BACKGROUND: China established diplomatic relations with Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries in 1992. Since then, China has steadily expanded its “Go West” policy aimed at consolidating its presence in Central Asia. The record of Uzbekistan-China relations illustrates an ambitious and comprehensive Chinese plan for engaging neighboring countries to its west. Relationships between these states have unavoidably affected the overall geopolitical transformation of the region since the demise of the Soviet superpower.
This record reflects China’s rising profile in Uzbekistan’s international and regional policy and vice versa. During Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov’s official visit to China in June 2012, the two states signed a Declaration on Strategic Partnership, thereby elevating their relations. In October 2011 in Beijing, Uzbekistan and China had established an intergovernmental committee on cooperation in the trade-economic, investment, security, cultural-humanitarian, energy, transport, and scientific-technical spheres.
Uzbekistan supplies Chinese markets with cotton fiber, mineral fertilizers, natural gas, non-ferrous metals and other goods. One of the prioritized areas of cooperation is in the energy sphere; two gas pipelines are already operating and plans exist for constructing two more in the nearest future. China is one of the biggest investors in Uzbekistan’s economy at US$ 6.5 billion, and 488 Chinese companies currently function in Uzbekistan.
China is Uzbekistan’s third trade partner after Russia and the European Union; about 13 percent of Uzbekistan’s trade goes to China. But Uzbekistan is obviously a minor trade partner for China – less than 0.1 percent of China’s foreign trade is with Uzbekistan. Hence, the economic relationship between Uzbekistan and China is asymmetric. Moreover, only 9 percent of the total Chinese trade with Central Asia is with Uzbekistan, while Kazakhstan is China’s main trade partner in the region at 70 percent.
Still, the two states have interacted actively within multilateral fora such as the UN and the SCO. Interestingly, China and Uzbekistan have expressed their understanding of each other’s sensitive problems such as Taiwan and Tibet and trans-border river waters in Central Asia. Uzbekistan has supported the PRC on issues of territorial integrity and fighting the “three evils” – terrorism, extremism and separatism. Beijing expressed support for Uzbekistan’s position on the rational use of the water flow of regional rivers, in relation to hydro-energy projects that could damage the ecological balance.
Also interesting is that the SCO remains the only international/regional organization to which Uzbekistan has retained a steady commitment – it is a member since 2001. Tashkent has abandoned organizations such as the CSTO, EAEC (EurAsEC), GUUAM, and CACO, and has isolated itself from other multilateral cooperation frameworks such as e.g. the Istanbul Process on Afghanistan and the SPECA project of the EU. However, Uzbekistan’s membership in the SCO seems stable and the SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) was set up in Tashkent.
China-Uzbekistan cooperation in the above mentioned areas is intended to be long-term and comprehensive. The question remains, however, what geopolitical implications this strategic partnership will have.
IMPLICATIONS: Since independence, Uzbekistan has gotten involved in different strategic partnerships. It signed strategic partnership agreements with the U.S., Russia, China, India, Japan and the EU, documents whose contents differ in their main emphasis. The China-Uzbekistan strategic partnership, in particular, does not imply mutual security commitments as does Uzbekistan’s agreements with the U.S. and Russia. Tashkent and Beijing indeed emphasize the developmental dimension of strategic partnership.
During Xi Jinping’s visit to Tashkent in September this year, 31 documents were signed on the realization of projects amounting to a total of US$ 15 billion, implying that the total size of agreements between the two countries has reached US$ 20 billion. In addition, Uzbekistan and China signed 14 agreements on joint hi-tech production in an industrial area on Uzbekistan’s territory, with direct investments from the PRC. The park was created at the initiative of the Chinese leadership in March this year in the form of the Special Industrial Zone “Jizzakh” where the production of mobile telephones, construction materials and other products commenced in June this year.
In September, the sides recalled the special character and high level of their cooperation: among other things, they also signed a Treaty on Friendship and Cooperation and a Joint Declaration “On Further Development and Deepening Bilateral Relations of Strategic Partnership.” The declaration stresses the sides’ commitment to firmly support each other’s chosen path of development conducive with internal conditions, and support each other’s international cooperation initiatives. The declaration stated that they would not joint any alliances or blocks which would damage the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of the other side. Uzbekistan once again confirmed its support of the policy of a “single China” and that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, and its opposition to any form of “independence of Taiwan”.
It is perhaps not accidental that China demonstrated such a generous policy at the peak of the international financial crisis. This “bounty” coincides with a rise in the political temperature in Uzbekistan, which is expected to hold transformative parliamentary elections in exactly one year and presidential elections three months later. Analysts argue that Xi Jinping symbolizes the so-called China 3.0 (China 2.0 being Deng Xiaoping’s ruling period and China 1.0 Mao Zedong’s). China 3.0 pushes a strategy of “creative involvement,” which will lead to a Chinese breakthrough into Central Asia. Therefore, China seems to be securing stronger bonds in what could be termed an emerging “Uzbekistan 2.0.”
At the same time, it is symptomatic that while Tashkent has constantly and clearly expressed its support for Beijing in its foreign policy and especially in its internal affairs, including e.g. the Taiwan question, Beijing has not been as clear in its support for Uzbekistan’s interests in regional and international affairs. For China, the SCO provides it with geopolitical leverage in the region as well as a platform for sending certain messages to the West. For Uzbekistan the SCO is not so much a multilateral forum, but rather another platform for Uzbek-Chinese bilateral engagement. Tashkent seems to construct its strategic ties with Beijing, directly or within the SCO, largely in the context of explicit and implicit balancing between three great powers – the U.S., Russia and China.
CONCLUSIONS: During the Soviet time, the Central Asian republics were heavily dependent on Russia. After the breakup of the USSR, the newly independent states are concerned about recreating such dependence on China. In most of studies of post-Soviet Central Asia, Uzbekistan has been described as a state that does not border Russia and therefore is not as dependent on this great power as is, for example, Kazakhstan. However, Uzbekistan’s dependence on Russia has endured throughout the post-Soviet period. The same observation can be made regarding Uzbekistan’s increasing dependence on China, which it also does not border.
Tashkent has in recent years tended to isolate itself from multilateral and especially regional frameworks of cooperation and opted for bilateral relations. This option, however, carries the risk that Tashkent will not be able to isolate itself from the geopolitical influence of great powers, including that of China, and may end up in a new form of “multiple dependence” unless it looks to regional integration as the most viable option.
China’s former President Hu Jintao once said that China should try to establish a new type of foreign relations that can “satisfy the Chinese public and at the same time reassure people of all nations.” It remains to be seen whether the Chinese public is satisfied, but the people of Central Asia is yet far from reassured, not only by China but by other great powers as well.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Farkhod Tolipov holds a PhD in Political Science and is Director of the Education and Research Institution “Bilim Karvoni” in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.