territorial integrity is also implied, and includes the annexed Ukrainian regions. Further, during the UN General Assembly in 2022, China was among the 12 countries that opposed Georgia’s resolution on the status of internally displaced persons and refugees from the occupied territories, for which China even received thanks from the puppet regime of Russia-occupied Abkhazia. It is also noteworthy that the Chinese side has actively spread disinformation narratives about the August War of 2008, the Lugar laboratory, and so on.
Supporting China’s global vision
In the document, there is an anti-Western statement in support of the aspirations of the Chinese Communist Party, stating that Georgia supports CCP Chairman Xi Jinping’s proposed Global Security Initiative, Global Development Initiative, and Global Civilisation Initiative. Although these initiatives are only in their initial stages, they all appear to serve China’s foreign policy objectives, the main goal of which is to change the rules-based international order established after World War II into an environment compatible with China’s authoritarian regime, where it will be the rule-setter and leading power.
There are numerous dangerous statements in the document of the Global Security Initiative. One of the most vivid ones is China’s support for the so-called principle of indivisible security, according to which “the security of one country should not come at the expense of that of others” which is identical to Russia’s false claim to Ukraine, alleging that the presence of NATO near Russia’s borders is a threat to it. China’s so-called settlement document on the Russo-Ukrainian war is also full of statements of support for Russia, including a similar note about the “principle of indivisible security”.
Furthermore, while presenting the Global Development Initiative in 2021, Xi said that human rights should be promoted through development. China, which is one of the worst abusers of human rights, names economic development as a prerequisite for human rights. While presenting the Global Civilization Initiative, Xi pointed at the West and, while speaking of values such as freedom, democracy, and justice, said that “countries need to keep an open mind in appreciating the perceptions of values of different civilizations, and refrain from imposing their own values or models on others and from stoking ideological confrontation”. With this statement, he neglects the objective meaning of these values and claims that every country can have its own definition of freedom.
The China-Georgia strategic partnership document also stands out for the fact that the entire text contains statements supporting the Chinese Communist Party; for example, that “Georgia believes that Chinese modernization offers a new path and a new option for mankind to achieve modernization”. In fact, Chinese modernization completely excludes freedom, democracy, and political liberalization. We can also see China and Georgia’s joint support to “jointly uphold true multilateralism”, “promote the establishment of a new type of international relations”, and the concept of the Chinese Communist Party to “promote the building of a community with a shared future for mankind”, all of which is the exact opposite of the rules-based international order and is in fact directed against it. Georgia, together with China, expressed readiness to “exchange experience in governance” – this with a country which is an unprecedented totalitarian communist regime.
Among other issues, the document shows that Beijing seeks to promote China and strengthen its state propaganda in Georgia. Examples of this include a statement about enhancing exchanges in the media and public diplomacy fields, as well as the further development of China’s soft power Confucius Institutes and classrooms. Free media does not exist in China, and it is mainly a party-run body that spreads its own narrative. Such actions abroad are aimed at building a positive attitude towards China and its policies, and neutralizing the criticism caused by its various aggressive actions. Soon after the signing of the strategic partnership document, the establishment of another Confucius Institute was announced in Georgia, and the xenophobic and anti-Western TV channel “Obiektivi” started a program series on China which included “Xi Jinping’s Way” with the participation of the Chinese Ambassador to Georgia, Zhou Qian.
The China-Georgia strategic partnership also includes cooperation in the digital technologies field. Prime Minister of Georgia Irakli Garibashvili held a number of meetings in China, including with the Premier of the State Council of China, Li Qiang, where they discussed “the development of 5G technologies” in the country. Garibashvili visited the Chinese company Huawei, sanctioned by Western countries, where they discussed prospects of cooperation and Huawei expressed its desire to contribute to the creation of a digital hub in Georgia.
Cooperation with China in the digital field is dangerous because of the threat of espionage: There is no line between Chinese companies and the Chinese communist government. Of note is the fact that in January 2021, a memorandum of understanding was signed between Georgia and the USA about the development of a secure and reliable 5G network in Georgia. This in effect excluded Huawei’s 5G.
The strategic partnership document also focuses on the economic aspect. The parties intend to strengthen cooperation within the framework of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is a weapon of Beijing’s foreign-political influence. Further, the parties plan to promote cooperation in “transportation, communications, infrastructure modernization, development and strengthening of the Middle Corridor… [and] usage of Georgia’s transit infrastructure for smooth export of Chinese products to Western markets”.
With the development of the Middle Corridor, the parties also expressed their desire to increase trade. While discussing bilateral relations, the parties often mention these factors, although we cannot say that cooperation in this direction requires a strategic partnership agreement. It is true that against the background of the Russo-Ukrainian war, the issue of activation of the Middle Corridor has become more popular, but the development of this corridor had already begun, and, alongside China, other countries also have an interest in utilizing this corridor.
As for trade, in 2022, China was Georgia’s third biggest trading partner (9.8% of total trade). 89.9% of export items to China were copper ores and concentrates, and precious metal ores and concentrates. According to the January-August 2023 data, China became the 4th biggest trading partner of Georgia (7.8% of total trade). Compared to the same period last year, exports to China decreased by 49.6%, and, as such, it seems that the free trade agreement signed in 2017 has been little used.
In the economic dimension of the strategic document, the only relatively concrete thing that China promises Georgia is to study the provisions of preferential loans for Georgia’s implementation of social and infrastructure projects, although this is only a promise and other details are unknown. However, when it comes to dealing with Beijing, this is also dangerous, as many countries have thus far fallen into the Chinese debt trap.
China’s access to Georgia’s critical infrastructure in the Black Sea?
Garibashvili also attended the Georgia-China Business Forum while in China, where he said that the development of the Anaklia deep-sea port is a priority of the Georgian government.
Chinese companies have in the past shown interest in the construction of the Anaklia deep-sea port. In 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during a meeting with the then Prime Minister of Georgia Mamuka Bakhtadze, expressed hope that Georgia would complete the Anaklia port project, which would prevent Georgia from falling prey to Russian or Chinese economic influence. In 2020, the Georgian government terminated the investment agreement with the Anaklia Consortium. It is widely believed that the Government of Georgia made this decision because of Russia’s interests, which was also indicated by a member of the ruling party.
The Georgian government refused to build a port with American investment, and three years later, the port construction plans were re-announced. The question arises: what has changed? It is possible to assume that considering the abovementioned Russian influence, this time the Anaklia port will be built under conditions acceptable to Moscow. On September 22, two participants moved to the second stage in the selection competition for the construction of Anaklia port – a Swiss-Luxembourg company and a Chinese-Singaporean consortium.
For Russia, a Chinese-built port should not be a problem for several reasons: Russia and China are like-minded authoritarian countries with expansionist ambitions that see the West as their main rival. Like Moscow, Beijing does not want critical infrastructure built by the West in the Black Sea. In addition, against the background of the Russo-Ukrainian war, China provides significant assistance to Russia, and Moscow has little desire to go against it. Beijing’s access to critical infrastructure in the Black Sea, such as a deep-sea port, will increase China’s influence over the host country’s transportation infrastructure and will pose a number of risks to that country’s national security. It is true that this is a new potential threat from China, but it is possible that such an influence will be favorable for Moscow.
The interest of the Georgian side
The strategic partnership is a logical continuation of the past years’ positive dynamics of Georgia-China relations.
Georgia’s decision on China is part of the government’s anti-Western policy, which has become particularly acute in the recent period. Against the backdrop of deteriorating relations with the West, the ruling political power of Georgia needs other like-minded associates and partners. It seems that for the current government of Georgia, such a big authoritarian country as China is just that desired partner – unlike the West, Beijing is not interested in the situation in the country in terms of human rights, democracy, or political reforms. At the same time, China is the second-largest economy in the world. Concurrently, the statement about “exchange experience in governance” in the bilateral document is no accident – the technology-driven total control system in China would be attractive and exemplary for any authoritarian country. The representatives of the ruling party of Georgia unanimously praised the strategic partnership with China and criticized their opponents’ assessments. Furthermore, those associated with Georgia’s ruling party spread a disinformation narrative that suggested China could play a positive role in the de-occupation of Georgia. Given the text of the strategic partnership document and China’s friendly relations with Russia, this is absurd, and appears to be part of a disinformation and propaganda effort to make China’s influence appear positive.
Georgia is waiting for a decision on candidate status from the European Union, and given the statements we have been hearing from the European side, we can assume that this decision might be negative. Considering this, the strategic partnership with China can be seen as the government’s attempt to offer the country an alternative partner. Even though Communist China will never be an alternative to the value-based West, a large part of Georgia’s population understands the move. According to IRI’s April survey, where respondents could name multiple responses, 3% of the Georgian population names China as the most important political partner, 63% – the European Union, and 47% – the USA.
Georgia as part of China’s Grand Strategy
Whether we look at China’s domestic or foreign policy today, Beijing’s actions are directed towards China’s global ambition to change the rules-based international order and become the world’s leading power. The main thing that China is likely interested in in the South Caucasus region is the use of the Middle Corridor. It is true that China needs the Middle Corridor more against the background of the Russo-Ukrainian war, but Beijing’s interest here is probably wider. It cannot be excluded that in case of a possible military attack on Taiwan, along with Western sanctions, the West will block China’s trade routes. That is why safe trade routes are important for China – and the respect of the interests of the Chinese Communist Party by the Georgian government is one of its guarantees.
“Hide your strength, bide your time” – for a long time Deng Xiaoping’s words were China’s guiding foreign policy, although in recent years this approach has been changed by Xi Jinping. As a result, China’s aggressive actions in recent years have awakened Western countries, and they have started taking steps to contain the Chinese threat. That’s why China is trying to gather countries around it that will support its interests in the international arena against the West, or at least those countries that will not oppose it. Over the years, the positive dynamics of Georgia’s relations with China have convinced Beijing that the Georgian government today is exactly such a party. Additionally, as mentioned above, due to China’s support for Russia in the Russo-Ukrainian war, even if Moscow wanted to, it could not oppose the increase of Beijing’s influence in Georgia.
Lastly, it can be said that the political-economic dependence of any country on China sometimes turns that country into a vassal of China. In parallel with Georgia’s parting from the West, with its strategic partnership with China, its security is expected to become more vulnerable and it will ultimately end up in the camp of authoritarian countries.