Georgia’s Strategic Relationship With China Worries Partners In West – Analysis


By Saba Gujabidze

Georgia, a NATO and European Union aspirant, is touting a new strategic partnership with China, prompting concerns the alliance will strain Tbilisi’s long-standing Western partnerships.

Georgia signed a strategic partnership agreement with China following an official visit to Beijing last month by Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili. 

The partnership carries with it the potential of increased trade and infrastructure development, with possible economic benefits which Tbilisi is touting for its more than 3.5 million citizens. 

“China very rapidly became the third-largest trading partner for Georgia. And today, since you asked about the potential, what else could we achieve? I think easily, if we continue to export more goods, more products, more quality products on the Chinese market and vice versa, I think China can easily become the No. 1 trading partner for Georgia. So, there’s a big potential,” Garibashvili recently told the Chinese CGTN show “Leaders Talk.”

Garibashvili underscored his country’s unique strategic location at the eastern end of the Black Sea as a way to connect East with West by what he termed “the shortest route.”

Path to prosperity or long-term risk?

The agreement has come under scrutiny as Georgia awaits a European Commission decision on its EU candidacy, expected at the end of this year.

As explained by Garibashvili, the strategic partnership aims to enhance trade and logistics cooperation. He says it commits Georgia, among others, to China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative as well as a Global Security Initiative, or GSI, part of a proposed security architecture announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping last year. 

Some view this latest move as a threat to Georgia’s European aspirations, which are backed by an overwhelming majority of the population and enshrined in its constitution. Some experts are particularly concerned about the GSI, which, according to Lily McElwee, a fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “basically is a way to provide Chinese-style solutions to governance issues.”

‘Anti-Western, anti-American initiative?’

Formally announced on April 21, 2022, two months after Russia started its full-scale war in Ukraine, GSI is “an alternative to the support that the West has given to Ukraine,” former Georgian Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli told VOA.

The fundamental premise of GSI as outlined by the Chinese Communist Party is that the “security of one country should not come at the expense of others.”

“The legitimate and reasonable security concerns of all countries should be taken seriously and addressed properly, not persistently ignored or systemically challenged,” states a position paper published by China’s foreign ministry

Some observers view it as a challenge to the rules-based international order dominated by Western democracies.

“This is an initiative stemming from China, aiming to reshape the global landscape and the current world order,” said Miro Popkhadze, a fellow in the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

He told VOA the Chinese version of global order directly undermines Georgia’s security.

“Russia is not in favor of countries like Georgia or Ukraine joining NATO,” he said. “If one were to heed Russia’s concerns in line with this initiative, Georgia might need to reconsider its European aspirations. Georgia’s stance appears conflicting: Georgia aims to be part of NATO and the European Union, yet the country’s government also is supporting an initiative that might be harmful to Georgia’s interests.”

While the partnership with Georgia expands China’s economic and security interests in the Caucasus and the Black Sea, other observers say Tbilisi itself is not getting much out of the deal.

Tinatin Khidasheli, Georgia’s former defense minister who now heads the Tbilisi-based non-governmental organization Civic Idea, called the partnership “a game changer” and “a huge challenge for the Georgian state.” 

“Not only on the level of everyday life, but even on the level of the constitutional foundation of this country,” she told VOA. “Because the constitution of Georgia specifically says that Georgia’s foreign policy priority is becoming a member of the European Union.”

One of the most meaningful indicators of Georgia not being an equal partner in the relationship is the document’s opening paragraph, which reads, “The two sides reaffirm their respect for the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of all countries. Georgia firmly adheres to the one-China principle.”

China understands the one-China principle to legitimize its sovereignty over the mainland, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, a position that the United States and most Western countries have not endorsed in the case of Taiwan.

Georgia’s occupied territories

The document also fails to mention Georgia within its internationally recognized borders, which include the two Russian-occupied regions of Georgia — the Tskhinvali Region, also called South Ossetia, and Abkhazia — which Russia invaded in 2008 and then declared as independent states. 

“This omission is likely because China’s close strategic partner is Russia,” said Khidasheli, adding that a balanced statement would have recognized Georgia’s territorial integrity “in relation to the occupied territories.”

Others see Georgia’s budding alignment with China as moving in the opposite direction of the West, said Kurt Volker, former U.S. ambassador to NATO.

“It’s true that lots of countries, including Western countries, have ongoing substantial relationships with China, but the trend has been to pull away from that,” he told VOA. “Whereas what we’ve seen from the Georgian government is going in the opposite direction by just recently signing a new strategic partnership with China.”

Georgia’s foreign affairs ministry did not respond to VOA requests for a response.

Volker thinks some economic deals signed with China “give advantage to China in these foreign markets.”

Citing the 2022 enactment of the U.S. CHIPs and Science Act, Volker points to the United States as just one example of a Western nation weaning itself from Chinese supply chains by “favoring domestic production of semiconductors to ensure system integrity.”

Taiwan currently produces some 60% of the world’s semiconductors, which are used in a wide variety of products including smartphones and electric vehicles, and have military applications. Because Taiwan faces threats from China, which claims the self-ruling island as its own, the U.S. has allocated $52.7 billion to promote semiconductor research, development, manufacturing, and workforce development on its own soil. 

In this global context, Volker cautions that by favoring short-term deals with China, the Georgian government “may be underestimating Georgia’s own long-term interests and its relationship with the West.” 

Matthew Bryza, a former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, expressed worries about the timing of this partnership and the message it might send to the West.

“The moment chosen to announce this strategic partnership and form it is now against the backdrop of Ukraine’s counteroffensive and Georgia’s refusal to join the sanctions against Russia,” he told VOA.

“[The Georgian government’s] ridiculous lies that the United States wants to use Georgia to open a second front against Russia … all this together cannot be seen as a friendly set of actions by a country that wishes to join the transatlantic community,” he said. “Any country that does that is not fit for joining the transatlantic family.”

The official U.S. government position was subtler.

In a written comment obtained by VOA’s Georgian service, the State Department said, “The United States respects countries’ sovereign decisions about with whom they want to engage with or do business with.”

“However, we emphasize the importance of these activities being done transparently, according to the rule of law, and with trusted vendors,” it said.

The United States has had a strategic partnership with Georgia since 2009.


The VOA is the Voice of America

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