David Batashvili, Research Fellow at Rondeli Foundation
The struggle for global preeminence between the United States and China is the most decisive process in the international relations of our era. Its outcome will have massive consequences for human civilization. Although, at the moment, the Russian threat is much more pertinent to Eastern Europe, including Georgia, here too the Sino-American competition is going to be crucially important.
Historically, struggles for preeminence have been a common feature of international politics. France and Spain wrestled for leadership in Western Europe in the 16th and much of the 17th centuries. Britain and France did so on a wider scale that included both Europe and the colonies in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Britain withstood challenges from Russia in the 19th century and from Germany in the first half of the 20th, before being peaceably overtaken by the United States. The latter defeated the Soviet challenge to American preeminence in the Cold War. Now it is the turn of the struggle between the US and China.
After the First World War, the stakes in such struggles became even higher. Since then, some of the participants in the contests for preeminence tend to be totalitarian regimes. If victorious, these regimes would employ their internal practice internationally, because they would be able to do so and because this would make life more comfortable for their rulers. The consequences of a Communist or a Nazi global triumph in the 20th century are horrific to contemplate.
The current rapid progress in technologies, including digital and genetic ones, among many others, raises the stakes further still. Totalitarian regimes have demonstrated historically that they will use any resource for their purposes, without moral inhibitions. Technological development makes more things possible. Depending how these opportunities are used, this could mean either as yet unseen benefits for humanity or as yet unseen depths of hell which were technically unreachable in the past.
China is in the process of transferring back to totalitarianism, after the authoritarianism of the post-Mao decades. This process is reflected in the practices already employed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime, including an increase in forced disappearances and other suppression of dissent, massive concentration camps in Xinjiang with all their horrors, and – here the CCP has employed new technology inaccessible to its totalitarian predecessors – efforts towards the comprehensive digital control of the population.
It is unlikely that this trend will reverse anytime soon. With China’s economic slowdown, its ruling regime will need ever firmer control over the population in order to preserve itself. If China were to succeed in its quest for global preeminence, its internal practices would inevitably spill over far and wide beyond its borders – both on purpose and through the incidental spread resulting from China’s dominating influence.
China’s ambitions and efforts to increase its influence cover the whole globe, and consequently so does the Sino-American competition. This process is bound to include, among other regions, Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, and Georgia.
Presently, of course, Russia presents the predominant and mortal threat to Georgia. But there is a real possibility that the devastating geopolitical catastrophe Russia is going to suffer with its coming defeat in the war against Ukraine may deprive it of the ability to keep up its attempts to subjugate its neighbors. The Sino-American struggle, on the other hand, is sure to continue for many years, perhaps for decades, potentially for as long as the CCP regime in Beijing lasts.
As it is for the rest of humanity, for the Georgians this struggle and its outcome will define what kind of world we are to live in: One where individuals have a chance to be free and to try their best to employ their innate potential through work and leisure, or one where human beings are reduced to the state of cogs in the Machine, much like ants or termites – a way of life that is great for social insects, but completely unsuitable for mammals, let alone humans.
Like the Cold War, the Sino-American competition involves various regions of the world as its geographic theaters. One of these is Eastern Europe, with the South Caucasus as a sub-theater. Here, China has not yet attempted a dramatic move to rapidly increase its influence. Beijing routinely pushes its usual diplomatic messages and tries to place its relations with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative. Lately, it has also launched efforts to develop ties between the CCP and political parties in the region, but this, too, is being done in a routine manner.
China likely does not see the need to change things rapidly in its relations with the South Caucasus states, as these have been rather accommodating to Beijing and its foreign policy. All three vocally support the Belt and Road Initiative and studiously refrain from issuing any diplomatic message that would be inconsistent with China’s position on issues like Xinjiang or Taiwan. They also welcome as much Chinese investment and economic involvement as China is willing to provide.
As China moves ahead on its path to increasing its global influence, it may well accelerate its policies in the South Caucasus. It is significant that the trade route between China and Europe running through the South Caucasus is continuously developing and, consequently, growing in importance. It is viewed by Beijing as a part of the Belt and Road Initiative framework and its further development can considerably increase incentives for Beijing to build its influence in this region.
So far, Georgia has not been compelled to “choose sides” in the Sino-American competition. But this is unlikely to be the case indefinitely. As this competition grows in both scope and intensity in the years ahead, pressures will begin to build on Tbilisi to choose these or that policy that happens to be more beneficial to the foreign policy objectives of either America or China. While there is little doubt that the majority of the Georgian public would support siding with the US in such circumstances, this is no guarantee that the Georgian government will act accordingly, as evidenced by the stark contrast between the Georgian public’s and the Georgian government’s attitudes towards Ukraine during its war with Russia. In the end, whether the democratic or authoritarian trend wins within the Georgian body politic may be the decisive factor influencing how Georgia positions itself in the Sino-American competition.