February 1, 2013, by China Policy Institute

New Players, Same Chess Board: Will the political power transition in Uzbekistan affect gas supply to China?

wuzibiekemapBy Rashid Gabdulhakov.

Ever since Uzbekistan gained independence in 1991, its foreign policy is one of the most unpredictable in the Central Asia. Initially, Uzbekistan established close ties with the United States and Turkey, seemingly resenting everything that resembled the Soviet past. In the mid-1990s, however, all Turkish educational exchange programs and educational institutions (lyceums) were shut down by the government of Uzbekistan as they believed Turkish soft power was interfering with the national ideology of a young state. Uzbekistan’s partnership with the U.S. ended after soft sanctions were issued by western governments against Uzbekistan in 2005 -due to numerous human rights violations. While Uzbek President Islam Karimov was under great pressure from the Wes; conversely he received support from Russia, although, recently Uzbek-Russian relations have cooled.

Despite these fluctuations, Uzbekistan’s relationship with China remains stable over time. Trade between the two countries has increased, reaching USD 2.85 billion in 2010. Uzbek state that 10 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas will be exported to China in 2013 and predict the annual amount to be 25 bcm by 2016. China is concerned about security threats that could damage the existing relationship following regime succession in Uzbekistan. Nevertheless, I argue that China has little to worry about.

This is based on three factors: 1) Despite the political tension with Russia, Uzbek gas supplies to Russian companies continue, as the financial interests of the elite have a priority over politics. Selling natural gas to both Russia and China simultaneously is handy for Uzbekistan in the sense of controlling gas prices – setting up a competition in the scheme of supply and demand. This precedent promises a continuation of gas supply despite the regime change in Uzbekistan. 2) The nature of the regime change in Uzbekistan is likely to repeat the Turkmenistan scenario, where the President-for-life Turkmenbashi was silently replaced by the current leader – Berdimuhamedov. Both countries are authoritarian states. Like Turkmenistan, Uzbek political elite will not allow a violent power shift in the country through their control of mechanisms of state power. 3) Karimov’s successor will not “fall from the sky”. The new president will likely come from the current circle of prominent politicians, with stakes in the energy sector and personal interest in continuation of economic cooperation with China. In all reality, Uzbekistan does not have much of a choice. Who else would it sell its gas to, if not Russia and China? Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have gas reserves of their own, and Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan would not buy large amounts of gas, as their collective population size is only 11 million.

photo from Nengyuan.com

photo from Nengyuan.com

China ranks first among countries investing in Uzbekistan and second among Uzbekistan’s trade partners. Given the uncertainties of Uzbek-Russian relationship, Western criticism over the political situation, Uzbekistan has a tangible interest in maintaining its relationship with China.

Much like Beijing, Moscow has no interest in a violent power transition in Uzbekistan; both would be greatly satisfied with the Turkmenistan scenario, where the change of “captain” did not shift the course of the “ship.” Natural gas does not generate wealth if not exported; Berdimuhamedov continues to sell gas to Russia, and to the Chinese, much like his predecessor, the great Turkmenbashi – Saparmurat Niyazov. Even if the new leadership of Uzbekistan is going to take on a progressive policy (from the view point of human rights), the economic realities are going to be the same. Players change, the actors on the chessboard remain.

Rashid Gabdulhakov is a political analyst from Uzbekistan and a graduate researcher at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Academy in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan). 

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

Posted in International Relations