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Georgia’s Tacit Pivot to China

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Georgia’s Tacit Pivot to China

China emerges as the Georgian government’s prudent alternative to Russia and the West as it deals with civil upheaval over the alleged pro-Russian “foreign agents” bill.

Georgia’s Tacit Pivot to China
Credit: Photo 177249067 © Liskonogaleksey |

China’s strategic influence in Georgia slips under the radar as the country is caught in a tug-of-war between Russia and the West over the “transparency of foreign influence” bill. But the looming civil society crisis has made the Georgian government’s approach to sideline the West and favor China more evident than ever.

Mass protests in the former Soviet republic’s capital, Tbilisi, have been under the international spotlight for over a month. Georgian citizens, who just celebrated the country’s EU candidacy and seek full membership, are deeply concerned about the government’s repeated attempts to adopt an alleged Russian-style “foreign agents” bill. While the government claims that the legislation promotes transparency of foreign influences in civil society, protesters view it as an act to suppress and control Georgia’s non-governmental sector.

Many, including members of the U.S. Congress and European Parliament, have criticized Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream party for pro-Russian leanings and neglecting the people’s will. However, the Georgian Dream staunchly rebuffs Western accusations, further rejecting invitations from European and U.S. officials while actively pursuing partnerships with China and its allies.

The signs of Georgia’s pivot to China are undeniable. To name a few, shortly after the mass protests erupted in April, Georgian government officials proudly celebrated the opening of the construction of the Kvesheti-Kobi tunnel, the country’s largest. The China Railway 23rd Bureau Group Co. is building this massive infrastructure project as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Thanks to the BRI, the Georgian Dream successfully positions itself as a champion of critical infrastructure reform, gaining greater support from the population and fostering a sense of development amid the massive protests.

In early May, the heads of the national banks of Cambodia and Georgia signed a memorandum of understanding to de-dollarize their economies. Georgia, which has been a U.S. ally since the collapse of the Soviet Union and has contributed troops to NATO’s mission in Afghanistan and the U.S. operations in Iraq, has sided with China’s friend to achieve President Xi Jinping’s long-term vision to end the monopoly of the U.S. dollar. While the potential impact of Georgia-Cambodia cooperation to curtail U.S. dollar dominance might be limited, their alliance sends a potent message to the West regarding Georgia’s strategic (re)orientation, especially alongside the adoption of the foreign agent bill, which is widely viewed as anti-Western.

Georgian officials have also shifted their diplomatic priorities. During the ongoing protests, Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze hosted an annual meeting of the Asian Development Bank in Tbilisi, one of the main sponsors of BRI projects in Georgia. Meanwhile, Speaker of Parliament Shalva Papuashvili refused to meet with the chairpersons of the Foreign Relations Committees of the German, Lithuanian, Polish, Czech, and Finnish Parliaments. “It was not a good time for a visit,” Papuahsvili said, citing the scheduled third hearing of the bill.

If the signs are so apparent, why has China been absent from geopolitical scrutiny amid this internal crisis and mass demonstrations in Georgia?

Georgians perceive China differently from the EU, U.S., and Russia. China is geographically distant from Georgia and has had little to no influence on its internal politics. Historically China has mostly brought economic well-being to Georgia through the Silk Road. In contrast, the EU and the U.S. have tantalized the country with the prospect of EU and NATO membership, creating the perception that the West has significant political interests in the Caucasus to counter Russia, which controls 20 percent of Georgia. With deep-seated anti-Russian sentiments stemming from Soviet history and ongoing Russian occupation, Georgians tend to view their political landscape in binary terms – pro-Western or pro-Russia – often overlooking China’s role in the region.

China’s soft power remains largely unnoticed in Georgia, unlike the West, which has been actively promoting democratic ideals for over three decades. Western influence is evident through substantial grants and prestigious student exchange and training programs in the EU and U.S. that promise career growth. Russian impact remains prominent due to the country’s Soviet history, ongoing occupation, and hybrid warfare, which includes extensive disinformation campaigns in Georgia.

In contrast, China’s soft power efforts emerged late and remain limited. For example, while English has become the post-Soviet Georgians’ second language, Mandarin Chinese was introduced to fifth-graders as a foreign language only in 2019. The country also has several Chinese-funded educational centers like the Confucius Institute at the Free University of Tbilisi and the Chinese Language and Cultural Center at the Tbilisi State University, but there is limited evidence that Chinese ideology plays a notable role in their work. China’s cultural influence remains too insignificant to overshadow the conversations about Russian and Western propaganda.

China receives far less media and public attention than Russia and the West, failing to capture large-scale interest, especially amid the polarization surrounding the foreign agent bill. The Georgian Dream party takes full credit for the country’s economic progress, with minimal mention of China and the BRI.

As Russia’s geopolitical isolation made overland trade routes through Russia less viable, China extended its BRI to Georgia, redirecting cargo via the so-called Middle Corridor that connects China to Europe through Central Asia and the Caucasus. Georgia actively embraced its new transit role, investing in infrastructure projects and engaging in diplomatic efforts with relevant countries (e.g. Georgia’s then-Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili visited Kazakhstan after meeting Xi Jinping in 2023 to discuss the region’s growing transit importance). However, the Georgian Dream party’s lack of emphasis on Chinese cooperation keeps China less discussed than Russia and the West.

Meanwhile, the BRI criticism has not yet permeated Georgian society. While Western powers actively highlight China’s debt traps and alleged malicious intent to expand influence through infrastructure projects, this narrative has not spread in Georgia. “Many countries are turning away from the Belt and Road Initiative after a few years seeing that it actually isn’t very beneficial to other countries,” said then-U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan after Garibashvili visited China. However, the ambassador’s words received limited attention compared to the economic opportunities touted following Georgia’s enhanced cooperation with China.

This is largely because the countries most indebted to China are primarily located in Africa, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia – regions that are distant from Georgia both geographically and politically. Consequently, Georgians have limited knowledge of China’s involvement in those areas, making it difficult to juxtapose BRI’s impact abroad with their domestic economy.

Despites its relatively low profile in Georgia, China has presented unparalleled opportunities for the Georgian Dream to maintain its anti-Western rhetoric and defy Western recommendations during this crisis. As the Georgian Dream is on a collision course with the West, it is in its interest to avoid contentious discussions involving China. When pushing for the foreign agent bill, which faced fierce Western criticism, the Georgian Dream positioned it as a measure to strengthen sovereignty and resist Western pressure. After this bold move to cater to an electorate skeptical of Western influence in the election run-up, the government understands the need for alternative support. China emerges as a solution. If the U.S. and EU translate their sanction warnings into action, the Georgian Dream could turn to China to offset potential losses and restore its reputation.

Despite visible indications of Georgia’s shift toward China, the Georgian population remains fixated on the West-Russia divide, leaving little mental space for China. Historical perceptions, limited exposure to Chinese soft power and BRI’s impact, media coverage, and strategic maneuvers by the Georgian Dream all contribute to the nation’s apparent oversight of China’s growing influence.

As Georgia grapples with the domestic crisis over the foreign agents bill, it is crucial to recognize that the Georgian Dream has its eyes on China, as opposed to Russia or the West.