The Confluence of Armenian-Chinese Interests

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The strategic balance in the Caucasus is undergoing a rapid transformation. Russia is viewed by the West as a shrinking power and that is why NATO and the US have ensnared Georgia, moving it away from Russia’s grip. Turkey seems to be a proxy for the West to fill in the perceived power vacuum in the Caucasus. On the other hand, Russia and China have been intensifying their cooperation.

Iran is about to sign a $400-billion megapact with China, frustrated by the sanctions imposed on it by the West.

There are forces in Iran willing to improve relations with the West, among them President Hassan Rouhani.

As odd as it may seem, President Trump’s intolerant attitude towards Iran is playing into the hands of domestic conservatives to escalate tensions and push Iran into the Russo-Chinese embrace. There is little hope that the US elections would shift the balance, even if Joe Biden were elected president.

Armenia has been caught in these transforming shifts of policies, when particularly, Turkey has become the antagonizing factor in Karabakh, replacing Azerbaijan. Ankara, in addition to its traditional animosity toward Armenia, has its grand plans to deliver the Caucasus to the West, all the while pursuing designs of Ottomanism, which look beyond Armenia, towards Central Asia. This in turn irritates Moscow and Beijing, simultaneously.

The Velvet Revolution only had a domestic agenda but some elements who were in lock-step with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s My Step party had an alternative agenda in mind and they have continued to pursue it, despite the pandemic and the internal turmoil; that agenda aims to oust Russia from Armenia and the Caucasus.

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Pashinyan himself has already realized that to accommodate that agenda is becoming more and more difficult, as Armenia has become forced to become more dependent on Russian military presence and take its chances with China, whose soft power has helped to make it a presence much to Washington’s chagrin.

On two occasions, Beijing rolled out the red carpet for visiting Armenia’s leaders. Both Serzh Sargsyan and Nikol Pashinyan were received with great fanfare in China, much more so than Armenia’s weight would command anywhere in the world. That kind of treatment has been coupled with a Chinese diplomatic presence in Armenia.

Indeed, China built its second largest embassy in Yerevan, after Moscow. Although China is not locked in an ideological bind in formulating its foreign policy, as the former Soviet Union used to be, it is very much aware where its interests lie.

China has trade and economic relations also with Azerbaijan and Georgia, but it realizes that the first is beholden to Turkey and the latter to the West.

Armenia would be more accommodating if its leaders realize the mutual benefit to both countries.

China has taken a 75-percent interest in the Free Industrial Zone at Poti on Georgia’s Black Sea coastline.

When Pashinyan visited China last May, there were very cordial exchanges at the time.

“We are united by the common goals of cooperation and civilization,” said the Chinese President Xi Jinping. He continued, “We are well aware of momentous events in the history of Armenia. We believe that the tragic events that befell the Armenian people must be prevented in the future.”

That was a direct allusion to the Armenian Genocide, yet on the other hand, in relations with Azerbaijan, China assures the latter that mutual relations are to be developed respecting the territorial integrity of both countries, the meaning of which is very obvious.

Answering the Chinese president, Pashinyan stated that “our peoples represent ancient civilizations. Already in the fifth century, Armenian manuscripts described ties between the two peoples.”

China was the first country to recognize Armenia’s independence; it is its second largest trading partner. Trade between the two increased 29 percent in 2018 to $771 million. What is most important is that Armenia is relying on Chinese support to achieve projects to improve its infrastructure.

China is already involving in some highway upgrades. But it is more significant to be included in the development of regional networks undertaken by Beijing in its Belt and Road Initiative, since Azerbaijan, in collusion with Georgia, has bypassed Armenia in all their joint projects.

China has spent $12 million to build the Chinese-Armenian Friendship School, where 400 students are immersed in a Chinese education.

China has been building Huawei’s Smart Cities around the world, from Germany to Singapore. There is talk that a similar Smart City is also being planned for Armenia, at a cost of $10 billion. That will give a tremendous technological boost to Armenia.

There are more prospects in the making: the Horasis China 2020 meeting which was planned to take place in Yerevan, was postponed because of the pandemic. Now it has been rescheduled for October 20-25, 2021.

More than 300 Horasis Vision Community members from businesses and governments will join an intense program. It is said that Horasis China “will play an accelerating role in the rapidly expanding trade and foreign investment between China and Armenia.”

Economic and technological cooperation is a welcome component to Armenia’s technological advancement, particularly in view of the fact that there is a concerted effort by Armenia’s neighbors to isolate it. But beyond that, Armenia is concerned with its security as it is facing existential threats with Turkey’s aggressive stance in the region.

Fortunately, Yerevan has assumed a more assertive posture in taking advantage of international developments.

It began to diversity its foreign policy when the opportunity rose, to partner with Greece and Cyprus when these countries were threatened by Turkey recently. A major development for Armenia is the recent opening with Egypt. Egypt is at odds with Turkey regarding Libya. But beyond that, Turkey has posed a larger challenge to Egypt, with its ambitions to lead the Sunni Muslim world.

Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan’s recent trip to Cairo and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s planned visit to Yerevan will enhance Armenia’s visibility on the diplomatic map of the Middle East.

As important as these developments are for Armenia, they cannot replace the support of a superpower, which Yerevan will find in China. It is believed that China has been helping Armenia militarily. But that cooperation will become more formal when the two countries join the Caucasus 2020 military drills scheduled to take place in Astrakhan, at Moscow’s initiative. Armenia, Belarus, Iran, Myanmar, Pakistan and China will be sending military delegations to the exercises to take place on September 21-26.

Russia and China have established a “comprehensive strategic partnership” to cooperate on military matters and in diplomacy to counter largely the US influence in their respective neighborhoods. They also cooperate at the United Nations, particularly on strategic issues on the Security Council agenda.

Although Armenia is small, for China it has significant strategic importance. Turkey views Armenia as a roadblock for its drive to unite the Turkic peoples of Central Asia. From the Chinese perspective, Armenia represents a safeguard against such Turkish penetration in Central Asia. Turkey has been trying to agitate and incite the Uyghur Muslim minority in China’s Xinjiang province to rise up against the central government. The Chinese authorities are fighting back, trying to put a lid on incipient imported extremism, though their methods are harsh.

Armenian activism and advocacy can play a small role in the US to yield some political dividends. But while Turkey is on the other side of the NATO balance, Armenia’s existential concerns cannot be met when push comes to shove. The West does not seem to offer a safe haven for Armenia, despite all its rhetoric.

Strategically, there is a confluence of interests between Armenia and China, in view of Turkey’s growing role in the Caucasus.

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