The Uzbekistan National Guard and the Chinese People’s Armed Police (PAP) held their largest bilateral exercise in the “Forish” training ground in Uzbekistan in mid-May. The two conducted counterterrorism exercises focused on a mission eliminating terrorists from a multi-story residential building and freeing hostages. The multi-day exercise involved other public order exercises as well. The final day culminated with the visit of PAP commander Wang Ning to the exercise grounds. The exercises underscore the National Guard’s evolving status within the armed forces of Uzbekistan and increasing cooperation with foreign partners.
The National Guard and PAP are peer organizations with the same mission of ensuring internal peace. The National Guard, which has technically existed since 1992, was neither sizable nor possessed of a clear mission prior to 2016. Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev elevated the National Guard to an independent elite domestic armed force, separating it from the Ministry of Interior and putting an end to its ambiguous function by assigning a specific mission. The National Guard, therefore, is a relatively new organization in its present form.
The National Guards and PAP held their first training earlier this year. That exercise was limited to testing weapons and hand-to-hand combat.
China’s earlier cooperation with the guard started with the Ministry of Interior of Uzbekistan in 2016, when it was still a part of the ministry. Beijing and Tashkent hosted several meetings with focus on counterterrorism and maintaining public order. Tashkent’s concerns regarding domestic terrorism were prominent when, in the summer of 2018, various Uzbek forces, including the National Guard, held massive joint counterterrorism exercises in the country’s large cities.
Now as the National Guard emerges as their own entity, there are signs that the PAP will be one of its closest partners. In additional to military cooperation, Beijing is funding language courses at the National Guard’s military-technical Institute. In 2018, the Ambassador of China to Uzbekistan officially launched a language learning center for the Chinese language. At the same event, it was announced that Chinese would become a part of a curriculum at the institute and would be taught by two instructors from China. The learning center would also serve as a resource base for Chinese culture and language learning for all military educational facilities of Uzbekistan. In addition to this recent academic cooperation, the police academies of both countries signed a formal memorandum of cooperation on developing joint courses and academic cooperation.
China is not the only partner for Uzbekistan’s National Guards. The guard’s Russian equivalent, called Rosgvardiya, is also a key partner. Rosgvardiya and Uzbekistan’s National Guard signed a framework cooperation agreement in 2018 and another cooperation agreement detailing activities for 2019. Another emerging partner is Turkey. The commander of Uzbekistan’s National Guard, Bakhodir Tashmatov, visited his Turkish colleagues in 2018. The United States also appears to be trying to catch up, evident by a visit by Mississippi Governor Phil Brayant and Adjutant General Jason Boyle of the U.S. National Guard to Tashkent in early May. They met with Tashmatov to discuss possible avenues for cooperation.
Russia is undoubtedly keeping an eye on the recent activities of the National Guard, possibly worried that its traditional military partner is slipping toward China. That is possibly why Rosgvardiya’s head Viktor Zolotov, a week after the National Guard’s exercises with China, singled out Tashkent as its close partner in Central Asia and issued an invitation to Tashkent to observe the upcoming China-Russia exercises between the national guards of the countries.
Tashkent clearly aims to diversify its foreign partners, in particular when it comes to big players. At some point though, Tashkent may naturally lean toward a particular partner more than others. Tashkent is showing all signs of welcoming China for public security cooperation in particular. This could also be a sign of Tashkent drifting away from Russia’s dominance in the country’s military affairs.