Geopolitics of New Silk Road: A Georgian Perspective
Georgia has taken a journey to try and make it a hub between Asia and Europe.
Right from times immemorial peace, tranquillity has been of paramount importance for the conduct of trade and commerce amongst the sovereign entities of the world. There is no doubt that there is an invariable relationship between regional stability and mutual economic engagement. For centuries, connecting the continents of the East and the West has been a big challenge. Looking for the shortest route of utmost importance. A potential solution to the age-old problem has been proposed by the state of Georgia in the Caucasus region.
Locked between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, Georgia has been a major transit region between Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Historically speaking, due to its peculiar geographical position it has played an instrumental role in connecting China, Central Asia, and Europe via the Ancient Silk Route. The Ancient Silk Route which was developed in 2nd Century B.C originally coursed through Iran and Syria. It is due to the conflict between the Byzantium Empire and Iran in 6th Century A.D that it became difficult for the caravans to traverse through this war-torn region, hence the Caucasian route became popular amongst the traders. Though the terrain was difficult, from political and security stand-point, this route proved to be much more favourable.
The history of Georgia is marked by countless invasions by Mongols, Ottomans, Persians and in recent times Russia, because of which for the longest period Georgia was deprived of its key role in transcontinental trade. The horrors of the August war of 2008 between Russia and Georgia are still afresh in the memory of the people, where the outskirts of Tbilisi were bombed by the Russian army and encroached 25 miles into the Georgian territory which caused the major displacement of the Georgian population.
Now, to counter-balance Russia, Georgia is looking to engage the regional powers like Iran, Azerbaijan, and Turkey. Over the past two decades, Georgia has even established strong relations with the EU and U.S.A and is seeking membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
However, the concept of New Silk Road which is the brainchild of China has proven to be the biggest opportunity that Georgia has had since 1490 when the unified Georgian Monarchy was dissolved and major trade routes used to pass through the region. And, Georgia is looking to capitalize on this opportunity to restore its former glory. In the biennial Tbilisi Silk Road Forum that took place on October 22-23 2019, the Prime Minister of Georgia Giorgi Gakharia said "Georgia is a gateway to this region. Our goal is not only to integrate east and west but also north and south. Therefore, Georgia is taking concrete steps to build strong economic relations with all our partners in the region and beyond."
The old silk road disintegrated because of all the conflicts in its path. As the new silk road begins, the world is still concerned whether this new silk road will carry all the countries on its path. Iran's Ambassador to Georgia Dr Seyyed Javad Ghavam Shahidi shares the same concern. In an interview, he said "The silk road was a good economic plan at the time. Now after almost a thousand years, a new initiative has presented itself which is a good idea indeed but it should benefit not only the countries that have a point of contact but also the countries surrounding the new silk road as well. No country should be left behind."
Trouble in Paradise
Georgia also wants to initiate the West Asia corridor, which will be a multi-modal corridor via Iran to India. It offers to help build all the trade routes and become a hassle-free hub to Europe. It is quite evident that the Georgian Government is giving a clarion call to the world to utilize Georgia as a transit point once again between Asia and Europe. But the world's approach towards the New Silk Road for transiting goods freely has been fairly regressive. It is because modern global geopolitics has been reduced to a zero-sum game. The strategic and economic growth of a state is perceived as a threat by the neighbouring countries. There is an ever-increasing sense of mistrust and miscommunication amongst the nations of the world. For instance, Russia has been fairly apprehensive of the Belt Road Initiative from the very beginning, as it perceives BRI to be at crossroads with its own Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) which was established in 2015. It perceives that it will allow China to overtake Russia's influence in the Central Asian Region. Russia is also getting uneasy by the growing proximity of Georgia with the United States and NATO, fearing that Georgia's membership into NATO will provide put Russia's control of the region in jeopardy. Such instances have further put a wedge between the two countries.
In Asia, China's territorial expansionist policies; the building of artificial islands in South China sea; Doklam valley standoff with Indian troops in 2017 and most recent violent confrontation with the Indian army at Galwan valley on 15th June 2020; does not inspire confidence in China's motives and agenda from the neighbouring countries. In response, India is trying to destabilize Balochistan, which is central to China's CPEC project. India has increased its naval presence in the South China Sea by establishing a naval base at the Na Trang port in Vietnam and also has the potential to clampdown major BRI trade routes be it either the strait of Hormuz or the strait of Malacca.
Some Central Asian states have displayed concern over China's growing economic presence in the region, as the bitter memory of the cruel Soviet regime is still green in the minds of the people. A portion of the Kazakhstan population has exhibited 'Anti-China Sentiment' over the issue of influx of better paid Chinese workers in the region.
According to Hans J. Morgenthau "International politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power. Whatever the ultimate aims of international politics, power is always the immediate aim". This maxim never was truer than in the present international political scene. In such a global geopolitical scenario where there is a growing security dilemma, shifting balance of power, and the resurgence of the multipolar world, ambitious ideas such as New Silk Road has indeed taken a backseat. Multilateralism has become easier to preach but difficult to practice. At this juncture, talks on regional stability, peace, and confidence-building measures must take the centre stage.
In this background, if China wants that its grand project 'Belt Road Initiative' sees the light of day, it must create an atmosphere of mutual trust with its neighbours in South Asia and South-East Asia. It must put an end to all its adventurism at the South China Sea and on LAC with India. It is a matter of fact that if China won't take India on board the OBOR initiative will never come to fruition.
Russia must initiate peacebuilding measures in the Caucasus region and adopt an inclusive model of development taking into account all the stakeholders. It must engage Georgia bilaterally to resolve their mutual territorial conflicts.
The need of the hour is to promote global harmony. There must be a cultural engagement amongst the nations; there has to be collective action against global issues like climate change, poverty, health, hunger disease, malnutrition, education, etc. What we need right now are the global leaders with strong moral fibre, who can look past the mutual differences and initiate a dialogue for change.
Georgia's offer is on the table and now the ball is in the court of the world leaders, whether they want to maintain the status quo or unleash the winds of economic prosperity for all.