Uzbekistan is located in the heart of Central Asia and borders all four other Central Asian countries. The country, on the other hand, is close to Russia and China and has rich sources of energy, gold, and uranium. These issues have given Tashkent a high position in the regional equations in the center of gravity of Central Asia. Uzbekistan has also tended to move away from Russian domination of the United States in recent years and has developed economic plans for greater cooperation with the West.
The intersection of the US strategy to find strategic partners in the region to contain China and Russia in Central Asia with the interests of Moscow and Beijing, which see the region as their private life, has created a conflict of interests that has further influenced the region’s main driver of rivalry. Have become global and regional. The outcome of this conflict of interest and developments in the region over the past two decades has made Uzbekistan one of America’s closest strategic allies in Central Asia.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union until 2001, the foreign policy of former President Islam Karimov focused on the outside world and the absorption of Western partners in a unipolar order. This trend increased dramatically after 2001, and especially after 2016 when Islam Karimov was ousted. US-Uzbek relations have been strengthened over three periods.
Uzbekistan faced Russia in 1994 with the Central Asian Union project and membership in the NATO Peace Program, leaving Uzbekistan out of the Shanghai Agreement in 1996.
In 1997, Uzbekistan joined Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova from Russia under the guise of the “Guam Alliance,” a way to integrate with the United States.
The events of September 11, 2001, marked another turning point in the relationship between the United States and Uzbekistan, known as the “Friendly Friends” era; subsequently, the two sides entered the phase of strengthening strategic cooperation, as a result of which the Khanabad military base was given to the United States.
Uzbekistan was the key US military supply corridor to Afghanistan under the Pentagon’s Northern Distribution Network, accounting for about 40 percent of transfers. The Russians were not idle either, and their interference in Uzbekistan’s internal affairs led to demonstrations that eased relations between Tashkent and Washington with the Karimov administration’s crackdown on demonstrators in Andijan in 2005. The consequences were that US forces eventually withdrew from the Khanabad base, forcing Washington to impose sanctions on the Uzbek government.
Uzbekistan aligned itself with Moscow’s policies in the region in response to the US sanctions approach, but under President Barack Obama, strategic relations between the two countries resumed in 2009 in the form of a “software” approach. Uzbekistan reverted to a policy of divergence with Russia and convergence with the United States, and Tashkent was forced to withdraw from the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty, which were Russia’s mechanisms of power in the region. The United States also made up for the lack of ties by lifting military and financial sanctions and obtaining NATO approval to build a military base in the city of Termez and placing Tashkent on Washington’s budget list.
Since 2016, with the presence of new President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, as a so-called strategic alliance policy, Tashkent has made strengthening ties with Washington under Donald Trump’s main foreign policy priority by pursuing an economy-oriented foreign policy and regional power-balancing strategy. In Trump’s view, Uzbekistan was one of the strategic allies in Central Asia, and the continued assistance of the United States and its Western allies to Tashkent was seriously pursued.
In November 2018, a “Parliamentary Committee on Uzbekistan” was established for the first time in the US Congress, and in its first session, members of Congress called for strengthening ties and friendship with Tashkent in the US strategic interest. Mirziyoyev’s visit to the United States in 2018 and Uzbek Deputy Prime Minister’s visit to the United States in 2019, Washington’s waiver of human rights violations to support Tashkent’s regional role, the promotion of new Uzbek figures in international forums With Uzbekistan as its focus, they became one of the most important political factors and strategic and gradual US investments in relations with Uzbekistan.
During Mirziyoyev’s visit to the United States, bilateral agreements worth $ 2.6 billion were signed and the two sides agreed to buy uranium from Uzbekistan. The financial and technical support of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, as well as the support of the United States and its European allies for Uzbekistan’s membership in the World Trade Organization, were other factors in integrating the Uzbek economy into world markets within the market economy system.
Uzbekistan and the United States signed about 20 agreements worth $ 4.8 billion in May 2018 on the sidelines of Mirziyoyev’s second visit to Washington; The removal of Uzbekistan from the list of countries banned from exporting cotton to the United States is a clear sign of US-Uzbek economic cooperation. Tashkent hosted an economic meeting between the two countries in October 2018, and about 13 contracts worth $ 2.5 billion in energy and natural resources were signed, following which about 210 joint ventures were launched in Uzbekistan.
Areas related to information and communication technology, e-government, and e-commerce development have been at the forefront of cooperation between the two countries, with US companies such as BCG, Bain, and Macro-Advisory leading the way. They are international consultants and experts in the field of macroeconomics and the development of political strategies. They started their activities in Uzbekistan with the aim of realizing Washington’s interests. In 2018, a center called the “American Council” was registered in Uzbekistan, which was the first American non-governmental organization in Uzbekistan.
Because of the trade war between Washington and Beijing, controlling the energy arteries and communication routes, as well as mastering communication technology in the region, was critical to Washington. All three existing Central Asia-China Intercontinental Gas Pipeline, which connects Turkmenistan’s gas fields to China, pass through Uzbekistan. The fourth route, which is under construction, also runs through Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, connecting the two countries to China. Therefore, the development of economic relations with Uzbekistan has more political and geopolitical achievements in Central Asia than economic interests for Washington. Russia is also trying to strengthen its presence in the region by creating new economic, military or political blocs. Relations between the countries of the region and Russia have been established within the framework of various agreements, and in this regard, Uzbekistan is currently a member of the Shanghai Political and, to some extent, military organization. Moscow hopes to attract Uzbekistan to its economic bloc, the Eurasian Economic Union, which includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, so that the region can be completely handed over to the Russians. With Uzbekistan joining the union, virtually 80 percent of Central Asia’s population will be covered by the Russian Initiative, which could be a concern for the United States and China.
Washington is trying to keep Uzbekistan out of the bloc. Uzbekistan’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union could complicate the process of joining the World Trade Organization for Uzbekistan. In recent years, Uzbekistan has seriously resumed its bid to join the World Trade Organization after 15 years. In July 2019, Tashkent submitted its request for the resumption of accession talks.
For Uzbekistan, losing Washington as an important partner in joining the World Trade Organization is no small matter. Tashkent’s least desire is to be able to capitalize on the rivalry between the three rival powers, China, Russia and the United States, and to balance Russia’s intense pressure through greater economic ties with China and the United States. Tashkent’s participation in the Chinese One Belt-One Road Initiative will integrate Uzbekistan into the China Transport Project and attract Chinese investment.
Given the fact that the three Uzbek political and trade partners are also fierce rivals, Tashkent could be supported by playing a more prominent role in the region in the fight against Islamic extremist groups, given the common sense of the threat of terrorism.
It can be said that the probable scenario for the future of Uzbekistan is the US-centric scenario in the form of a triple balance, which also has a regional and global context, because marginalizing Russia and controlling China in the region is one of the main goals of the United States. In this scenario, the United States, as a supporter of Uzbekistan’s policy towards Russia and China, could deplete the capital of Beijing and Moscow at the lowest cost.
The United States is seeking to build a wall between Central Asia and Russia and connect Central Asia to the South Asian economy to counter Russia’s “Greater Central Asia” plans and China’s “New Silk Road.” Uzbekistan has a good road and rail system and modern airports in Tashkent and Navoi (the city of Navoi is the provincial capital of the same name in Uzbekistan) and can carry cargo from Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia to the ports of Chabahar and Gwadar in the northern Indian Ocean. In this scenario, Uzbekistan becomes the second largest US strategic ally in the region. In the long run, this policy can even be achieved through greater cooperation with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Now, in cooperation with the United States, Tashkent can establish its relations with the large Uzbek community in northern Afghanistan and influence its events. Tashkent hopes to continue economic cooperation projects regardless of who is in power in Kabul. These projects include gas pipelines (TAPI) and railways that could connect Central Asia to open waters.
The United States is also trying to maintain some of its capabilities to act in the region after leaving Afghanistan. This can be done at an Uzbek military air base, which makes it possible to use state-of-the-art high-tech warfare and espionage equipment and drones.
If these projects fail and instability and power vacuum continue in Afghanistan, this strategy may be realized in the scenario of “joint crisis and destabilization management”. Indeed, when the basis for geopolitical connections in the two regions cannot be provided through costly or peaceful methods, it can be achieved through the less costly method of “instability spread”.
This will also be a strategic limiting point in the global and regional policies of Russia and China. With possible instability in the region, a significant portion of Moscow and Beijing’s security focus will shift to Central Asia, and the Russians will be forced to focus instead on Eastern Europe and the Black Sea, they choose to expand in Central Asia, which adds to China’s concerns.
By: Pooya Mirzaei