By Emil Avdaliani – Tbilisi
China’s economic and political ascendancy is a topic for almost every Eurasian state – and Georgia is no exception. However, before proceeding to China’s geopolitical role in and around Georgia, keep in mind those major routes which make up the famous Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): China to Europe through a new Eurasian land bridge; the China-Mongolia-Russia Corridor; and Central and West Asian countries. The 21st century maritime Silk Road mainly relies on Chinese coastal ports and consists of the China-Indochina Peninsula corridor linking China with the South Pacific Ocean through the South China Sea; the China-Pakistan trade corridor; and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar trade route.
Georgia does not feature in the list, nor does the South Caucasus. This, however, does not preclude China from forging closer relations with the South Caucasus countries. This signals one of the crucial arguments around the BRI: Chinese perspectives are in constant flux, and just because a country or region is absent from the list does not actually mean Beijing is not economically interested. China has developed close trade contacts with all the South Caucasus countries and has invested extensively in the region. However, Georgian-Chinese co-operation stands out due to the size of investments and growth in bilateral trade. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, China’s state-owned investment activities in the region drove Chinese immigration to Georgia. In the early 2000s, the majority of Chinese migrants ran corner shop businesses and restaurants or worked as market vendors. Since 2010, a large portion makes a living as construction workers.
China is now Georgia’s third-largest trade partner after Turkey and Azerbaijan, whereas Russia is the fourth. Trade between the two countries has increased significantly over the past ten years, from about 10 million US dollars in 2002 to 823 million dollars in 2014-15. In 2017, China and Georgia signed a free trade agreement during the visit of a Georgian delegation to China in May. The Georgian government hopes that the country’s position on the Black Sea (with several ports such as Batumi, Poti and Anaklia) will allow it to function as a logistics hub for the entire region, and particularly for China’s One Belt, One Road initiative.
Aside from its Black Sea ports, Georgia boasts the East-West Highway – the country’s main land transport road that essentially connects Azerbaijan with the Black Sea coast – and existing railway projects such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars link (BTK). Indeed, from Beijing’s perspective, the three most valuable projects underway in the South Caucasus relate to Georgia. These include the opening of the BTK railroad, which will make the delivery of containers, freight and passengers from Asia to Europe 45% faster, the construction of a new deep-water seaport in Anaklia on the Black Sea, capable of handling 100 million tons of cargo per year and of receiving large Panamax-type vessels, and the East-West Highway expansion in co-operation with the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and other organizations.
China began considering the South Caucasus route following the announcement of the BRI in 2013. In 2015, China tested the connection efficacy between the Chinese-controlled Xinjiang province to Georgia’s Poti port via Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. A couple of years ago, railway cargo loaded in China arrived in Georgia within a month. However, handling administrative obstacles took almost a third of the transit time. China also carried out several other tests to explore the viability of a trade and transit route through the South Caucasus.
Despite its advantages as a transit country, however, Georgia still faces numerous questions. Although Beijing considers Georgia’s location to be important and the region to be strategically relevant, there is still much to be done. As said, the Chinese BRI is a constantly evolving project responding to rising challenges and opportunities. In fact, like ancient and medieval trade routes which spanned from Asia to Europe, the BRI is also subject to abrupt changes and modifications. Thus, it depends much on Georgia’s internal processes and how the country develops an internal artery of railways, roads and other infrastructure so that China pays more attention to Tbilisi when considering its BRI project in this part of the world.
First published in Georgia Today