Throughout the Russo-Ukrainian war and a period of tense relations between Russia and Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan has followed a proactive track of transport diplomacy to strengthen its geopolitical and geo-economic position through Eurasian rail trade. The main aim of Tashkent’s diplomacy is to transform itself from a landlocked country into a land-linked country with wider Eurasia. The destabilization of the Northern Corridor and growing concerns about tensions between Astana and Moscow have created an excellent opportunity for Uzbekistan to emerge as an alternative transportation hub in Central Asia. During the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit on September 15 and 16, Uzbekistani President Shavkat Mirziyoyev presented his proposal to revive Central Asia’s regional links with South Asia and strengthen overall regional connectivity, demonstrating that Tashkent seeks to strengthen its position through East-West as well as North-South rail trade (China Daily, September 23).
Several strategic and economic reasons underline why Tashkent hopes to play an increasingly essential role as a transport hub in Central Asia. To begin with, Uzbekistan wants to use the existing opportunity to open new trade routes, create an alternative corridor to traditional Russian-Kazakhstani routes and attract international companies from, among others, China and the European Union. Additionally, Mirziyoyev aims to securitize the country by way of becoming a regional transportation corridor for the great powers.
Economically, this approach will diversify export and import routes and reduce dependence on Russia—80 percent of Uzbekistani exports and imports pass through Russia—as well as protect the country from most major external economic shocks. Furthermore, improved transit links and infrastructure have garnered the attention of the major regional powers, thus attracting much-needed investment to Uzbekistan (see EDM, April 18). As a result, Tashkent can enjoy transit fees and contribute to a positive spillover effect for the national economy, which will lead to new jobs and, hopefully, jumpstart the country’s economic growth.
As a result of Tashkent’s proactive transportation diplomacy, recent developments highlight Uzbekistan’s growing importance as a Eurasian transportation hub. To this end, the launching of the China–Kyrgyzstan–Uzbekistan–Afghanistan multimodal route and the completion of the trial project for container transportation through the international multimodal route of China–Kyrgyzstan–Uzbekistan–Turkmenistan–Azerbaijan–Georgia–Turkey–Europe are critical advancements (ADY Container, August 8; Tashkent Times, September 20). Moreover, the shipment of the first cargo train from Qingdao to Samarkand via the SCO Express Line spotlights China’s growing cooperation with Uzbekistan (Kun.uz, September 29).
All three of these routes bypass Kazakhstan, thus elevating Uzbekistan’s role as a regional transit hub. In addition, the new routes reflect the growing interest of Chinese companies to use and invest in Uzbekistan for improved East-West rail trade.
Finally, discussion on launching the new Uzbekistan–Turkmenistan–Iran–India transport corridor shows that Tashkent is interested not only in improving regional connectivity to reach the Chinese and European markets but also in developing its links with India to ensure its ability to reach South Asian markets (UzDaily.com, September 22).
In addition to new routes, another important determinant has been the development of improved hard and soft infrastructure. In terms of hard infrastructure, at the SCO summit, a tripartite agreement was signed between China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan on cooperation in the construction of the Uzbekistan–Kyrgyzstan–China railway. The new line will be the shortest route from China to Europe and the Middle East, with the potential to attract up to 15 percent of the throughput from the Kazakhstani-Russian route (CACI Analyst, November 24, 2020; Kun.uz, September 15). The new railway will position Uzbekistan at the center of one of the region’s most consequential supply routes.
Similarly, Tashkent has decided to participate in the construction of the Trans-Afghan railway (AKIPress.com, March 29). This line will shorten the arrival of goods from Uzbekistan to Pakistan from 35 days to just four or five days (Gazeta.uz, April 16, 2021). Moreover, it will strengthen Uzbekistan’s position among the other Central Asian countries and Pakistan, as the railway will represent the shortest and most economical route to reach the Arabian Sea.
In terms of soft infrastructure, Uzbekistan is actively negotiating tariffs and simplifying customs laws with its neighbors and others in the region. In this context, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Turkey’s discussion to further simplify cargo transportation among one another, as well as Uzbekistan and China’s negotiations on issues of mutual recognition of authorized economic operators are key developments in Tashkent achieving its wider transit goals (UzDaily.com, October 2; Trend.az, August 18).
In sum, the destabilization of the Northern Corridor and growing tensions between Russia and Kazakhstan have created an opportunity for Uzbekistan to emerge as an alternative transportation hub in Central Asia. In the short term, Tashkent’s proactive transportation diplomacy promotes the country’s desire to attract higher cargo volumes and increase its potential for further development of regional connectivity in cooperation with the great powers—primarily China. In the long term, Uzbekistan’s establishment of improved soft and hard infrastructure with the help of other countries in the region may maximize its geo-economic position and provide for the emergence of a second transport hub in Central Asia, rivaling Kazakhstan.
By The Jamestown Foundation
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