Foreign policy continuity in the aftermath of leadership change has normally defined the evolution of Central Asian politics in the post-Soviet era. A strict policy of Neutrality characterised the international posture of Turkmenistan under Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov just as it did in 1991 to 2006, when Saparmurat Niyazov held the presidency while ruling over a hyper-authoritarian regime. Political constructs and ideas reportedly based on Eurasia have continued to define Kazakhstani foreign policy, even after the resignation of Nursultan A. Nazarbaev, who, during his long tenure (1991-2019), deliberately anchored his country’s external strategies in a firm, if at times rhetorical, neo-Eurasianist policy posture.
A significant exception to this norm has been represented by the current president of Uzbekistan, Shavkat M. Mirziyoyev, who, since his accession to power, has sought to redesign extensively the international posture of the Uzbek state. Mirziyoyev’s input contributed to dismantling the twin policies of self-imposed international isolation and economic autarky that so profoundly characterised the patterns whereby Uzbekistan interacted with the global community during the long mandate of Islam A. Karimov (1991-2016).
Mirziyoyev’s policies had an immediate impact on Uzbekistan’s relations with its neighbours. The government’s stated commitment to Central Asian connectivity reopened a series of borders that had been arbitrarily closed in the Karimov years, facilitating the re-establishment of air, rail and bus routes that were closed as Uzbekistan receded into a cocoon of self-imposed isolation. Beyond its positive contribution to the partial revitalisation of intra-regional trade, the net effect of this specific policy line has been represented by Uzbekistan’s return to the epicentre of Central Asian politics, with the government in Tashkent rising to a position of leadership in a series of policy coordination initiatives implemented at regional level.
Uzbekistan’s relations with the Great Powers have to be seen as a further area upon which the policy revision work conducted in Tashkent since 2016 exerted a significant influence. Renewed centrality in Central Asian affairs raised a series of important questions about Uzbekistan’s perception of, and interaction with, Eurasia’s key players, namely the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation. In this short essay, we intend to unveil new patterns in the complex web of relations connecting Tashkent with Beijing and Moscow, reflecting on the strategies whereby the current Uzbek regime managed to strike the ultimately uneasy balance between its economic globalisation agenda and its perception of the ingress of foreign influences in Uzbekistan’s internal landscape. Islam Karimov and his supporting elites were always very resistant to the domestic expansion of foreign influences; providing an informed assessment of how the Mirziyoyev regime addressed this policy conundrum has to be seen as the key analytical end pursued in the next few paragraphs.
Geopolitical Balance vs Economic Benefits. The Chinese Vector in Mirziyoyev’s Foreign Policy
The progressive disengagement of Western actors—and the United States more in particular—from the Central Asian arena and, as we will see below, the ambiguous agenda promoted by Russia through the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) reduced the range of options available to Uzbekistan to achieve the economic growth agenda pursued by the regime in Tashkent. In this sense, the strengthening of relations with China has to be seen as an inevitable foreign policy development for post-Karimov Uzbekistan.
A pragmatic approach, based on business relations rather than on political proximity, is underpinning Mirziyoyev’s approach to foreign partnerships in general and that developed with the People’s Republic of China more in particular. Through participation in China-led initiatives of infrastructure development, Uzbekistan intends to address the legacy of economic isolation bequeathed by the Karimov regime. The attraction of Chinese investment, moreover, appears instrumental to boost the Uzbek industrial and agricultural sectors. Perhaps due to the limited presence of Chinese nationals in Uzbekistan, the Uzbek public discourse has been generally defined by the absence of a number of distinct Sinophobic tropes that are conversely thriving in other Central Asian communities, and those living in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan more in particular. The latter consideration may be said to remove a key hurdle to the development of working economic relations between Uzbekistan and China.
Beyond the acceleration imposed in the post-Karimov era, the Sino-Uzbek partnership had come to experience a timidly upwards trajectory in the late 2000s. In 1992-2002, bilateral trade turnover did not exceed US$140 million a year; by 2008, this figure had increased tenfold to reach approximately US$1.3 billion. The fundamental structure of this relationship conformed to the regional norm in Sino-Central Asian commerce: Uzbekistan’s trade with China, throughout the 2000s, developed around the export of raw materials purchased by Chinese partners and the import of industrial goods produced in China into the Uzbek domestic economy. The overall partnership developed further with the opening of the China-Central Asia natural gas pipeline in late 2009, when Uzbekistan began to benefit from the transit fees associated with the delivery of Turkmen gas to the Chinese market. The entry into the pipeline had a substantive impact on Sino-Uzbek bilateral trade, which grew by approximately US$500 million in 2009, somewhat sheltering the rest of the Uzbek economy from the financial crisis ravaging the global economy at the time.
Yet, the most substantive input to the expansion of bilateral economic relations crystallised after Mirziyoyev’s accession to power in late 2016, as the economic liberalisation efforts put into practice by the post-Karimov leadership had an immediate impact on the Sino-Uzbek commercial partnership. At the end of 2019, bilateral trade exceeded US$7.6 billion, registering a fourfold increase from the 2010 baseline. Before the COVID-19 outbreak and the economic downturn the pandemic is likely to bring forward, both parties had declared a stated interest in increasing trade volumes to US$10 billion in 2020.
Data on capital circulation reflects a similarly upwards trend. At the end of 2008, the total volume of Chinese investments and loans in Uzbekistan did not exceed US$400 million. By the end of 2019, Chinese involvement in the Uzbek economy had grown by more than 30 times: at the time of writing, there are approximately US$9 billion of Chinese investments and at least US$3-4 billion of loans active within the Uzbek economic landscape. Numerically, a deeper engagement can also be grasped by looking at a related rise in the number of Chinese enterprises operating in Uzbekistan. In mid-2016, their number barely exceeded 650, while we observed that, at the end of 2019, no fewer than 1600 economic actors financed with Chinese capital were operating within the Uzbek economic framework. A crucial step facilitating this remarkable expansion was represented by the establishment, in 2017, of the Association of Chinese Industrial and Commercial Enterprises, a body tasked to coordinate Chinese business activities in Uzbekistan.
There is perhaps no better way to capture the post-2016 intensification of Sino-Uzbek ties than focusing on joint connectivity projects, a policy area wherein the globalisation agenda of the Mirziyoyev regime intersects quite evidently with the large-scale infrastructure development plan brought forward by Xi Jinping under the One Belt, One Road initiative. There are two particular projects that illustrate with greater precision the recent progress made in this specific area.
Discussed since the 1990s, the Kashgar—Irkeshtam—Osh—Andijan highway had essentially failed to take off during the Karimov era. Mirziyoyev’s accession to power removed many of the political obstacles and trade barriers obstructing the completion of highway’s Uzbek sector; it is therefore no coincidence that the completion of this project came to fruition under the new Uzbek leadership. Corresponding agreements were finalised during Mirziyoyev’s visit to China in May 2017, and the route started functioning properly in February 2018. As part of the further development, the government in Tashkent is now committed to the construction of the road tunnel through the Kamchik pass.
Since the late 1990s, the parties involved in the Uzbekistan—Kyrgyzstan—China railway reiterated their interest in the project’s completion. Financial issues and political hurdles have so far impeded project development in the Kyrgyz territory. With the support of China, a significant amount of work has already been done in the railway’s Uzbek sector, with particular reference to the completion of the railway tunnel through the Kamchik pass and the electrification of the Andijan—Kokand—Pap segment of the railway, an outcome that, before the outbreak of COVID-19, was expected to be achieved in late 2020.
Interestingly, the intensification illustrated here had ultimately aligned the fundamental context wherein Uzbekistan interacts with China to the key dynamics defining China’s relations with other Central Asian states. Given the growing financial dependence and the development of transport communications with China, how can Uzbekistan—and the rest of Central Asia more broadly—avoid the scenario of becoming a raw material appendix of the Chinese economy? Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to this question yet, as the Mirziyoyev strategy to approach China is still in its early implementation stages, while early data confirmed that the economic immobility resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak is likely to indefinitely crystallise the core of the relationship around the specific range of issues treated in the preceding paragraphs.
Dilemmas of (re-)Integration: Multilateralising Uzbekistan’s relations with Russia
A germane policy dilemma has been faced by Mirziyoyev and his associates in their endeavours to modulate the intensity of Uzbekistan’s engagement with the Russian Federation, an interactive framework that continues to represent a complex problem for Uzbek foreign policymakers.
To all intents and purposes, the reconciliation of the regime’s globalisation agenda with the neo-imperial policies that the third Putin Administration is supposedly pursuing across Eurasia presents a similar structural challenge to the one faced by Karimov in the early-to mid-1990s, when Uzbekistan’s early steps as a newly independent state were somewhat constrained by the agenda of post-Soviet re-integratsiya underpinning CIS multilateralism. Karimov and his associates claimed to be following a strict policy of mustaqillik (self-reliance) to justify their explicit disengagement from many of the multilateral initiatives led by Russia in the 1990s and 2000s. A declared policy of self-reliance became in this sense the official vehicle for a progressive withdrawal to nearly total international isolation—Uzbekistan’s default foreign policy position for much of the Karimov era.
The isolationist option is not available to the Mirziyoyev regime, which is actively pursuing the reinsertion of Uzbekistan in the international community while attempting to enhance the degree of domestic economic integration with processes and collaborative frameworks operating at global level. A very similar objective—controlled distance from the influences emanated by the Kremlin—has to be therefore pursued through an opposite policy strategy, namely one that presents Uzbekistan as a dynamic player in regional and international arenas.
The core of this foreign policy dilemma intersects with the opportunity to formalise Uzbekistan’s accession to the EAEU, the multilateral organisation that is allegedly embodying Putin’s neo-imperial agenda in the former Soviet space. Before delving further into the Uzbek debate on EAEU accession, it may be worth to offer a snapshot of the multifaceted linkages currently connecting Uzbekistan with the EAEU.
The Mirziyoyev years witnessed a substantive intensification of economic interaction between the parties: in 2016-2018, total commodity circulation with the economies integrating in the EAEU increased by 52 per cent to US$9.65 billion. At the end of 2019, about 40 per cent of Uzbek exports is directed to the EAEU area while approximately 80 per cent of Uzbekistan’s foreign trade cargo transits through the EAEU. People-to-people contacts feature heavily in the relationship’s equation: no fewer than 2.5 million Uzbek citizens are currently living in the EAEU area, with the largest community being located in Russia. The strengthening of Uzbekistan’s presence in the EAEU area occurred at a time wherein Tashkent’s partnership with Russia had entered a more positive juncture, characterised by the emergence of powerful private interests pushing for closer ties between the parties and, at a broader level, the intensification of bilateral economic cooperation. Moreover, Uzbekistan’s partnerships with the Union’s Central Asian members—Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan—greatly benefited from Mirziyoyev’s attempts to re-centre Uzbekistan at the core of intra-Central Asia cooperation—a policy line that contributed directly to the improvement of regional relations in the most recent years.
This cursory survey suggests that, ultimately, Uzbekistan and the economies integrating in the EAEU have never been closer. The rapprochement captured in the preceding paragraph sat at the core of the official announcement made by government in Tashkent in early March 2020, when Uzbekistan formally acquired observer status in the EAEU. The benefits of full accession are intimately connected with the Union’s capacity to develop a common economic area; easier access to a larger market with fewer trade obstacles, entry into the regulatory framework developing in the EAEU and, most importantly, regularisation of the immigration status of the large community of Uzbek economic migrants working and living in Russia.
There are naturally downsides to full EAEU accession. Recent works on the integration of the Central Asian economies in the EAEU revealed that, ultimately, current integration patterns are strengthening each member’s economic linkages with Russia rather than facilitating the establishment of a genuinely working common market area. A similar scenario may arise after Uzbekistan’s accession, with higher quality consumer goods from Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan inundating the so far protected Uzbek domestic market, continuous monetary depreciation diluting the benefits of trade liberalisation and, most importantly, compounding in the medium-run the imbalances already existing in Uzbek-Russian trade.
The post-pandemic economic downturn, in our view, has the potential to accelerate Uzbekistan’s accession to the EAEU. Full membership may offer a readily available solution to address the likely shrinkage in the labour markets of Russia and Kazakhstan, legalising the residency status of more than 2 million Uzbek economic migrants who operate in the EAEU area. Most importantly, the formalisation of membership may grant Uzbekistan full access to any post-pandemic Union-wide scheme to upstart production and revitalise trade across the Eurasian common market.
To our mind, the geopolitical implications of Uzbekistan’s EAEU membership have to be toned down. Our understanding of Mirziyoyev’s multilateral strategy intends to de-contextualise Uzbek foreign policy from analytical lenses somewhat related to Great Game narratives. Any rapprochement with forms of Russian-led multilateralism—and, correspondingly, the intensification of Uzbekistan’s economic ties with China that we described in the preceding segment of the essay—have to be seen as strategies supporting the globalising vector of Mirziyoyev’s foreign policy, rather than as indicators that a wider process of foreign policy realignment is currently at play in Tashkent. The COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the consequent global economic crisis, increased the relevance of arguments supporting regional integration across the post-Soviet space, somewhat reinforcing the essentially economic nature of the benefits associated with Uzbekistan’s entry into the EAEU. In any case, Uzbekistan’s foreign policy framework—and its incessant pursuit for independence on the international scene in particular—remained relatively unchanged since the new leadership rose to power; they only have to be achieved with a different strategy.
Dr Luca Anceschi lectures in Central Asian Studies at the University of Glasgow, where he also edits Europe-Asia Studies. He can be followed on Twitter @anceschistan; Dr Vladimir Paramonov is the Founder of the Central Eurasia Analytical Group based in Tashkent (Uzbekistan), www.ceasia.org.
Photo by Kremlin, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
 Anceschi, LUCA. 2009. Turkmenistan’s Foreign Policy. Positive Neutrality and the Consolidation of the Turkmen Regime. Abingdon: Routledge.
 On the relevance of Eurasianism for Kazakhstani foreign policy in the Tokayev era, see: Nargis Kassenova, The Elections and Kazakhstan’s Foreign Policy: Continuity but for How Long?, PONARS Blog Post, June 2019, http://www.ponarseurasia.org/article/elections-and-kazakhstan%E2%80%99s-foreign-policy-continuity-how-long\; Throughout the Nazarbaev era, Kazakhstan followed a foreign policy course that granted central relevance to Eurasia-related themes and constructs. In policy terms, the centrality of these themes translated into a consistently multilateralist inclination, which put a premium on inter-state association with partners located in post-Soviet Eurasia. On Kazakhstani neo-Eurasianism, see: Anceschi, Luca. 2020. Analysing Kazakhstan’s foreign policy: Regime neo-Eurasianism in the Nazarbaev years. London-New York: Routledge.
 For relevant overviews of Uzbek foreign policy in the Karimov era, see: Kazemi, Leila. 2003. Domestic Sources of Uzbekistan’s Foreign Policy, 1991 to the Present. Journal of International Affairs 56 (2): 205-216.
 Eldor Aripov, Uzbekistan Works to Reshape Central Asia, The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, November 2017, https://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/13480-uzbekistan-works-to-reshape-central-asia.html; Luca Anceschi, The Resurgence of Central Asian Connectivity, The Diplomat, December 2017, https://thediplomat.com/2017/11/the-resurgence-of-central-asian-connectivity/; On Mirziyoyev’s coordinating role in the region during the Covid-19 pandemic, see: Bruce Pannier, Mirziyoev Steps Up As COVID-19 Crisis Increases Contact Among Central Asian Leaders, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, April 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/mirziyoev-steps-up-as-covid-19-crisis-increases-contact-among-central-asian-leaders/30523898.html
 The major reasons are the withdrawal of the US/NATO troops from Afghanistan, underway since 2014, and the implementation of a more isolationist US foreign policy since the accession to power of Donald J. Trump.
 For a wider discussion of this issue, see: Peyrouse, Sebastien. 2016. Discussing China: Sinophilia and sinophobia in Central Asia. Journal of Eurasian Studies 7 (1): 14-23.
 Paramonov, Vladimir, et al. 2009. Chinese Economic Express in the Center of Eurasia: The New Threat or Historical Chance? Barnaul: Altai Publishing House, www.ceasia.ru/pdf/book/book_chinese_express_2010.zip
 Vladimir Paramonov, China and Central Asia: Present and Future of Economic Relations, Conflict Studies Research Centre, May 2005, https://www.da.mod.uk/publications/category/69/China-Central-Asia-Present-Future-of-Economic-Relations0525E
 State Committee on Statistics of the Republic of Uzbekistan, Quarterly reports, 2020, https://www.stat.uz/ru/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2780&catid=183&lang=ru-RU
 Malokhat Khusanova, Negotiations between the governments of Uzbekistan and China, UzA, November 2019, http://uza.uz/ru/society/peregovory-mezhdu-pravitelstvami-uzbekistana-i-kitaya–01-11-2019?sphrase_id=5735984
 Paramonov et al. Chinese Economic Express in the Center of Eurasia: The New Threat or Historical Chance?
 Khusanova, Negotiations between the governments of Uzbekistan and China; Authors’ estimate based on data included in: Vladimir Paramonov, Uzbekistan Initiative Papers No. 5, Central Asia Program, February 2014, http://centralasiaprogram.org/archives/7839.
 Press Service of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, Uzbekistan – China: A new stage of cooperation – a comprehensive strategic partnership, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Uzbekistan, June 2016, https://mfa.uz/ru/press/news/2016/06/7671/?print=Y; State Committee on Statistics of the Republic of Uzbekistan, Analysis of the demography of enterprises and organizations of the Republic of Uzbekistan, January 2020, https://stat.uz/ru/press-tsentr/novosti-komiteta/8241-2020-yil-1-yanvar-holatiga-yuridik-shaxs-bo-lgan-korxonalar-va-tashkilotlar-demografiyasi-bo-yicha-tahliliy-ma-lumot-2
 Commercial data revealed that Chinese imports from Uzbekistan decreased by 35 per cent across January-March 2020. See: Yau Tsz Yan, Chinese business briefing: Force majeure. Eurasianet, April 2020, https://eurasianet.org/chinese-business-briefing-force-majeure
 On Karimov’s foreign policy legacy, see: Teles Fazendeiro, Bernardo. (2017). Uzbekistan’s Defensive Self-Reliance: Karimov’s Foreign Policy Legacy. International Affairs 93 (2): 409–427.
 The statistical sketch that follows has been provided to the authors by the Embassy of the Republic of Uzbekistan to the United Kingdom.
 Rafael Sattarov, On the way to the oligarchy. Why is the new leadership of Uzbekistan moving closer to Usmanov, Carnegie Moscow Commentary, November 2017, https://carnegie.ru/commentary/74600\; In 2018 alone, trade and investments deals between the parties exceeded US$28 billion. See: Paul Stronski, Will Mirziyoyev’s Plodding Reforms Be Enough for Uzbekistan?, World Politics Review, January 2020, https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/28471/will-mirziyoyev-s-plodding-reforms-be-enough-for-uzbekistan
On Kazakhstan’s EaEU membership, see: Anceschi. Analysing Kazakhstan’s Foreign Policy. Regime neo-Eurasianism in the Nazarbaev Era. For a wider reflection on the dynamics regulating Kyrgyzstan’s accession to the EaEU, see: Dergousoff, Deborah. 2017. Kyrgyzstan’s Accession to the EEU: Why Do Apples Matter Anyway? World Review of Political Economy, 8 (2): 203-220.
 A first-class discussion of these issues is featured in: Fabrizio Vielmini, Uzbekistan and the Eurasian Economic Union: Pros and Cons, CPRO Policy Brief, March 2019, http://www.wiut.uz/images/FV_EAEU_PB03.pdf
 Sherzodkhon Kudrathodjaev, Uzbekistan Does Not Drift Among Great Powers, The Diplomat, June 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/06/uzbekistan-does-not-drift-among-great-powers/