Uzbekistan: President's China Trip Yields Giant Rewards

Uzbekistan’s president went to China last week with great hope of landing major deals, and it would seem he was not disappointed.
As Uzbek media have reported, Shavkat Mirziyoyev came away from his May 11-15 trip with dozens of agreements under his belt worth a total of $23 billion. A whole array of sectors were covered, from energy to oil refining, and electricity to agriculture, chemicals to transport and communications, among others.
Mirziyoyev’s visit to China was subject of much exuberant coverage on the daily Ahborot news program upon his return.
Media have waxed lyrical about the prospects for Chinese-Uzbek trade, pointing out that while bilateral trade turnover is expected to reach $5 billion this year, it will hit $10 billion “in the nearest future.”
Getting down to brass tacks on Ahborot, the chairman of state oil and gas company Uzbekneftegaz, Alisher Sultanov, said in an interview that 10 separate deals worth $5 billion collectively were signed in the energy sector alone.
A Chinese bank will be financing a $1.2 billion project on the production of synthetic liquid fuel at Uzbekistan’s largest gas refinery complex, Shurtan, down in the south of the country. Ekonomicheskoe Obozrenie magazine reported that another $3 billion deal envisions the modernization of around 300 water pumping stations and the development of Uzbekistan’s hydroelectricity sector.
Chinese companies are also set to get involved in the building of an automobile tunnel under the Kamchik Pass, which divides the Ferghana Valley from the rest of the country. China was largely responsible for a $1.5 billion railway tunnel along the same route that was completed last year.
The late President Islam Karimov was more relaxed on the whole about diplomatic and financial relations with China than those with Russia, and certainly the West, but he rarely managed deal-making on this scale. When he traveled to China in August 2014, he returned with what now looks like a modest 22 agreements worth $5.2 billion.
Economist Rafael Sattarov told EurasiaNet.org that Mirziyoyev has understood that many opportunities were wasted, particularly, as he put it, in the old days “the country worked for Karimov, not the other way around.”
“Karimov thought he was cleverer than the market, cleverer than all his partners in larger countries. He believed that extreme caution was in the country’s best interests, even when this actually harmed the people. At the moment, Mirziyoyev is showing that he has no interest in the country remaining isolated and that he wants to take it out of its current dead end. What we have left from Karimov’s time are the systemic crisis and the poverty. That is why we need foreign investment,” Sattarov said.
Jalol Mirzayev, an employee in an Uzbek-Chinese construction company, said that the appeal of working with the Chinese is that they are interested first and foremost in doing business. That is perceived as a marked and positive contrast with either Russia or the United States, who are deemed to have primarily strategic and security-linked priorities in Central Asia.
Mirzayev said that the Uzbek government will, if it wishes to avoid incurring popular displeasure, have to tread carefully when it comes to the matter of whose labor will be set to work on the raft of projects emerging from this recent flurry of deal-making.
“Chinese investments should create jobs for the people of Uzbekistan. Otherwise we could end up like Tajikistan, where the Chinese just brought in their own laborers, so the Tajiks were shut out and forced to go find work in Russia all the same,” Mirzayev said.