How can Georgia better connect with China?
By Orhan Gafarli
A Belt and Road Forum was recently held in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, including the participation of thousands of people from some 50 countries involved with China's Belt and Road Initiative. The purpose of the Forum was to revitalize the historic Silk Road project between Georgia and China and to promote transport, economic investment and free trade zones, as well as the benefits of the Foreign Trade Agreement between the two countries negotiated in May.
Many have observed that Georgia, a part of Belt and Road Initiative, is developing plans to become a hub linking the East and West. Georgia, a former Soviet republic, is located on the Black Sea coast. This gives it the distinction of being at the intersection of Europe and Asia. The country has a population of close to four million and has been negotiating with the European Union to become part of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCTF) since 2014. Georgia already maintains a free trade agreement with Turkey as well.
In this photo taken on Monday, June 26, 2017, a night view of the old city at the Kura River with the ancient Metekhi Church and a monument in memory of Vakhtang I "Gorgasali," a king of Iberia in the background in Tbilisi, Georgia. [Photo: AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko]
Georgia's economic ties with China hit 717 million dollars through 2016. China is Georgia's 3rd largest trading partner. But unlike the traditional trading relationship Georgia maintains with other countries, authorities in Tbilisi are hoping to align itself as an alternative and risk-reducing crucial corridor for Chinese investment into Europe. One of the keys to this plan is the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. A month before the Belt and Road Forum, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, which runs among Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, officially opened on October 28, 2017. Authorities hope to turn this into a key transportation line that will link Central Asia with Europe. It was originally designed to be part of the Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia Program (TRACECA) when the Foundation of the BTK was established in 2007.
TRACECA was the project the European Commission created to try to bypass Russia and link Central Asia, the Caucasus, Turkey and Eastern Europe through transportation, economics and intergovernmental cooperation. However, from 2013, China's push into Georgia has shifted the focus of the BTK.
There are a few reasons behind this. The political relationship among the countries involved in the TRACECA project remains a problem. Internal problems among the countries are also a significant stumbling block. The European Commission has failed to create essential political discussions among TRACECA project members. In the absence of this, Turkey has since been developing transport links, energy pipelines, economic and political relations with Azerbaijan and Georgia.
The emergence of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013 is starting to play an important role in filling the gap created in the Eurasia region. China's use of transportation routes through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey is important in terms of developing the lines of communication that Eastern European countries want. Projects and investments are being established along the Middle Line, along with the North and South lines, through the Belt and Road. They also form vital links with other parts of Central Asia and China.
The BTK has international transportation potential estimated at 50 million tons of goods which could run from China to Central Asia and the Caucasia via the Caspian, as well as from Turkey to Eastern Europe. The greatest difficulty of the BTK is the development of transport businesses through the Caspian Sea connecting Central Asia and the Caucasus, and the provision of rapid transport from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to the ports of Azerbaijan. In this respect, a project named "Turkmenbashi Harbor International" in Turkmenistan is due to be completed at the end of 2017. The annual capacity of the port is 17-18 million tons, while the total cost of construction is expected to reach 1.5 billion dollars. Similarly, cooperation between Kazakhstani and Azerbaijani ports is also being developed. Similar transit routes between Astana and Baku are to be used for energy transport.
The two continents will be connected to one another through the BTK, as well as through initiatives like the Tbilisi Belt and Road Forum, as well as free trade agreement between China and Georgia starting in 2018, as well as a similar agreement between Tbilisi and Brussels. At the same time we are witnessing realization of new integration projects in the former Soviet geography and the ultimate fulfillment of the TRACECA project through the Belt and Road Initiative. This cooperation, which will become a very important in China's opening up to the former Soviet bloc, has the power to provide the economic and political integration of Europe and Asia, as well as the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea through the Belt and Road framework.
[Orhan Gafarli is a PhD candidate in International Relations at Ankara University, who specializes in Russian Foreign Policy. He is also a Visiting Fellow in the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Center at Harvard University (2017–2018) and currently works with the Ankara Policy Center in Turkey.]