The Georgian Dream plays the Chinese card against the West

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) meets with Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili in Chengdu, southwest China's Sichuan Province, 28 July 2023.
© EPA-EFE/XINHUA / DING HAITAO   |   Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) meets with Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili in Chengdu, southwest China's Sichuan Province, 28 July 2023.

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Against the backdrop of a crisis in Georgia's relations with the West, Tbilisi is increasing ties with China, which is now building a strategic deep water port on the Black Sea.

Georgia’s new deep-water port to be built by a Chinese company sanctioned by the US

The Georgian government announced in late May that a Chinese-Singaporean consortium would build a new deep water port, at Anaklia. The consortium includes China Communication Construction Company LTD. Subsidiaries of that company were sanctioned by the US Department of Commerce in 2020 for helping the Chinese military build artificial islands in the South China Sea. A year later, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order prohibiting Washington from investing in Chinese companies that, according to the White House, undermine US security. The list included China Communications Construction Company.

The Georgian government, however, rejected any concerns about the Chinese consortium as mere “speculation” by the opposition.

“At the moment, this is one of the largest Chinese companies with the most experience, including in projects of this type,” said Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze.

“The application has been submitted, so the victory of the Chinese company in this tender guarantees that the Anaklia project will be implemented at the highest level. As for the political opponents who were involved in the processes around Anaklia, let us recall that the state postponed (the construction of the port) many times, but they never managed to attract an investor.

This is their responsibility, but they try to shift it to someone else. We are obliged to implement this project, it is in our interests. The implementation of this project by a Chinese company is especially important, since Chinese cargo is of particular importance for the most efficient operation of this port,” Kobakhidze added.

How the Georgian Dream kicked the US out of Saakashvili’s “project of the century”

It was Georgia’s third president and Georgian Dream’s archenemy, Mikheil Saakashvili, who first floated the idea of ​​building a port in Anaklia. The “Project of the Century,” as it was then called, was supposed to turn the country into a link in trade between China and the European countries and become a serious competitor for Turkish and Russian Black Sea ports. Its cost was then estimated at $2.5 billion Euros with a cargo turnover of 14 million tons by 2030.

From the very beginning of work on the project, Washington expressed open interest and support in the construction of the port in Anaklia.

That support continued over the years, even as administrations changed both in Tbilisi and Washington. In 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the port “will help Georgia improve relations with developed economies, which will avoid the influence of Russia and China, which, although they position themselves as friends of Georgia, are not conduits of its interests.”

The project started to move forward several years after Saakashvili left office. It was awarded to a consortium made of Georgia’s TBC and a US based company, and construction began in December 2017. However, work stopped after just half a year, and then problems started to pile up – the Georgian partners were accused of money laundering, the Americans pulled out and, finally, the government terminated to contract in 2020. It was said at the time that the real problem was opposition from Georgia’s “shadow ruler”, oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, who didn’t want the Americans involved in the Black Sea region.

China’s inroads into Russia’s “sphere of influence”

The South Caucasus has long been considered Moscow's sphere of influence. But as Russia became increasingly embroiled in its war with Ukraine, Beijing had a chance to expand its presence in the region and the Black Sea.

Recently, against the backdrop of the introduction of international sanctions against Russia, China has become interested in moving towards the West along alternative Russian routes. One of them passes through Georgia.

In particular, Chinese representatives are increasingly saying that they are interested in cooperation with Georgia in the context of the so-called Middle Corridor, which is the shortest route from China to the EU. It passes through Central Asia, the Caspian Sea, the South Caucasus, and then either through the Black Sea or overland through Turkey.

Having become part of the global project to revive the Great Silk Road, the port of Anaklia would be the shortest link on the way from Europe to Asia - it will take only 9-14 days to deliver a container from China to Europe.

In recent years, the Georgian government has been increasingly deepening bilateral relations with China. Back in 2017, Georgia was the first in the region to sign a free trade agreement with Beijing. In July 2023, during former Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili’s to Beijing, bilateral relations were upgraded to the “strategic partnership” level. At that time, the head of the Georgian government expressed Tbilisi's readiness to support various global projects of the PRC, which are aimed at changing international rules and revising the world order, including the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The opposition in Tbilisi denounced not only the strategic partnership with China – which it sees as a move that distances Georgia from its stated Euro-Atlantic course – but also Garibashvili praise for Chinese strongman Xi Jinping and the achievements of a one-party state. Critics of the government also claimed that political rapprochement with Beijing began with the appearance in the country of the Chinese state-owned company CEFC, where Garibashvili took a job in 2015, after his first stint as a Prime Minister.

Inspite of all the criticism, the bilateral relations continued to prosper. In September 2023, Georgia lifted visa requirements for Chinese citizens, and Beijing reciprocated last February.

Strengthening ties with China occurs against the backdrop of a crisis with the West

The strategic partnership between Beijing and Tbilisi was forged against the backdrop of a crisis in relations between Georgia and the West that has been going on for some time now. It is worth noting that the Georgian authorities announced the selection of a future investor for the construction of a deep-sea port a few days after Washington announced the possibility of introducing personal sanctions against “individuals who harm Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration”, after the ruling coalition adopted, on May 24, in spite of strong domestic opposition, a local version of Russia’s so-called “foreign agent” law.

The head of the NGO “Civic Idea”, ex-Minister of Defense Tina Khidasheli, noted that the fact that the authorities announced this news on May 29 is proof that “they have thrown another challenge to our partners.”

“Even during the Trump Administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned us to be wary of Chinese and Russian companies in our strategic assets. It was precisely because of this, to spite the United States, that this decision was announced […]

Let's be honest: this is a special operation against the freedom of the Georgian state. This is literally a special operation, envisaged by pre-planned steps to remove the country from the civilized democratic world and involve it in the Russian space,” Khidasheli said.

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