Uzbekistan’s relations with China have been developing at a much more rapid pace since its internal crisis in Andijan in May 2005. That renewed impetus towards building closer ties has been underscored by Chinese Deputy Prime Minister Wu Yi, who visited Uzbekistan for high-level talks on July 17-18. The series of meetings alluded to the political nature of their deepening bilateral relationship, with common security concerns, but stressed the paramount importance of trade and economic interests.
Uzbek First Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov, speaking after meeting Wu Yi, appraised the upward trend in economic cooperation as strong and vibrant. According to Azimov, who noted in passing the significance of Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s visit to China in May, trade between the two countries last year was around $367 million, and reached $250 million in the first six months of 2005. It is widely expected in Tashkent that bilateral trade will increase, not least since there are now more areas of economic cooperation. These talks resulted in 12 documents being signed, boosting trading ties (UzReport.com, July 18).
The oil industry is central to Chinese economic interests in Uzbekistan, and, based on Karimov’s visit to China in May, Chinese companies are already working out the finer details of carrying out such investment plans. Sinopec corporation intends to invest $106 million in prospecting work and put back into operation oil deposits being exploited for long-term use in Uzbekistan within five years. Uzbekneftegaz National Holding Company (NHC) and Sinopec signed this agreement on July 18. It will also involve the creation of a joint venture between Uzbekneftegaz and the Dong Sheng Company — a subsidiary of Sinopec (Interfax, July 18). Chinese investments in the Uzbek oil sector are expected to reach $600 million in the longer term.
Uzbek media coverage of these meetings with Wu Yi was widespread and naturally positive, since it is perceived as an indication that Uzbekistan is not internationally isolated after the bloody events in Andijan. Technical economic cooperation agreements were also signed and the planned opening of an Uzbek consulate in Shanghai were presented as yet more proof of warmer relations (Uzbek National News Agency, July 18).
Nasriddin Najimov, Chairman of the Uzbek Agency for Foreign Economic Relations, places equally great hopes on links with China as a trading partner. Najimov confirmed that the Uzbeks have drafted and handed a package of investment proposals to Chinese companies. This includes 50 projects in the following spheres: information technology, machinery and engineering, chemical and electromechanical industries, and the manufacturing of construction materials, furniture, and related goods (Interfax, July 18). Clearly the authorities in Tashkent hope to capitalize on the trend towards Chinese companies being more open to trade with Uzbekistan.
Azimov stressed the importance to Uzbekistan of such agreements with China, commenting on the frequency of recent bilateral meetings that “have demonstrated the high level of political dialogue, confirmed the similarity and proximity of the two states’ positions on a whole range of issues being discussed, and mutual aspiration for establishing closer partnership relations.” That similarity in the two sides’ positions on a range of issues gives little encouragement to those campaigning for the improvement of human rights within Uzbekistan or the promotion of democracy within the country.
Karimov’s own meeting with Wu Yi predictably acted as a forum for promoting this sense of improved cooperation, stressing that it involves the educational and military sectors. Yet Karimov took the opportunity to speak about Uzbekistan’s relations with China entering a “new phase.” Closer economic cooperation, political and military ties, and promoting security interests through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) denote the broader elements of this new phase.
In reality little has changed in bilateral relations between China and Uzbekistan, but the timing of increased diplomatic traffic and deepening economic interests serve the geopolitical interests of both states. Karimov is keen to avoid any appearance of weakness or isolation within Central Asia, keeping his relations with both Moscow and Beijing as balanced as possible. In recent years he has laid himself open to criticism from Russia and China that Uzbekistan has been too friendly and Western-oriented in its security arrangements and aspirations.
China, of course, seeks to minimize the growth of U.S. interests within the region, and the help afforded to Uzbekistan since Andijan has given Beijing an opening to remind Washington of China’s long-term interests in Central Asia. The security implications are emerging slowly, but the SCO appears to be acting in greater harmony, with the apparent eventual aim of seeing an end to the U.S. military presence in Central Asia. For China, that presence is particularly intolerable. In this sense, Karimov’s overtures will continue to arouse interest in Beijing and relations will likely become warmer still. Karimov will not close the door on the West while he can attract investment and maintain bilateral security cooperation packages with willing donors.