Policy Briefs

March 23, 2023

Afghan vector of modern foreign policy of Uzbekistan

Until 2016, the factor of Afghanistan in the framework of the foreign policy of Uzbekistan was considered mainly through the prism of ensuring national and regional security. However, after the launch of reforms by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in the second half of 2016, the southern neighbor began to be increasingly perceived not as a source of challenges and threats, but as a sum of opportunities within the framework of the general trend towards economization of the country's foreign policy.

This, of course, did not mean that security issues faded into the background. They were simply called upon to create favorable conditions for the development of trade, economic and investment relations. It is noteworthy that the withdrawal of American and NATO contingents, which caused a wide resonance in the world and the region, accompanied by the rapid advance of the Taliban (the Taliban movement, an organization banned in Russia) and the collapse of the government of Ashraf Ghani in August 2021, did not, on the whole, introduce fundamental changes in the new approach. Uzbekistan.

The election of Shavkat Mirziyoyev as President of Uzbekistan symbolized a change in the basic paradigm in the development of the country. There has been a rethinking of its basic constants in foreign policy – ​​the focus has shifted from the priority on maximizing security, which prevailed in the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, towards ensuring socio-economic reforms in accordance with modern realities and the backbone trends of the global economy. The new foreign policy course was called "economization" in the expert community.

As part of the new policy, key attention has been paid to using the potential of cooperation with regional countries, which are considered as natural markets for Uzbek products. It should be noted that until 2016 this potential was not used to its full potential due to disagreements with a number of Central Asian countries on water and border issues.

The new course of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev showed that often the sharpness and depth of the previously existing contradictions were seriously exaggerated. Evidence of this was the rapid normalization of relations with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, accompanied by the explosive growth of bilateral trade and the expansion of humanitarian contacts. Trade with Kazakhstan also began to develop rapidly. Despite the decline in trade with some Central Asian countries during the coronavirus pandemic, after it ended, it quickly recovered and returned to a growth trajectory.

In the new “economized” foreign policy course, much attention was also paid to Afghanistan, which, during the presence of the United States in this country and large-scale injections of donor funds into the Afghan economy, has become a significant export destination for Uzbek producers. At the same time, Uzbekistan traditionally had a steady surplus in trade with Kabul. If in 2019 it amounted to 431.2 million dollars (exports 433.3 million, imports - almost 2.1), then in the record-breaking coronavirus 2020 for bilateral trade. - 774.4 million dollars (export - 776.7 million, import - 2.3 million).

The Afghan market, which accounts for 5% of all Uzbek exports, has become the engine of economic activity in a number of sectors of the Uzbek economy, as evidenced by the commodity nomenclature. In 2020, 662 trade items were exported to Afghanistan. Of these, the lion's share of exports fell on the supply of wheat flour (28.1%), electricity (17.2%), freight rail services (25.3%). Exports of cement grew rapidly (by 21% compared to 2019) and ferrous metallurgy products (26.6%).

As of 2021, Afghanistan was Uzbekistan's largest trade and economic partner of all South Asian countries. It accounted for 48.9% of the total trade turnover, India - 35.6%, Pakistan - 13.2% and Bangladesh - 2.1%.

Meanwhile, the potential of economic relations with Afghanistan at that time was considered as far from its full implementation, which set the task for the government and the Foreign Ministry of Uzbekistan to bring bilateral cooperation to a qualitatively and quantitatively new level. As an analysis of Tashkent's foreign policy activity in relation to Afghanistan in the period 2016-2021 shows, its steps in the Afghan direction have become proactive and focused on three areas.

The first direction is to stimulate the efforts of the international community to find a model for a peaceful settlement of the Afghan conflict. It must be said that the period 2016-2021. characterized by growing military and political instability in Afghanistan. Thus, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the UN Human Rights Office, in 2018, 3,804 civilians were killed and 7,189 injured, including 927 children. The cause of 63% of the victims was the actions of anti-government forces (AGF) - the Taliban * (37%), ISIS-Khorasan ** (20%) and 6% - unidentified ATF. Pro-government forces were responsible for 24% of the casualties.

Obviously, this trend inspired growing fears for the future development of the situation in the Afghan domestic political field. In this regard, Uzbekistan came up with the initiative to hold an international conference on Afghanistan "Peace process, security cooperation and regional interaction." The event was held in Tashkent in March 2018 and during it, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev voiced the Uzbek vision for the settlement of the Afghan conflict, which consisted in advancing a comprehensive peace process at the following three interrelated and interdependent levels:

- at the intra-Afghan level, where it was necessary to ensure the launch of a direct dialogue without preconditions between the central government and the main forces of the armed opposition, primarily the Taliban *;

- at the regional level, in order to ensure the achievement of a strong consensus with the support of Pakistan, India, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and the countries of Central Asia;

- at the global level, at which it was necessary to provide fundamental political support for the peace process and financial assistance to the socio-economic reconstruction of Afghanistan from the leading world powers and donor organizations.

Later, already in 2020, Uzbekistan positively perceived the transformation of the capital of Qatar, Doha, into a negotiating platform for the Afghan settlement. As President Shavkat Mirziyoyev stated in his speech at the 75th session of the UN General Assembly, “We fully support the peace talks between the political forces of Afghanistan that began in September this year in the city of Doha. We express the hope that these negotiations will contribute to the establishment of peace and stability in the long-suffering Afghan land.”

Second directionwhere the proactive nature of Uzbek policy was manifested was the promotion of an initiative to create a solid foundation for cooperation between Central and South Asia with the participation of Afghanistan. The impetus for this strategic line was given by the international conference “Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity” held on July 15-16, 2021 in Tashkent. The expansion of cooperation between the two regions was supposed to have a positive impact on the overall security system in Eurasia, contribute to the expansion of trade, economic and investment relations, and the development of cultural and humanitarian ties. Afghanistan in this regard was considered as one of the key beneficiaries, since the lion's share of cargo transportation would have to be carried out directly through its territory.

As the third direction of the Afghan vector of Uzbekistan's policy in the period 2016-2021. one can note the search for and creation of additional incentives and platforms for building up economic cooperation with Afghanistan. In 2017, a roadmap was signed to increase bilateral trade turnover to $1.5 billion, including more than 40 contracts worth more than $500 million to supply Uzbek products to the Afghan market.

An agreement was also signed on the construction of a power line at Surkhan - Puli Khumri for a stable energy supply to Kabul. The contract for the design, construction and operation of power lines in Afghanistan was signed between the National Electric Grids of Uzbekistan and Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat in December 2020, after which its implementation began, which was suspended in July 2021 amid a sharp increase in hostilities in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan managed at that time to complete the construction of a part of the power line on its territory.

Among the significant steps to increase trade and economic cooperation, one can single out the agreement reached by the parties in May 2021 in Termez to accelerate the approval of a draft agreement on preferential trade to bring trade to the level of $2 billion per year. In order to stimulate transit cargo transportation to / from Afghanistan, in 2016, the Termez Cargo Center was opened in the Surkhandarya region in close proximity to the Afghan border.

Meanwhile, the policy of Uzbekistan during the period of President Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani was not limited to economic interests. Tashkent, considering this country as "an integral part of Central Asia" and has repeatedly provided humanitarian assistance to it.

The unexpected for many analysts, the rapid fall of Kabul on August 15, 2021 and the establishment by the Taliban * of control over the entire territory of Afghanistan, including the seemingly impregnable Panjshir Gorge immediately after the withdrawal of American troops, put all the countries of Central Asia in front of the need to adjust their foreign policy based on new realities. According to a statement by Uzbek officials, the return of the Taliban * to power was not a surprise for them, since two years earlier such a development of events was predicted and clear security guarantees were received from the head of the political office of the Taliban in Doha (Qatar), Mullah Abdul Ghani Barodar.

Understanding that the emerging new reality in Afghanistan provides an opportunity to end the forty-year conflict, it was important for Uzbekistan to prevent the degradation of the humanitarian situation in this country, especially since against the backdrop of the cessation of international funding and the freezing of the country's funds in Western banks, the Afghan economy and the banking system were immediately on the brink of collapse. To prevent this, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, at the SCO summit in Dushanbe on September 17, 2021, called for the unfreezing of $9.5 billion of Afghan funds and assistance to Afghanistan in solving social problems.

A few days later, at the 76th session of the UN General Assembly, the President of Uzbekistan also called for the creation of a permanent committee on Afghanistan under the UN. His goal was to prevent the isolation of this state, in which it would be alone with its problems.

Based on the logic of preventing a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan constructively and pragmatically accepted the formation of the Transitional Administration of the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" (interim government) immediately after the capture of Kabul by the Taliban. Already on October 7, 2021, the head of the Uzbek Foreign Ministry Abdulaziz Kamilov visited Kabul. During the visit, he met with Acting Foreign Minister of Afghanistan Amir Khan Muttaki, with whom issues of bilateral economic cooperation in the field of cargo transit, energy, trade and reconstruction of the airport in Mazar-i-Sharif were discussed.

In general, the position of Uzbekistan at the end of 2021 regarding Afghanistan and the political changes that have taken place in it can be reduced to several points voiced by A. Kamilov at the second ministerial meeting in the Italy-Central Asia format on December 8, 2021. Among them:

- the need for a constructive dialogue with the new authorities of Afghanistan in order to avoid the re-turning of this country into a so-called. “a rogue state;

- providing a humanitarian corridor to Afghanistan in order to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe;

- taking measures to lift sanctions, unfreeze Afghanistan's international assets and assist it in restoring the banking system;

- the importance of launching the development of a post-conflict strategy with regard to Afghanistan and highlighting as a priority its more active involvement in regional economic integration processes and the implementation of socio-economic projects in this country;

- the fulfillment by the new Afghan authorities of the international obligations assumed: the creation of an inclusive government, the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking, the prevention of the deployment of terrorist groups in the country, the termination of contacts with them, the support of good neighborly relations with the countries of the region, the observance of fundamental human rights and freedoms, including number of women and national minorities.

Additional aspects to the designated political line of Uzbekistan towards Afghanistan were introduced in Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s address to the participants of the international conference “Afghanistan: security and economic development” held on July 26, 2022 in Tashkent. He, in particular, stressed that the Uzbek and Afghan peoples are united by common cultural, spiritual and historical values, as well as a single religion and heritage of their ancestors. In addition, the indivisibility of the security of Central Asia and Afghanistan was noted, since without stability south of the Amu Darya it would be impossible to achieve the security and sustainable development of Uzbekistan and all of Central Asia.

As the positions of the new Afghan authorities strengthened, showing their ability to keep the situation under control and revive certain economic activity in the country, despite limited financial opportunities, the policy of Uzbekistan again returned to giving priority to economic cooperation, promotion of mutually beneficial infrastructure and transport projects. Moreover, the Taliban themselves showed a clear interest. This is evidenced by the conference held on December 6-7, 2021. Uzbek-Afghan-Pakistani meeting in Tashkent to discuss the project for the construction of the Termez-Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railway. Also at the end of December 2021, during negotiations in Tashkent, the parties announced their intention to continue the construction of the Surkhan-Puli-Khumri power line.

If we analyze the situation in bilateral relations in 2022, we can note a number of positive events and trends for Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. Among them is the growth of bilateral trade to $759.9 million, which was only slightly lower than in 2020, when President Ashraf Ghani was in power ($779.1 million). Uzbek exports in 2022 accounted for $750.6 million ($776.7 million in 2020). At the same time, imports of Afghan goods and services increased - from $2.3 million in 2020. and $6.2 million in 2021 to 9.3 million in 2022.

Significant events include the completion by Tashkent of a technical assistance project for the restoration of the Mazar-i-Sharif airport, which included the repair of aeronautical and meteorological equipment, the reconstruction of the runway and the restoration of power supply.

During the first half of 2022 there was a rapid increase in transit traffic through Uzbekistan and Afghanistan in a southerly direction, which can serve as an indicator of the ability of the Taliban * to ensure the security of transport communications. The volume of cargo transportation increased by 2.6 times compared to the same period in 2021. up to 330 thousand tons.

Thanks to a certain stabilization of Afghanistan, an opportunity has opened up for Tashkent to establish direct cargo transportation with Islamabad. Already in November 2021, the first transit cargo from Uzbekistan was delivered to Pakistan, and in March 2022, the first batch of Pakistani meat was delivered to the Uzbek market through Afghan territory. India also tested this route by sending a transit cargo through Pakistan and Afghanistan to Uzbekistan.

The development of joint plans to increase the volume of bilateral trade and investment can be considered an indicator of the positive mood that has appeared in this regard in Uzbek-Pakistani relations. The parties reached an agreement on preferential trade, according to which duties on several dozen goods will be reduced from 20 to 100% [24]. Thanks to this, the volume of bilateral trade is expected to increase from $181 million in 2021 to $1 billion in the coming years.

Meanwhile, speaking about the future contours of Uzbekistan's policy towards Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban*, one cannot ignore the potential risks that may affect its progressive nature. Although the Taliban * controls the situation in the country as a whole, however, this control still remains insufficiently strong in its basic basis. First of all, we are talking about the economy and the humanitarian situation. Currently, 6 million Afghans are on the verge of starvation, which is an extremely dangerous challenge for the Taliban authorities. The further aggravation of the situation with hunger still allows to deter foreign aid. More than a quarter of the population of 40 million receive food packages from the World Food Program.

The only way to mitigate the acuteness of the humanitarian situation is through the accelerated development of the national economy through the attraction of large-scale foreign investments, technologies and competencies, but for this the new authorities will need to receive international recognition, which will not be available in the foreseeable future until an inclusive political system is created and protected. the rights of women and girls to education and work. Whether the Taliban will be ready to change and go for a significant liberalization of their political and value approaches, as well as along the path of assimilation of the cultural foundations of Modern, is still difficult to say.

Nevertheless, time does not endure, just as the Afghan society will not wait for a natural change of generations in the ranks of the Taliban *. As the whole history of this country shows, the discontent of the population is always a time bomb, which sooner or later will make itself felt. In this regard, of interest is the opinion expressed by the Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation for Afghanistan, Director of the Second Department of Asia of the Russian Foreign Ministry Zamir Kabulov in an interview with the Indian magazine The Week in February 2023.

In his opinion, the Taliban have not learned how to govern the state, although they have repeatedly stated that they have learned their lessons and will not repeat past mistakes. “The Taliban* sometimes cannot understand very simple things, especially when there are no challenges to their power. I mean serious contenders who can force him out. This does not mean that there will be no such challenges. It won't be someone from the outside. But this will be a normal reaction of the Afghan people, because in the current circumstances it will be very difficult for them to survive,” the Russian diplomat said. According to Zamir Kabulov, "The Taliban must take institutional steps to improve the situation, or at least open the way for such an improvement, which we do not see at the moment."


So, summing up, it can be noted that the policy of Uzbekistan, based on an approach that combines issues of bilateral economic cooperation with Kabul, promoting initiatives at the international level to strengthen peace and provide assistance to Afghanistan in order to prevent its next slide into the abyss of instability and humanitarian crisis, and the implementation of measures to integrate this country into the system of trade, economic and transport relations between Central and South Asia that is being created today, is one of the most conceptually formalized lines among states that have their own interests in the Afghan field. As shown by the results of 2021-2022. this line is already paying dividends for the foreign policy and economy of Uzbekistan, including allowing it to smoothly go through the period of change of power in Afghanistan in August 2021.

At the same time, the further progress of Uzbekistan's policy in the Afghan direction will be largely associated with the steps of the new Afghan authorities themselves in domestic and foreign policy, with their ability not only to control the domestic political situation, but also to implement measures of economic and social modernization, without which it will be virtually impossible launch sustainable economic growth, raise the income level of the population, gain international recognition and improve the country's image on the world stage.


Policy Briefs

March 13, 2023

Exclusive: China has become an important driver of progress on the planet - Uzbek expert A. Seitov

TASHKENT, March 2 (Xinhua) -- At present, China has become an important driver of progress on the planet. This was stated in an exclusive interview with Xinhua by the head of the laboratory of anthropology and conflictology of the Institute for Advanced International Studies of the University of World Economy and Diplomacy of Uzbekistan Azamat Seitov.

According to him, China is one of the oldest civilizations in the world, which throughout the history of its development has demonstrated the inner strength to achieve its goals. Xinhua's interlocutor believes that China is now comprehensively implementing the decisions of the 20th National Congress of the CPC. In foreign policy, this means the implementation of Beijing's strategy of openness in the spirit of mutual benefit and gain in the long term. Large-scale Chinese modernization, in turn, will serve as an additional opportunity for the developing countries of the world, opening up new horizons for cooperation.

A. Seitov, using the example of the countries of Central Asia, noted that over the past 30 jubilee years, the relations of the parties have reached the level of strategic partnership. The fundamental principle of interaction between the states of Central Asia and China is respect for the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the countries, as well as support in matters relating to vital interests.

The Uzbek scientist emphasized that this year marks the tenth anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative, which in such a short period has opened a wide road for economic progress in many countries of the world. "Uzbekistan considers this initiative of Beijing as a mechanism for strengthening interstate cooperation through the development of land and sea routes, which is turning into a global economic platform before our eyes," A. Seitov said.

In conclusion, the Uzbek scientist stressed that the Uzbek-Chinese cooperation is of a comprehensive strategic nature and covers a variety of areas. "It is based on trusting personal relations established between the heads of the two states. For its part, Uzbekistan attaches priority to further strengthening partnership with China, expanding multifaceted trade, economic, investment and financial cooperation between the two countries based on the principles of mutual benefit, taking into account the interests and equality," summed up A. Seitov. 


Policy Briefs

February 27, 2023

Organization of Turkic states as an example of the formation of new global landscapes

The organization of Turkic states is becoming a promising mechanism for building new regional and global landscapes to stimulate the growth of mutual prosperity, strengthening peace and stability. About the prospects for the development of the organization - in the article of Associate Professor of the University of World Economy and Diplomacy Rustam Makhmudov.

On November 11, 2022, Samarkand will host the first summit of the Organization of Turkic States (OTG), whose members are Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey and Uzbekistan, while Hungary and Turkmenistan have observer status.

The fact that the first summit will take place in Samarkand is not an accident. It should be noted that one of the turning points in the activities of this organization was precisely the entry of Uzbekistan in 2019 into the then Turkic Council, which later transformed into the UTC.

The significance of Uzbekistan's entry for the organization was determined by a number of factors. In terms of demographics, our country with a population of more than 35 million people is the second in the UTC after Turkey with its 83.3 million inhabitants. In terms of GDP, it forms the leading economic trio of the countries of the organization, together with Turkey and Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan has a systemic influence on all key geopolitical processes in Central Eurasia.

Our country also acts as a powerful cultural center of the modern world Turkic civilization due to the presence of a high educational and scientific base. The implemented policy of openness in recent years makes Uzbekistan a center of regional attraction and at the same time a generator of creative ideas that are of strategic importance not only for Central Asia, but for other adjacent spaces. It is impossible to deny the fact that the new course of Uzbekistan has led to the launch of the processes of reconsolidation of the region, in which the majority of the population are representatives of the Turkic peoples.

The entry of Uzbekistan into the UTC has led to the fact that today, when assessing the development and forecasting the situation in the vast expanses of Central Asia, the South Caucasus and Asia Minor, it is no longer possible not to take into account the factor of cooperation between the Turkic countries. This, in turn, introduces additional elements into the increasingly complex geopolitical, geo-economic, value and cultural picture of the region.

It is noteworthy that the strengthening of the Turkic dimension in the region occurs simultaneously with the search for new meanings and incentives for the development of other institutional and organizational dimensions, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the CIS, the Consultative Meetings of the Heads of State of Central Asia, the processes of strengthening the interconnectedness of Central and South Asia, formats " CA+” with the US, EU, Russia and China.

And in this regard, of course, the question cannot but arise as to whether the strengthening Turkic dimension will enter into a targeted, organizational and functional contradiction with so many other organizations in which UTC members are represented - Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and an observer state Turkmenistan.

To answer this question, it seems important to take into account two closely related aspects that relate to the nature of the development of the current geopolitical situation in the world and the conceptual understanding of the mechanisms for building multilateral relations.

It is obvious that the unipolar geopolitical structure of the world and the systems of globalization institutions generated by it, which previously guaranteed stability and maximization of wealth, in the language of the new institutional economy, are gradually becoming a thing of the past. The need to form new institutional systems has been discussed for quite a long time, including in the United States itself, as the ideological, financial, economic and technological center of globalization.

It is worth recalling the speech of the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012 at the Singapore Management University, concerning the concept of the "New Silk Road". At the time, she stated, “We must follow the example of the generation that, after World War II, built the modern world order and created institutions and agreements that fostered unprecedented security and prosperity. We must follow the same path, looking even further and working even harder to forge agreements that will ensure our security and prosperity for the next 100 years.”[1]One can also recall President Donald Trump, the essence of whose foreign policy could be described as an attempt to change the previous rules of the global trade, economic and technological game.

The current increase in the number of conflicts and points of tension in world politics, economics and ideology can be interpreted, in this regard, not only as an indicator of the exhaustion of the old institutions, but also as an attempt to build new global rules and balances between financial, economic and technological forces.

At the same time, the problem is that in significant segments of the developing world, this process is viewed from the point of view traditional for the 19th and 20th centuries. Its essence lies in the expectation that new institutions, as before, will be exclusively formed by the leading world powers. However, this point of view does not fully correspond to the realities of the modern world.

The new rules of the game that will shape the future global landscape will be shaped by more complex combinations of efforts between developed and developing countries. And they are already being formed, as indicated by the policy of Uzbekistan, as well as such an important UTC member state as Turkey, demonstrating a bright proactive position in building new multilateral formats in combination with developed and developing countries, without waiting for the largest actors to agree on new rules of the game.

As for the question of the possible entry of the dimension of Turkic cooperation into conflict with other organizations and formats in which Uzbekistan and its UTC partners work, it is important to understand the ongoing changes in the models for building multilateral cooperation in modern conditions.

If in the previous bipolar and unipolar models of the world, multilateral relations were built according to the “center-periphery” scheme, when the great powers were in the center, and other countries concentrated around them, then now there is a space of multiple centers and situational leaders represented by countries and organizations. All of them form branched connections, relations and formats of cooperation. This is a highly dynamic model, moving away from the statics of past eras, creating the so-called. "synergistic effect".

The leading countries of the Organization of Turkic States, including Uzbekistan, largely demonstrate exactly this logic in their foreign policy, which gives grounds to talk about minimizing the likelihood of the UTC entering into conflict with other organizations and formats that the Turkic states are members of. Moreover, the UTC can increase the effectiveness of other multilateral formats with the participation of the Turkic countries, as it creates another source of economic, scientific and technological growth in Central Asia and the South Caucasus.

Thus, the Organization of Turkic States should become a promising mechanism for building new regional and global landscapes with their new institutions and new understanding of the nature of relations between countries in order to stimulate the growth of mutual prosperity, peace and stability. It is important that Uzbekistan, as the chairman of the UTC in the period 2022-2023, has a unique opportunity to lay a long-term strategic foundation for the development of this organization, relying on its valuable experience of recent years in the formation of productive relations of a new type, both through interstate relations and cooperation between organizations and regions.


Policy Briefs

February 27, 2023

The Great Game: Why Xi Sees an Opportunity in Central Asia

As Russian influence wanes Xi Jinping will make it a near-term priority to become the main partner of Central Asian countries.

The 20th National Congress did not go according to plan for Chinese leader Xi Jinping. The unexpected public ouster of former president Hu Jintao indicated the possibility of an intra-elite struggle among the top members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Premier Li Keqiang was known to be in agreement with Xi about the state’s long-term goals, namely, to build a moderately prosperous society (Xiaokang) by 2021 and turn China into a great modern socialist country by the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). However, their opinions did not coincide in the implementation of the main contours of economic policy. For example, Li disagreed with Xi regarding the “zero-COVID” policy as well as immense investments in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

China’s zero-Covid policies led to an economic slowdown and stirred up discontent among the masses. From 2014 to 2019, China invested $90 billion dollars in BRI countries. But given that low-income developing countries make up a significant share of BRI participants—more than 46 percent of the total number of participating countries—many of them are in debt to China. Moreover, due to Covid-19, almost all BRI countries experienced negative gross domestic product(GDP) growth and decreased their solvency, which doubled these countries’ debts to China. Of the sixty-eight BRI participants, twenty-three are at risk of defaulting on their obligations with Djibouti, Laos, Maldives, Mongolia, Montenegro, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan at a particularly high risk of doing so.

Central Asia In Focus

Based on the composition of the Politburo Standing Committee, many experts noted that the new members are personally loyal to Xi, signaling his complete consolidation of power. This provides Xi with ample decision-making leeway concerning China’s future. As Alibaba founder Jack Ma said, “China is like a huge ship. In order to drastically shift its course, even if there is such a need, it takes considerable time and effort”.

It is often assumed that China’s policy towards Central Asia will not change much. However, taking into account the current economic crisis and structural changes within the international order, adjustments will likely be made by strengthening the BRI. The retention of Wang Huning, the chief ideologue of the CCP, as a Politburo member is a clear signal that Xi will intensify the promotion of the BRI in his third term. Considering that Central Asia is critical to BRI’s success, the project will be a determining factor in China’s policy in the region. Additionally, because the BRI was first unveiled ten years ago in Kazakhstan, there is a symbolic meaning for China to show the project’s achievements in Central Asia.

Until today, China has been careful not to push the BRI too strongly in the region. Beijing understands the difficulty of predicting Russia’s role in the region and, most importantly, the new trends in relations between the Central Asian countries and China itself. But this only testifies to Beijing’s intentions to gain a firm foothold in the region and supplants Moscow’s influence.

First, given the weakening of Russia’s role in Central Asia due to its ongoing war in Ukraine, China’s position in the region is strengthening. Thus, American experts believe that for many of Russia’s neighbors, the war in Ukraine has accelerated the process of breaking out of Moscow’s orbit. Currently, many Central Asian states are rethinking and revising their relations with Russia. Sharp speeches by Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in June and Tajik president Emomali Rakhmon at the October Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit addressed to Russia, as well as the evident desire of the countries of the region to resolve sensitive territorial issues bilaterally, vividly illustrates Central Asian states’ transition to independence.

Russia’s growing isolation provides China with an opportunity to challenge its influence in Central Asia. Moscow’s strategic dependency on Beijing amidst the war in Ukraine excludes the possibility of Russian retaliation for encroachment into its historic sphere of influence.

Second, in just this year, Xi met face-to-face three times and virtually once with other Central Asian leaders, indicating a new wave of high-intensity diplomacy. These meetings summarized thirty years of bilateral and multilateral relations while outlining prospects for future cooperation.

Thus, at the Virtual Summit of the leaders of Central Asia and the President of China in January 2022, Xi made a number of important proposals including increasing trade to $70 billion by 2030, deepening cooperation in the field of advanced technologies, and providing 1,200 government-sponsored scholarships.

Xi’s decision to make his first trip abroad since the outbreak of the pandemic to Central Asia is a fundamental strategic step to send an important signal to China’s competitors and partners in the region. Before the visit, the Chinese president published articles in which he outlined policy contours and guidelines for a new stage in the development of Central Asian-Chinese relations for the next decade.

An analysis of Xi’s September visits to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan testify to China’s interests in the region. A number of documents signed with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan expressed China’s strong political commitment to the region, with a new focus on cooperation between Chinese media regulators and their counterparts in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Earlier, Chinese experts expressed indignation that a negative perception of China still persists in the region despite huge investment contributions for Central Asian economic development. This was primarily attributed to low awareness and the lack of positive information about China. Media interactions between each side to fill this gap will become the main tool for Chinese soft power projection in the region.

Third, Xi explicitly identified the BRI as an important mechanism to realize Chinese interests in Central Asia. At the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan, Xi called for continuing efforts to complement BRI projects with national development strategies and regional cooperation initiatives, as well as to expand sub-multilateral and sub-regional cooperation.

The need for regional transportation and communications links is increasing in Central Asia. Beginning next year, Beijing will become actively involved in constructing critical transport infrastructure in the region. To this end, after more than twenty years, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China will revive the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) railway construction project. On the eve of the SCO summit, the relevant authorities of the three countries signed an agreement to implement this project with Chinese financing, no doubt placing it under “the framework of BRI.” This connectivity project aims to ensure Chinese access to Central Asian markets which is especially relevant when the war in Ukraine has impeded important routes leading to Europe.

China’s interest in the speedy implementation of the BRI is becoming a decisive factor in the implementation of the CKU railway. According to experts, the CKU railway will not only create the southern corridor of the Second Continental Transport Bridge but will also open up new markets for manufactured products from the three countries. This route will become one of the shortest for transporting Chinese goods to Europe and will also increase Beijing’s regional economic influence.

Finally, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, China will make more targeted investments rather than large-scale commitments. Xi’s visit to the region signals that China will invest more funds in the region but from now on, they will not be unconditional. China is determined to protect its economic interests in the region by linking them to certain political benchmarks. It is likely that initially, these conditions will be delicate but firmer demands for change will eventually be issued.


Due to the negative economic ramifications of the pandemic and the Russo-Ukrainian War, Central Asia has a general interest in accelerating the implementation of the BRI and other Chinese-financed projects. Still, while counting on large Chinese investments, participating countries should not hope for “generous conditions.” Countries can pay a high price for Chinese funding, including the “Sinicization” of their economies and cultures.

For Xi, the BRI will remain a top priority for regional engagement as China continues to be the main donor for developing countries. Some BRI countries, however, will learn from the experiences of Pakistan and Sri Lanka and become more cautious about accepting Chinese investments with political conditions. Thus, the BRI is gradually transforming from a regional infrastructure development plan into a security strategy for Central Asia.

Abbos Bobokhonov is a PhD student at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy, and Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced International Studies. Previously, he was a Research Fellow at the Institute for Strategic and Regional Studies under the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, where his main areas of expertise were China’s foreign policy and SCO. His research interests include contemporary Chinese foreign policy in Central Asia, China’s Soft Power policy, BRI and AIIB.


Policy Briefs

February 27, 2023

A Trilateral Gas Union: Risks and Benefits for Central Asia

There are no major alternatives to natural gas to ensure the stable and steady development of Uzbekistan’s economy and society.

The idea of a new “gas union” was floated at a very consequential time, amid an unusually harsh winter in the region. Since the second half of November, several Central Asian countries have experienced unprecedented energy deficits and natural gas shortages. This coincided with a snap presidential election in Kazakhstan. So, it was during Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s first foreign visit — to Russia — after beginning his second term that the idea of a “trilateral gas union” was aired in late November.

As press secretary for the Kazakh leader Ruslan Zheldibay commented: “…the talks between the presidents of Kazakhstan and Russia in the Kremlin focused on the creation of a ‘trilateral gas union’ between Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan with the purpose of coordinating their actions in order to transport Russian gas through the territories of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.”

Over the next few days, the proposal was elaborated upon by Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov, who talked about the creation of a joint company that would manage energy infrastructure. “The proposal implies the creation of a certain legal entity for cooperation between these three countries, and for infrastructure development, then for foreign markets,” said Peskov.

This statement suggested Russia’s desire to expand its natural gas export routes in the direction of Central Asia and perhaps partially substitute for the losses of the European export market