Georgia and China announced a surprise strategic partnership in July, covering political, economic, cultural, and international cooperation. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, who visited Beijing to seal the deal, stressed to Chinese President Xi Jinping that his country greatly values their mutually beneficial friendship.
In an interview with the China Global Television Network, Garibashvili lauded the Chinese president calling him an “inspirational” and an “exemplary” leader.
If alarm bells hadn’t already been ringing in the West from the Georgian government’s cozying up to Vladimir Putin, the love-in with Xi should dispel any doubt about its foreign policy course. Previously considered pro-Western, Georgia is now reaching out to the two big authoritarian powers. It may be a NATO and European Union (EU) candidate state, but it’s not acting like one.
There is a lot at stake. Georgia’s importance has grown considerably since Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine — alternative transit routes run through its territory, as do energy pipelines from countries like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan that now supply Europe with the oil and gas that once came from Russia. And its China policy is not a complete shock; the Tbilisi government did not apply sanctions after Russia’s all-out invasion, is a major trade and sanctions-busting route for the Kremlin, and has restored air and other links to Moscow.
The Georgian premier brushed aside US concerns over malign Chinese influence and announced a broad range of initiatives, including greater cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in the digital economy, foreign investment, and even Chinese language teaching for Georgian students.
Georgia also expressed interest in China’s Global Security Initiative and in the partially defunct 17+1 cooperation platform with Central and Eastern European nations, which may now be closer to 14+1 or fewer. Last year, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania withdrew from the initiative. Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu linked the decision to China’s failure to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
China is Georgia’s fourth-largest trading partner, and Chinese firms dominate the country’s large infrastructure projects. Georgia’s geography makes it an important trading route from Asia to Europe. It joined China’s BRI in 2016 and sits in the Middle Corridor route from China to Europe via Central Asia, bypassing Russia. Also, Georgia has access to the geo-strategically important Black Sea. Following the Georgian prime minister’s visit, media speculated that China may be eyeing investment in Georgia’s long-discussed Anaklia deep-sea port, with a planned capacity to receive large container vessels.
Western countries gave a muted response to the developing Georgian-Chinese partnership. “It looked like it was an important visit for Georgia, and it’s Georgia’s choice who its partners are going to be. The United States will remain a strong supporter of Georgia as we have for the past 30 years,” the outgoing US Ambassador Kelly Degnan, said.
Georgia has enjoyed a strategic partnership with the United States and has benefited from long-standing US assistance. In 2008, as Russia invaded and occupied parts of Georgia, the US dispatched military cargo aircraft carrying humanitarian supplies, and the message that Russia’s right to military intervention in its neighbors would be challenged. Soon after, Russia gave up on its bid to take the country’s capital, and Georgia’s democratically elected government survived, though even now it regularly threatens to annex occupied Georgian territory.
The West should take note of Georgia’s eastward drift. Rather than view the development in isolation, it should be seen as tightly linked to the wider consequences of the war in Ukraine and the need to be alert as the US-China competition accelerates.
Georgian authorities may be betting that Western influence in the region is shrinking, and powers such as China are a new force to be reckoned with. It is also of note that China doesn’t offer lectures on human rights, as Western ambassadors did in March over the strikingly illiberal foreign agents law. Since Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine, Georgia’s political recalcitrance has been on stark display. The government has abandoned its past approach of ambiguity and has chosen to openly placate Russia while demonstrating no meaningful support for Ukraine.
Georgian authorities mounted a loud anti-Western campaign following the EU’s 2022 decision to delay candidate status, hoping to counteract the population’s strong demand and enthusiasm for Western integration.
Against this backdrop, it is increasingly important that the West’s support for Ukraine ends in victory. Any other outcome would be a gift to the authoritarian powers and a blow to other pro-Western democrats along Russia’s borderlands.
In July 2009, in an open letter to US President Barack Obama, Central and Eastern Europe’s former democratic-revolutionary leaders including Václav Havel and Lech Wałęsa warned that the region might change, in a bad way. The region’s new elites “may not share the idealism — or have the same relationship to the United States — as the generation who led the democratic transition. They may be more calculating in their support of the United States as well as more parochial in their world view.”
This trend is now on full display in Georgia and other countries like Hungary, as well as old Western allies like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have embraced China while refusing on occasion even to answer calls from the US President.
The West still has the power to halt the erosion of its influence and turn the tide in its favor. Russia’s quick and clear-cut defeat in Ukraine would stiffen the spines of illiberal leaders considering a flirtation with the authoritarian world, and reinvigorate the hope of their peoples for a safer and more prosperous future.
Irina Arabidze is a CEPA 2022 James S. Denton Fellow and a visiting lecturer at the Caucasus University in Tbilisi. As a Fulbright scholarship recipient, Irina holds a master’s degree in International Affairs from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and a graduate degree in International Relations and European Studies from the Central European University.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.