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The dragon in the room

Despite China’s assurances that Baku-Beijing-Tbilisi relations are to be based on the principle of equilibrium, with economic gain being the sole motivation, the impression of political dominance is hard to avoid. It is estimated that the old patterns of regional rivalries will further change with China’s expansions westwards, with China becoming a regional stabiliser.

January 30, 2018 - Małgosia Krakowska - Analysis

Image by President of Russia

China’s Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, is breaking the bonds of the current geopolitical status quo in the South Caucasus. What is more, it appears that Chinese ambitions are more than just economic issues such as trade and investment. China’s growing presence in the region has certainly given it an opportunity to seriously reduce the role that Russia and United States play in the region.

China’s interest in Eurasia has also bolstered Chinese co-operation with the European Union. Yet, China’s involvement in the region remains an enigma for analysts. For years, the region remained under the Kremlin’s thumb creating serious political drawbacks for the region. Some of them highlight the opportunity for Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan to release themselves from Putin’s embrace. Others warn that there are risks that collaboration might bring prosperity only to a select few and shake up the regional security dynamics. What security changes await if the region will slowly start adjusting to Chinese capabilities?

Project of the century

During the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing in October 2017, President Xi Jinping blurred the boundaries of China’s territorial confines. Xi said that China “should foster the vision of common, comprehensive, co-operative and sustainable security and create a security environment built and shared by all … with no confrontation and of friendship rather than alliance.” During his three-hour-long speech, which covered nearly every aspect of China’s economic development, Xi made several references to China’s security policy. He hailed the Belt and Road Initiative, launched in 2013, as “the project of the century” and romanticised over the ancient Silk Road, recalling historical East-West connectivity and promoting a different kind of globalisation – one of friendship between nations rather than alliances, in which China had an ostensibly amiable, rather than a demanding role.

There is no doubt that China’s geopolitical ambitions have put it on course to be the world’s only superpower able to challenge American global dominance. Washington’s fatigue caused by Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq created a window of opportunity for Beijing, with Central Asia accelerating China’s international ambitions. US President Donald Trump’s retreat better perpetuates the aura of China as a player that could balance Russia in the region of the post-Soviet South Caucasus.

There are several indications that China could balance Russia. One of them includes President’s Xi Jinping’s desire “to protect multilateralism”. Two weeks after the Party Congress, on October 30th 2017, two members of the EU’s Eastern Partnership programme, namely Georgia and Azerbaijan, together with Turkey officially opened the Baku-Tbilisi-Akhalkalaki-Kars railway (BTAK) – an 846 kilometre stretch of rail linking the three countries together.

The much heralded railway was opened after ten years of construction (the agreement was signed in 2005) and is set to carry nearly five million tons Chinese cargo from Asia to Europe in only 15 days. The railway not only broadened economic partnership between China, and the South Caucasus, but it also cemented the Chinese idea of interconnectedness, and multilateralism. For Georgia, the construction of BTAK has the chance to revitalise the region by providing another important communication link between East and Central Asia, and highlighting security of the region that seemed to be of a lesser geostrategic importance for i.e. Europe.  

During the Russo-Georgian war in August 2008, the Russian army destroyed the Grakhali Bridge, 40 km east of Tbilisi and thereby disrupting the connection between eastern and western parts of Georgia. The disruption had serious implication not only for Georgia, but also for the neighbouring countries as well, including Azerbaijan and Armenia for which the route was an important transport link. In 2008 Georgia generated transit payments of around 54 million US dollars (according to OilPrice.com) and Azerbaijan and Armenia suffered significant financial damage since the bridge was destroyed. The US Department of Energy estimated that Azerbaijan’s final cost for the lost shipments during surpassed $1 billion.

The war demonstrated thus the need for broader security guarantees for Europe and global energy security. 

It does not come as a surprise then that China comes as a player that stabilises and balances Russian interest. Chinese advances in the South Caucasus have been discussed in January 2017 at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili were side-by-side promoting the project “Silk Road Economic Forum”.  Both Azerbaijan and Georgia eye China as an important investor to help develop this region.

In the early 2000s China was considered a minor player in the South Caucasus. Traditionally, it was an area of intersecting interests for major regional actors such as Russia, Iran and Turkey. Russia has always seen the region as its exclusive sphere of influence. Yet, with China entering the scene, the bonds of the old geopolitical status quo are slowly breaking. And with the 2016 EU decision to grant China Market Economy Status, there is more room for EU-Brussel co-operation with Eastern Partnership countries taking up the role as an intermediary.

With China being primarily involved in boosting trade with the region, exerting political influence does not seem to be a top priority. Yet it is. Despite Xi’s assurances that Baku-Beijing-Tbilisi relations are to be based on the principle of equilibrium, with economic gain being the sole motivation, the impression of political dominance is hard to avoid. It is estimated that the old patterns of regional rivalries will further change with China’s expansions westwards, with China becoming a regional stabiliser.

Subtle influence

Until late 1960s, China pursued different foreign policy objectives. Beijing’s security interests were primarily based in the Far East. However, after the Cold War, Beijing began adopting a wider perspective of security. As Russell Ong notes in his article titled “China’s security in Central Asia”, Chinese strategic planners began to perceive the “comprehensive national strength” (quan mian hua) not only in military terms but also by linking it to the economy and global politics (quan qiu hua). Therefore, the current Chinese view on security is to amplify Beijing’s subtle influence on regional security of the Southern Caucasus.

The deepening of relations between China and Georgia (including China’s interest in the existing and forthcoming infrastructure in Tbilisi and Kutaisi) could also become a tool in decreasing Russian influence, even if Beijing does not want to engage in the conflict resolution between Tbilisi and Moscow. Georgia’s good relations with the EU and NATO, and its competitive access to both European and Eurasian markets, make it an attractive partner for China. Yet, China’s balancing role could be eroded. In military terms, China has not yet shown any interest in becoming Georgia’s hard security guarantee. With Russia continuing to encroach on Georgia’s territorial integrity by moving border signs of the South Ossetia demarcation line, which are located close to the east-west highway connecting Asia with Europe, Chinese economic interests could come under threat.

Minding Russia’s revisionist foreign policy objectives, China will need – at some point – to decide whether to take an active role in the Georgian-Russian conflict. The rapid growth of China’s military capabilities, surging Islamic terrorism in other post-Soviet states (e.g.Tajikistan) has led to an intensified military and security co-operation. The new security policy aimed at minimising Russia’s destabilising attempts in the region could be applied in Georgia in order to avoid a veritable cauldron of turmoil.

The BTAK project excluded Armenia, leaving the country to become even more dependent on Russian aid. Despite the fact, Armenia also is looking to develop ties with China. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia has been the least enticing for Chinese investments. Being largely dominated by Russia, Armenia has not had much foreign policy opportunities. Yet in 2013, the tides began to change. The new Chinese embassy built in Yerevan was a sign that the Asian power is expressing more interest in Armenia. Another sign is the emergence of military co-operation with China, which signals Armenia’s readiness to diversify security partnerships.

What may be perceived as stabilising for one country, however, could be a potential destabiliser for another. Chinese co-operation with Azerbaijan is one example. The regime in Baku is one of the most corrupt countries in the world – the country ranked 123 out of 176 in the 2016 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. In this context, Chinese companies and officials may be tempted to bribe local businessmen and government-owned companies making it easier for China to exert influence on Azerbaijan’s domestic situation.

Another danger for the regional security includes increasing Russia-Iran-Azerbaijan co-operation. The Azerbaijan-Iran-Russia Summit held in Tehran on November 1st 2017 called for an intensification of regional economic co-operation. The plan opens more opportunities for Russian investors and the private sector to join Iran’s infrastructure, including industry, energy and railway networks. This ostensible economic co-operation provides political incentives not only for China, but also for Iran and Russia. It becomes another brick in an emerging Russo-Chinese-Iranian cooperation.

This geopolitical manoeuvre could, in the future, endanger the building blocks of transatlantic security of which Georgia is a part. With the US and Iran arrayed on opposing sides, guaranteeing some geopolitical comfort to Russia, and Washington’s reluctance to compete with China, Iran could become another brick in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, shaping the future security architecture of the region. Beyond economic opportunities, Iran will try to prevent other actors, such as the US, to use the South Caucasus as a staging ground for Iran.

The South Caucasus has always been a stage of geopolitical competition. It is yet to be seen whether China’s Belt and Road Initiative will have a positive or negative impact on regional security. Some countries in the region may choose to intensify economic co-operation with China while strengthening security ties with the West, and thereby becoming less dependent on the neighbouring Russia. Others might use the BRI only for economic gains, in their attempts to maintain more neutral – no confrontation, no alliances; partnership rather than friendship. Nevertheless, one thing is certain – the Chinese presence growing in the region is a fact and the question now is how to adjust to this changing reality?

Malgosia Krakowska is a Polish journalist focusing on international security issues.

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