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China In Eurasia Briefing: China Enters The Black Sea Through Georgia

A view overlooking Anaklia, the site where a Chinese consortium plans to build Georgia's first deep-sea port on the Black Sea
A view overlooking Anaklia, the site where a Chinese consortium plans to build Georgia's first deep-sea port on the Black Sea

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China's resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

I'm RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here's what I'm following right now.

Chinese Firms Set To Build Deep-Sea Port In Georgia

Georgia announced that a Chinese consortium submitted the sole bid to build a sprawling deep-sea port in Anaklia, marking the first megaproject on the Black Sea coast to be built and operated by Chinese firms.

Finding Perspective: The development brings an end to a multiyear political saga inside Georgia over building a deep-sea port at Anaklia, while the role of the Chinese consortium pushes Tbilisi's growing ties with Beijing into the spotlight.

Georgian Economy and Sustainable Development Minister Levan Davitashvili made the announcement at a May 29 press conference, where he said the government had received bids from a Swiss-Luxembourgish consortium and a joint offer from China Communications Construction Company and the Singapore-based China Harbour Investment.

He added that China Road and Bridge Corporation and Qingdao Port International will serve as subcontractors to build the port.

Davitashvili said Tbilisi only received a final proposal from the Chinese consortium, though, which now looks set to build the country's first deep-sea port. He said more details would be revealed "in the coming days."

Why It Matters: Georgia is no stranger to awarding high-profile infrastructure deals to Chinese firms, but the announcement could have far-reaching implications.

For starters, it's another sign of how close Tbilisi and Beijing are becoming. In July 2023, they signed a strategic partnership pact, and Anaklia marks another attempt to bring Chinese companies to Georgia's Black Sea after a bid around Poti's port broke down in 2020.

This deal will also affect the future of the so-called Middle Corridor, a global trade network that ships goods between Europe and Asia in which Georgia serves as a strategic node. The European Union has said developing the route is a goal, especially since Moscow's 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine where it provides trade links that bypass Russia.

But China's new role with a deep-sea port in Anaklia -- which would allow larger ships to transport increased volumes at a more efficient rate -- changes things and marks a setback for Brussels.

"This is not good news for the EU, and I think the fact that [China is now building] the port shows a lack of strategic thinking in Brussels," Romana Vlahutin, a former EU ambassador-at-large for connectivity, told me.

What We Know So Far: Many of the details are still to be revealed, as is the actual contract and total price tag. The government said previously it will retain 51 percent ownership of the port project, with 49 percent going to the other partners.

The Chinese companies involved also come with an interesting history. China Communications Construction Company is a massive player in global infrastructure and one of the largest firms involved in construction projects for China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) over the last decade.

But from 2011 to 2019, the World Bank banned the firm and its affiliates from participating in World Bank-funded construction projects due to a fraud scandal in a road project in the Philippines in 2009.

For a more detailed look at the company's history -- and of some past scandals involving other firms involved in the Anaklia bid -- check out this article by Luka Pertaia from RFE/RL's Georgian Service and myself.

What To Watch: This deal marks the second attempt to build a deep-sea port in Anaklia.

Previously, a consortium formed between Georgia's TBC Bank and the U.S.-based Conti International was canceled by the government in 2020 after years of political controversy that saw TBC co-founders Mamuka Khazaradze and Badri Japaridze facing money-laundering charges.

The pair were charged but released without jail terms, and Khazaradze has claimed the authorities were trying to sabotage the project. The contract for that deal was worth $2.5 billion.

Khazaradze is in the process of taking the Georgian government to an arbitration court in London over what he maintains were politically motivated charges to derail the port. He's been an outspoken critic of the project's revival and said in the past that he believes the legal roadblocks with how the previous consortium was pushed aside could derail the new attempt to build it.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. Zelenskiy Finally Criticizes China

Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy accused Russia and China of attempting to undermine his upcoming global peace summit in Switzerland.

The Details: "Russia, using Chinese influence on the region, using Chinese diplomats also, does everything to disrupt the peace summit," Zelenskiy said during a June 2 press conference.

The public rebuke comes after careful positioning by Kyiv around Beijing and its deepening ties with Moscow.

"We do not expect military support from China. We have never asked them.... But we do not expect China to provide defense support to Russia," Zelenskiy said. "That is what we discussed with the Chinese leader by phone. He promised me China would stand aside, would not support Russia with weapons. Today, there is intelligence that somehow, some way, some things come to Russia's markets via China…elements of Russia's weaponry come from China."

The comments highlight the Ukrainian president's mounting frustration and also perhaps an acceptance that the strategy of public silence has not worked.

2. What Kind Of Chinese Support For Russia?

While the flow of dual-use goods from China to help Russia's war effort continues to take center stage, there were mixups between Western partners over just how exactly Beijing has been helping Moscow.

What It Means: British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps made headlines on May 22 when he said there was evidence that "lethal aid is now, or will be, flowing from China to Russia and into Ukraine."

Shapps didn't provide any details to support his claim, but it still circulated until later that same day when U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said he had not seen evidence that China was directly sending lethal military help to Russia.

"We have not seen that to date. I look forward to speaking with the U.K. to make sure that we have a common operating picture," Sullivan told reporters.

Sullivan added he did have a "concern about what China's doing to fuel Russia's war machine, not giving weapons directly, but providing inputs to Russia's defense industrial base," a claim more in line with most Western assessments.

3. Two Agreements In Belgrade Stand Out

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic signed 28 agreements during Chinese leader Xi Jinping's May visit to Belgrade, but experts and activists warn two deals in particular could have a lasting impact.

What You Need To Know: As my colleagues from RFE/RL's Balkan Service Dusan Komarcevic, Jovana Krstic, Nevena Bogdanovic, and myself reported, an extradition deal and a pact on media cooperation between Chinese state entities and pro-government Serbian outlets are particularly noteworthy.

In both cases, the concern stems from Serbia's own backsliding. For the extradition pact, the Balkan country's lack of judicial independence could open the door to abuse by Chinese officials.

While activists and journalists warn that the media deal -- when combined with the deterioration of Serbia's media environment -- could further decrease the already shrinking space for independent information in the country.

"The fear is that this will lead to an increase in anti-European narratives across the Balkans," Antoinette Nikolova, director of the Balkan Free Media Initiative, told me. "The Serbian information environment is already saturated with Russian propaganda and now it will become an echo chamber for Chinese narratives, too."

Across The Supercontinent

Deadlocked: The Financial Times, citing "three people familiar with the matter," reported that negotiations on the Power of Siberia-2 gas pipeline from Russia to China are currently derailed "over what Moscow sees as Beijing's unreasonable demands on price and supply levels."

Digital Yurt: I met up in Prague recently with Said Maximov, who founded Digital Yurt, an online community for Kazakhstan's Uyghur minority that's looking to modernize old practices and keep the culture thriving.

Taliban Recognition Watch: As several countries appear poised to delist the Taliban from their list of terrorist groups, my colleague Abubakar Siddique looked at where Afghanistan's neighbors -- including China -- stand in extending recognition to the group.

Far-Side Of The Moon: China's Chang'e-6 lunar probe successfully landed on the far side of the moon to collect samples, the latest leap for Beijing's decades-old space program.

One Thing To Watch

According to the Wall Street Journal, European investigators increasingly see Russian fingerprints around a suspected sabotage on a Baltic gas pipeline late last year.

Finnish investigators linked a Chinese-registered ship, operated by a Russian crew, to the cutting of the Balticconnector natural-gas pipeline to mainland Europe. Few other details have materialized despites attempts by Finnish authorities to get information from their Chinese counterparts.

The Wall Street Journal reports that as the investigation advanced and the ship sailed around Scandinavia back toward Russia following the incident, the Finns contacted their Norwegian counterparts about their suspicions of the vessel's involvement. Norwegian authorities contemplated forcing the ship into one of their harbors for inspection but ultimately decided they lacked clear evidence.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

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About The Newsletter

China In Eurasia
Reid Standish

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this biweekly dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

To subscribe, click here.