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Don't disrupt Uzbekistan's Russia-China balance

Don't disrupt Uzbekistan's Russia-China balance

Tashkent is a valuable regional mediator. Washington shouldn't view it as a pawn in its game of great power competition

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

Central Asia, an area stretching from the Caspian Sea to Russia, China, Iran, and Afghanistan, has been firmly under Moscow’s influence for several centuries due to Russian and Soviet conquest.

However, as Russia has concentrated its attention and resources on the Ukraine war and China’s economic engagement with Central Asia has deepened, Moscow’s role in the region has diminished. Meanwhile, the region has grown in importance to the United States, first during the “Global War on Terror,” when the United States established temporary bases (now closed) in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and later as a source of natural resources, including oil and gas and rare-earth minerals.

The changing dynamics of Russian, Chinese, and American engagement in Central Asia raise a critical question: What combination of great power involvement and Central Asian autonomy will best advance American interests and ensure stability in the region?

As the region’s most populous and influential player, Uzbekistan is the key to answering this question. Recognizing this, Washington has formed a strategic partnership with Uzbekistan. Recently, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu met with Uzbek officials last month to highlight mutual open channels of communication, aiming to boost trade and investment, specifically in energy and technology.

U.S. policy toward Uzbekistan has made several missteps that compromise what could be a fruitful, limited partnership with Tashkent. The most significant of these blunders has been therelentless harping on Washington’s commitment to Uzbekistan’s “independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.” Support for Central Asian sovereignty implies military assistance akin to the Regional Cooperation 22 military exercise, which took place in 2022 with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan participating.

These military activities in a region with a robust Russian security presence are dangerous and unnecessary. After Washington’s proper decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, not only is Central Asia’s relevance to U.S. national security relatively low, but Uzbekistan’s chances of being invaded by Russia are slim, as Moscow continues to face difficulties in achieving maximalist goals in Ukraine.

A better strategy for Washington is to allow Russia, Central Asia’s historic security guarantor, to continue to play a security role in what Vladimir Putin calls Russia’s “most stable region.” There is little danger that Russia, already overstretched in Ukraine, will be capable of restoring its former dominance in Central Asia. But Russia helps to maintain regional stability through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), encompassing its military allies Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, all of which host Russian military bases.

Deepening U.S. military involvement in Central Asia ruins Tashkent’s attempts to balance regional actors, cooperate with the West, and not be stuck in the middle of great power competition. While military exercises between the United States and Uzbekistan may seem appealing to Tashkent in the short term, such practices will inevitably raise Moscow’s threat perceptions and contribute to a higher degree of great power competition in the region.

Rather than Washington viewing its relationship with Tashkent as an opportunity to expand militaristic influence in Russia’s backyard, Uzbekistan should be considered by the United States as a regional facilitator and convenor, as Uzbekistan has acted as such in recent years. This would improve Uzbekistan’s ability to counterbalance Russian and Chinese involvement and facilitate an equilibrium between great power actors in the region.

After Uzbekistan’s first president, Islam Karimov, died in 2016, Uzbekistan quickly mended ties with Tajikistan and its other neighbors, removing the greatest obstacle to regional cooperation. Under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who took power in 2016, Tashkent’s foreign policy has been one that has strived for regional connectivity and cooperation. It has also sought to present Central Asia as a platform for multilateral cooperation to expand the region's economic, transport, and logistics potential.

The desire for Central Asia to act as a transport and logistics hub has materialized through the “Middle Corridor,” a trade route that spans the Central Asian steppe, the Caspian Sea, and the Caucasus Mountains. Amid a lack of viable alternatives, the Middle Corridor will only become more relevant as the geopolitical disruption of the Russo-Ukrainian War obstructs other trade routes like the ”Northern Corridor” that flows through Russia. The Middle Corridor also facilitates the transport of Chinese goods to European consumer markets.

Openness with regional great powers, including Russia and China, will be critical to the success of Central Asian connectivity projects. China’s incentives for such transit projects are clear as they give Beijing more significant access to Western markets. On the surface, it may appear that Russia will disapprove of alternative trade routes. Still, these routes could be useful for Moscow in the future as the Middle Corridor has turned into a North-South logistic opportunity rather than a direct challenge to the Northern Corridor, with Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan becoming critical corridors for Russia to reach international markets. Uzbekistan could continue to act as a regional facilitator to ensure openness among all parties.

Unfortunately, legislation that was relevant to the Soviet Union is still inhibiting constructive cooperation with Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan, along with Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, is subject to the archaic, Soviet-era Jackson-Vanik Amendment, a law designed to punish the Soviet Union on Jewish immigration issues and other human rights. This legislation denies permanent trade relations with its targeted countries, including Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

One could argue that independent Uzbekistan should be exempt from Jackson-Vanik because Tashkent is being penalized for the actions of the Soviet Union. Since Uzbekistan’s independence, it has never repressed its Jewish population. Independent Uzbekistan has allowed its Jewish population to emigrate freely to destinations like Israel and the United States. Emigration from Uzbekistan to other countries has been mainly due to better economic opportunities elsewhere rather than oppression. Uzbekistan has a vibrant Jewish population that practices its religion openly and has access to Jewish schools and synagogues in Bukhara, the historical Jewish center of Uzbekistan, where Jews have lived for more than two thousand years.

Additionally, the United States continues to punish Tashkent for its human rights record despite its improvements. For decades, the government of Uzbekistan, under President Karimov, forced adults and children to pick cotton under appalling conditions during the harvest season. However, under President Mirziyoyev, these forced labor policies were abolished, and Uzbekistani cotton is now 100% free from any allegations of forced labor. Despite the United States lifting sanctions on Uzbek cotton in 2019, Uzbekistan is still punished by being included under Jackson-Vanik.

The United States has a valuable opportunity to contribute to peaceful, limited cooperation and expand economic opportunities in Central Asia. Abandoning militaristic activities, focusing on the transit of goods that serve the U.S. interest while maintaining openness with regional great powers, and discarding irrelevant legislation will be conducive to a productive relationship with Uzbekistan, a regional leader for years to come.

U.S. Assistant of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu shakes hands with Uzbek Minister of Foreign Affairs Bakhtiyor Saidov, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Nov. 7, 2023. State Department.

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