Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 115

Fresh from the massacre at Andijan, Islam Karimov traveled to China in late May, where he received not just praise, but expressions of China’s delight at his handling of the uprising. Thus Beijing “resolutely supported” Karimov’s repression of the “three evil forces”: terrorism, separatism, and extremism and backed him up by refusing to support an international investigation into the events that transpired in Andijan on May 12-23. Beijing even gave him a 21-gun salute. These accolades can be attributed to China’s long-standing fear of the ever-present threat of any kind of Muslim insurgency, particularly in areas neighboring its restive Xinjiang province. Undoubtedly this fear of popular mobilization and democratization has grown in the wake of the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, which has clearly alarmed Beijing’s rulers.

Uzbekistan’s importance to China does not stop here. There also are concrete strategic and political interests involved in Beijing’s welcome to Karimov. In the wake of Andijan and Kyrgyzstan, China is now calling for the Shanghai Cooperative Organization (SCO), its chosen instrument of Central Asian policy, to take a major role against popular unrest in Central Asia. At the same time, China has also called for upgraded cooperation with all Central Asian states against these so-called “three evils.” Thus its spokesmen are advocating a new policy that combines enhanced multilateralism through the SCO with enhanced bilateral ties with states like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to combat these threats. China also wants to reduce, as far as possible, America’s influence in Central Asia. And in the wake of widespread Western revulsion at Karimov’s actions, Karimov might be more than amenable to strengthening ties with Beijing at the expense of Washington. In fact, he did just that last year, when he signed a major agreement with Moscow to register his displeasure with U.S. lectures on democracy, civil, and human rights. This balancing act is one of his chief weapons in maintaining an equilibrium between rival international pressures on his regime, and it underscores a key aspect of the overall geostrategic situation in Central Asia.

A bipolar or even tripolar structure is emerging in the region among Russia, China, and the United States, with Iran leaning to the Russo-Chinese side and Turkey inclining to the American side. This regional bipolarity allows leaders like Karimov and Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan to play off competing blocs in order to establish greater space for their own power at home and abroad. These games also allow them to extract numerous tangible economic, political, and military benefits from the competing rivals for their favor.

Beijing and Tashkent also benefit from Karimov’s visit in tangible material terms as well. Economics has always been a key issue for Beijing in its relations with Central Asia and Uzbekistan has always sought to diversify its exports to escape excessive dependence upon any one partner. China’s hunger for reliable energy sources relatively close to home comes into play here.

Although Uzbekistan is not a major energy supplier like Kazakhstan, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and Uzbekneftgaz, the state oil and gas firm, established a joint venture during Karimov’s trip. This $600 million endeavor will conduct explore and develop oil fields in Uzbekistan. China will provide technology to develop 23 fields in the relatively inaccessible Bukhara-Khiva region and produce some one million tons of oil annually as well as gas condensate when it reaches capacity. China also promised to back Uzbekistan’s application to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) and is promoting, as it does with all of its partners, increased trade and investment opportunities. Therefore both sides stand to make material gains as well as to further reinforce a political-ideological relationship.

Indeed, this visit and China’s effusive welcome for Karimov highlight the fact that this regional bipolarity or tripolarity in Central Asia is not just confined to issues of bases, military aid, and membership in competing security organizations, political support, energy access, trade, and tangible economic gains. The new great game is increasingly becoming one in which ideological blocs or postures parallel and reinforce security and political blocs. Reforming, if not democratizing, states like Georgia and Ukraine will line up more with Washington and Brussels, while the regimes in Central Asia will either incline more to Moscow and Beijing and disengage somewhat from Washington and Brussels, or they will seek an ever-shifting neutrality as appears to be the case with Kyrgyzstan. This overlay or congruence of military-political blocs with ideological-political stances represents a new, but already discernible, trend in the former Soviet Union, and it could well lead to heightened rivalry among the various contenders as well as local governments for influence, power, and more tangible benefits. This trend predates the uprising in Andijan and Karimov’s trip to China, but those events have vividly illuminated the degree to which the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia already are a battleground in what has truly become a new Great Game.

(Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 19; Uzbek Radio, May 25; Asia Pulse, June 3; Xinhua, May 24, June 4; Interfax-Kazakhstan, May 20; RI- Novosti, May 27.