The PRC Global Reach: The Case of Uzbekistan


2012-10-16 by Richard Weitz

At the same time I was visiting Uzbekistan from September 8-14, I was also not surprised to learn Chinese Vice Premier Hui Liangyu was also in Tashkent with a large delegation of Chinese government and business leaders.

Uzbekistan has increasingly striven to deepen ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), whose authoritarian government does not criticize Uzbekistan’s domestic policies and pays top yuan for Uzbekistan’s natural gas exports.

Although the two countries have focused on developing mutual economic exchanges, with China helping construct Uzbekistan’s infrastructure and now buying Uzbekistani natural gas, their military ties may grow in the future.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union in December 1991 transformed the relationship between China and Uzbekistan.

Not wishing to remain vassals of Moscow, the Republic of Uzbekistan and the other newly independent states of Central Asia have sought to develop ties with China and other countries besides Russia. Uzbekistani leaders considered the PRC less an alternative great power patron to Russia than a supplementary partner that could assist Uzbekistan to moderate Moscow’s behavior in the region as well as promote Uzbekistan’s economic development.

The Chinese leadership has exploited the opportunity presented by Uzbekistan’s striving for greater strategic autonomy and economic development, but cautiously, not wishing to antagonize Moscow by giving the impression that Beijing was seeking to displace Russia in a region that had been under Moscow’s control for more than a century.

Nonetheless, Chinese officials have cultivated strategic, economic, and especially energy ties with Uzbekistan, valuing their partnership with Tashkent as an important element in the PRC’s expanding presence in Central Asia.

Uzbekistan is unique among the newly independent countries of Central Asia in that it does not border the PRC. Still, it shares a long history of ties with China, dating back more than one thousand years and thriving as an important transit zone during the era of the Great Silk Road. Moscow’s subjugation and subordination of Uzbekistan and the rest of Central Asia during the 19th and 20th centuries temporarily ruptured these contacts, but the Soviet Union’s disintegration has allowed Chinese and Uzbek leaders, if not most of their citizens, to reestablish substantial diplomatic and economic ties.

The PRC and Uzbekistan established diplomatic relations in January 1992. Political and economic exchanges between them have grown since then, especially during the last decade following the creation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Uzbekistan still benefits from its pivotal location at the intersection of Europe and Asia.

The country is also an attractive partner for Beijing due to its having substantial natural gas reserves and the largest population among the five Central Asian republics.

Uzbekistan has increasingly striven to deepen ties with the China. The authoritarian government of China does not criticize Uzbekistan and its domestic policies and pays top yuan for their natural gas exports. Credit: Bigstock 

In 2001, Uzbekistan joined what previously had been the Shanghai Five, transforming the group into the SCO, a development that had a major impact on China’s Eurasian policies. The focus of the Shanghai Five had been on helping resolve border relations between the PRC and its four new post-Soviet neighbors. In contrast, the SCO has adopted a broader and more positive agenda of furthering security, diplomatic, economic, and other times among its Eurasian members and observers. The SCO’s broader geographic and functional agenda has helped elevate China’s ties with Uzbekistan and the other Central Asian states to a new level.

Relations increased further after Uzbekistan’s ties with Western countries deteriorated following the Uzbekistani government’s decision to use its military to suppress a mass but largely peaceful uprising in the city of Andijon in May 2005. Beijing, along with Moscow, backed the military crackdown in the face of widespread Western condemnation.

Two weeks later, President Karimov made a breakthrough three-day trip to Beijing. During this visit, China and Uzbekistan signed a treaty of friendship, cooperation, and partnership that still defines the fundamental principles governing their relationship. For example, the treaty recognizes the PRC as the sole legitimate government of all of China, including Taiwan.

As with other Central Asian countries, the PRC has pursued a variety of goals regarding Uzbekistan during the past two decades. These objectives have included securing Tashkent’s support in suppressing anti-Beijing Uighur nationalists and countering terrorist threats to the PRC, giving Chinese firms access to Uzbekistan’s energy resources as well as opportunities to trade with and invest in Uzbekistan.

Other considerations affecting Beijing’s policies toward Uzbekistan is the PRC leadership’s desire to cultivate Beijing’s image as a benign international actor seeking “win-win” outcomes in foreign engagements as well as securing Tashkent’s diplomatic support regarding the status of Taiwan, Tibet, the Beijing Olympics, and other issues of foreign policy concern to Chinese leaders.  Two years ago, Uzbekistan joined the PRC’s other closest allies in boycotting the 2010 ceremony in Norway marking the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, whom the PRC authorities have arrested as a criminal.

Finally, Chinese strategists would like Uzbekistan to help Beijing balance the presence of the other great powers active in Central Asia, including India and the United States.

Meanwhile, Uzbekistan’s objectives regarding China are fewer given its leaders’ narrower range of concerns. Uzbekistani goals include obtaining PRC assistance in preserving Uzbekistan’s political stability, national independence, territorial integrity, and economic development. Since these objectives align well with the PRC’s own goals, .

There is a strong overlap between the security policies of China and Uzbekistan.

Neither country has foreign military bases or a formal mutual defense alliance with another. Both are hypersensitive about their sovereignty and refuse to host foreign bases on their territory. They are both members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and strive to keep that organization focused on countering regional terrorist threats rather than becoming an anti-Western military alliance.

One of the strategies that Uzbekistan has pursued to weaken Russia’s military predominance in Central Asia has been to deepen security ties with other great powers on a bilateral basis, including with China, as well as develop its own military, which is the largest of the five Central Asian states.

Senior PRC and Uzbekistani defense leaders meet frequently at multilateral and bilateral events.  Most recently, on November 30, 2010, PRC Defense Minister Liang Guanglie met Uzbekistani Deputy Defense Minister Rustam Niyazov in Beijing.

Chinese and Uzbekistani leaders have taken care to express their support for the other country’s security, internal stability, and territorial integrity.

While PRC leaders fear secessionist movements and religious extremism among its national minorities, Uzbekistani leaders worry about domestic political instability as well as the remnants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).

In this regard, the Uzbekistani authorities have been very aggressive in suppressing the political activities of their ethnic Uighur community for fear that they might harm Sino-Uzbek relations by supporting separatism in Xinjiang.

At the 2010 SCO summit in Tashkent, Presidents Hu and Karimov pledged “to adopt effective measures to jointly fight all forms of terrorism, including the ‘Eastern Turkistan’ terrorist forces, in a bid to maintain peace and tranquility in the two countries and in the region.”  In June 2010, when President Hu made an official state visit to Uzbekistan, Hu said that the parties should “deepen security cooperation and take severe measures against the ‘three evil forces’ of terrorism, separatism and extremism. Law enforcement and security departments in both countries should continue to boost two-way cooperation.”

Chinese-Uzbekistani defense relations have been generally good if not especially strong, though China’s growing economic and security presence in Central Asia may elevate the relationship a higher level in coming years.

When Karimov attended the SCO summit held in Beijing, his sixth official visit to the PRC, he met with President Hu Jintao beforehand. The two leaders signed a Declaration on Strategic Partnership in which they pledged to intensify mutual relations.

For our look at long term Chinese developments and their strategic impact please see the following: