Home / Articles / China Continues to Deepen its Political Influence in Georgia
China is increasing its influence in Georgia while laying the groundwork to reshape the Middle Corridor—a network of sea and land freight routes crisscrossing Central Asia and the South Caucasus that connect China and East Asia to Europe.
China, Russia, the United States, and the European Union are all competing to reshape power dynamics in the South Caucasus. The West’s preoccupation with the war in Ukraine, Russia’s strategic decline, the incoherence of US policy towards Georgia, and the failure of the European Neighborhood policy created a power vacuum in the South Caucasus and opened the space for Beijing to fill the vacuum.
Beijing aims to link Central Asia with the South Caucasus through the Middle Corridor and boost and monopolize regional connectivity.
China offers a significant institutional framework and autocratic alternative to what the West has to offer for regional development.
In a joint statement on the strategic partnership issued by Tbilisi and Beijing, the two sides expressed their interest in strengthening cooperation on a wide range of issues, including, but not limited to transportation, telecommunications, infrastructure modernization, and digital technologies. Both parties agreed to exchange experiences in governance.
Beijing’s strategic move in Georgia reflects China’s growing interest in Georgia’s strategic location and its inclination to increase its footprint in the region. It also indicates its desire to link up Central Asia with the South Caucasus through the MiddleCorridor network of sea and land freight routes, and access lucrative markets in Europe and beyond. The joint statement also illustrated China’s intention to build, consolidate, and control physical, soft, and digital infrastructure crisscrossing both regions, boosting strategic connectivity, and monopolizing it as part of its expanding BRI.
Sino-Georgian Economic, Trade, and Cultural Dynamics
For the past two decades, China has been laying the groundwork for greater engagement in the South Caucasus, particularly in Georgia, where its economic presence has increased considerably over that span of time. By integrating Georgia into the Belt and Road Initiative in 2016 and signing a Free Trade Agreement with Tbilisi in 2017, China gradually strengthened and institutionalized its economic and trade ties. China used a wide range of financial structures including the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank, China Development Bank, Exim Bank, Bank of China, and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China to shape connectivity in the region and increase its influence in Georgia.
Today, China has become Georgia’s third-largest trade partner. In 2022, Georgian exports to China increased to $737 million, while imports from China surpassed $1.25 billion. In parallel, China has actively invested in Georgia’s hydropower sector, transportation infrastructure, railways, ports, and free industrial zones. Chinese companies increased their market shares in Georgia’s hotel, shopping, and housing markets.
In the same vein, China has allocated considerable resources for educational and cultural projects, using its soft power tools to promote and popularize the Chinese language and culture in Georgia. In 2010, China established the first Confucius Institute—an arm of its propaganda machine—at the Free University of Tbilisi. By 2022, Georgia already hosted three Confucius Institutes, aiming to spread the Mandarin Chinese language in the country. In recent years, Georgia has established the Georgian-Chinese Center for Economic and Cultural Development and the Georgian-Chinese Friendship Association to facilitate China’s partnerships with local educational institutions. According to some reports, Chinese has been intensely taught in more than a dozen higher and secondary educational institutions across the country. China has offered scholarships to Georgian students to study Mandarin in China while bringing Chinese teachers to teach Chinese language, history, and culture on the ground in Georgia. As Western educational funds decrease for Georgian students, Beijing has increased investments in Chinese educational and cultural projects, cultivating an attractive educational environment for Georgian students both in Georgia and China.
China has also made considerable efforts with the Georgian government to develop digital infrastructure across the country. Notwithstanding the fact that Georgia signed a memorandum of understanding with the United States in 2021 to curtail the expansion of Huawei into Georgia, Garibashvili’s recent visit and statement at Huawei’s headquarters confirmed Tbilisi’s growing interest in welcoming the deployment of Huawei’s 5G infrastructure in the country, marking a complete reversal of its course and commitment to Washington to develop 5G that is in line with Western standards.
The geopolitical significance of Georgia and the South Caucasus as a whole increased markedly since February 22, 2022, as Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine isolated Russia politically and economically in the West, diminishing its role for Beijing as a reliable partner and the most efficient trade route linking Europe to Asia and vice versa. Russia’s growing isolation on the one hand and the global energy, commodity, and supply chain crises on the other reshaped regional geo-economics, moving the bulk of East-West trade from its long-established commercial routes to the alternative mainland link between Europe and Asia—the Trans Caspian International Transit Route is also known as the Middle Corridor. It is worth noting that the level of traffic through Russia decreased by 50 percent, and the cargo shipments along the Middle Corridor increased by 28 percent (only in the first three months of 2022) reaching a record high of 3.2 million tons in 2022. It has been widely anticipated that the shipments will rise to 10 million tons annually.
The increased freight turnover in the Middle Corridor has already attracted great interest from regional players, global actors (e.g., China, the European Union, the United States), and international corporations (e.g., Rail Cargo Group, Maersk, Nurminen Logistics, and Rail Bridge Cargo), creating favorable conditions for greater investment and deeper regional integration. Given Georgia’s strategic location, situated at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, it is a significant component and a node in this expanding trade and transport network linking Europe to the landlocked Central Asian nations and China.
With this strategic partnership deal with Tbilisi, Beijing filled, to a certain extent, the regional power vacuum left by the traditional power brokers the United States, America, and Russia, and laid the groundwork for its deeper engagement in the wider region. China took advantage of the West’s preoccupation with the war in Ukraine, Russia’s strategic decline, the decades-long incoherence of US policy towards Georgia, and the failure of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership policy. With this rather unexpected maneuver, China added itself to the list of global powerhouses engaged in shaping Georgia’s strategic choices and regional power dynamics.
It is worth noting that the establishment of a Sino-Georgian strategic partnership occurred against the backdrop of Tbilisi’s estrangement from the West. The cleavage between Georgia and its Western partners deepened dramatically in recent years as Tbilisi failed to deliver on its promise of democratic transformation. Notwithstanding Tbilisi’s numerous claims about its commitment to democracy and Euro-Atlantic integration, the ruling party has taken rather an autocratic path. In recent years, the Georgian government riggedelections,cracked downondissent, imprisoned opponents, attackedfree media, employed disproportional force against protesters, and squeezedoutWestern investments. Consequently, Georgia’s oligarchic rule and visible democratic backsliding have remained the biggest obstacle to the country’s stated goal to join Euro-Atlantic institutions and forge closer ties with the European Union and the United States.
The establishment of the Sino-Georgian strategic partnership also coincided with the Georgian government’s ongoing strategic realignment with Moscow. Since coming to power in 2012, Bidzina Ivanishvili’s government has been cozying up with the Kremlin and subverting Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration process. While veiling his collaboration with Moscow, and formally committing to Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations, Ivanishvili has gradually weakened and marginalized pro-Western political forces in the country, conducted a wide range of influence operations to demonize the West, and uprooted its values and ideals in the country.
After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Ivanishvili challenged the West by unleashing an open and robust anti-Western propaganda campaign, accusing Western partners of meddling in Georgia’s domestic affairs and accusing both the United States and the European Union of attempting to drag Tbilisi into the war.
In parallel, Georgia refused to join Western sanctions and declined to restrict entry into the country for Russian citizens. Georgia increased trade turnover with Russia, and let thousands of Russians purchase properties and establish businesses. It resumed direct flights to Russia and encouraged Russian tourists to visit Georgian resorts. Furthermore, recently it has been reported that Georgia along with Turkey, Kazakhstan, the United Arab Emirates, and Armenia could be serving as a key conduit for Russia to access the Western sanctioned products it needs the most for waging the war in Ukraine.
Thus, Georgia’s strategic approximation with China is driven primarily by Tbilisi’s desperate attempts to address its foreign and domestic vulnerabilities. The combination of factors such as Tbilisi’s tempestuous relationship with the West, domestic pressure to meet the requirements of the Euro-Atlantic integration, the fear of regime collapse, and the lack of legitimacy to formalize its collaboration with Moscow, prompted the Georgian Dream (GD) ruling party to seek alternative avenues for political support. Furthermore, the GD’s fear of losing Western financial support, and the widespread belief within the ruling party that Russia lacks the capacity to provide sufficient financial assistance if needed to shore up Ivanishvili’s regime in Tbilisi, pushed the ruling party to look for other options for economic assistance.
By establishing a strategic partnership with Beijing, Tbilisi aims to benefit from China’s “no strings” policy and expects to receive financial aid, cheap loans, investments, and political support, aiming to fall back on Beijing in the face of both foreign and domestic pressure. While the West often imposes certain conditions in exchange for aid and loans as an incentive for Georgia to build democracy and strengthen the rule of law, Chinese assistance will come with no such strings attached. The absence of political conditions makes Chinese aid an attractive enrichment opportunity for the political elite in Tbilisi and a significant factor for the regime’s survival.
Georgia’s pledge to strengthen coordination and collaboration with China in regional and international affairs, including global projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative and Global Security Initiative, places Georgia in the Sino-Russian camp that is prone to challenge the international rules, norms, and the fundamental principles of the liberal world order defended by the United States and the European Union. This ongoing shift in Georgia’s foreign policy orientation may prompt Tbilisi to support a “One China” policy, back up Beijing in international fora, and turn a blind eye to China’s human rights record while adopting and, to a certain extent, promoting China’s authoritarian way of governance.
Tbilisi’s willingness to embrace China’s model of techno-authoritarianism emanates from its desire to stay in power. China’s techno-authoritarianism has become an attractive model, tool, and standard practice for autocratic regimes across the world to maintain power and challenge global freedom. For instance, China has used strategic partnerships to promote, export, and implement its technology-driven security management practices in Central Asian countries. While Russia remains the primary security guarantor in Central Asia, possessing the most advanced military capabilities and the most capable armed forces in the region, China, in addition to leading the efforts in commerce, trade, investment, and infrastructure development, has cemented itself as an internal security provider—providing technologies and systems for policing, stabilizing, and managing internal security architectures in the wider region. As Central Asian countries receive systems that promise control over their citizens, Beijing in return gets data, leverage, and political influence, creating an effective model for control and repression that could be replicated in the South Caucasus, particularly in Georgia.
As the statement on the Sino-Georgian strategic partnership indicates, both sides stand ready to expand ties between their central and local governments and exchange experience in governance, signaling that Tbilisi may be adopting some aspects of the Chinese style of governance. The export of Chinese governance practices is most extensive in the field of security. China’s techno-authoritarianism, its efficiency, and its willingness to export repressive technologies have resonated well with the GD as they can be effectively employed to quell public protests, and mass demonstrations while attaining political goals. Hence, by importing, adapting, and employing the technologies, systems, and methods of Chinese techno-authoritarianism—including but not limited to surveillance, the social credit system, and the face and number plate recognition technologies—the government will be able to better identify dissent, monitor potential troublemakers, cripple its opponents, and cement its autocratic regime while bypassing democratic means, practices, and institutions such as competitive elections, free media, and an independent judiciary.
In its efforts to ensure its survival, the GD government has embarked into uncharted waters. If it integrates and adopts Chinese technologies, tools, and methods, Georgia will put itself in a vulnerable position vis-a-vis China. It has been widely reported that Chinese tech companies cooperate closely with the Chinese state. As Chinese infrastructure—both physical and digital—becomes pervasive in Georgia, the country will be increasingly vulnerable and susceptible to Chinese technological harassment, including coercion, subversion, disruption, disinformation, surveillance, social manipulation, internet shutdowns, and other malign activities. Moreover, China’s involvement in building Georgia’s digital capacity will allow Beijing to collect data, obtain sensitive information about its citizens, monitor political actors, and influence domestic politics while bypassing the Georgian government.
If the Georgian government considers entrusting the layout of its tech-driven security management to China, Beijing will have not only its eyes and ears in Ivanishvili’s inner circle but also ingrained in Georgian government buildings, the defense and security establishments premises, data centers, and private enterprises, providing China with an opportunity to disrupt, disable, and destroy Georgia’s communication networks, cyber defenses, and military systems.
While China’s investments in the Georgian economy and its physical infrastructure increase its footprint in Georgia, its development of digital infrastructure cements its influence, which will be hard to dislodge. As the world splinters between countries that employ Chinese digital infrastructure (e.g., Russia, Iran, and others)and those that don’t (e.g., mostly NATO and the European Union and their allies) the enlargement of digital ecosystems becomes the main area of competition between China and the United States. Hence, Georgia with its digital alignment with China, will be entrenched in the Chinese digital ecosystem from which it will be hard to escape. That is why accepting both physical and digital infrastructure development from China carries risks and far-reaching consequences for Georgia and its strategic orientation as it will gradually reshape its domestic political landscape and limit its ability to conduct an independent foreign policy for many years to come.
China’s increasing political clout in Georgia, its encirclement of the Middle Corridor, and its deployment of digital infrastructure linking both Central Asia and the South Caucasus will gradually change regional development, entrench Chinese systems in regional infrastructure, and challenge the Western liberal democratic model. The loss of the South Caucasus and ultimately the Middle Corridor to China will prove detrimental for the United States and the European Union as the global competition between the West and China will focus on global trade routes, infrastructural networks, and regional integrative initiatives, creating fault lines in the wider Black Sea region where the battle between democracies and autocracies, as well as the networks of infrastructure projects, will unfold.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.