Devil is in the details – A discussion on China-Georgia Strategic Partnership

On August 7, Civic IDEA organized an online meeting, “Devil is in the details – A discussion on China-Georgia Strategic Partnership”, where international experts participated and discussed the risks related to the strategic cooperation signed by Georgia with China on July 31.
The event was moderated by the chairwoman of Civic IDEA, Tinatin Khidasheli and the speakers involved:
Glenn Tiffert – Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Co-chair of Hoover’s project on China’s Global Sharp Power;
Martin Hala – Founder and Director of;
Laura Harth – Campaign Director at Safeguard Defenders;
Mareike Ohlberg – Senior Fellow in the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund, Germany.

As it is known from the strategic partnership document, Sino-Georgian cooperation will be strengthened and intensified in four dimensions. Those are

  • Political
  • Economic
  • People to people and cultural cooperation, and
  • International.

Thus the discussion aimed at addressing the essence of strategic partnership, the potential for the materialization of the promises made, and the risks associated with it. The first logical question is: why does a small state like Georgia represent such a priority for China, and how does the strategic partnership with the PRC work in the future?

Here is the summary and are some of the takeaways from the discussion:

The basic idea of such strategic partnerships is to make the world a safe place for the Chinese Communist Party and the PRC to operate in general with less criticism on the international level by facilitating free export-import relations, establishing trade routes that benefit the PRC and ensuring the state’s security. Small countries in the UN system have the right to vote and have a prominent place. The strategic partnership with China makes the small states obliged to vote in favor of its needs, while in response to this, they become dependent on China’s goodwill in terms of certain economic benefits. China has been building the alternative, post-western international world order by offering

  • Belt and Road Initiative in 2013,
  • The Global Development Initiative in 2021,
  • The Global Security Initiative in 2022,
  • The Global Civilization Initiative in 2023.

Ensuring PRC’s leverage on small states is precisely the main objective behind the GSI, the GDI, and the GCI that are signed within the strategic partnership. The PRC uses such partnerships to demonstrate to the world that various states are signing its “anti-hegemonic”, “multipolar”, “tolerant” initiative.

At the initial stage of the strategic partnership, there is no concrete content behind it. Nonetheless, content is filled gradually once the small states adhere to their support for the PRC and its global policy direction. The current document does not commit Georgia to pursue any specific course of action. There exists certain freedom in principle for Georgians to decide their own fate. Nonetheless, the PRC will exert significant political pressure on Georgia, making it committed to certain principles that go against NATO membership or any other Western institution. With signing the agreement, Georgia concedes a lot, accepting all of the PRC’s main initiatives without any reciprocity from China.

As for the country-specific interests, in Georgia’s case, deep sea ports (Anaklia and Poti Fiz), Georgia’s role in securing trade routes to Europe alternative to the ones crossing the Russian territory, contracts for Chinese companies operating in the infrastructure sector remain crucial to deepen the relations further and attract the Chinese investments which have not been materialized yet in a full-scale. Together with that, strategic partnerships usually cause economic entanglement, in the end resulting in economic coercion. In other words, increasing economic dependence on China is dangerous due to the non-existence of legal mechanisms to stop the pressure from Beijing and its preferences.

The PRC and Russia both claim to crave peace and stress the multipolarity, while they crave the lack of accountability and enforcement against the Authoritative powers for them to secure themselves from being accused of human rights violations, achieve corruption deals easily etc. Usually, any action that weakens Russia and its interests does not benefit the PRC either, as, despite all differences in interests, both authoritarian powers are united against the West and especially the liberal democratic world order. It is also visible when it comes to the war in Ukraine, where the PRC maintains “neutrality” portrayed in disinformation campaigns, military and economic support, and benefiting Russian interests.

Moreover, the Sino-Georgian strategic partnership is directed towards neutralizing Georgia’s potential to join NATO and the EU and become the sole South Caucasian member of these alliances. Georgia sits in the middle both geographically (playing a significant role in the middle corridor initiative) and geopolitically (aspiring to join the Western alliances, the EU and NATO). While the balance of power between Russia and China is shifting nowadays due to weakened Russia amid the Western sanctions and the war in Ukraine, the PRC might pursue more assertive policies in South Caucasus and Central Asia. Therefore, the PRC will try to break Georgia away from the Western trajectory and bring it closer to its own orbit.

In addition to that, the Global Security Initiative (GSI) requires special attention due to its unspoken content, including dubious and controversial principles such as “Indivisible Security”.  This notion originated from the Soviet Union and integrates the idea that violation of the state’s national sovereignty by another state can be justified once the other’s (violator’s) strategic interests are put in jeopardy. Consequently, the “indivisible Security” legitimated Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The efforts made by Georgia and China very much resemble the occurrences in Central and Eastern Europe, such as the 16+1 initiative 10 years ago. Back then, many European states were craving for boosted political and economic partnership with the PRC, signing agreements and accepting offerings from Beijing while unaware of what they were signing for. Besides, the agreements were usually signed unexpectedly, without any pre-conditions, lacking democratic debate and transparency. Unsurprisingly, such agreements have either never been realized or caused negative results.
The geopolitical situation is changing very quickly, especially with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and playing both East and West scenarios is becoming impossible. Central and Eastern European leaderships have acknowledged this; however, this occasion did not serve as a lessons-learned approach for Georgia.

Another worthy example is Italy, which has been the liaison with the BRI since 2019. The agreement with both states was signed without any democratic debate due to the success of Chinese people-to-people diplomacy. All of this has not benefited Italy, but it undermined it’s standing as a trusted partner in G7, the EU, and NATO. Therefore, it is no surprise that due to these disadvantages, Italy is planning to leave the BRI. Even though there exists a will to leave, the signed document does not provide any clearance regarding how to do it. What is evident by now is that Italy will have to pay the price for exiting the BRI.

Is the Georgian government unaware of those risks? Or do they have their own motives despite the risks?

Weak institutionalized electoral democracies have to deliver public goods to their people. The PRC arrives with loans to subsidize infrastructure, bringing their state-owned enterprises, building ports, highways, bridges, and developing mines without any immediate costs to the nation. Governments look at Chinese investments positively as they do not have to pay the debt because it is transferred to their successor authorities. The government can win votes in elections with this strategy. Secondly, PRC investments provide tremendous opportunities for kickbacks and local corruption, resulting in elite capture. It can be very attractive for local officials who crave to enrich themselves and prioritize their personal interests over the state’s interests.

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