By Emil Avdaliani – Tbilisi

China-Georgia relations since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 have been positive in both the economic and overall political sense. However, they are often overestimated by analysts in Georgia and elsewhere. Bilateral trade growth as well as a gradual increase in Chinese investments in Georgia have oft been hailed as exceptional and a marked sign of increased Chinese influence over Tbilisi.

True, economic growth has been taking place, but this has been but a small portion of the real potential. In fact, despite analysts’ positive views, Georgia and the South Caucasus transit corridor has yet to feature in official versions of the Chinese Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). Overall, China has been cautious. Russia’s factor too might have been at play when Beijing only minimally involved itself in the economy of Georgia. But the biggest obstacle has been geographic barriers such as the Caspian Sea, the Caucasus range, difficult Georgian terrain as well as the Black Sea.

Still, in a number of articles for GT, I have suggested that the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) is not static in nature and, like any other trade routes in ancient or medieval periods, it does respond to rising challenges and opportunities. Another suggestion was that Georgia, if it improves its railroads, roads and ports infrastructure inside the country, will become more attractive to China and its BRI.

Indeed, there are signs proving this scenario. On 24 May, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Georgia. This is crucial as it is the first official visit of a Chinese foreign minister to Georgia in 23 years. According to the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the focus of the minister’s visit was to understand more about Georgia’s future and its potential as an important transit state.

The visit to Georgia came as a part of the Chinese delegation’s regional trip. China and Armenia on Sunday signed an agreement for mutual visa exemption for ordinary passport holders.

The Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the visit to Georgia confirmed the “clear vision” of China regarding Georgia and its role in China’s plans for large-scale projects. Here, most likely BRI was meant, a clear emphasis on Georgia’s potential as a transit state. “Trade, investments, transport, as well as partnership within the frames of international organizations, were set as the major priorities for future cooperation,” states the Georgian Foreign Ministry.

The Chinese Foreign Minister said that « China is implementing a foreign policy which is based on the principles of peaceful coexistence. We are ready to develop friendly relations between our countries further. We have a firm position that all countries are equal, regardless of their size. We respect the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia and other countries. »

China’s interests in Georgia are also intricately linked to the latter’s territorial problems with Russia. For Tbilisi, it is important that China supports it on the issue of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali. Indeed, the issue of the Georgian occupied territories was also raised during the meetings and Georgian officials mentioned the “high importance” of Chinese support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The Chinese delegation’s visit follows the Georgian Minister of Infrastructure and Regional Development, Maya Tskitishvili’s, trip to Beijing, where she attended the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. More importantly, she signed an agreement on cargo and passenger transportation with Chinese Minister of Transport Li Xiaopeng.

Overall, the Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister’s visit to Tbilisi has been important, but attention in the Georgian media was only paid to official statements; no analysis has yet been made. However, what is crucial is the timing of the visit, as China and the US are locked in a geopolitical battle over influence in the Indo-Pacific world. Since Georgia is close to the US in terms of military and political cooperation, it will be interesting to see how far China-Georgia cooperation will go. One thing is likely to happen: Beijing will try to increase its influence in Georgia through economic and various political moves.

First published in Georgia Today, 05/30/2019