China’s economic role in the south Caucasus is expanding rapidly, with Beijing’s investments in Azerbaijan alone now approaching a total of one billion US dollars and its bilateral trade with that country exceeding that figure on an annual basis. But as impressive as those figures are, China appears set to play an even larger political role in the region not only because of its interest in the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway as a land route to Europe, but also because of its concerns about the ways in which instability there could have a negative impact on China (www.kavkazoved.info/news/2013/01/14/china-na-juzhnom-kavkaze-ekonomicheskaja-ekspansija-i-politicheskij-pragmatizm.html).
There are at least three reasons for this conclusion, which seems counter-intuitive since in their public statements so far, Chinese leaders have made it clear that the Caucasus—North and South—is not a place that is central to their interests. Indeed, the absence of such declarations and Beijing’s apparent disinterest constitute the first of China’s advantages: Unlike the major powers, such as the Russian Federation, the United States and France, China does not show itself to be and is not viewed by others as being closely tied to one country in the Caucasus and thus at odds with others. At a time when many in the region are questioning the motives and actions of these other powers, that gives Beijing an opening that—judging from its policies elsewhere—it is likely to exploit.
Second, China brings to any discussions in this region two extraordinary advantages arising from its own more general approach to foreign affairs. On the one hand and in sharp contrast to some other major powers, China’s leaders are prepared to deal with the governments in the Caucasus countries without challenging their domestic arrangements or approach to democracy and human rights. They focus exclusively on economic and geopolitical interests from a realist perspective, something that governments in the region appreciate especially as they have been stung by the criticism of others.
And on the other, China brings to the south Caucasus and that region’s currently frozen conflicts—namely between Georgia and the Russian Federation, and between Armenia and Azerbaijan—its unique experience of working with Taiwan, a place that Beijing insists is de jure part of China, but one that it interacts with as a de facto independent country. For Tbilisi, Moscow, Baku and Yerevan, that experience is at least suggestive of some of the possible ways forward in dealing with the so-called “breakaway” republics of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Karabakh.
At the same time, the region is beset by growing anger in Baku about the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group’s failure to resolve the Karabakh conflict, ongoing fears in Tbilisi that Moscow will continue to back Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as the absence of any outside mediators for any of these conflicts who are not viewed by someone as parti pris—Turkey, for example, is unacceptable to Armenia. As a result, China is in a position to promote itself or even to be asked to play a role in both cases that few in the region—and quite possibly few elsewhere or even in Beijing itself—now foresee.
And third, in the South Caucasus as in other regions, China takes a long-term approach to all issues. Its leaders do not feel compelled to show progress in this or that year but instead work to advance Beijing’s interests over decades or even longer. Others may seek to exploit that approach especially if they are interested in maintaining the status quo or oppose a resolution that would change it. But this vision gives China some real advantages because it means that Beijing’s representatives can focus always on their own pragmatic interests rather than on playing to the crowd.
What are Beijing’s interests in the Caucasus? The most obvious are the expansion of trade with the petroleum-rich Caspian basin countries, the establishment of land-based transportation and communication links between Asia and Europe (see EDM, January 10), the recognition of China as a rising super power, and, above all else, political stability and maintenance of the territorial integrity of states. And its promotion of these interests over the longer term means that China will seek to block the kind of border changes and tectonic power shifts that some in the region and beyond appear interested in.
Chinese activities in the South Caucasus are beginning to attract attention. But quite clearly, this country’s moves deserve to be followed closely now that Beijing has shown that it is more than prepared to be a new player in the complex geopolitical game in the South Caucasus.