How Uzbekistan is balancing between America, China and Russia

The Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan is masterfully practicing a geostrategic balancing act between America, China, and Russia which could serve as model for other countries to follow in the on-going New Cold War. Tashkent just joined Washington’s newly established quadrilateral framework alongside Islamabad and Kabul despite strengthening military coordination with Moscow and retaining Beijing as its top trade partner. Put another way, Uzbekistan sees diplomatic benefits in teaming up with the US, realises the pragmatism of militarily coordinating with Russia on jointly countering Afghan-emanating regional threats, and understands how important it is to participate in China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). Interestingly, neither of its three Great Power partners seems to be pressuring it to choose between them.

Not every country is in such an enviable geostrategic position. The reasons why Uzbekistan was able to reach this point are several. The most important is that President Shavkat Mirziyoyev broke with what observers described as the isolationist vision of his predecessor Islam Karimov by prioritising reconciliation with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in order to improve economic integration between them. Uzbekistan is the region’s most populous country and regarded as having its most powerful military so it’s important for everyone that it’s on excellent terms with its neighbours. President Mirziyoyev succeeded in this respect, which subsequently saw him expanding upon his country’s relevant gains by becoming an observer in the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) late last year.

This was a very shrewd move which could prevent any speculative disproportionate dependence on China in the future. Regarding the People’s Republic, Uzbekistan is one of its most important energy partners. Not only does it export such resources eastward, but it’s also a transit state for Turkmenistan’s pipeline to China. Beijing is also investing in the real sector of that country’s economy, which will help propel Uzbekistan into becoming a regional production powerhouse. Its growing population needs decent jobs in order to avoid the ever-present temptation of ideological radicalisation that used to plague its security in the 1990s and part of the early 2000s. Russia and China can surely help Uzbekistan meet this demand through forthcoming investments.

As for America, it too understands Uzbekistan’s geostrategic potential, especially considering the fact that it’s located smack dab in the middle of Central Asia, which also serves as the Eurasian Heartland. Although the US is widely speculated to have sought the unsuccessful Colour Revolution-driven overthrow of former Uzbek President Islam Karimov in 2005 following the brief onset of weaponised riots in the eastern city of Andijan, which in turn served as the pretext for Tashkent to expel Washington’s military forces from the country, the two seem to have patched up their prior problems and are once again on the same page as evidenced by the recent establishment of their new quadrilateral framework with Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Just like Russia and China, America sees a lot of promise in scaling up its economic cooperation with Uzbekistan. Unlike them, however, it hopes to instrumentalise its enhanced trade ties with the country through the trilateral Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan (PAKAFUZ) railway that was agreed to in February in order to present itself as a credible third-party force for improving the Central Asian Republics’ (CARs) balancing act between Russia and China. Basically, the US believes that growing economic connectivity between itself (and/or Pakistani-based US companies) and the CARs via PAKAFUZ can prevent those countries from becoming economically dependent on Russia and China, which Washington fears might eventually influence their elite.

Russia and China might not approve of the US’ implied long-term plans through the “New Quad” of using enhanced trade ties to cultivate its own regional elite for the purpose of improving the CARs’ balancing act between them, but they probably won’t publicly express such sentiments since they might at least be grateful that America is gradually transitioning its geopolitical competition with them there to a geo-economic one. After all, the “New Quad” is the first such time that the US seriously sought to engage in such competition with fellow Great Powers, not to mention in a space as geostrategic as Central Asia. Uzbekistan is the regional anchor of America’s plans in this respect, which Tashkent is wisely leveraging to improve its overall strategic position.

In a sense, one can draw a comparison between Pakistan’s and Uzbekistan’s balancing acts. Pakistan serves an irreplaceable role in China’s global BRI plans by providing the People’s Republic with a shortcut to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The two allied nations also have close military ties, just like Pakistan and the US do, though the latter pair haven’t been as pronounced in recent years due to Washington’s regional realignment towards New Delhi. That trend might reverse itself or at the least become more balanced as the US comes to appreciate Pakistan’s geostrategic position all that much more due to PAKAFUZ facilitating American businesses’ engagement with Central Asia.

Regarding Russia, it and Pakistan have been in the midst of a fast-moving rapprochement in recent years driven by shared security interests in stemming Afghan-emanating threats like ISIS-K. They’re also closely cooperating in the energy industry too after reaching an agreement to construct the Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline (PSGP). Furthermore, their regional visions are nowadays complementary with respect to Russia’s Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP) converging with Pakistan’s CPEC+ in Afghanistan through PAKAFUZ. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov enthusiastically endorsed Central Asia-South Asia connectivity during a topical conference in Tashkent last week, which speaks to his country’s implied support for this project and its strategic utility for Russia’s GEP.

Upon thinking about it, Pakistan’s and Uzbekistan’s balancing acts follow the same logic of geo-economically driven multi-alignment. It’s therefore fitting that they agreed to become strategic partners during Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Tashkent last week to attend the aforementioned conference. There’s almost a poetic angle to all of this too since it was Uzbek-born Babur who became the first Mughal Emperor and thus completely revolutionised the geostrategic situation in the Central Asian-South Asian space for centuries. So too might the Pakistani-Uzbek Strategic Partnership similarly revolutionise the same geostrategic space across the coming centuries if they coordinate their complementary balancing acts to that end.