China’s changing interests in South Caucasus
On April25-28,“Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation” took place in the capital city of China. From South Caucasus region only Azerbaijan leader Aliyev was in the list of 36 top-Level attendees (Diplomat, April 27). As Azerbaijan participated in the first forum in 2017 on ministerial level
Modern Diplomacy reports in its article China’s changing interests in South Caucasus that the visit of President in second forum demonstrates intention of both sides for close cooperation within the framework BRI. Despite the fact that China’s strong ambition to enter European market through BRI makes Georgia one of the most important players in the region (it has FTA both with China and EU) its high-level officials did not attend the forum (Emerging-Europe, January 3, 2018).
Generally, South Caucasus region was not in the Chinese focus when the BRI project was unveiled in 2013.Its attitude to the region has changed afterwards. Being part of the Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor, South Caucasus has strategic importance for China. At the same time, transportation projects such as Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway and Anaklia Deep-Sea Port has increased significance of the region.
From geopolitical point of view stability in Azerbaijan and Georgia’s political problems with Russia creates ground for Chinese presence in Caucasus. It is clear that having political problems with West Russia is not willing to confront China. Therefore, using these opportunities and establishing good relations both with Georgia and Azerbaijan China is able to avoid its biggest rival in Eurasia and use shortest way to European markets (Trend.az, April 10).
Importance of South Caucasus countries within the BRI framework is not same. Armenia has less potential for BRI. It does not have enough transportation infrastructure and its borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey closed. Armenia has a potential to become a corridor to markets of Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and Iran. However, it does not have borders with the members of EEU and railway project between Armenia and Iran is not viable due its high costs ($3.2 billion) and less importance in commercial means (Vestnikkavkaza, August 25, 2018).Also, China has borders with two biggest members of EEU and could easily reach EEU markets through them.
In the case of Georgia, China is its biggest foreign investor. China’s Hualing Group controls Kutaisi free industrial zone (FIZ), owns Basis Bank, hotels, wine export enterprise. It also constructs “Tbilisi Sea New City” near Tbilisi Sea in which company has already invested around 150 million dollars (hualing.ge).Another Chinese company CEFC Energy owns 75% of Poti FIZ (Cbw.ge, March 20).
Unlike Georgia, mostly state-owned Chinese companies have invested in Azerbaijan. One of these companies CTIEC Group constructed biggest cement factory in Azerbaijan in 2014.China also has a great interest on Baku International Sea Trade Port as it is one of the main ports within BRI. Based on intergovernmental grant agreement China transferred $2 million worth equipment to the port (Azernews, April 4, 2018).
Despite the fact that Azerbaijan is China’s key trade partner in the South Caucasus (it accounts 43 percent of China’s trade turnover in the region) it has massive investments in Georgia (Azernews, April 25). It mostly related to political orientation of these countries. Georgia follows more western orientation that made it more attractive for China while Azerbaijan implements balanced strategy and it does not want to feel China’s pressure. Besides, Azerbaijan is not in need of financial assistance like Armenia and Georgia as it has enough financial reserves.
However, recent developments of Chinese-Azeri economic relations within the framework of the Second Belt and Road Forum create new perspectives for China’s presence in South Caucasus. During the forum 10 agreements worth of 821 million USD has been signed (Azvision.az, April 24). These contracts cover different economic spheres of non-oil sector including the construction of a tire factory in the Sumgayit chemical-industrial park, the creation of a 300-hectare greenhouse complex in the Kurdamir region of Azerbaijan, and the construction of agrological industrial parks in the Guba, Goychay and Khachmaz regions (Turan.az April 24).If we take in account that Chinese investors have invested800 million USD in the economy of Azerbaijan since independence, obtained agreements in the forum worth of same amount shows China’s growing interest in Azerbaijan.
Nevertheless, it does not mean that China’s preference of Georgia has changed. Within the BRI project both Azerbaijan and Georgia are of geopolitical importance for China. It is in China’s interest to boost bilateral relations with both of countries. It is apparent that China already has considerable investments in Georgia and now it is time to deepen cooperation with Azerbaijan. At the same time Azerbaijan is not going to cross limits of its balanced policy. Chinese companies that signed agreements in second forum are government affiliated companies as well. It again shows that Azerbaijan is willing to deepen cooperation without creating room for pressure in its domestic economy.