The Red Dragon in Central Asia: Chinese Foreign Policy in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan

Oguz Khan Presidential Palace in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan © Dan Lundberg / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Flickr

Halfway between Russia and China, there is a world region which is unknown to most tourists and journalists. That region is called Central Asia, and it comprises 5 different states: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kirghizstan, and Kazakhstan. Their historical background is almost the same. They all fell under the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. After their declaration of independence, the Secretaries of the Communist Party of central Asian countries remained in charge and became the new presidents. However, they had to reorganise the whole bureaucratic system of the country and ensure basic services to citizens, which were previously based on the Soviet planned economy.

In the first fifteen years following the dissolution of the USSR, the economic and social transition in post-soviet central Asia was defined by a deep dichotomy between opening efforts to cooperation with the West, and Russia’s constant interference in the strategic and cultural affairs of the region. From the mid-2000s, the People’s Republic of China started its progressive penetration in the region and Beijing’s Government has completely changed the dynamics of regional cooperation. By offering Central Asian countries a new ground for economic cooperation, China broke the dichotomy between the West and Russia, which was taking the countries hostage of foreign policy actors. Moreover, the Chinese foreign policy in this region contributes to weaken the ties that these countries have with the US and strengthen the Chinese supremacy in Asia (Berkofsky, Ferrari, Frappi, 2012).

China’s foreign policy is mainly focused on two Central Asian countries: The Republic of Uzbekistan and the Republic of Turkmenistan.

China-Uzbekistan: New Ties on the Axis Beijing-Tashkent

Uzbekistan officially proclaimed its independence from the Soviet Union on the 1st of September 1991. The former president Islam Abduganiyevich Karimov ruled the country from 1991 to his death in 2016, and the current president is Shavkat Mirziyoyev. The capital city is Tashkent. The Uzbek Government considers China as a source of technology transfer and a market for Uzbek resources, and it regards the Sino-Uzbek relation as a possible tool to open up the country to the larger international community (Dadabaev, 2018: 751).

Despite the fact that the Republic of Uzbekistan was the first country in Central Asia to develop diplomatic relations at the beginning of 1992, China took active steps to gain a foothold in the Uzbek economy from 2003. A rapid increase in bilateral trade was made possible mainly thanks to the ongoing China export credit program, which provides targeted loans that are used for the purchase of Chinese goods and services. An important event was the visit of the former president Hu Jintao to Uzbekistan in 2004. The visit resulted in a number of signed agreements on the development of political, economic, military-technical, and cultural cooperation. As a result of the visit, the volume of trade increased from 164 to 867$ million (Paramonov, 2015: 158-9). The ties between Beijing and Tashkent were further boosted in 2012, when the negotiations held in China between Karimov and Hu Jintao demonstrated Tashkent’s willingness to enhance cooperation, but also pledging Uzbek support to fight against terrorism, extremism, and separatism (Sayfullayev, 2016: 418-9).

Currently, the relation between China and Uzbekistan is regulated by different and intertwined governmental structures, such as the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and the Agency of Foreign Investments, which work in different intergovernmental committees. These committees prevent miscommunications at the political level, and they meet to work at least once a year, with the issues to be discussed and communicated through the channels of the coordinating institutions (Dadabaev, 2018: 758-9).

Cooperation between the countries is based on a plethora of sectors, such as industrial and humanitarian cooperation, but also infrastructures and telecommunications. Many Chinese-financed projects are mainly focused on fuel and energy cooperation. The territory of Uzbekistan lies over one of the most significant reserves of oil and gas of the whole planet. The transfer of gas takes place mainly through newly built pipelines, to transport the gas from Uzbekistan to China, under the supervision of the two state-owned companies, namely the Chinese National Petroleum Company and the National Holding Company (NAC) Uzbekneftegaz, which signed a framework agreement on cooperation (Paramonov, 2015: 163).

Despite the positive developments in Uzbekistan-China economic and investment cooperation over the past decade and the consistent increase in bilateral trade, it seems that Uzbekistan faces several risks. For example, the total volume of Chinese direct investment in Uzbekistan’s economy is much lower than that of neighbouring Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation, and some other CIS countries. Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic imposed restrictions that have had a certain negative impact on the Uzbekistan-China cooperation in the trade, economic, and humanitarian areas, and more broadly on the deferred nature of relations between the two states. The governments and the people of the two countries, nonetheless, are making serious efforts to minimize the negative consequences of the process, and they hope to continue developing fruitful economic and humanitarian relations in the future. (Limanov, 2020).

The Sino-Turkmen Relations: When Positive Neutrality meets Peaceful Coexistence

The relation between Turkmenistan and China is slightly different from the former one. Turkmenistan declared its independence in 1991 and Saparmurat Niyazov, the former communist party secretary, was elected as head of state in Ashgabat, the capital city. The former president passed away in 2006, when he was replaced by the current president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov. Turkmenistan’s leading sector is dominated by natural gas production: in fact, according to 2015 statistics, the world’s fourth largest proven gas reserves lie in the country (Yapici, 2018: 295).

Turkmen foreign policy is shaped by the principle of “positive neutrality”, which was recognised by a UN General Assembly resolution in 1995. As a result, the positive neutrality of Turkmenistan was recognized in the international arena, (Yapici, 2018: 295) and the government sought to ensure that no state will contest its sovereignty, violate its territorial or meddle in its domestic affairs (Sullivan, 2016: 36-7).

The People’s Republic of China is a crucial partner of Turkmenistan. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Chinese government has gradually intensified its economic ties with the post-soviet states in central Asia (Yapici, 2018: 302), and Turkmenistan views its expansion of economic ties in China as a positive development and plans to emphasize cooperation in line with Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative. The relations between the two countries were boosted in 2009, when the Turkmen government began delivering gas through the newly built pipeline, and the two countries subsequently agreed to increase the total export to China. Furthermore, in 2014, presidents Berdimuhamedov and Xi Jinping signed a China-Turkmenistan friendly cooperation agreement in Beijing, which lays out a program of mutual beneficial cooperation. (Kuchins, Mankoff, Backes, 2015: 21).

The driving force behind the cooperation between the countries has been Turkmenistan’s neutrality. Ashgabat’s peace-oriented foreign policy based on the principle of non-intervention has been compatible with key elements of China’s five principles of peaceful coexistence, such as mutual respect, equality, and cooperation, which constitutes the major pillar of Chinese foreign policy (Yapici, 2018: 302). As for its counterpart, China’s state-driven policy has enabled Beijing to finance projects in a way that western companies cannot do at the moment, and the country managed to connect central Asian countries through pipelines, despite the regional difficulties to achieve political and economic integration.

Although the Sino-Turkmen relationship has led to some positive outcomes, it also includes some drawbacks. The country is highly dependent on China’s energy market, and Chinese foreign direct investment has only a limited presence in Turkmenistan, with most infrastructure and energy projects domestically financed and owned (Kuchins, et al, 2015: 22) due to the lack of technological expertise (Bohr, 2016: 80). Furthermore, in the light of the Coronavirus pandemic, the Beijing Government has cancelled its natural gas agreements with several of the central Asian republics, including Turkmenistan. The country’s ruling elites are also concerned regarding the possibility of further deepening relations with China. The competent ministers in Ashgabat are not willing to do so, because they fear that the modernization would jeopardize their political power. (Sullivan, 2020: 9).

The EU on the Central Asian Chessboard: A Positive Impact or Eclipsed by Chinese Influence?

Another main player in central Asia beside China is the European Union. The EU adopted its first Strategy for Central Asia in 2007 as European states sought to engage with Central Asia’s neighbour Afghanistan, support reforms in former Soviet republics, and stake its energy-security interests in the resource-rich region. Nonetheless, this initial approach was criticized for being ineffectual (Baldakova, 2020). The current relations between the EU and Central Asia have been developed within the framework of the new EU Strategy on Central Asia, adopted by the Council of the European Union in June 2019. The scope of the EU’s involvement is linked to the readiness of individual Central Asian countries to undertake reforms and strengthen democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and the independence of the judiciary, as well as to modernise and diversify the economy (Soutullo, Gazzina, Rinaldi, 2020). In terms of trade, the EU exports manufactured goods, such as medicines, cars, and machinery to Central Asia. Imports are dominated by raw materials and low value-added manufactured goods (Russell, 2019).

The EU has sought to make its bilateral assistance to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan under the latest multi-annual programme more differentiated and more result-oriented -in accordance with the countries’ needs-, focused on an even narrower number of policy sectors (Bossuyt, 2016). More specifically, the relationships with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are regulated by Partnership and Cooperation agreements, which Turkmenistan has signed but not yet ratified, and the EU still sees little scope for promoting reform in the country. The EU’s assistance to these nations has delivered some positive results, but, overall, long-term impact on the ground –in terms of increased socio-economic development and reduced poverty- seems limited. The implementation of aid and reforms was hampered mostly due to the differences with the EU in priorities and approaches to development cooperation. Poverty reduction, for instance, is not recognised by those governments as a priority. The EU has not had the same impact in these states as China, but rather Chinese influence has been more visible and persuasive, because its involvement in development is largely related to infrastructure projects. Moreover, China promotes its own example of development, but -unlike traditional donors- does not impose blueprints and models. Instead, China adjusts itself to the development needs of the recipient countries and asks –in most cases- what areas require Chinese funding (Bossuyt, 2016).


Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are two different countries, but with many similarities. They have a similar historical development since they were both part of the USSR. They had a similar political development, with the former secretaries of the communist party being elected president and remaining in power until their death. They are both in search of a new place in the international community in line with their own governmental position. From the beginning of the 21st century, they both developed a positive economic relation with China, which is helping them to modernize their countries, still heavily relying on breeding and agriculture. Even if there are some disadvantages, the relation that they are entertaining with China has some positive results. Chinese foreign investments overrides European Union contributions in that area and helps to build new infrastructures, and the Government of Beijing can strengthen its presence here.

Ricardo Casiraghi was born in Italy in 1998. He graduated in International Sciences and European Institutions at the University of Milan last year and is currently attending a Master in European and International Studies at the school of International Studies in Trento, Italy. He is passionate about Chinese culture and foreign policy and is currently seeking to deepen his knowledge on the subject in his academic career.. You can find him on Instagram as @riccardo_casi.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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