In September 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping first announced his strategic vision of “One Belt, One Road” (subsequently renamed the “Belt and Road Initiative” or BRI) during a speech at Nazarbayev University in the Kazakh capital. In essence, the BRI is a massive Chinese project, involving more than 130 countries, over $600 billion in existing commitments, and a total price tag estimated in the trillions of dollars, to redevelop the ancient Silk Road trade routes running between China and Europe. In his speech at Nazarbayev University, Xi suggested that China and Central Asia cooperate to build “the Belt,” the continental part of the Chinese vision, as opposed to “the Road,” the maritime segment. The choice to unveil this enormous project in a country with a relatively low international profile suggests the significance that China attaches to Kazakhstan specifically as well as the broader region in which it is situated. Indeed, Central Asia and the South Caucasus will be a key part of the BRI and home to a number of major associated projects.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative seems to benefit only Central Asia’s richer countries.
Cynics often ask if China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has increased trade between China and its neighbors, or if it threatens to trap participants in debt. There are myriad reasons why countries sign on to the BRI. Some seek to plug gaps in domestic infrastructure, some to improve global trade ties, and some because China, with its population of 1.4 billion, is an attractive market for their goods.
Increasing political and economic pressure on Iran, exacerbated by the renewed economic sanctions resulting from the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has led Tehran to seek support from the two major Eurasian political and economic powers Russia and China. Iran has also increasingly turned its attention toward its neighbors in Central Asia, which remain closely integrated into the political, economic and military projects of Moscow and Beijing. Central Asian leaders are well aware that a possible armed conflict between the U.S. and Iran would adversely affect Eurasian security.
This graphic charts how the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) overlaps with other regional cooperation formats in Central Asia. For more on the SCO, its current and future relevance, and whether Europe should engage with the organization, see Linda Maduz’s comprehensive study Flexibility by Design. For more CSS charts, maps and graphics, click here. Click image to enlarge.
On August 29, 2016, the president of the Republic of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Four days later, the country lost its first and only president. Karimov had been exerting his influence in Uzbek politics since 1989 as the last secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan, which later became the People’s Democratic Party of Uzbekistan (PDP). It may not come as a surprise that his rule was often mired by reports of human rights violations and declarations of autocratic powers to squash any political opposition.
Though the transition of power to the new provisional government may be relatively smooth, Uzbekistan remains fraught with challenges. For now, the Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoev has assumed temporary control until elections are held later this year. The new leadership of Uzbekistan must address the late Karimov’s legacy grappling with a fragile economy, the separatist movement in Karakalpastan, increasing interest of foreign powers in exerting influence over Central Asia, increasingly complex water allocation amongst Central Asian states, and backlash from the previous government’s repressive stance towards Islam.