BY WENDY MIN
China’s Belt and Road initiative (B&R) has spanned the globe and injected vitality during a period of economic slowdown and stagnation. My encounter with locals during my trip through the Caucasus region has provided interesting observations on what China is doing, the country’s image, Belt and Road initiative and interestingly how one country feels that they are missing out on the opportunities that B&R could bring.
Economic stability means social stability. For any country, economic well-being is important for the lives of many. The Caucasus region, which consists of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, used to be an important region along the ancient Silk Road. The B&R initiative which comprises both land-based Silk Route and the oceangoing Maritime Route is aimed at not only boosting trade but also ensuring a comprehensive upgrade of infrastructure, business opportunities and with it, greater influx of tourists. Despite being an unconventional destination, Chinese travelers still venture into the region to experience something different from what they are used to. So what, who and how is China engaged with in the Caucasus Region?
Arak, an Armenian bank teller, told me that Chinese ventures in the region have been focused on her country’s arch enemy – Azerbaijan. “They have natural reserves and since Azerbaijan faces the Caspian Sea and has a port in her capital city Baku that connects other regions, it might be easier for them to draw attention compared to Armenia,” said Arak. This is not quite true because when it comes to petroleum and gas related products, China trades with Arak’s country and is among some of Armenia’s top foreign trade partners. Georgia offers an inland trade path which links to Eastern Europe and beyond.
Like Armenia, China whether in MOUs or deals has been present in Georgia. I was told by many locals during my travels in the region that one of the reasons why trade between China and the Caucasian Republics flourishes is due to transportation.
Slow economic growth and delay in investment may be a good thing given the instability in the Caucasus: Georgia’s rocky relationship with Russia, and Azerbaijan and Armenia’s restive situation. As soon as infrastructure and the basic foundation blocks are there, there will always be room for development and most importantly people-to-people exchanges.
While some show skepticism and see such projects as a way of stirring up diplomatic row with other countries, particularly Russia, such worries are rather overblown. In a world where protectionism is more visible than openness, it does not hurt nor is it menacing for countries to propose greater cooperation and in this case, link Europe to Asia through regions that are underrated and deserve much more development.
One of the beauties of the B&R initiative is the range of opportunities it offers and the ability of countries to decide how to approach and turn such exchange into integration and development of infrastructure, technology, trade deals, tourism and more.
According to the World Bank, Belt and Road trade routes both through ancient silk routes and maritime routes will span over 60 countries reaching more than 4.4 billion people and economies. Openness and willingness to connect through business should not always be met with disdain and distrust. Above all, nothing good comes out of “fear.”
Although the pace of investment is not as obvious as projects set in Africa, South East Asia and Central Asia, the Caucasus region remains important for the Silk Road. China and all parties involved recognize this and it is up to all sides involved to stick to ways which boost trade, maintain stability and ensure that consensus is reached and win-win results are maximized.
(The author is a freelance writer. She was born in China, raised in Australia, educated in China, Australia and France. firstname.lastname@example.org)
B&R initiative boosts Caucasus economies
BY WENDY MIN