While the U.S., Russia and Europe are trying to quell (or aggravate) crises simultaneously in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Israel/Gaza, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea/Yemen, Uzbekistan and China have quietly elevated their partnership.
The meeting between the Uzbek and Chinese delegations produced numerous announcements and agreements, but the most notable may be their upgrading of the Uzbekistan-China relationship to an “all-weather” comprehensive strategic partnership. This is significant, as Pakistan, the linchpin of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), is the only other country in the region so designated. (CPEC is the largest single piece of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.)
Beijing has thus signaled its expectations in Central Asia, and the two “all weather” partnerships position it on two sides of Afghanistan, a potential source of natural resources (and instability) and a transit corridor between Central and South Asia. Related: U.S. and Iran Locked in a Dangerous Game of Brinkmanship
The visit was also significant as Xi invested something else in the bilateral relationship: his time and attention.
This was Mirziyoyev’s second state visit to China — the first was in 2017 — and Xi made a state visit to Uzbekistan to 2022. Xi has visited every one of the Central Asia republics and has been to Kazakhstan four times and Uzbekistan three times; no U.S. president has ever visited the region. (Mirziyoyev did meet then-U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018 in Washington, D.C., and President Joe Biden met the five presidents of the Central Asian republics in New York City in 2023.)
State visits and one-on-one meetings are noticed by the Uzbek people, who no doubt appreciated that the leader of the world’s second-biggest country, and biggest economy, by some measures, personally invested his time in the relationship instead of delegating it to subordinates.
U.S. interest has waned now that it no longer needs the region for logistic support of its war against the Afghan Taliban. Though it rhetorically supports regional “stability and sovereignty,” Washington doesn’t seem to understand that as with individuals, so with countries: ready money means freedom, and China is delivering opportunities for Uzbekistan to make money.
And as to “deliverables,” there were plenty of those.
The second day of the visit was dedicated to a Joint Investment Forum in Shenzhen that produced agreements on projects in energy and mining, electrical engineering, machine building, infrastructure development, agriculture, education, photovoltaics, wind power and hydropower, and transport and logistics.
The volume of Chinese investment in Uzbekistan has increased fivefold, to $14 billion at the end of 2023, and the number of joint ventures has tripled, to over 2,300. At the end of 2023, trade turnover reached $14 billion — and the two sides are aiming at $20 billion in the near future.
The most high-profile announcement was for the assembly of hybrid and electric cars by a joint venture between BYD (the electric vehicle company that worries Tesla founder Elon Musk) and UzAuto, which locally manufactures Chevrolet-badged automobiles. The JV will produce 50 thousand units per year and may eventually expand production to 300 thousand units annually. BYD also plans to establish local assembly of electric buses, with the local sourcing of spare parts and the creation of engineering and service centers.
The most consequential announcement may have been China’s call for work on the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway to start “as soon as possible.” ?The CKU will bypass Russia and likely connect with the Middle Corridor trade route to Europe, which will please Washington, and help to make Uzbekistan the transport center of Central Asia.
The World Road Transport Organization?recently announced the inaugural shipment of electronic products from Shenzen, China, to Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, “via a new 6,500-kilometer transportation corridor that runs through Kyrgyzstan” in seven days as opposed to 20 days previously.
And Tashkent recently secured Qatar’s support for the 573-kilometer Trans-Afghan Railway to connect Uzbekistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan. “Support” likely means “funding,” and Tashkent may elect to pay for the project with a mix of loans from the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, supplemented by cash from Doha. The project also ensures that China isn’t the only player in local infrastructure development, as Saudi Arabia has also pursued deals, among them power generation and desalinated water production. Demonstrated openness to Middle East investors is a further demonstration of Uzbekistan’s balancing between Russia and China, and now Iran and the wealthy Arab states — something the Americans should encourage.
Uzbekistan has used its location to become a successful regional facilitator and convenor, and has an opportunity to become a host of financial and development organizations as well: The Export-Import Bank of China may open a regional office for Central Asia in the city of capital city Tashkent, which may grow an ecosystem of experienced local officials and private sector firms that will draw similar organizations to Uzbekistan.
Washington may be dubious about any effort that normalizes the Taliban government, but Tashkent doesn’t have that luxury: the countries are “neighbors forever.” That same realistic outlook drove Tashkent’s efforts to open trade and transport ties with Iran, giving it a route to Iran’s 85 million people, and the affluent markets of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The American’s may be tetchy because Uzbekistan may not always be on “our side,” but Uzbekistan can be a valuable mediator now that Washington no longer has a platform in the region.
China isn’t waiting for the green light from Washington. President Xi recently received the credentials of the Taliban’s ambassador to Beijing, so Tashkent, Tehran, Moscow and Islamabad may step up the pace to preserve their influence in Kabul.
The Mirziyoyev-Xi meeting is a signal: to Central Asia, that China has high expectations for doing business; to Arab investors, of the opportunities for projects, as the region has a severe energy infrastructure deficit; and to the West, that the Central Asian republics, led by Uzbekistan, cannot afford to sit still while the U.S. and Europe lurch from crisis to crisis.