Friday, August 19, 2011

An Amoral Relationship: Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov and the People’s Republic of China

An Amoral Relationship:
Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov and the People’s Republic of China

W. Alejandro Sanchez
Research Fellow
Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Blog Post - August 19, 2011

The government of the People’s Republic of China has increased its interest in recent years in Uzbekistan, specially the Central Asian nation’s oil and gas reserves, commodities which are highly valued by Beijing to ensure China’s continued growth in different areas in the short and long term. The relationship between both countries resembles a new-age tributary-system, where China receives goods from Uzbekistan, and, in, return Beijing has expressed growing support for Uzbek leader Islam Karimov, particularly during the aftermath of the May 2005 Andijan massacre. Through its dealings with regional nations like Uzbekistan, China has become the newest player in the Great Game for influence in Central Asia.

The 2005 massacre in the Uzbek city of Andijan was the catalyst that brought Uzbekistan and China together. While the rest of the world, particularly the U.S., condemned the Karimov regime for the massacre of around 800 Uzbek civilians, Chinese officials were quick to welcome the Uzbek leader for a state visit to China in order to win his goodwill and gain access to his nation’s resources and market. The visit was complete with a 21-gun salute for Karimov in Tiananmen Square in Central Beijing. During the visit, Beijing said it ‘firmly’ backed his actions in crushing the anti-government demonstrators. Chinese President Hu Jintao went as far as calling Karimov an ‘old friend of the Chinese people.’ By diversifying his pool of allies, Karimov looked to Washington and Europe as means of moving away from Moscow’s sphere of influence.

In principle, Beijing’s interest in Uzbekistan can be summarized in its ventures for oil and gas, in addition to a continuous goal in gaining allies worldwide. Uzbekistan, as well as other Central Asian states (particularly Kazakhstan) have large quantities of these resources, which are seen by the Chinese government as vital to the country’s future growth. In recent years, China has led an aggressive foreign policy to secure a constant supply of oil and gas.

From a domestic point of view, Islam Karimov and his entourage want to remain in power indefinitely and for this they need the support of some world power. After the Andijan crisis other despotic states like China and the Russian Federation have publicly proclaimed support for the Uzbek government’s crackdown on insurrection. Therefore it is in Karimov’s interest to continue amicable relations with such governments so he can continue living in his luxurious lifestyle.

Furthermore, Uzbekistan is in a perpetual state of competition with the other Central Asian states to become the regional hegemonic power. In favor of Uzbekistan’s goals are a homogenous population, a strong military and a shared border with the other Central Asian nations. Therefore, from Tashkent’s point of view, becoming allies with a world power, whichever it may be, will help assert its position as a regional hegemon.

Uzbekistan has a great amount of oil and gas supply. For example the Ferghana Valley has fields that have been used for more than 90 years. There are more than 500 such small low-yield fields of 1,000-2,000 tons of crude oil a day. Overall, the country has known oil reserves of 600 million barrels.

Gas and oil are goods that China greatly needs According to the U.S. Department of Energy, China is the second-largest consumer of petroleum products in the world, importing roughly two million barrels of oil per day, half of which comes from the Middle East. . On July 19 2005, barely a month after the Andijan massacre, the Chinese oil firm Sinopec planned to invest $106 million in exploration and extraction in Uzbekistan. In May of that year, the Uzbek-state company Uzbekneftegaz signed a deal to set up a joint venture with Chinese oil company CNPC worth $600 million to explore oil fields in the western Bukhara and Kivia regions. The deal was signed when Karimov visited Beijing.

It seems that Beijing’s approaches to Tashkent are beginning to have a positive effect. In early May 2007, Uzbekistan announced plans to build a 530km gas pipeline to China with a capacity of 30
billion cubic meters a year, equivalent to half the Central Asian state's gas production.

China’s export to and import from Uzbekistan reached $70,443,000 in February 2007, and the trade in January-February reached $157,948,000. The Chinese Huawei Technologies company has agreed to provide the joint-stock Uzbektelecom company with telecommunications equipment worth $18.3 million on a leasing basis. In addition, Beijing has also announced plans to build a number of highways connecting it to Central Asia, including one from Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, to Tashkent.

Also, in the 2005 Sino-Russian military exercises (code named “Peace Mission 2005”) in Chinese Wiefang , Uzbek military officers were present. An article by Xinhua News quotes Cao Gangchuan, vice-chairman of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) Central Committee Military Commission as saying that Uzbekistan is China's partner in Central Asia and an important member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Friendly military cooperation between China and Uzbekistan is an integral part of the bilateral relationship between the two countries.

Beijing also wants stability in the former Soviet states of Central Asia, a region globally considered as a tinderbox of extremist Islamic militancy that could spread to its own territory. Beijing has stressed the importance of maintaining stability in Central Asia through the China-backed Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The group has set up an anti-terrorism center in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. At the same time, Beijing claims ethnic Uighur separatists are fighting for an independent Islamic state in its western region of Xinjiang, which is about 120 miles from Andijan and shares Uzbekistan's Muslim religion and Turkic language roots. In an extreme scenario, it is possible, and Chinese officials probably believe this, that Islamic insurgents from Central Asia, like the Taleban or the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), could develop ties with the Uighur and aid them in their ‘violent’ struggle for independence. The Chinese government also probably saw parallels between Karimov's position regarding Andijan and Beijings’ own bloody crackdown on antigovernment protesters in 1989.

The popular uprisings in recent years in Kyrgyzstan, Georgia and Ukraine, not to mention the ongoing “Arab Spring” must be a source of concern for Karimov. His oppressive rule is probably the sole thing that keeps him in power and prevents a popular uprising from overthrowing him and putting his dictatorial entourage in trail for his actions over the past two decades as rulers of the country. With China on his side, Karimov can be sure that no major action will be taken from organizations like the United Nations (since China is a permanent member of the Security Council) that can in any way threaten his rule.

Oil and gas will continue to be a cornerstone of the Sino-Uzbek relationship. However, Tashkent would be wise not to overestimate Beijing’s necessity for these two goods in order to obtain as much revenue as possible. Beijing has shown its teeth and demonstrated that it will not concede to Tashkent’s demands for greater revenue. An example of this has been the recent withdrawal of Dongsheng Petroleum Development Co Ltd, a unit of China Petroleum & Chemical Corp (Sinopec), from the Uzbekistan market due to high exploration costs. This case demonstrates that while China has great interest in Uzbekistan, the Central Asian nation should not overestimate its importance to China’s foreign policy.

The Sino-Uzbek relationship can be defined as an amoral, tributary relationship. China is not interested in Karimov’s human right record, it simply interested in its resources. It is a relationship of interests, in the purest realpolitik vision. It might not be acceptable to most individuals, particularly Uzbek citizens who have to live under the dictatorship. However, for China’s politburo and Karimov’s entourage, so far this relationship has proven to be a win-win scenario.

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