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US-China Rivalry: How To Save Vulnerable States And The Case Of Georgia – Analysis

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The US’ tough stance on China reflects principal shifts in the US foreign policy and National Security that the White House has introduced in cyberwarfare and counterintelligence to confront Beijing’s geopolitical and commercial influence worldwide. Indeed, under Xi Jinping, China has developed a well sophisticated blue water navy and is heavily focused on improving China’s cyber capabilities worldwide. China’s increased military activities in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, combined with a well sophisticated military diplomacy campaign in Europe, its advent as the principal geopolitical power in the Indo-Pacific region and on the edges of Europe, are the contemporary result of America’s inward looking posture.

The US-China trade standoff has been transforming the global economy, and the ongoing incommensurable challenges demand a candid, shared leadership that evokes a decades-long transatlantic partnership.

Contrary to the existing approach in international trade, the Pentagon has continued to enhance its military presence and defense cooperation with a few countries that are on China’s flanks, while their maritime boundaries are pressed by Beijing’s ever growing naval forces.

European Diplomacy has increasingly depended on the current moves of the US Department of State, and Georgia, as a country with aspirations for EU integration, has felt the heat from the ongoing abrasive transatlantic ties. The US’ interests in the South Caucasus are as vital and long-standing as they are evident, and characterize other major powers such as Turkey, Russia and the European Union.

Despite Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Georgia in August 2017, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of bilateral relations, Washington has been slow in strengthening its commercial cooperation with Tbilisi. The lack of US engagement could invite China’s Belt and Road Initiative to play a bigger role in the region, leading to a weakening US influence in Europe.  Still, though there might have been vacillations in Washington’s position towards Georgia in the past years or decades, overall, the American strategic thinking and posture has remained intact.

One of the geopolitical imperatives of the US since the breakup of the Soviet Union was to enable newly independent Georgia to use its geographic position as a nodal point in the nascent South Caucasus energy and transport corridors. Moreover, the effectiveness of the Georgian corridor would underpin a bigger project, the Trans-Caspian Corridor (which consists of a pipeline, port-to-port logistical infrastructure, etc.) that is still an idea with only minor success, but which may, under altered circumstances, become a geopolitical reality. This would inevitably increase Georgia’s independence vis-à-vis Russian transportation networks. This vision has proved to be successful and in the almost 30 years that have passed since the end of the Soviet Union, big steps have been made to limit Russia’s energy and infrastructural presence in the country.

Though, for many, a determining factor is the US military presence near Georgian borders or in the country itself, military protection is not as long-lasting as it might always seem. Of a more tangible essence have been the USAID programs to improve Georgia’s infrastructure, which is traditionally hampered by a difficult geography (a factor which always limited Georgia’s political power and ability to control far-flung territories).

One of the important future tasks for the United States is to support the successful construction of the Anaklia Port, as the port’s location and size would increase not only Georgia’s transit capabilities but also the implementation of the US strategy in Georgia: helping Tbilisi become less dependent on alternative transit routes.

Despite Georgia being a geographically small country with limited military and economic potential, it is still important for the US to evaluate the internal political developments. As Georgia gears up for crucial parliamentary elections this October, extensive cooperation with various parties should be carried out. From the US perspective, the most popular parties in Georgia are in fact pro-western. This serves as a good basis for the composition of a long-term strategy and hit the reset button.

An important pillar of the US policy in the South Caucasus and Georgia in particular would be Washington’s deeper cooperation with Turkey. Although the two states have experienced some troubled waters in recent years, Ankara and Washington are still strategically aligned. It is in Turkey’s interest to uphold Georgia’s security, as the latter provides the only land corridor for Turkey to reach Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea. This posture also emphasizes that Ankara is opposed to Russia’s strengthening of its positions in the South Caucasus. Thus, in broader terms, Turkey’s and Azerbaijan’s strategic interests over Georgia are more aligned than they may appear in sporadic times.

Another crucial sphere of influence where the US could provide vital expertise and assistance is in the economy. No long-term stability for Georgia would be possible unless the country enjoys considerable economic growth based on industrial and manufacturing capabilities.

As Dr. Steve H. Hanke, a professor of applied economics and co-director of the Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise (IAEGHSBE) at the Johns Hopkins University, said in a piece in 2014: “The Georgian economy tanked in the last days of the Soviet Union and the first years of independence from Russian rule: gross domestic product declined 68% and inflation hit 1.500% between 1990 and 1994. Since then, however, the republic has grown rapidly, with GDP increasing roughly fivefold in the new millennium, prices and exchange rates of the Georgian Lari remaining stable, and foreign direct investment increasing steadily. Still, Georgians’ per-capita annual income today is less than $6,000, the official poverty rate exceeds 17%, and (like many developing nations) Georgia scores relatively poorly on measures of corruption and income inequality, ranking near countries like Nicaragua and the Ivory Coast.” Georgia lacks the elements of a strong national economy and advanced industrial sector, making the country vulnerable to regional political and economic developments.

In retrospect, it can be argued that Washington’s policy towards Georgia has been quite consistent since the end of the Soviet Union. There were periods of low-intensity cooperation, alternated by a deepening of bilateral relations, but overall, the US strategic intent towards Georgia has remained the same: improving the infrastructure as a basis for the country’s strengthened sovereignty against external geopolitical odds.

Today, the EU considers China as a systemic rival and serious economic competitor. These matters are addressed constantly in the EU-NATO discussions; based on the current developments, Washington has the opportunity to garner a greater presence in Georgia and establish an economic foothold with geopolitical interests leading to a regional US military presence.

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Emil Avdaliani

Emil Avdaliani has worked for various international consulting companies and currently publishes articles focused on military and political developments across the former Soviet sphere.

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