The visit of Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili to China, which took place at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping from July 26 to August 1, produced a true geopolitical surprise. On July 31, the Georgian government released a joint statement establishing a “strategic partnership” between Tbilisi and Beijing, as deepening bilateral relations with China is becoming a foreign policy priority for Georgia (Gov.ge, July 31).
Historically, Tbilisi has never really had close political relations with Beijing and has traditionally sought partnerships with the West. Georgia’s closest partner has been the United States, with which a strategic partnership charter was signed in 2009 (State.gov, January 9, 2009). Tbilisi also has an association agreement with the European Union and is waiting for a decision on its candidate status by the end of this year. Additionally, Georgia has been a close partner of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Nevertheless, Tbilisi does enjoy active economic ties with Beijing, as China is one of Georgia’s five largest trading partners. In 2017, Georgia was the first country in the South Caucasus with which Beijing signed a free-trade agreement (Matsne.gov.ge, December 20, 2017). The newly established strategic partnership includes components not only on economic or cultural relations but also regarding political and international aspects. This is cause for concern in the West, as Georgia’s foreign and security policy is increasingly at odds with Western interests. On July 11, regarding China, the communiqué from the most recent NATO summit in Vilnius stated: “The People’s Republic of China (PRC) challenged the alliance’s interests, security and values with its ‘stated ambitions and coercive policies’ ” (Nato.int, July 11). Overall, the Georgian authorities’ actions seem illogical and inconsistent, when, two weeks after such a sharp statement from NATO, Georgia suddenly decided to become a strategic partner of China.
The published document about the partnership states, “Georgia believes that China’s modernization offers a new way and a new choice for humanity to achieve modernization” (Gov.ge, July 31). This points to the possibility that this is a new direction and path for Georgia in its development, which may diverge from the Western model of democratic development.
Supporters of the ruling elite in Georgia draw attention to the pompous welcoming ceremony of the Georgian delegation in China and hint at the wise foreign policy of the authorities in Tbilisi (YouTube, July 26). In recent years, the Georgian authorities have spoiled relations with traditional partners in the West. Thus, the government, in an effort to not be so isolated, is increasingly forced to approach authoritarian governments such as China and some Central Asian states. Indeed, the announcement of a strategic partnership with Beijing fundamentally changes the alignment in the region and points to the continued growth of Chinese influence in the Caucasus and the post-Soviet space. And Georgia is increasingly ignoring Western partners: Within the framework of the Georgian-US strategic partnership, a meeting of working groups consisting of politicians and officials of the two countries should take place every year; however, the last such meeting was organized in January 2020 (Radiotavisupleba.ge, March 3).
For its part, Russia reacts painfully to the rapprochement of Georgia or other post-Soviet countries with the West. In contrast, Moscow seems to have calmly accepted the prospect of a political rapprochement between Georgia and China. This has given the Georgian opposition a reason to argue that the start of a strategic partnership between the two countries could not have happened without an agreement with Moscow (Interpressnews.ge, August 1). Suspicions have already appeared that Russia, with the help of Chinese investors, can displace US interests in the Black Sea region. While the partnership statement does not mention the Anaklia deep-water seaport, around the same time when the strategic partnership between China and Georgia was announced on July 27, the process of selecting a private partner for the project was postponed to September 20 instead of July 28 (Economy.ge, July 27).
In Georgia, the suspicion is that this was done on purpose to allow Chinese investors a chance to prepare bids for the tender. On August 1, Georgian Parliament Speaker Shalva Papuashvili did not rule out the inclusion of China in the construction of the port at Anaklia, thereby strengthening suspicions about the existence of preliminary agreements with China on the matter (Bm.ge, August 1). Moreover, during his visit, Garibashvili, speaking at the Georgian-Chinese Business Forum, touched on the port, saying that its development remains an ambitious project for his government (YouTube, July 31).
The Port of Anaklia is not only of great economic and geopolitical importance. According to some Western experts, the presence of such a port is also militarily significant and could accelerate Georgia’s rapprochement with NATO (Netgazeti.ge, September 9, 2019). Construction of the seaport was agreed on in 2017, with a consortium that included US-based Conti International and Georgian TBC Holding. Since then, the participation of American investors in the project has turned into a geopolitical stand-off with Russia and China. In 2019, then–US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed the hope that Georgia will fully complete the project, stating: “Implementation will strengthen Georgia’s ties with free economies and will not allow Georgia to be under the economic influence of Russia or China” (JAM-news, June 13, 2019). Yet, the Georgian authorities have seemingly ignored US interests, when, in 2020, the government terminated the contract with the original “Anaklia Development Consortium,” under the pretext of the non-fulfillment of obligations. Only in 2022 did Tbilisi again announce the resumption of the project and began to look for new investors. Now, the role of American investors may be overtaken by Chinese partners.
The pro-government media characterize Georgia’s new foreign policy as “multi-vector” and proudly point out that the country has decided to pursue an autonomous foreign policy free from Western influence. Furthermore, some local experts have spoken positively about the fact that China will be able to balance Russian influence in the region. Furthermore, if before, the key to ensuring Georgia’s security was in Washington, now, the second key will be in the hands of Beijing (Interpressnews.ge, June 28).
The West requires the Georgian authorities to comply with democratic norms. In contrast, China has already demanded support from Georgia for its new Global Security Initiative (Fmprc.gov.cn, February 21), which is also mentioned in the joint statement on strategic partnership. As such, China may turn out to be a more comfortable partner for the current ruling elite of Georgia, as Beijing will not demand the same extensive domestic reforms as the West.