The president of Uzbekistan’s travel itinerary has served as a useful shortcut guide to his emerging foreign policy priorities, so his visit to China now is offering yet more clues about where he sees the country heading.
Shavkat Mirziyoyev will be in China for a full five days, spending May 11-13 on a state visit and the remaining time attending an international conference in Beijing devoted to the Chinese-led One Belt One Road infrastructure and trade initiative.
Mirziyoyev’s program will take in meetings with representatives from leading Chinese companies. Uzbekistan is particularly eager to pique the interest of potential investors in the high-tech sector.
Presidential press spokesman Asad Hodjayev told reporter on May 10 that “during the three-day visit, Shavkat Mirziyoyev plans to sign around 100 deals worth a total of $20 billion.”
Bilateral trade turnover in 2016 hit $4.2 billion. Uzbek officials say that “in the past few years” China has invested $7.8 billion in the Uzbek economic, although they give no firmer timeframe.
The largest Chinese-Uzbek joint project on the books to date is the construction of a 123-kilometer railway. Chinese President Xi Jinping went to Uzbekistan in June 2016 to join the late Uzbek leader Islam Karimov and inaugurate a 19.2-kilometer, $455-million railway tunnel that was part of that route.
Economist Yuliy Yusupov said that what Tashkent will be seeking from China first and foremost is technology. Beijing’s requirements, meanwhile, are simpler, Yusupov said.
“China is interested in opening up our market and in investing, mainly in our raw industries. After all, that is what they are doing all over the world, and Uzbekistan is no exception,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
The groundwork for this trip was laid down in a meeting in April, on the sidelines of a Shanghai Cooperation Organization ministerial in Astana, between Uzbek Foreign Ministry Abdulaziz Komilov and his Chinese Wang Yi.
Official Foreign Ministry news website Jahon reported that regional officials from all over Uzbekistan have recently visited China to “exchange views on the development of small and medium enterprise and on the creation of free economic zones and technology parks.”
Also in April, the two nations held a business forum in Tashkent attended by representatives from telecommunications infrastructure company China National Cable Engineering, electricity producer Power China, and mining and metals company Sinosteel. All reportedly professed an interest in linking up with Uzbek partners.
Back in Karimov’s day, Uzbekistan’s posture to China was welcoming but wary.
Despite that, China has become a leading trading partner for Uzbekistan, at one stage even leap-frogging Russia.
Even as Tashkent ostensibly pursues a more outward-looking policy, it continues to retain language about its desire to pursue “the principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states.” In that respect, China is a model partner for Uzbekistan.
Historian Dilnoza Duturayeva argued that Tashkent should also be looking to link up with China in areas like scientific research and the arts.
“We have made very little progress in advancing educational projects and in student exchanges. We do not yet understand this country,” Duturayeva said.
And yet here too there have breakthroughs. In April 2016, the China-Uzbekistan Center for Education and Science Research, which was co-founded by the Xinjiang Agricultural University and Tashkent National University, was opened in Tashkent.
Jahon reported that China even opened its own Center for the Uzbekistan Studies in 2013. Many institutes of higher learning in China have even begun offering Uzbek language courses, apparently.
“At the same time, colleges in Uzbekistan like the Tashkent State Institute of Oriental Studies, the University of World Economy and Diplomacy, the Uzbekistan State University of World Languages and Samarkand State University are all considered Central Asia’s leading institutions for China scholars,” Jahon boasts, quite possibly out of school.
Mirziyoyev has spent the first few months of his presidency energetically courting his neighbors, beginning with those close to him first and then traveling further afield. A surprise maiden state visit to Turkmenistan was followed by Kazakhstan and then Russia. And then Kazakhstan again in a surprise blitz excursion late April.
Altogether, this translates into a broader message about Uzbekistan’s desire to foster greater regional integration and a continuation of the balancing act between security and big-ticket investment with nations further afield.