The recent official visit of the president of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, to the United States on May 15-17 has been hailed as a historic trip paving the ground for “a new era of strategic cooperation” between the two countries. Uzbekistan is a key country in Central Asia, a strategic region located between Russia in the north, China in the east, South Asia in the south, and the Middle East in the west.
The visit of the Uzbek president generated great interest in many capitals which have their own aspirations and agendas in Central Asia. Such interest is not without reason as any development related to Uzbekistan, a pivotal country which shares borders with all the other Central Asian countries including Afghanistan, carries the potential of making an impact on the whole region. Thus the reforms taking placing in Uzbekistan are being closely watched in Moscow, Beijing and Washington.
Since coming to power, Mirziyoyev has made sure that the country’s foreign policy priority is Central Asia and also that the government build constructive and fruitful relations with all great powers. As such he paid state visits to Moscow and Beijing in April and May 2017, respectively, which not only ensured continuity but also enhanced Uzbekistan’s relations with these countries to a qualitatively new level. Moreover, Mirziyoyev’s proactive regional strategy created a refreshingly friendly climate in diplomacy among the Central Asian countries.
In a similar fashion, the recent visit to Washington had as its main aim enhancing bilateral dialogue and cooperation between Uzbekistan and the United States in all areas of mutual interest including human rights, education and others. Over 20 major business deals were arranged between the two countries during the visit, if completed they will be worth about $5 billion. The course and substance of negotiations, as well as the achieved results, could not possibly have any harmful effect on Uzbekistan’s relations with any other country.
However, the visit to Washington was interpreted by some as signaling a shift in Tashkent’s foreign policy priorities. The visit of General Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), to Uzbekistan to discuss Uzbek-U.S. security, military and technical cooperation, on May 12 just a few days before the Uzbek leader’s trip to Washington, was also interpreted in a similar fashion.
Of course, observers well-versed in regional developments know all too well that such excessive politicization and one-sided interpretations have nothing to do with reality. Still the Uzbek leader’s recent visit to Washington could not be by any means interpreted as a withdrawal from traditionally close cooperation with Russia, China or any partner nation for the simple reason that Uzbekistan’s foreign policy priorities remain unchanged.
The Central Asian region and relations with neighboring countries remain a top priority of Uzbekistan’s foreign policy agenda. Uzbekistan’s security is associated with the whole of Central Asia and vice versa. Tashkent remains firm in its practice of staying out of military-political blocs.
Each of the great powers has its own status in the decision-making calculations of Tashkent. Russia is an important strategic partner for Uzbekistan, with lasting cultural ties and the presence of a Russian-speaking community in the country. More broadly, a number of Russian regions border Central Asia, making up more than 7,000 km of mutual borders.
Russia is a powerful security actor in the region as well, both with multilateral arrangements (such as CSTO and SCO) and bilateral mechanisms with differentiated policies adjusted for each country. For Uzbekistan, Russia is a key market and an important source of financing. President Mirziyoyev’s visit to Moscow in April 2017 produced a $16 billion package of agreements, an unprecedented case both in quantitative and qualitative terms. The Uzbek leader is determined to expand and diversify trade with Russia in the upcoming years that is in line with his “open doors” policy.
In the foreseeable future, Russia will likely remain the most prominent external power in Central Asia, both in terms of high-level political and security cooperation and its wide range of investment projects in Uzbekistan and the region in general.
China is another important player in Central Asia. In Central Asia, Beijing is interested in finding external markets for its companies especially involved in construction and infrastructure development, as part of its “Go Out” policy encouraging external investment. China’s emerging Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) aims at improving trade connectivity between growing industrial production in China and European markets through Central Asia. In this context, Uzbekistan is rather an advantageous partner with its great potential for industrial and technological development as well as young labor force.
Uzbekistan enjoys centuries-old relations with China dating back to the history of the famous Silk Road. Present-day Uzbekistan needs more large-scale high-tech Chinese investment projects in industry, energy, transport, telecommunications, and agriculture. Mirziyoyev’s visit to China in May 2017 resulted in about 100 agreements worth $20 billion.
Tashkent views China’s BRI as win-win cooperation rather than a platform that can gradually aggravate competition with other major powers. Most of the tools used by Beijing — high-level engagements, public diplomacy, and economic inducements — are supported by Tashkent today. Expressing his confidence for the BRI, Mirziyoyev focused on its potential to help create a “belt of peace and well-being, prosperity and progress” on the whole Eurasian continent.
In short, Tashkent needs both Russia and China.
At the same time Tashkent thinks big and is interested in having Central Asia as a multipolar region with more than one player. It should not be seen as if Uzbekistan is facing the false geopolitical choice to make between Russia, China and the West. Its focus on multivectoral policies do not mean playing one superpower against another, but that every power has its own niche to fill.
The list of Uzbekistan’s partners has been rejuvenated, with many playing increasingly active roles in the decision-making processes in Tashkent. This list is being expanded with, for example, Turkey intensifying economic and cultural relations with Uzbekistan.
An independent but pragmatic foreign policy will enhance Uzbekistan’s potential in consolidating the efforts of Central Asian nations in jointly address the region’s problems and challenges. For this reason, Tashkent strives to build constructive relations with all powers, be it the United States, Russia, or China.
The visit of the Uzbek president to Washington should be understood in light of the Uzbek government’s conscious choice to pursue a multivectoral foreign policy. The hallmarks of this pragmatic multidirectional foreign policy are openness, mutual economic development, and cultural diversity.
Concerns expressed by some that Uzbekistan merely drifts among great powers have no justification.
Sherzodkhon Kudrathodjaev is chairman of the International Press Club of Uzbekistan.