Tuesday, February 9, 2021

The belt and the inroads: China’s courtship of Armenia

When discussing the Artsakh conflict before on THAO, I remarked in passing that some of Armenia’s firmest friends in Washington were members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus: Judy Chu, Grace Meng, Ted Lieu, Barbara Lee, Tulsi Gabbard and Ro Khanna. This comradeship between Asian-Americans and Armenia is something I personally deeply appreciate. My immediate gut-level inclination was to attribute this support to a shared experience of being a ‘distrusted minority in a hostile neighbourhood’. I still hold to that to a certain extent; perhaps some of it may also be attributable to the Armenian-American constituency in California. However, I’m not here to talk about the sympathy that Asian-Americans have for Armenians. In any event, such a lede serves as something of a non sequitur that, at worst, plays into a stereotype that Asian-Americans behave in ways primarily serving the interests of their countries of origin, which I emphatically do not hold to be the case. Instead I want to point out the growing confluence of interests between the Armenian and Chinese states, a confluence which has grown much more important this past year.

It makes sense to take account of Armenia’s long history and its status as one of the very earliest Christian kingdoms – having been converted by the Persian clergyman Saint Gregory Phōtistēs. After the loss of its independence, Armenia has long been a troubled and politically-contested border region of various empires: Eastern Rome, Persia, the Caliphate and the Ottoman Empire. The Armenian people have a long history of being subalterns within these various empires. The fact of the longevity of Armenian language and culture is fascinating enough! But the status of the Armenian people within the Ottoman Empire in particular was a precarious one. The Medz Yeghern of 1915 and 1916, in which one and a half million Armenians perished from a policy of deliberate genocide, was a watershed moment in defining Armenian peoplehood. These events and these ties are necessary for understanding Armenian national interests.

But what does this have to do with Armenia and China? Well, for one thing, the ties between Armenia and China are ancient – and given the long history and long memories of both the Chinese civilisation and the Armenian state, these ties are nothing to sneeze at or write off as so much ‘old stuff’. Silk Road trade went through the Caucasus and Armenian merchants and kings benefitted from it. Armenia contributed medicinal herbs, wines, horses, valuable carmine dye and carpets to the Great Silk Road trade eastward; and one of the biggest mediæval fairs for Chinese silks in Central Asia was held in the Armenian city of Dvin. Armenian enclaves were present in China during the Song Dynasty. Chinese trade goods such as silk, celadon and porcelain appear in ninth- and tenth-century graves in the Armenian cities of Artsn, Ani and Kars. Armenian gæographers such as Anania Shirakatsi were not only aware of China and make mention of a ‘Chinastan’ in the written record, but even Armenian church art has been influenced by Chinese material culture and visual motifs: the Armenian Bible features images of the Chinese mythical beasts, the qilin and the fenghuang. Again – both Armenian and Chinese statesmen and historian are aware of these historical links and they play a defined role in modern diplomacy.

These links show that China has long been a significant trade partner of Armenia, and Armenia has often treated China as a source of luxury goods and patronage. Chinese trade and investment continues to be an important factor in Armenian foreign policy. The Russian Federation accounts for over 25% of both of Armenia’s export and import volume. However, China is Armenia’s second most valuable trading partner, accounting for 13% of Armenia’s imports. Armenia’s political class understands this reality quite well, which is why Armenia routinely sends its statesmen to attend events relating to Chinese commerce and industry.

However, security is rapidly becoming a much more prominent issue. Regional security cooperation is becoming far more common and important for Armenia, with the nation participating in joint military exercises with all three of Russia, China and Iran. Now it is necessary to understand how Armenia perceives its national interests and its external security. As a small state in Central Asia, it has to perform a balancing act between great powers, similar to the way that other small Central Asian states do to guarantee their own sovereignty and independence. This is simply a reality of the ‘neighbourhood’. Russia will always figure large in Armenia’s calculations, being the largest power nearby and one with whom Armenia has historically remained on fairly cordial terms: under the Tsars, under the Soviets, and with the Federation as a separate country.

That may be changing on account of recent events. Though they are grateful for the ceasefire and though the vast majority of Armenians still view Russia as a friend, the proxy war with Azerbaijan over Artsakh has impressed upon Armenia the limits of Russian cooperation in alignment with its own national interests. As can be seen from the joint military exercises, Armenia’s government had already begun exploring options to expand security cooperation with China. But recent events have served to drive home the urgency of this exploration and sped up some time tables in both Erevan and Beijing.

During the proxy war in Artsakh, it could easily be seen that Turkey was transferring its informal, VNSA proxies from Syria into Armenia. Among these proxies, who had been present and active in jihâdist groups in Syria’s civil war, were Uighur jihâdists from Xinjiang. During and in the wake of the war, these irregular Turkish-backed fighters in Artsakh, including Uighurs, have been carrying out atrocities including torture, mutilation and beheadings on the Armenians living there – very likely with the connivance or at least the blind eye of the Azerbaijani government. Western observers and commentators would be fools to underestimate the impact that the reports and videos of these atrocities are having on Armenian opinion, or the ways in which they will invariably be ‘spun’ by the Chinese state. Certainly, after the needed-but-unsatisfactory Artsakh ceasefire, ordinary Armenian people will be more sympathetic to the Chinese state’s stance on security issues, and Armenians will come to see China as the defender – albeit for realist rather than ideological reasons – of Christian communities in the Caucasus. And who is to say they are wrong?

Indeed, as Dr Benjamin Poghosyan of Armenia’s Ministry of Defence has already pointed out, Armenia’s interests would be best served by not only deepening trade ties with China, but also by revising Armenia’s strategic footing. He recommends, in particular, backing out of the ‘International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance’. Although Armenia had joined it specifically in the interests of protecting the material and cultural heritage of the Christian communities of the Southern Caucasus and the Middle East, the war in Karabakh showed that the primary signatories of this alliance – the United States in particular – had zero concern for these communities. Instead they planned to use this alliance to mobilise opinion against China. Poghosyan articulated the need for Armenian diplomacy not to be coopted into any such mobilisations. Armenia now understands Turkey and its proxies as a threat, as China also does. The realist logic holds: the enemy of my enemy...

On a related note, Armenia also recognises a certain gæopolitical reality relating to the OBOR. Among the nations of the Southern Caucasus, Georgia is (unfortunately) increasingly beholden to NATO and to the West, while Azerbaijan is increasingly beholden to Turkey. Neither arrangement suits China’s interests in building the OBOR very well, and Armenia understands therefore that its neutrality on great power issues places it at a decisive advantage in negotiations for investments.