In July this year, Georgian experts and the political community were surprised when, during the visit of Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili to China, the two sides issued a joint statement on the establishment of a Strategic Partnership. The document has been criticised by experts for its perceived imbalance between Chinese and Georgian interests and concerns.
This month, Prime Minister Garibashvili announced visa-free travel for Chinese citizens and the government’s intention to increase the number of direct flights to China to “further facilitate tourism.” This was followed by statements from Georgian officials that they would welcome Chinese investment in the strategically important infrastructure project for Georgia, the Anaklia deep-sea port. Indeed, today the Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development, Levan Davitashvili, revealed that the Sino-Singaporean consortium has been selected as one of the two finalists in the selection process for the Anaklia port private partnership.
Against the backdrop of ambivalent relations with Georgia’s strategic partners – the EU and the US – these developments raise concerns and question marks. What does it all mean, and what are the implications for Georgia’s established foreign policy priorities?
Armed with these questions, we turned to Tinatin (Tina) Khidasheli, chair of the Georgian think-tank Civic Idea, which studies Sino-Georgian relations. Tina Khidasheli is a former Georgian Defense Minister and former Member of Parliament.
Civil.ge: Georgia recently announced a visa-free regime for Chinese citizens “to boost trade, investment, and tourism” alongside the establishment of a “Strategic Partnership” with China. While this move has been met with both praise and criticism, what is your assessment? What potential benefits and risks do you see for Georgia in this decision, especially considering the country’s aspirations for NATO and EU integration?
For a country like Georgia, which has a very flexible visa policy, the “boosting trade, investment and tourism” argument is pure speculation. The visa regime has never prevented Chinese investors from coming to Georgia, as the process is very easy, cheap and hassle-free. It is more of a political statement than a practical step.
After issuing a statement on strategic cooperation, the Georgian government felt the need to act and, without looking at the actual consequences of the action, came up with this idea as a first step with a political flavor, almost similar to the announcement of the first Chinese-run World Trade Expo on 23-25 September. We will see many initiatives in the coming weeks leading up to the Silk Road Forum at the end of October.
The bigger problem with all these decisions, including the establishment of a visa-free regime, is that even in dealing with a country like China, the Georgian government has no concrete medium- or long-term plan, development strategy or risk assessment documents. We do not see any planning for medium- or long-term goals and outcomes that the government wants to achieve, but a very concrete domestic agenda goal to sell increased Sino-Georgian cooperation as a counterbalance to the government’s total failure on the Western front, be it with the EU or the US.
Civil.ge: Given the commitment made by the government of Georgia in its agreement with China, particularly regarding adherence to the ‘one-China principle,’ support for initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Global Development Initiative (GDI), Global Security Initiative (GSI), and Global Civilization Initiative (GCI) and considering other European countries’ decisions to withdraw from initiatives like the BRI what is your perspective on the potential implications of such a commitment?
Again, these are all political decisions so far, without any particular substance or understanding of what the actual results will be for Georgia. I do not expect these principles to have any immediate practical effect on the Sino-Georgian affair, nor do I expect any immediate reactions from the West. The fact that the Georgian government, without any consultation with the Parliament or the Commander-in-Chief (President of Georgia), took the liberty of joining the GSI, which was created and delivered as an anti-US and anti-NATO strategic statement, says a lot.
The GSI recognizes, approves and promotes the idea of the UN as the one and only institution guaranteeing world peace and prosperity. It denies the importance of other institutions and recognizes the legitimate interests of countries in self-defense in cases and decisions that are absolutely outside the jurisdiction, territory or legitimacy of any particular country. To make the case easier, we need to remember simple facts. The GSI was launched and presented after Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. Accordingly, it is seen as the PRC’s response to the invasion. It accepts the legitimacy of Russia’s claim that NATO’s enlargement threatens Russia and declares it a strategic concern in Russia’s case. It does not explicitly legitimize Russia’s aggression, but it declares these legitimate concerns to be grounds for serious consideration. Georgia has unilaterally recognized the GSI and pledged to abide by its principles, notwithstanding its clear confrontation with our most important long-term strategic partner in defense and security.
It is difficult now to predict exactly what the consequences for Georgia will be, but it is fair to say that the language of the strategic declaration, as well as its release so close to a historic decision on EU candidate status, is a pure provocation by the government. It fits in perfectly with the rhetoric we have recently heard from the mayor of Tbilisi, Kaladze, about NATO.
Civil.ge: The term “strategic partnership” often implies the possibility of military cooperation and intelligence-sharing. How do you view the potential for such cooperation between Georgia and China, and what implications might this have for the region and Georgia’s Western alliances?
So far, there is no visible sign of any planned military/defence cooperation. We have only had two attempts to bring the Chinese into the defense sector: the Motor Sich case and a promise of a military training exchange that never materialized, mainly due to the intervention of Covid.
To some extent, as long as Georgia sticks to the NATO agenda (also for PR purposes), I do not really see the possibility of official Sino-Georgian military cooperation. China does not usually start by moving its military officers or personnel around. Another obstacle is Sino-Russian defense cooperation and joint military training, where again it would be absolutely suicidal for the Georgian government to participate.
As for intelligence sharing, in a sense, we are already doing it by keeping Chinese Nuchtech on our borders. So, making it official in treaties will depend totally on the turn Georgia will make after the 2024 elections.
Civil.ge: It has been suggested that China uses strategic partnerships with small states to exert influence and secure support for its global initiatives. What role do you see Georgia playing in the broader context of China’s Initiatives and its ambitions in the South Caucasus and Central Asia?
It is absolutely clear that the main interests of the PRC lie in Central Asia and the resources of the Caspian Sea. Georgia, by virtue of its geographical and political position, is an integral part of the whole scheme. As I see it, the July 2023 statement on strategic partnership was not so much about the materialization of the huge amount of concrete plans as it was about locking in Georgia as a sphere of interest. I call it the PRC’s master plan to replace “Russki Mir” with Confucius World for the time when all the above principles and plans will be activated.
It should also be mentioned that the statement on strategic partnership goes even deeper and provides that Georgia will coordinate its activities with the PRC at the level of an international organization. Therefore, we should not be surprised if one day Georgia will start voting with the Chinese voice instead of the EU or the US in the UN or other organizations.
Civil.ge: As Civic IDEA closely monitors the ongoing developments in Georgia’s cooperation with China and continues to investigate potential risks and misconduct in various sectors, including infrastructure, economics, and education, could you elaborate on the specific concerns and irregularities that your organization has uncovered during its five years of research? Additionally, what recommendations or measures do you propose for Georgia to address these concerns, enhance transparency, and promote accountability in its relationship with China?
This is a very big question, and you can find all the answers in our reports. Each report has a summary of problems demonstrating the magnitude of misconduct or risks to the country, including corruption risks.
Civil.ge: Given the evolving dynamic in which Russia and China appear to be united in challenging the Western liberal democratic world order, especially as evidenced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and their joint efforts to forge multilateral institutions, and given China’s role in financing Russia’s actions and blocking sanctions against Russia, what strategies or safeguards can Georgia implement to protect its interests and maintain its relations with both China and the West?
We believe in cooperation, so there is nothing in our policy paper recommendations against Sino-Georgian cooperation. There’s always room to do more, and the Georgian government could have successfully worked on mutually beneficial treaties and agreements. The problem with the 31 July statement is that it is absolutely one-sided, and represents the whole spectrum of issues that the PRC is concerned about, but none of them reflect the interests of Georgia. So our recommendation is simple: at least work with the principles of reciprocity in mind when drafting these documents.
But if we look at the bigger picture, it is absolutely clear that Georgia has a chance to become stronger and have more influence with the major regional players only if and when it is supported by the Western alliances and allies. Close cooperation with the EU and the Americans has always helped Georgia to get maximum results from all cooperation agreements with third countries, and this is no different in the case of the PRC. Obviously, we are slowly but surely losing the power and influence that we have steadily gained through our firm commitment to EU and NATO membership and the transformation of the country into a European-style liberal democracy.
Georgia’s only competitive advantage in this volatile region is its firm European aspirations, its democratisation and its setting an example of democratic success for the region, and I do not mean just the post-Soviet space. This is what makes transit through Georgia attractive and an obvious choice from Russia or Iran. We seem to be losing this competitive advantage.
Civil.ge: And finally, how would you comment to the today’s announcement by the Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development Levan Davitashvili who revealed that one of the two finalists in the Anaklia Deep Sea Port private partnership selection competition is a Chinese-Singaporean consortium, without naming it though?
The Sino-Singaporean consortium, or even the Swiss-Luxembourg consortium, does not tell us much because where the company is registered does not tell us much about it. The biggest problem at the moment is that the information is completely classified. There is no reason why the government should not publish a list of companies interested in the bid, or why it should talk to citizens in riddles, but unfortunately this has become a very common practice. In the meantime, it prevents us from doing due diligence, and until that happens, there should be public scrutiny.