China, Uzbekistan Ties Shaped by Shared World View
Visiting China on June 6-7, Uzbekistan’s president Islam Karimov secured trade, investment and loans worth at least five billion US dollars and signed an strategic partnership treaty.
While in Beijing, Karimov also attended a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, SCO, a bloc consisting of Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
NBCentralAsia asled Kamoliddin Rabbimov, an Uzbek political analyst based in France, about the shared security concerns and economic interests that feed China’s growing relationship with Central Asia and Uzbekistan in particular.
NBCentralAsia: Karimov’s talks with Chinese president Hu Jintao pointed to greater coordination on international and regional affairs, trade and economic collaboration, and a shared approach to security. Does this mark a big step forward in Uzbek-Chinese relations?
Kamoliddin Rabbimov: Central Asian states have in the past held to an unwritten rule that they would not open their doors to China. However, China’s behaviour in the region over the last two decades has been exemplary, and social and economic problems in the region have also led to doors gradually opening for Beijing.
After Russia, China is now Uzbekistan’s second biggest partner in terms of trade and economics.
With the world’s fastest-growing major economy, China keeps one eye on the security situation in Central Asia and the other on the region’s energy resources.
The strategic partnership declaration benefits both Uzbekistan and China. It legitimises Beijing’s growing political and economic presence in Uzbekistan. For Tashkent, it’s an opportunity to obtain additional preferential deals on finance and economics, and security guarantees as well.
At the SCO summit, member states amended an agreement on mechanisms for responding collectively to “events that jeopardising regional peace, security and stability”. Some commentators see this as a reflection of SCO members’ shared fear or popular unrest, revolutions and uprisings.
Uzbekistan is still recovering from the consequences of the May 2005 violence in Andijan, so the SCO and China suit it as partners – these states have similar political systems and common fears about both domestic and external risks.
NBCentralAsia: The Chinese are prepared to sign large investment deals with Tashkent despite the isolation of the Uzbek economy is closed, the lack of currency convertibility, and the obstacles facing foreign investors. Why does it make such a leap of faith?
Rabbimov: In Uzbekistan, Beijing is less concerned about money than about maintaining its reputation as “the superpower that never bares its teeth”.
China is the top investor in the Uzbek economy, financing multiple projects in the areas of energy, transport, information technology and communications.
Chinese investors in Uzbekistan never engage in disputes or litigation or complain about conditions. That’s the Chinese way of thinking and behaving in economics as well as politics.
Beijing’s approach on foreign policy is especially attractive to Tashkent. Both states oppose international intervention in other states for reasons of human rights and democracy. Uzbekistan is also well aware that it lies at a geopolitical crossroads for global players like Russia, the United States, the European Union and China, and it makes skilful use of this fact when it needs to. It regards China as a way of counterbalancing both the West and Russia.
NBCentralAsia: Tashkent has always been cautious about granting increased influence to its foreign partners, but it seems to make an exception for China. Is that just an inevitable result of modern geopolitics, or is it simply that the Uzbek treasury is in need of funds?
Rabbimov: When we look at the strengthening relationship between China and the Central Asian states including Uzbekistan, we need to understand the deep concerns, even fears, harboured in Beijing. China is prepared to act as an all-weather partner to countries in the region, and is always open to new projects, even unprofitable ones.
The reason for this is that security takes precedence over business. Beijing’s strategy for maintaining its own territorial integrity is to establish control on both sides of its borders. Through economic and political engagement with Central Asia, it wants to exert a lasting influence on the region’s political elites and societies. In doing so, it treads carefully so as to avoid accusations of interference.
So far, this strategy has proved effective. Beijing has become a leading investor in the region’s economies.
But this strategy is really a way of ensuring the stable functioning of “authoritarian capitalism” in Central Asia. Were the region, including Uzbekistan, to undergo a genuine shift to democracy, China’s fears would become a reality.
This article was produced as part of News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.