By Oksana Musaelyan
China is building a new embassy in Yerevan that, once completed, will be Beijing’s second biggest in the former Soviet Union. The project is a sign of China’s growing economic and diplomatic roles in Armenia.
The groundbreaking ceremony on August 9 was attended by Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian and Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Li Huilai. The building is projected to be completed in 2019 and measure 40,000 square meters. “Relationships are developing quickly, and, naturally, more efforts and employees are needed, and also a larger building,” Tian Erlong, China’s ambassador to Yerevan, said at the ceremony.
“It is obviously the desire of this country [China] to further intensify its policy in the region,” Armenia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Shavarsh Kocharyan told journalists.
While China is expanding its influence around the world, Armenian officials contend that their relatively multi-vector foreign policy gives Yerevan an advantage in gaining Beijing’s attention. “Armenia is attractive to China because not only is it a strategic partner of Russia, but it also has a very good relationship with the European Union, with which we will soon sign a new agreement,” said Karen Bekaryan, an MP from the governing Republican Party of Armenia. “Armenia has traditionally warm relations with the United States, has traditionally good relations with the Arab world.”
Armenia is angling to become China’s favored diplomatic partner in the region. “China is attracted to Armenia for developing its diplomacy … which is impossible for China in Georgia” because of the latter’s strongly pro-Western orientation, claimed Gor Sarkisyan, country director of the Chinese government-run Confucius Institute, in an interview with EurasiaNet.org. “China has huge business interests in Georgia, but Tbilisi isn’t as attractive as a political partner.”
If Armenia is making a turn to China, it began with the 2015 visit of President Serzh Sargsyan to Beijing, where the two sides signed a declaration of “friendly cooperation,” as well as agreements on economic, political, and military ties.
China has invested heavily in iron mining in Armenia, and trade between the two countries is growing rapidly, although turnover is still less than with neighboring Azerbaijan and Georgia. For Armenia, China in 2015 ranked behind only Russia on the list of the country’s top import/export partners.
In 2016, Armenia became a “dialogue partner” with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Officials in Yerevan hope this status can enhance the chances of Armenia becoming a node in China’s ambitious One Belt, One Road infrastructure program. A Chinese company is currently conducting a feasibility study for the construction of the Armenian section of the long-planned Tehran-Yerevan railroad. The project has an estimated price tag of up to $5 billion, said Sergey Manasaryan, Armenia’s ambassador to China, in an interview with website EADaily.
The lion’s share of Armenia’s exports to China is copper concentrate, and so “there is practically no real trade,” Manasaryan said. But another Chinese company is conducting a feasibility study to build a $500-million copper smelting plant in Armenia, he said: “God willing, it will be finished this year.”
One factor currently hindering the development of closer relations with China is a lack of Chinese speakers in Armenia. But that is starting to change.
At the Confucius Institute, the number of students in Chinese language courses jumped from about 120 in 2014 to more than 300 last year, Sarkisyan said. Meanwhile, Yerevan State University’s Department of International Relations started offering Chinese language courses three years ago and the school now has 45 prospective diplomats who are learning Chinese, said Arthur Israelyan, the head of the university’s Chinese Department.
In addition, the Chinese and Armenian governments are jointly building a school for Chinese language studies: construction started in 2014 and the facility is scheduled to open next year. It will accommodate up to 650 students and will be the largest training center for teaching Chinese in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. It would educate Armenian students starting from the fifth grade, as well as hold summer programs for students from neighboring countries.
“Learning Chinese has become a matter of prestige now in Armenia,” Izabella Muradyan, director of Yerevan’s Chinese Center for Science and Culture told EurasiaNet.org. “The growing number of Armenian people, and especially young people, learning Chinese is pragmatic: the Armenian political and economic elite understands that it is beneficial for them to cooperate with China.”