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China Political Risk Architecture Exposed in South Caucasus

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Photo: News.cn

China-Azerbaijan relations after the Second Karabakh War remain in passive mode. More widely, reactionary foreign policy has exposed China’s Belt and Road narrative as both politically and economically thin. As access narratives across crucial chokepoints for China’s Belt and Road intensified in 2020, China’s foreign policy in the South Caucasus remains ill-defined.

While 2020 saw instability across key Belt and Road chokepoints Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus China has been exposed as having little political risk architecture with which to engage the region. Despite geoeconomics logistics priorities and an increased geopolitical interest in the Caspian gas pole, Azerbaijan remains more important to the European Union than to China. And for China, Central Asia has been demonstrated to be a more policy-critical geography than the South Caucasus, with a more sophisticated policy architecture deployment.

With a poor regional Belt and Road integration policy and a lackluster position on the Second Karabakh War, China is now being shown up as having no South Caucasus policy. China’s foreign policy hierarchies show that the three South Caucasus countries are all ranked equally at the lowest level of diplomatic relationship of the Eurasian Belt and Road countries. Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are all at the 12th tier in China’s diplomatic hierarchy, Friendly Cooperative Partnership. Whereas the South Caucasus peripheral powers all rank more highly, with Turkey at the 6th tier, Iran in the 4th tier along with Belt and Road strategic economies Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, while Russia and Pakistan are first and second respectively.

China only established Friendly Cooperative Partnership status with Azerbaijan in 2015, after Georgia in 2006 and Armenia in 2000. Thus for the policy concept of a pan-Turkic corridor from Istanbul to Khorgos over the Caspian Sea, the priority for reaching China is more pronounced on the Turkey Republic and Turkic states side, with little policy attention from Beijing. Aliyev was in Beijing in 2019 for the Belt and Road summit, and both Politburo Standing Committee member Li Zhanshu, and top non-Politburo foreign policy-maker State Councillor Wang Yi visited Baku, but these high-level meetings have not been followed up with any tangible geoconomic policy.

Contrast this with the early days of Belt and Road development when in 2016 Azerbaijan received two very different diplomatic guests from China, Meng Jianzhu then head of domestic security, the tsar of population surveillance, internet control, and internal paramilitary policing, and Zhang Gaoli, the policy architect of the economic side of the Belt and Road, responsible for the infrastructure, industrial transfer, and financial expansion nuts and bolts of Belt and Road in Eurasia. Visits by these senior practical policy-makers signalled clandestine development of Azerbaijan domestic security technology as well as transformative geoeconomic industrial transfer projects.

However China has not built on this early Belt and Road diplomacy and engagement. The Economic and Commercial Office of the China Embassy in Azerbaijan information service is almost entirely commodities and macroeconomic figures updates. Whereas Central Asian economic and commercial offices have more sophisticated analysis and information services across a wider range of economic and social issues. Azerbaijan is also at a strange cross-road in China’s diplomatic discourse. Ministry of Foreign Affairs categorizes Azerbaijan as ‘Asia’ whereas Ministry of Commerce includes it within its Eurasian (post-Soviet) categorization, while some central level Party China foreign policies for the region consider Azerbaijan as part of the China-Arab dialogue. Spatial planning is important in both China’s domestic public administration and planned external geoeconomic policy, meaning the lack of integration in this spatial thinking is indicative of an unclear foreign policy agenda.

Ministry of Commerce remains the most important foreign policy-making office in China’s State Council public administration, and was the spearhead of the practical economic mechanisms of the Belt and Road. The Ministry leads development of the archipelago of Chinese capital in the network of over 80 Overseas Economic Trade and Cooperation Zones. These offshore industrial parks mimic the conditions of early capitalism in China’s onshore Special Economic Zones, cheap labour, low regulation and cheap raw inputs. They are a core geoindustrial institution underpinning the Belt and Road, yet in the South Caucasus, Georgia is home to the only China industrial park, Hualing Kutaisi Free Industrial Zone, whereas there are at least eight industrial parks in North Africa and West Asia, and six in Central Asia, highlighting these two regions’ long-term geoeconomic significance.

China’s basic political calculus in the South Caucasus is that Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey are all useful Belt and Road nodes in a corridor to bypass Russia, but that Armenia has no geoeconomic value. China’s South Caucasus foreign policy also cannot entertain any discourse of Armenian expression of self-determination in Karabakh as this runs counter to the Uyghur policy in Xinjiang. However China’s wider Belt and Road geopolitical position with does Armenia run counter to the ideological discourse construction through the Ancient Civilizations Forum, which includes Armenia but not Turkey. Self-identifying as an ancient civilization is integral to China’s underlying globalization ideology. Yet there remains essentially no engagement with Russia’s Third Rome thesis or anti-Atlanticist position. China entering the South Caucasus geoeconomic space with a thinly researched appeal to ancient history belies a naivety in narrative construction.

For China though, the lack of regional engagement is understandable. Whereas most of China’s Belt and Road policies are geoeconomic, the China-Azerbaijan relationship is geopolitical. China has no need for Azerbaijan hydrocarbon exports as China’s regional sources are Turkmenistan and Russia for gas, Iran for oil. Azerbaijan is though a key node in the Middle Corridor transport corridor with China. However while the Middle Corridor rail freight system is important to China, it has largely been left to the regional economies themselves to develop. China’s strategic interests in Azerbaijan are thus centred not on the utility of regional access itself, but rather on future scenarios of other states’ access, Russia in the Caspian Sea, the European Union in Adriatic gas, and Turkey via the rail freight system. Yet while much of the Belt and Road is designed to circumvent reliance on Russia, but China still lacks the Turkey competence to develop a viable regional geoeconomic presence.

China has little political risk exposure in the South Caucasus. But the negative space of China’s geoeconomic policy in the Caspian and Black Sea geographies is indicative of the policy disjointedness of the Belt and Road. There is now an ideological vacuum in China’s foreign policy which prohibits policy-makers from crafting discourses for the states and regions involved. Azerbaijan in 2020 was a Belt and Road node which demonstrated that China does not have the political risk architecture in place to manage the multivariate policy outcomes present in the Belt and Road hyperpolicy. As the South Caucasus becomes more important for both the European Union’s energy security, and a deepening Russia-Turkey geopolitical contretemps, China will continue to struggle to form geoeconomic policy for the Eurasian Belt and Road economies as long as these states hold little economic or narrative legitimising power.

From our partner RIAC

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Eastern Europe

Unhappy Iran Battles for Lost Influence in South Caucasus

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Events that might not matter elsewhere in the world matter quite a lot in the South Caucasus. Given a recent history of conflict, with all the bad feelings that generates, plus outside powers playing geostrategic games, and its growing importance as an energy corridor between Europe and Central Asia, the region is vulnerable. 

This has been worsened by the two-year-long Western absence of engagement. In 2020, Europe and the U.S. were barely involved as the second Nagorno-Karabakh war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, leaving about 7,000 dead. With tensions now on the rise between Azerbaijan and Iran, Western uninterest is again evident, even though this might have wider ramifications for future re-alignment in the South Caucasus. 

The drumbeat of Iranian activity against Azerbaijan has been consistent in recent months. Iran is getting increasingly edgy about Israel’s presence in the South Caucasus — hardly surprising given Israel’s painfully well-targeted assassination and computer hacking campaigns against nuclear staff and facilities — and especially its growing security and military ties with Azerbaijan, with whom Iran shares a 765km (430 mile) border. Iran has also voiced concern about the presence in the region of Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries, who were used as Azeri assault troops last year.  

Much of the anger has been played out in military exercises. The Azeri military has been busy since its victory, exercising near the strategic Lachin corridor which connects the separatist region to Armenia, and in the Caspian Sea, where it has jointly exercised with Turkish personnel. Iran, in turn, sent units to the border region this month for drills of an unstated scale. 

This week, the Azeri and Iranian foreign ministers agreed to dial down the rhetoric amid much talk of mutual understanding. Whether that involved promises regarding the Israeli presence or a pledge by Iran to abandon a newly promised road to Armenia was not stated. 

Iran’s behavior is a recognition of the long-term strategic changes caused by the Armenian defeat last year. Iran has been sidelined. Its diplomatic initiatives have failed, and it has been unwelcome in post-conflict discussions. 

It is true that Iran was never a dominant power in the South Caucasus. Unlike Russia or Turkey, the traditional power brokers, it has not had a true ally. Iran was certainly part of the calculus for states in the region, but it was not feared, like Russia or Turkey. And yet, the South Caucasus represents an area of key influence, based on millennia of close political and cultural contacts. 

Seen in this light, it is unsurprising that Iran ratcheted up tensions with Azerbaijan. Firstly, this reasserted the involvement of the Islamic Republic in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus. It was also a thinly-veiled warning to Turkey that its growing ambitions and presence in the region are seen as a threat. In Iran’s view, Turkey’s key role as an enabler of Azeri irridentism is unmistakable. 

Turkish involvement has disrupted the foundations of the South Caucasian status quo established in the 1990s. To expect Turkey to become a major power there is an overstretch, but it nevertheless worries Iran. For example, the recent Caspian Sea exercises between Azerbaijan and Turkey appear to run counter to a 2018 agreement among the sea’s littoral states stipulating no external military involvement. 

The Caspian Sea has always been regarded by Iranians as an exclusive zone shared first with the Russian Empire, later the Soviets, and presently the Russian Federation. Other littoral states play a minor role. This makes Turkish moves in the basin and the recent improvement of ties between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan an unpleasant development for Iran — fewer barriers to the Trans-Caspian Pipeline threatens the Islamic Republic’s ability to block the project.  

This is where Iranian views align almost squarely with the Kremlin’s. Both fear Turkish progress and new energy routes. The new Iranian leadership might now lean strongly toward Russia. With Russia’s backing, opposition to Turkey would become more serious; Iran’s foreign minister said this month that his country was seeking a “big jump” in relations with Russia. 

The fact is that the region is increasingly fractured and is being pulled in different directions by the greater powers around it. This state of affairs essentially dooms the prospects of pan-regional peace and cooperation initiatives. Take the latest effort by Russia and Turkey to introduce a 3+3 platform with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, as well as Iran. Beyond excluding the West, disagreements will eventually preclude any meaningful progress. There is no unity of purpose between the six states and there are profound disagreements. 

Thus, trouble will at some point recur between Iran and Azerbaijan, and by extension Turkey. Given the current situation, and Iran’s visible discontent, it is likely it will take some kind of initiative lest it loses completely its position to Turkey and Russia. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Eastern Europe

Right-wing extremist soldiers pose threat to Lithuania

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It is no secret that Lithuania has become a victim of German army’s radicalization. Could this country count on its partners further or foreign military criminals threaten locals?

It is well known that Germany is one of the largest provider of troops in NATO. There are about 600 German troops in Lithuania, leading a Nato battlegroup. According to Lithuanian authorities, Lithuania needs their support to train national military and to protect NATO’s Central and Northern European member states on NATO’s eastern flank.

Two sides of the same coin should be mentioned when we look at foreign troops in Lithuania.

Though Russian threat fortunately remains hypothetical, foreign soldiers deployed in the country cause serious trouble. Thus, the German defence minister admitted that reported this year cases of racist and sexual abuse in a German platoon based in Lithuania was unacceptable.

Members of the platoon allegedly filmed an incident of sexual assault against another soldier and sang anti-Semitic songs. Later more allegations emerged of sexual and racial abuse in the platoon, including soldiers singing a song to mark Adolf Hitler’s birthday on 20 April this year.

It turned out that German media report that far-right abuses among the Lithuania-based troops had already surfaced last year. In one case, a soldier allegedly racially abused a non-white fellow soldier. In another case, four German soldiers smoking outside a Lithuanian barracks made animal noises when a black soldier walked past.

Lithuania’s Defence Minister Arvydas Anušauskas said later that the investigation was carried out by Germany and that Lithuania was not privy to its details. The more so, Lithuania is not privy to its details even now. “We are not being informed about the details of the investigation. […] The Lithuanian military is not involved in the investigation, nor can it be,” Anušauskas told reporters, stressing that Germany was in charge of the matter.

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, German defence minister, said that these misdeeds would be severely prosecuted and punished. Time has passed, and the details are not still known.

It should be said Germany has for years struggled to modernize its military as it becomes more involved in Nato operations. Nevertheless problems existed and have not been solved yet. According to the annual report on the state of the Bundeswehr made in 2020 by Hans-Peter Bartel, then armed forces commissioner for the German Bundestag, Germany’s army “has too little materiel, too few personnel and too much bureaucracy despite a big budget increase.” Mr Bartels’ report made clear that the Bundeswehr continues to be plagued by deep-seated problems. Recruitment remains a key problem. Mr Bartels said 20,000 army posts remained unfilled, and last year the number of newly recruited soldiers stood at just over 20,000, 3,000 fewer than in 2017. The other problem is radicalization of the armed forces.

Apparently, moral requirements for those wishing to serve in the German army have been reduced. Federal Volunteer Military Service Candidate must be subjected to a thorough medical examination. Desirable to play sports, have a driver’s license and be able to eliminate minor malfunctions in the motor, to speak at least one foreign language, have experience of communicating with representatives of other nationalities, be initiative and independent. After the general the interview follows the establishment of the candidate’s suitability for service in certain types of armed forces, taking into account his wishes. Further candidate passes a test on a computer. He will be asked if he wants study a foreign language and attend courses, then serve in German French, German-Dutch formations or institutions NATO.

So, any strong and healthy person could be admitted, even though he or she could adhere to far-right views or even belong to neo-Nazi groups. Such persons served in Lithuania and, probably, serve now and pose a real threat to Lithuanian military, local population. Neo-Nazism leads to cultivating racial inequalities. The main goal of the neo-Nazis is to cause disorder and chaos in the country, as well as to take over the army and security organs. Lithuanian authorities should fully realize this threat and do not turn a blind eye to the criminal behaviour of foreign military in Lithuania. There is no room to excessive loyalty in this case.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuanian foreign policy: Image is everything

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It seems as if Lithuanian government takes care of its image in the eyes of EU and NATO partners much more than of its population. Over the past year Lithuania managed to quarrel with such important for its economy states like China and Belarus, condemned Hungary for the ban on the distribution of images of LGBT relationships among minors, Latvia and Estonia for refusing to completely cut energy from Belarus. Judging by the actions of the authorities, Lithuania has few tools to achieve its political goals. So, it failed to find a compromise and to maintain mutually beneficial relations with economic partners and neighbours. The authorities decided to achieve the desired results by demanding from EU and NATO member states various sanctions for those countries that, in their opinion, are misbehaving.

Calling for sanctions and demonstrating its “enduring political will”, Lithuania exposed the welfare of its own population. Thus, district heating prices will surge by around 30 percent on average across Lithuania.

The more so, prices for biofuels, which make up 70 percent of heat production on average, are now about 40 higher than last year, Taparauskas, a member of the National Energy Regulatory Council (VERT) said.

“Such a huge jump in prices at such a tense time could threaten a social crisis and an even greater increase in tensions in society. We believe that the state must take responsibility for managing rising prices, especially given the situation of the most vulnerable members of society and the potential consequences for them. All the more so as companies such as Ignitis or Vilnius heating networks “has not only financial resources, but also a certain duty again,” sums up Lukas Tamulynas, the chairman of the LSDP Momentum Vilnius movement.

It should be said, that according to the Lithuanian Department of Statistics, prices for consumer goods and services have been rising for the eighth month in a row. According to the latest figures, the annual inflation rate is five percent.

Earlier it became known that in 2020 every fifth inhabitant of Lithuania was below the poverty risk line.

Pensioners are considered one of the most vulnerable groups in Lithuania. In 2019, Lithuania was included in the top five EU anti-leaders in terms of poverty risk for pensioners. The share of people over 65 at risk of poverty was 18.7 percent.

In such situation sanctions imposed on neighbouring countries which tightly connected to Lithuanian economy and directly influence the welfare of people in Lithuania are at least damaging. The more so, according Vladimir Andreichenko, the speaker of the House of Representatives of the Belarus parliament, “the unification of the economic potentials of Minsk and Moscow would be a good response to sanctions.” It turned out that Lithuania itself makes its opponents stronger. Such counter-productiveness is obvious to everyone in Lithuania except for its authorities.

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