On September 2, Uzbekistan's government announced the death of longtime President Islam Karimov. While Uzbekistan has remained tranquil in the days immediately following Karimov's death, the fact that he did not publicly anoint a favored successor has increased the risk of a prolonged power struggle in Tashkent.
Many Central Asia experts fear that political instability could disrupt Uzbekistan's natural gas exports and make the country a nexus for Islamic extremism in the region.
The uncertainty surrounding Uzbekistan's leadership transition has caused particular alarm in China. Chinese policymakers fear that Karimov's death could cause Uzbekistan to strengthen its security ties with Russia. This would erode China's leverage over its most important Central Asian partner.
The Chinese government is also concerned that instability in Uzbekistan could disrupt Uzbek liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports to China, and increase the threat posed by Uzbekistan-based Islamic extremist movements to China's security.
Why Karimov's Death Could Weaken The China-Uzbekistan Partnership
Even though Uzbekistan is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and exports large quantities of LNG natural gas to China, Karimov's death could weaken the burgeoning alliance between Beijing and Tashkent. Karimov's pro-Chinese foreign policy stance was rooted in his disdain for Russia's hegemonic aspirations in Central Asia. The Uzbek government also viewed China as a consistent partner, as it defended Uzbekistan when the United States criticized Karimov for egregious human rights abuses.
The extent of China's loyalty to Karimov was revealed by Beijing's handling of the 2005 Andijon massacre. After that massacre, the United States called for an international investigation into the Uzbek government's repression of Andijon demonstrators. But China refused to condemn Karimov's conduct.
China supported Karimov's claim that 187 civilians were killed in the Andijon massacre, and rejected Western media allegations that Uzbek military repression caused the deaths of 750 civilians. Karimov rewarded China's loyalty to his government over the Andijon massacre by supporting China's territorial claims to Taiwan and strengthening counterterrorism cooperation with Beijing.
The absence of personal loyalty bonds between Chinese officials and Uzbekistan's new leader might cause Tashkent to drift away from China's orbit. The likelihood of a China-Uzbekistan rift would grow significantly if Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev -- who is serving as interim president until a December 4 election -- emerges as Karimov's successor.
Mirziyaev's rumored alliance with Rustam Inoyatov, the former KGB officer who heads of the Uzbek Internal Security Service, has caused some analysts to predict an imminent improvement in the Uzbekistan-Russia relationship.
The growth of Uzbek nationalist sentiments and Russia's economic recession make Uzbekistan's accession to the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) an unlikely scenario.
However, enhanced Tashkent-Moscow security policy coordination is more likely, as Uzbekistan was a Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member from 1992-1999 and 2006-2012. If Uzbekistan rejoins the CSTO, China's leverage over Uzbekistan's security policies will dramatically diminish.
Even if Uzbekistan's foreign policy does not radically change as a result of Karimov's death, Mirziyaev's history of impulsive violence and thuggish reputation could cause alarm in Beijing. China has strengthened its relationship with Uzbekistan, in part because it viewed Karimov as a steady-handed dictator presiding over a highly authoritarian regime.
Interim Uzbek leader Shavkat Mirziyaev (file photo)
If Uzbekistan's international conduct were to become more unpredictable under Mirziyaev's rule, China could redirect its investments and diplomatic energies towards strengthening its budding partnerships with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. A Chinese pivot away from Uzbekistan would be devastating for Tashkent, as Uzbekistan stands to benefit more than any other Central Asian country from China's One Belt, One Road funding.
If Mirziyaev's erratic conduct was to cause a schism within the elite that prevented him from maintaining complete dominance over Uzbekistan's political life, as Karimov did, Uzbekistan's relationship with China could suffer. Uzbek political analyst Anvar Nazirov recently told Eurasianet that Karimov's absolute control over the Uzbek media has restricted coverage of winter fuel shortages caused by excessive Uzbek gas exports to China.
If Uzbek elites opposed to the Samarkand clan's political hegemony foment anti-Chinese nationalist sentiments, many Uzbeks may no longer view alignment with China as a lesser evil to Russian neo-imperialism. This change in perception would weaken the soft power foundations of China's most important Central Asian alliance and cause considerable strains in the Uzbekistan-China relationship.
How Karimov's Death Could Undercut The China-Uzbekistan Security Partnership
Even though China elevated its relationship with Uzbekistan to a strategic partnership at the Tashkent SCO summit on June 22, instability in Uzbekistan resulting from Karimov's death could threaten China's strategic interests. Chinese policymakers are concerned that unrest in Uzbekistan could disrupt Uzbekistan's LNG sales to China.
Uzbekistan has drastically increased its gas exports to China in recent years to take advantage of Beijing's investments in Central Asian gas pipelines and dilute China's reliance on Russian gas. Three major Chinese-funded gas pipelines run through Uzbekistan. These pipelines contribute 20 percent of China's annual natural gas consumption. According to a recent Global Risk Insights report, Chinese investors are in the process of constructing a fourth pipeline that would pump an additional 30 billion cubic meters of gas from Turkmenistan to China via Uzbekistan.
As Uzbekistan's gas exports to China directly threaten Russia's interests, Moscow could offer Uzbekistan's new president security guarantees that require Tashkent to slow the growth of its gas exports to China. The resolution of the 2015 Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan dispute on Russia's terms provides a useful precedent for Russian President Vladimir Putin to apply to the Uzbekistan-China relationship.
Journalist Chris Rickleton suggested in a January 2015 article for Eurasianet that Russia offered to forgive Uzbek debt if Karimov agreed to resume gas exports to southern Kyrgyzstan. This implies that, if Russia provides Tashkent with the right incentives, Uzbekistan could align with Moscow's preferences and restrict China's access to Uzbekistan's natural gas reserves.
A suicide bomb attack on the Chinese embassy in Bishkek late last month has heightened Beijing's concerns about extremism in Central Asia.
Chinese policymakers are also concerned that instability in Uzbekistan could strengthen Islamic extremist groups, like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Islamic State (IS). The August 30 attack on the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, has heightened Beijing's concerns about the threat posed by radical Islamists in Central Asia. As Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have a long-standing border dispute, Chinese officials are worried that radicalized Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan could cross the shared border and launch terror attacks against Chinese nationals in Kyrgyzstan.
To appease Chinese policymakers and maintain Uzbekistan's secular authoritarian system, Uzbekistan's new president will likely continue Karimov's repression of Islamist movements. But if Uzbekistan succumbs to a power struggle between the Tashkent and Samarkand clans, internal discord could empower Uzbek Islamic extremist movements, which direct their animosities towards China.
According to a Eurasianet report that cited an unnamed translator at a company working on Uzbekistan's Angren-Pap railroad project, many Uzbek Islamists disdain Chinese guest workers because the majority of Chinese expats are atheists. The IMU's official alignment with IS in mid-2015 has further increased the risk of religiously motivated terror attacks on Chinese Confucian institutes in Uzbekistan.
The Chinese government is also concerned that instability in Uzbekistan could fuel Uyghur terrorism in China's Xinjiang province. An estimated 55,000 Uyghurs live in Uzbekistan, and some Uyghur insurgents have a cordial relationship with the IMU. Some analysts have speculated that the IMU could militarize Uyghurs in Uzbekistan to attack Chinese-funded pipeline projects in Uzbekistan. This scenario could compromise China-Uzbekistan counterterrorism cooperation under the SCO umbrella, and undercut the security foundations of Beijing's Central Asian strategy.
Islam Karimov's death has plunged the future of the China-Uzbekistan partnership into a prolonged period of uncertainty. If Uzbekistan undergoes a smooth presidential succession to the rule of Mirziyaev or Finance Minister Rustam Azimov, Beijing-Tashkent relations will likely remain largely unchanged. But if Uzbekistan succumbs to inter-clan strife and the rising tide of Islamic extremism, China stands to lose a critical Central Asian ally.
Regardless of how Uzbekistan's political future unfolds, Chinese policymakers will be keeping a close eye on developments in Tashkent in the months and years to come.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony's College, University of Oxford. He is also a freelance journalist. He can be followed on Twitter (@samramani2) and on Facebook (Samuel Ramani).