In a Tbilisi restaurant this week, 16 contestants from the Miss Chinese Cosmos Pageant waited expectantly for a dish of pelamushi, a grape-juice pudding and traditional Georgian dessert. The 12 who were served it made it to the semifinal. In compensation, the remaining four were presented with plates of jewelry and got — who could resist this? — a photo memento with Georgian government officials.
The duel between the West and Russia for the Caucasus might just be becoming a truel. In its continued fervor to embrace China and attract Chinese hunger for global investment and exports, Georgia has launched talks on free trade with Beijing.
“Our main goal is to make the most prudent use of our strategic location,” said Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili on September 10 at the World Economic Forum in the Chinese city of Dalian, where the Georgian leader met his Chinese counterpart, Li Kepiang.
Dalian is on the ancient East-West trade route known as the Silk Road, which China is looking to bring back to life by investing in transportation and energy infrastructure along the way.
“Georgia is Europe’s natural gateway to Asia, as it is Europe’s eastern most [syc] point both by land and sea,” Gharibashvili elaborated in a September 10 op-ed in the English-language China Daily, seen as a Beijing mouthpiece.
In his commentary Gharibashvili went through the selling points for Georgia as a critical hub in the Chinese government’s transnational project for integrating Chinese and Eurasian trade and investment.
With its economy still struggling for a breather, Tbilisi hopes that Georgia’s investment-friendly tax policy and free-trade agreement with the European Union will encourage more Chinese business to provide a much-needed financial boost. Gharibashvili’s office said that Chinese officials will visit Tbilisi in mid-October for a Silk Road conference.
Kazakh soldiers drill in preparation for the September 3 military parade in Beijing commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Asia. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Central Asian soldiers and presidents took part in a massive Chinese military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Asia, the guest list of which provided some grist for speculation on China-Central Asia relations.
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan were among the 11 countries sending relatively large contingents (of about 75 soldiers each) to take part in the September 3 parade. The Central Asian soldiers started arriving in China more than two weeks ahead of the parade, and rehearsed six hours a day. Soldiers from those three Central Asian states also participated in a similar event May 9 in Moscow.
But there were some intriguing inconsistencies in the turnout of Central Asian presidents who showed up. Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, who skipped the Moscow parade, did appear in Beijing. And Turkmenistan's Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who appeared at Moscow's parade, skipped Beijing's. (The presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan took part in both.) As the parade was about to begin, Chinese state television showed Karimov standing on the reviewing stand just to the right of his regional rival, Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev. (The cameras did not catch any conversation between the two men.)
Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev is on a state visit to China hoping to shore up Astana’s tight-knit relations with a key strategic partner and drum up investment for his country’s ailing economy.
With China fighting its own battles, however, it may fall short of the largesse that is being expected.
As Nazarbayev made clear during a Sino-Kazakhstani business forum on September 1, Astana is eager for Beijing to broaden its investment portfolio — hitherto concentrated in Kazakhstan’s energy sector — and start pouring cash into the industrialization projects on which the government is pinning its hopes for recovery.
“I believe this visit is a turning point in Sino-Kazakhstani ties,” Nazarbayev said inremarks quoted by his office. “For over 20 years we have been actively cooperating with China, predominantly in the energy and natural resources sectors. In the new stage, we are starting to step up cooperation in the manufacturing sectors of the economy, including engineering and the processing of resources.”
Nazarbayev said that during talks on August 31 with Xi Jinping, the host president, the two leaders signed deals worth $23 billion to set up 25 joint projects. Another 20 deals are in the pipeline, he said.
Ever a strategic crossroads, ardently pro-Western Georgia on August 25 became the site where the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, billed as the Chinese counterweight to the World Bank, chose its first president.
China's former deputy finance minister, Jin Liqun, got the pick at the August 24-25 meeting in Tbilisi, but it’s the longer term implications of the bank’s role that could prove more intriguing.
Initially meant as an Asia-only lending club, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has fast expanded to attract members across Europe and is set to help China build international clout.
The US has tried to discourage allies like the United Kingdom and South Korea from embracing the bank, a financial institution that Washington reportedly fears will lower international banking standards, but did not react publicly when Georgia, its strongest ally in the strategic South Caucasus, also decided to help midwife the AIIB into existence.
Granted, Georgia, which holds a mere .05 percent share in the bank, does not have the banking or economic muscle of the UK or South Korea, but its geo-strategic location means that those with influence here tend to keep a wary eye out for potential rivals.
The opening ceremony of the Caspian Cup naval competition, in Kaspiysk, Russia. (photo: MoD Russia)
Russia has kicked off its inaugural "International Army Games," an Olympic-style competition for militaries, with 2,000 soldiers from 17 countries competing in 13 disciplines from a tank biathlon to naval games on the Caspian to a military cooking contest.
The biggest event by far will be the tank biathlon, in which 13 countries will compete. The tank biathlon was first held two years ago under the auspices of Russia's nascent military bloc the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and last year with an expanded guest list that also included China and India.
All the rest of the events are brand-new and only Belarus and China are competing in most of them (the Russian Ministry of Defense has an extensive English-language guide to the games here, with detailed explanations of the rules for each contest).
From the Bug Pit's coverage area, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Russia, and Tajikistan are all competing in the tank biathlon. Kazakhstan also is competing in the "Aviadarts" air force skills challenge, and both Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are in the "Caspian Cup." The other participating countries are Angola, Venezuela, Egypt, India, Kuwait, Nicaragua, Pakistan, and Serbia.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited China and negotiated over a controversial deal with Beijing to buy sophisticated air defense systems.
The visit is yet another twist in the long-running drama of Turkey's multi billion-dollar air defense deal, which has become a litmus test of sorts for its geopolitical leanings. The controversy kicked off in 2013, when Turkey announced it would opt for a Chinese system over American and European bidders. That, in turn, sparked harsh reactions from NATO allies and it had increasingly seemed that Ankara was getting ready to change its mind and opt for the European system after all.
But ahead of his July 28-29 visit to Beijing Erdogan suggested that air defense was part of the agenda. "The most suitable bid came from China but certain developments led to delays. We will revisit these matters during this trip. If we receive a proposal that enriches the bid, we will view this positively," Erdoğan told a news conference in Ankara before departing for China.
"The visit's most important topic will be the negotiations between China and Turkey on defense systems," an unnamed Turkish official told Turkish newspaper Today's Zaman.
NATO's primary objection to Turkey buying the Chinese system was that it would not be able to be securely integrated into NATO's own air defense system, of which Turkey already plays a large part. Turkey, meanwhile, has argued that its highest priority is getting access to the technology used to built the system so that it can eventually build them (or something similar) itself; China was willing to that (in addition to being a cheaper offer) while the European bidder weren't.
One of the more interesting story lines from the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Russia was the addition of new "dialogue partners": Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, and Nepal.
The role of a dialogue partner is not clear, and seems to vary: Belarus had been a dialogue partner, and played an active role in the organization. President Alexander Lukashenko went to the summit earlier this month and Belarus was upgraded to an SCO observer. Turkey, meanwhile, became a dialogue partner in 2013 and since then both the SCO and Ankara, by all public appearances, seem to have completely ignored one another.
But that caveat aside, becoming part of the SCO is nevertheless a statement of some sort of geopolitical intention. Armenia's accession is not too surprising: it is Russia which is clearly interested in pushing SCO expansion in order to boost its own international status, and Yerevan is highly susceptible to Moscow's wishes.
Azerbaijan's entrance, however, is more interesting. What does Azerbaijan have to gain from being part of the SCO?
For one, the SCO's focus on weakening Western norms of human rights is clearly attractive given its accelerating feud with the United States and European countries over what Baku says is unfair criticism of its political and human rights practices.
Heads of state of SCO member countries (in the front row) and heads of partner states and organizations (behind) at the SCO summit in Ufa, Russia, July 9-10. (photo: SCO)
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has wrapped up its annual summit, and while the member states seemed to have failed to advance the concrete items they had on their agenda, they nevertheless adopted an ambitious strategy aimed at deconstructing the Western-dominated world order.
The summit was held in Ufa, Russia, on July 9-10, and as expected the big news was that India and Pakistan began the accession process. Somewhat more unexpected was the announcement there will be four new "dialogue partners": Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, and Nepal. And Belarus, which had been a dialogue partner, is now a formal observer, along with Iran, Mongolia, Afghanistan.
However, the accession of India and Pakistan may not be without its bumps: Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov said that adding them to the SCO will "change the balance of power" and should be discussed further. Karimov was speaking at a joint appearance with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who tried to brush the comment off with a sort of joke, Tass reported: "Islam Abduganievich, but how will it look: President Karimov of Uzbekistan brought India and Pakistan into the SCO and created a new political world reality,' Putin answered with a smile. 'Let's talk about it.'" Uzbekistan is now the chairman of the organization and next year's summit will take place in Tashkent.
Belarus has announced that it tested its new rocket-launcher system in China, the latest sign of an increasing military partnership between the two countries. And Belarus's president Aleksandr Lukashenko took the opportunity to take swipes at both Russia and NATO countries, suggesting Minsk may be more comfortable with Beijing than with any of its neighbors in Europe.
The Polonez multiple-launch rocket system is Belarus's highest-profile defense industry innovation, and took the spotlight at the country's May 9 Victory Day parade this year. Many analysts have suggested that it bears traces of Chinese origin and may use rockets (which Belarus doesn't produce) from China. So the fact that it was tested in China certainly gives credence to that speculation.
But the press release announcing the test, which featured comments from Lukashenko, was unusually feisty for the genre. "Our ally, Russia, is not so active in supporting our aspirations. We will talk about that separately with the Russian president," Lukashenko said, without citing which aspirations were not being supported. "But we thank the People's Republic of China and its leadership for this support."
Lukashenko also took aim at NATO, though he was a bit more understanding to his western neighbors: "They constantly publicly demonstrate their activities, especially on our borders," he said. "This activity can not but alarm us. But this isn't really an issue. We understand the propaganda aspect of these acts. You need to keep your powder dry. We have always said this."