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.
Two panels this month, one in Washington and the other in Istanbul, illustrate the broad gap in thinking on Central Asia between foreign policy leaders in Washington and mid-level practitioners more closely linked to the region.
"The US must take initiative to create a long-term strategy for the region. It should bring the New Silk Road to the region, because if we do not, others [Russia, China] will fill the void," Adib Farhadi, a visiting Afghan scholar at the Central Asia and Caucasus Institute (CACI) at Johns Hopkins University, said, summarizing the sentiments of his fellow panelists in Washington.
Just a few days earlier in Istanbul, however, one panelist derided Washington's New Silk Road concept – unveiled by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in mid-2011 – to widespread agreement: "The New Silk Road was a strategy, then an initiative, now I guess it is a vision. It should be called an illusion and ignored. It was created by outsiders without reference to what is going on in the region."
The Atlantic Council and CACI jointly hosted the Washington panel, entitled "The New Silk Road Project: A New Strategy for Afghanistan and Central-South Asia," on October 9. The previous week, the US Congress-chartered Hollings Center for International Dialogue gathered 30 policy experts and development practitioners from Central Asia, Afghanistan, Turkey and the West for a dialogue on "Central Asia's Regional Challenges." The Hollings Center event on October 3-5 was held under the Chatham House Rule, thus participants’ names have been withheld.
As the United States has grown more dependent on the countries of Central Asia for transit routes into and out of Afghanistan, policymakers in Washington have talked up the military’s Northern Distribution Network as the beginning of a “New Silk Road.” The idea is to help the region’s stagnant economies by promoting regional trade and, hopefully in the process, bring stability to Afghanistan.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton trumpeted the idea at a town hall meeting in Dushanbe in October 2011, saying she hoped the New Silk Road would increase “economic opportunity here in Tajikistan so that so many of your people do not have to leave home to find work, that there can be a flourishing economy right here.”
But a new study says these hopes are overly optimistic. The Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a logistics supply chain that has, since 2009, become the primary overland supply route for the war in Afghanistan, has not helped ease trade or cut corruption throughout the region. Instead, the study, released by the Open Society Foundations on October 19, finds it may be having the opposite effect in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. [Editor’s Note: EurasiaNet operates under OSF’s auspices.]
The report, by Graham Lee (a former EurasiaNet contributor), asks four key questions: Is the NDN incentivizing regional cooperation and border reforms? Is the NDN helping to fight corruption in Central Asia? Has the NDN made transshipment through Central Asia more efficient? Are ordinary Central Asian citizens benefitting from NDN trade?