By Ateet Sharma
New Delhi, Jul 10 (IANS): External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar's two-day visit to Georgia beginning Friday - the first by an Indian EAM to Tbilisi since the country got independent in 1991- signals the importance India is giving to the region where China continues to expand its footprint through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as the new Silk Road.
Jaishankar's trip, at the invitation of David Zalkaliani, the Vice Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Georgia, comes at a time when Beijing has made deep inroads into the Georgian economy, becoming one of its top trading partners and also the main source for foreign direct investments.
Georgia is not only in line with the 'One China' policy but also, considering its geostrategic location, welcomed the implementation of Chinese President Xi Jinping's signature One Belt One Road Initiative (OBOR), or the BRI project, even though Beijing has been labelled as a craven money-lender by many, keen to push smaller nations into "debt traps".
Insisting that the 'new Silk Road' can become an inexhaustible resource for economic development and political stability for many countries, the Georgian Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had also launched 'Tbilisi Silk Road Forum' with the support of the Chinese government and the Asian Development Bank, to promote BRI in the Eurasian region.
The Chinese investments in Georgia have grown considerably after the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the two countries was signed. Georgia is the only country in the region to have a FTA with China, which came into effect from January 1, 2018.
It is the construction sector in Georgia which has seen massive amounts of money being poured in from Beijing. Around 90 per cent of the total $600 million invested in Georgia from China since the first ever investment in 2002, came from the construction sector.
Chinese state-owned hydropower engineering and construction companies like Sinohydro, a subsidiary of Power Construction Corporation of China (PowerChina), engaged in the construction of highways in Georgia since long, are now also involved in reconstruction of strategically important roads of the country like the Batumi-Akhaltsikhe highway.
Giorgi Gakharia, the Former Prime Minister of Georgia, during the opening of the Tbilisi Silk Road Forum in 2019, stated that in the modern world, the creation of new transport corridors between Europe and Asia is not only the opportunity, but also a necessity.
"Historically Georgia has played an important role in the development of the Silk Road. In the modern world, when economic integration and globalization is in action, the development of trade and economic relations between countries is of top importance and we are proud to be the part of the Silk Road initiative which serves the goal of close economic, state-to-state cooperation," Gakharia had said while applauding the Chinese BRI.
China's Hualing Group too has invested over 500 million US Dollars in various projects in Georgia since 2007, building Tbilisi Sea New City near Tbilisi Sea, Sea Plaza, industrial zones, hotels, among others.
However, analysts believe that even though the Chinese continue to pump in money into Georgia, from infrastructure projects to hydropower plants, the relationship which once looked promising could be losing its charm.
Writing for the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) last year, Emil Avdaliani, Director of Middle East Studies at Georgian think tank Geocase, says that even though things haven't exactly went as planned, Tbilisi may not openly criticize Beijing considering the high stakes involved.
"The hopes for improvements in trade have not panned out. While there has been a steady increase in overall volume, statistics show that Georgia mostly exports raw materials to China, such as copper and various chemicals. A market for goods higher up the value chain has not materialized. Similarly, concerns over corrupt practices have increased, especially tied to how Chinese companies have been awarded contracts," wrote Avdaliani.
It is here, when Georgia may be looking for trustworthy and strategic partners to bolster its development, that India can play a crucial role.
India's connect with the territory located at the intersection of Europe and Asia dates back to the medieval age - Georgians are said to have served at the Mughal courts. Emperor Aurangzeb's wife Udaipuri Begum was also of Georgian origin.
However, in modern times, all the high-profile visits from New Delhi happened during the Soviet era with Jawaharlal Nehru visiting Tbilisi in 1955 (when he was welcomed in Hindi by the renowned Georgian Indologist and Sanskrit scholar Georgi Akhvledani); Indira Gandhi in the summer of 1976 and Atal Bihari Vajpayee in June 1978 as a foreign minister.
"It is time to expand India's connect Central Asia policy to include countries of the South Caucasus. Unlike five Central Asian republics, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia have varied ties with Moscow. So, India is carefully developing its relations with Georgia and Azerbaijan. This region could be important for India's broader connectivity plans for linking itself with Europe," Professor Gulshan Sachdeva, Chairperson, Centre for European Studies at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, told IndiaNarrative.com.
During his visit, Jaishankar and Zalkaliani will be discussing, besides increasing cooperation in multilateral formats and international organizations, the positive dynamics of the development of bilateral cooperation, including in the fields of politics, economy, investment, culture and education.
The existing friendship between the two countries will further deepen after Jaishankar handed over the Holy Relic of St. Queen Ketevan of Georgia to the people of Georgia, and a newly-installed statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Tbilisi will be unveiled on Saturday.