The Last Asian Frontier? A Comparison of the Economic Cooperation Agendas of China, Japan, and South Korea with Uzbekistan

China, Japan and South Korea have regarded Central Asia (CA) as a new, and perhaps the last, Asian frontier in their foreign policies after the collapse of the Soviet Union.1 For all these states, CA represented an area where they had not been previously active. In addition, their foreign policies in this region, at least initially, did not have any new objectives but rather were focused on resolving the problems left as a legacy of CA’s Soviet past. It was not long, however, before other objectives rose to the fore. In the case of Uzbekistan, its change of leadership in 2016, leading to shifts in foreign as well as domestic policy, gave it an image of openness as the newest target within CA for meaningful economic initiatives. The scale of the initiatives may seem small, given the ambitious programs launched by China, Japan, and South Korea elsewhere. Even so, CA’s position at the crossroads of aspirations to re-conceptualize Eurasia and the role of Uzbekistan with its new president and large population as a force with unknown potential to lead in regional reorganization make it desirable to take a close look at plans for boosting bilateral ties.

Uzbekistan is just beyond the limits of East Asia and in an area normally viewed as a meeting place of Russia and China with the United States and regional powers in South and Southwest Asia occasionally added to the mix. Viewing it in terms of competition for economic cooperation by the three East Asian economic leaders puts a different light on that country and on what the three are seeking. Are they only aiming for limited economic benefits for their companies? Are they driven by competition with each other for a bigger economic payoff or even prestige from the gratitude shown by the Uzbekistan government and public? Are they looking for any political payoff? Is there a Russia or wider Central Asian connection, whereby side benefits are achieved?
Or is Central Asia so marginal at least to Japan and South Korea and facing increasing economic difficulties as China’s economy slows and the global economy confronts rising interest rates and trade tensions that not much can be expected from proposals that may never be put into practice?

There are a few peculiarities related to the perception of each of these states. China has regarded CA as an area that presented it with more challenges that it had to address in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. Multiplying the number of actors meant that instead of a unitary Soviet state, China now had to deal with several states to resolve its territorial disputes. In addition, the fact that these states were Muslim and largely Turkic presented another challenge regarding preventing these states from assisting those in China regarded as separatists and Islamic terrorists in Xinjiang. Thus, China regarded this region as a land of challenges rather than opportunities. With the success of the Shanghai process and the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), China has come to increasingly regard this region as an opportunity-generating area, eventually leading to the incorporation of CA (through the Silk Road Economic Belt, SREB) into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). However, with China’s draconian new approach to Xinjiang in 2018, efforts to contain any contagion from CA have continued, keeping this objective in the forefront in its policy.

The Japanese government has also found the task of integrating this region into its foreign policy problematic for several reasons. First, Japan narrowly defines the region by mainly referring to the East Asian nations. Second, the changing Japanese internal identity, which was impacted by the changes in its international standing (sliding from the second to the third economic power and facing the rise of China), also affected its constantly shifting CA policy. Its initial efforts to establish an engagement strategy in CA were launched in the form of Eurasian (Silk Road) diplomacy (1997-2004) by Hashimoto Ryutaro, which referred to engaging Russia, China, and CA.2 Hashimoto hoped to bring the nations of the former Soviet Union into a network of interdependence by establishing a largely economic and, to a degree, political Japanese presence in Eurasia and by facilitating Japanese participation in resource exploration.3 Although Japan’s presence has been supported by economic and humanitarian assistance as well as important initiatives (such as the launch of the CA plus Japan dialogue in 2004, Koizumi Junichiro’s visit of 2006, Foreign Minister Aso’s 2006 “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” speech, and the 2015 Abe visit), its strategy of engaging these states has faced a number of challenges, including its geographic distance from the region, limited corporate penetration of CA, and lack of a clearly defined strategy.4 Abe’s decision in 2017-18 to cooperate conditionally with China on the BRI is not focused on CA, but it may reduce the image of competition associated with prior Japanese moves.

South Korea has the same limitations as Japan—namely, distant location and lack of transportation infrastructure to and from markets in CA. However, South Korean “Silk Road” rhetoric is somewhat more practical. Its corporate economic interests were more active in the region beginning in the early 1990s, with Daewoo building a major car manufacturing plant in Uzbekistan; in addition, a large number of assembling and manufacturing facilities were built under the Samsung and LG brands in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to locally produce electronics parts. In the early 1990s, South Korea was among the leading investors in this region.5 Its profile receded with China and Russia intensifying their role, but its firms retain an active presence.

While Japan, China, and South Korea appear to face similar limitations and challenges in approaching CA, it is unclear how different or similar their agendas are with regard to economic cooperation with this region. Additionally, little is known about the operationalization of their economic cooperation agenda setting given the change of leadership in some of the states of CA. This article provides some observations with respect to these questions, focusing on the bilateral economic cooperation agenda setting of China, Japan, and South Korea on the one hand, and their counterpart in CA Uzbekistan, on the other. The importance of these three states lies in their economic contribution and official development assistance to CA in general and Uzbekistan in particular. Uzbekistan is chosen because it is demographically the largest and geographically the most central country of this region, and it is undergoing a transition to become a more open economic and political system and experiencing reform with potential impact on all of CA.

Uzbekistan’s reemergence and the hierarchy of its cooperation partners

A second rediscovery of CA after the first in the early 1990s comes with the change of post-communist leaderships, as exemplified by the case of Uzbekistan, which witnessed the change after the death of its dictatorial president Islam Karimov in 2016.6 President Mirziyoyev inherited the economic priorities of the Karimov era, which aimed to create production facilities within the country and export the goods to neighboring countries,7 while attempting to drastically change Karimov-era foreign policy regarding cooperation with other states. Karimov’s policy was primarily aimed at balancing various influences in order to avoid giving in to the ambitions of dominance characteristic of large international players, Russia, the United States, or China. His purpose was to prioritize the principle of problem-solving in cooperation with other states, as opposed to balancing and bandwagoning seen in past years.8 The new foreign policy does not prioritize geopolitical issues. Instead, it prioritizes partners depending on the degree of their contribution to the task of economic development from both short- and mid-term perspectives. Mirziyoyev also assigned new functions to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs such as bridging foreign policy institutions and local actors in Uzbekistan. The ministry, foreign missions, and local governors’ offices are integrated into a complicated hybrid relationship with the sole task of implementing the country’s development strategy.9 The Strategy of Actions for Further Development of the Republic of Uzbekistan for 2017-21 provides the guidelines for five areas to be prioritized in cooperating with foreign partners:10 liberalization of the economy; development of the social sphere; improvements to the state public administration system; improvements to the judicial system; and facilitation of security, promotion of interethnic and interreligious accord, and implementation of a balanced, beneficial, and constructive foreign policy.

In this hierarchy of foreign policy, CA is defined as the area of vital importance for Uzbekistan, followed by Russia and China as the most important strategic economic partners, reflecting their position as the largest trade partners. In addition, Uzbekistan remains South Korea’s largest trading partner in CA, importing over $1.20 billion of goods (vehicle parts, air pumps, etc.), with Uzbekistan exporting $15.7 million in goods to South Korea (paper pulp, plants and cotton, etc.)11 Japan has been the largest Official Development Assistance (ODA) provider for Uzbekistan since its independence.12 This hierarchy of relations can change, depending on the progress in economic cooperation demonstrated by economic cooperation roadmaps.13

Uzbekistan’s post-colonial legacies and neo-colonial pressures

Two of the features which shaped Uzbekistan’s post-independence foreign policy have been, on the one hand, its dealings with post-colonial ambitions of its former metropolitan state of Russia and, on the other, the increasingly neo-colonial tendencies in Chinese CA policies. Dealings with these two tendencies had been a challenge that Karimov addressed in his ambitions to place Uzbekistan as a regional power. Mirziyoev’s aims to make more balanced choices, prioritizing bilateral economic relations with Russia while maximizing the benefits offered by Russian advances in certain economic sectors, and not subscribing to a Russian political agenda such as its Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) plans. Recently, President Putin visited Uzbekistan in October 2018 accompanied by 18 heads of federal regions of Russia, which was the 6th meeting between the Uzbek and Russian leaders in just the 2 years after Mirziyoev came to power. Among many projects, Putin and Mirziyoev launched the construction of the first nuclear power plant in Uzbekistan and Central Asia by RosAtom to be completed by 2028. Trade levels have grown by 30% from 2017 to 2018, making Russia one of the two top trading partners of Uzbekistan on par with China. More than 80 high-level visits between the two countries have been reported between 2017 and 2018, signifying the paramount place of Russia in this region’s diplomatic ties.

Putin’s October 2018 visit resulted in 785 bilateral agreements and memoranda signed for a net amount of $27 billion. 600 of these are contracts in trade and the economy, reaching $1.76 billion. Putin’s visit also resulted in agreements on creating 79 Uzbek-Russian joint ventures, 23 trading houses and 20 logistic centers in Uzbekistan. These agreements relate to developing Uzbek mining sectors, natural gas exploration, assistance in setting up an Uzbek outer-space exploration agency for commercial purposes, setting up assembly lines for Russian machinery and armaments, as well as training Uzbek specialists in the areas in which Russia has a competitive advantage. In addition, Russia aims to sustain its soft-power in this region, exemplified by the fact that Putin was accompanied by 80 university presidents in his visit to Uzbekistan, resulting in agreements on opening several campuses of these institutions in Uzbekistan. The Russian language serves as one of Russia’s competitive advantages when compared to English, Chinese, Japanese, or Korean languages because Russian is still the technical language widely used and often preferred in various sectors in Uzbekistan. For Putin, access to Uzbekistan’s economic projects represents a gain for his geo-economic ambitions as Russia had been kept at a distance by the previous president of Uzbekistan.

Although Uzbekistan regards economic cooperation with Russia as an effort to maintain a productive relationship while containing Russian political ambitions, the Russian perspective differs from that of Uzbekistan. The Russian leadership on various occasions expressed hope that such enhanced cooperation can in the future spill over into the political field and draw Uzbekistan into the EEU and other Russia-led institutions. This also represents the metropolis’ lasting ambition to remain the main power in this region. When compared to the Chinese agreements with Uzbekistan, Russian agreements register a lower amount spent per project. However, the agreements far exceed in number and are essentially more diverse than those registered between China and Uzbekistan.

At the same time, the post-colonial legacy of Uzbekistan has met a new reality with growing Chinese economic power in Uzbekistan in recent years, which sometimes has been termed neo-colonial. The Uzbek government aims to utilize its strategic partnership with China to partly replace Russia in many large-scale projects such as transportation infrastructure construction and energy resource development. China also represents an attractive market for Uzbek mineral resources decolonizing the structure of Uzbek exports, which are often held hostage to Russian energy resource transportation infrastructure. China is also attractive in terms of potential technology transfer as indicated in the next section on the roadmaps and agendas of China. Yet, Mirziyoev displays awareness of the dangers of overreliance on China, which may result in Uzbekistan “jumping from a Russian frying pan into the Chinese fire.” To deal with potential Chinese economic neo-colonialism, Uzbekistan also strives to develop a vibrant cooperation agenda with Japan and South Korea, creating a patchwork of economic partnerships and counterweights to Russian post-colonial ambitions and Chinese neo-colonial dreams. 

Economic cooperation roadmaps as a format of East Asia-Central Asia rapprochement

The significance of roadmaps for economic cooperation for China, Japan, and South Korea in their engagement with Uzbekistan is multifold.14 First, they are the gist of particular projects that China, South Korea, Japan, and Uzbekistan plan to implement on a bilateral basis. Second, they inform our understanding of how politically articulated intentions materialize in the practical realm. Third, roadmaps demonstrate the priorities of the host government and its counterparts in terms of the cooperation agenda. In the case of post-Soviet states in CA, exemplified by Uzbekistan, the government represents the developmental apparatus that frequently defines the strategic areas. To some extent, such developmental functions, including foreign policy, are also shared by the governments of China, Japan, and South Korea, making negotiations easier.

These roadmaps typically explicitly refer to the areas of cooperation, as defined by the developmental strategies and objectives of each state (i.e., the developmental strategy for Uzbekistan, BRI for China, the CA plus Japan initiative for Japan) and defining the main actors responsible for promoting cooperation within this area. In all these cases the areas of trade, transportation infrastructure development, energy resource exploitation, innovation, technology, and security are considered of primary importance. Their respective importance fluctuates depending on the country. Infrastructure development and security feature prominently in cooperation with China. Japan and South Korea attribute greater importance to human development, technological innovation, and the modernization of infrastructure.

The degree of government involvement in designing and pursing cooperation also differs according to domestic governance structures and economic values (such as adherence to the values of the liberalized market economy). In the case of China, the degree of centralization of authority and power is very high. The same ministry is often responsible for promoting cooperation in any one area. In the cases of Japan and South Korea, the situation is very different, largely reflecting the degree of economic liberalization and central government decentralization, as described in the country-specific parts of this study.

The Japanese government is rather hesitant to play an active role in facilitating private enterprise entry into CA primarily because it has a free market economy. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in particular is hesitant to play a role in singling out a particular enterprise (from many others) and promoting its interests, which might be interpreted as governmental interference in economic activity. This, however, does not necessarily pose a structural problem, and there continues to be an opportunity for the Japanese government to promote its private enterprises in CA without being accused of interference, as seen by the progress in 2018 regarding the Japanese roadmaps.

The Korean case is somewhat different. Although, in the Chinese and Japanese cases, the central government is frequently the engine for encouraging direct investment in the economies of CA, in the Korean case, private enterprises are far more active in promoting cooperation, while the government plays a reactive role with respect to such entrepreneurial activities. The Korean government does not initiate entrepreneurial activities, but it is often pulled into playing a more prominent role where Korean enterprises have already built a significant economic presence. In addition, a spillover effect occurs to a certain degree with respect to Korean involvement in this region when successful projects by certain enterprises encourage the development of similar projects in other areas that are predominantly private interest driven. Such an effect has not been observed in the cases of Chinese and Japanese private participation.

Uzbekistan’s current governmental structure shares similarities with China in regard to the degree of centralization of power. As in other post-Soviet states, centralization often results in situations in which a single ministry (for instance, the Ministry of Economy) is the main actor in negotiating cooperation in areas such as infrastructure, transportation, and energy resources. This impacts the flow and the time required for negotiations, shaping cooperation roadmaps, and determining the most appropriate agencies and actors to assist governments in promoting cooperation. This sometimes results in cooperation being imposed “from above” without commitments at the grassroots level. However, in shaping cooperation roadmaps, the negotiations are conducted more quickly and with a higher degree of success (defined in terms of number of contracts signed) when governments possess more authority and powers to enforce their political commitments, as exemplified by the cases of China and Uzbekistan.

In all three cases, the initial discussions are held through channels provided by the ministries of foreign affairs and unofficially signaled to other agencies. The roles played by the governments in such cooperation schemes might not necessarily be to invest public funds into these projects but rather to provide a secure environment for private enterprises to enter the markets of countries they traditionally considered risk-prone, such as Uzbekistan. The establishment of the committee for economic cooperation and respective subcommittees (responsible for particular areas) creates a channel of communication and a bargaining table that is open on an ad hoc basis. In all three cases, the proposals from various domestic agencies and the institutions of respective governments are first collected and summarized by each state’s committee responsible for cooperation with foreign counterparts. Once considered potentially prone to delivering tangible short-to-mid-term outcomes, they are included in the proposals for each area of cooperation to be presented at the joint session of the economic cooperation committee. When the agreement is reached by both sides, the proposals are then grouped into framework agreements, contracts, and memoranda that constitute the backbone of intergovernmental cooperation road maps.

Country-specific peculiarities of Chinese, Japanese and South Korean roadmaps

The economic cooperation roadmap between China and Uzbekistan was signed during the May 11-13, 2017 visit of Mirziyoyev to China. It consisted of 11 intergovernmental agreements, 1 intermunicipal agreement, and economic contracts totaling $22.8 billion.15 Of the 76 agreements, memoranda, and protocols signed, 35 were agreements of various types (between the governments or  agencies or framework agreements), 31 were memoranda (including notes of meetings that focused on particular projects with the general budget allocation of these projects already decided) and 10 were protocols (discussions of intent for particular enterprises). The largest infrastructure-related agreements focused on the joint production of synthetic fuel ($3.7 billion), investments in Uzbekistan’s oil industry ($2.6 billion), investments in new projects ($2 billion), cooperation agreements for the construction of energy-generation plants ($679 million), railroad infrastructure development agreements ($520 million), and an agreement on Tashkent-Osh road construction ($220 million). In terms of establishing manufacturing lines, agreements were reached to facilitate the establishment of facilities for cement ($153 million in Andijan and $100 million in Tashkent), textiles ($200 million), electric appliances ($139 million), metal goods ($115 million), and glass goods ($83 million).16 Of the memoranda and protocols, some are being realized in established production facilities. The majority of these projects represent attempts to establish production and infrastructure-related facilities to enable Uzbekistan to produce goods not only for its large yet still limited internal consumption but also for exports.

The economic cooperation roadmaps with South Korea were signed during the visit of the president of Uzbekistan in November 22-25, 2017.17 These were updated to their 2018 versions as an outcome of the South Korean foreign minister’s visit in April 2018.18 They included 4 more intergovernmental framework agreements, 18 interagency agreements between various ministries and agencies, and contracts between state and private companies. In total, 64 agreements totaling $10 billion have been signed, including contracts for direct foreign investment into Uzbekistan in the amount of $4 billion. These also included 24 contracts for export of particular goods from Uzbekistan to Korea for $231 million.

In the Japanese case, the economic cooperation roadmaps have not been signed as an outcome of the visit by the Japanese prime minister or by the new Uzbek president. The last time Abe visited Uzbekistan was in 2015 when Karimov was president. Since then, Uzbekistan has shifted its foreign policy as reflected in the roadmaps concluded by 2017 and corrected in 2018 in line with the work of the economic cooperation committee. The Intergovernmental Committee on Economic Cooperation between Japan and CA is composed of the Japanese minister of foreign affairs, the Japan Association for Trade with Russia & NIS (ROTOBO), JICA, the Trade Chamber, and representatives of Japanese corporations.

The 2017 economic cooperation roadmaps largely consisted of agreements on the facilitation of visits of the leaders of both countries and on holding various educational and economic forums. Corrections made in 2018 included more details and estimates. The 2018 roadmaps included 12 intergovernmental and interagency agreements that largely referred to the facilitation of visits by leaders, exchanges of various ministries (social welfare, defense, emergency, etc.) and cooperation in setting an agenda for regular sessions of the CA plus Japan dialogue forum.

The largest progress has been made with respect to economic cooperation, which implied not only the participation of public corporations but also, importantly, private companies. Out of 32 field trade and economic agreements between Japan and Uzbekistan, 12 referred largely to the organizational issues to facilitate various forums and assist in connecting Japanese businesses with interested local parties. These agreements included opening trading houses, establishing the representation of labor migration agencies in both countries (as increasing labor migration to Japan is an important issue for Uzbekistan), and the organization of economic forums both in Japan and Uzbekistan to popularize available opportunities among the representatives of the business communities of both countries. The remaining 36 agreements for the first time, referred to particular companies and projects, with the direct participation of interested Japanese companies, including agreements on exploiting the tourism potential of Uzbekistan for Japanese. In addition to abolishing entry visas for Japanese tourists, they included the participation of Uzbekistan in Japanese tourism exhibitions, cooperation in decreasing the costs of flights between the two countries (as Uzbekistan Airways operates direct flights to and from Tokyo several times a week) and establishment of sister-city relationships between Tashkent and Nagoya, Samarkand and Nara, Angren and Maizuru, and Rishtan and Tomioka. Each of these ties required the development of roadmaps for subnational diplomacy. In terms of energy resources, contracts have been signed regarding the modernization of small dams, the modernization of energy generation facilities in Tashkent, and studies of the potential for uranium excavation in the Navoi region in cooperation with JOGMEG. In terms of production facilities, agreements on cooperation in constructing pharmaceutical plants in cooperation with the Japanese Association of Pharmaceutical Producers, on the construction of medicine production plants under contract with Shimizu ($69 million), on the construction of chemical production plants with Navoiazot ($986 million) and on modernizing truck assembly plants with Isuzu (for the new generation 700P trucks, which correspond to Euro 4-5 standards) have been signed. Finally, the traditional area of Japanese strength has been allocating educational grants and facilitating educational exchanges, which features significantly in the roadmaps and is covered by 15 agreements.

Roadmaps 2017-2018: Implications for understanding China, Japan and South Korea in CA

Economic cooperation roadmaps need to be treated as a type of political discourse, showing the intentions of the governments and nongovernmental organizations to pursue certain objectives., These roadmaps, although jointly generated, are narratives generated to target different audiences. Proposals by Uzbekistan are for the development of a corporate community with China, Japan, and South Korea in the interest of attracting corporate involvement into a particular field. The proposals generated by China, Japan, and South Korea communicate a narrative of the contribution of these states to the development of Uzbekistan, useful both for domestic (explaining their engagement in Uzbekistan) and international (with respect not only to Uzbekistan but also to each other, so they can be part of soft power) consumption.

The Chinese approach indicated in the roadmaps is to exploit China’s competitive advantages in being geographically close to this resource-endowed region and being technologically advanced by exporting its machinery for Uzbekistan’s further industrialization. China also aims to use its abundant financial resources to fund projects that primarily benefit its corporate interests while also having a positive impact in support of the Uzbek developmental strategy 2017-2021. The map aims to secure Chinese economic interests while leaving it to the Uzbek government to ensure that cooperation will benefit the Uzbek economy.

In contrast, Japanese roadmaps emphasize a commitment to developing Uzbekistan and strengthening its human capital development and capacity to address local economic problems. However, the problem is that they do not clearly demonstrate how the Japanese corporate community and taxpayers benefit from their engagement through their implementation. Those of 2018 also attempt to demonstrate that Japan benefits from labor resources, tourism potential, and assembly plants constructed in Uzbekistan. Such corrections can be regarded as a maturation of the Japanese policy in this region and movement toward a more pragmatic agenda.

The Korean roadmaps combine the pragmatism seen in the Chinese maps and the emotional attachment to developing Uzbekistan seen in the Japanese ones. On the one hand, they clearly aim to benefit the Korean business community, as demonstrated by the number of projects and the spectrum of areas covered by those roadmaps. On the other, they include a great deal of human capital development, such as establishing many educational institutions, supporting human resource development programs for the Uzbek bureaucracy, supporting the increase of Uzbek nationals in international organizations, providing know-how to establish digital trade platforms, and providing know-how for entry into the World Trade Organization. These components demonstrate Korea’s interest in benefiting from the opportunities in the Uzbek economy, while contributing to certain areas in which it has significant experience.

Roadmaps are merely plans without any guarantee of successful implementation. However, they still represent clearly formulated documents with actors, budgets, and time-frame definitions that can be treated as generating certain political messages. The signing of them is accompanied by media support in various languages. The plans, published in English, largely produce narratives for international consumption; those published in Russian are often aimed at audiences in Central Asia and Russia; and those published in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean are targeted at the public in those countries.

Roadmaps are a result of the pattern of interaction between states. The cases of China, South Korea, and Japan demonstrate a relationship between the frequency and outcomes of the visits of leaders. The Chinese heads of state and government are frequent visitors to Uzbekistan, sometimes visiting several times per year. In addition, the leaders of the two countries meet at events related to the SCO and BRI in China and elsewhere. Such frequency leads to deeper discussions on various issues, contributing to the increasing number of projects in the economic cooperation roadmaps. The leaders of Korea and Uzbekistan do not meet as frequently; they have met 15 times since 1992, annually or biannually depending on the agenda. This results in a less ambitious but still significant agenda for cooperation. While the volume of contracts is not as high as between China and Uzbekistan, the project spectrum is greater. The leaders of Japan and Uzbekistan meet only once every several years. Japan’s leaders have visited CA and Uzbekistan only twice since the collapse of the USSR. Uzbek leaders have visited Japan three times. While the number of high official meetings is greater at the level of the CA plus Japan initiative, the process of preparing economic cooperation roadmaps intensifies at the time of visits of heads of state. The spectrum of areas covered is rather limited and primarily focuses on the interaction between the governments, leaving much potential for further development.

The Chinese economic cooperation roadmaps demonstrate the highest volume of contracts and agreements, mainly in three areas: energy, infrastructure development, and manufacturing. Korean roadmaps do not match the Chinese maps in number, but the spectrum of projects and areas of cooperation are greater. The main actors in the Korean-Uzbek economic cooperation maps are a large number of smaller enterprises, while the Chinese roadmaps are dominated by larger enterprises working in the fields of energy and infrastructure development. This finding can be explained by differences in the economic structure of China and Korea. The Japanese-Uzbek road maps are dominated by cooperation between the governments and framework agreements. The 2018 roadmaps demonstrate an increase in Japanese corporate participation.

While the Chinese-Uzbek economic cooperation roadmaps are focused on promotion of economic cooperation, cooperation in the humanitarian field is very limited. In contrast, the Korean and Japanese cooperation road maps include a large number of initiatives related to humanitarian cooperation. A significant number of the projects initiated by Korea relate to the establishment of universities, research institutions, and research facilities. Similarly, the Japanese roadmaps relate to grants for educational activities and education-related projects of JICA. They might not necessarily lead to immediate income generation, but they contribute importantly to human capacity development in Uzbekistan, increasing economic potential.

In the Chinese case, the government plays the role of both facilitator and executor of many agreements. In the Korean case, private corporate enterprises lead the way in fostering cooperation. Additionally, the increased intensification of private economic activity in the country encourages the government to intensify its involvement. Japanese involvement demonstrates a different pattern in which public governmental institutions and developmental assistance agencies lead the way in establishing cooperation. However, at this stage, such governmental activity does not necessarily translate into private enterprise involvement. This issue is somewhat improved in the 2018 economic roadmaps of Japan-Uzbek cooperation.


The Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean roadmaps present their economic priorities and identify projects that interest them in Uzbekistan, while responding to the economic agenda of the new Uzbek president after the death of Karimov in 2016. Japanese or Korean partners of Uzbekistan do not necessarily (at least not openly) have the intention to enable Uzbekistan to safeguard against domination by China. Rather, they see opportunities for expansion of their economic outreach given the limited focus of China on infrastructure and large-scale projects by filling gaps in other areas of production and commerce. Uzbekistan, however, clearly has the aim of diversifying its strategic partners and constructing relations with alternative countries based on their ability to contribute according to their areas of expertise. This serves to maintain some pressure on China not to dominate the cooperation agenda. Such diversification of economic partners, as demonstrated by economic roadmaps, also shows promise for diversification away from energy as the focus of cooperation. Observers tend to emphasize energy resources as the primary goal of many states in Uzbekistan, but the projects in which China, Japan, and South Korea are involved demonstrate that the economic agenda of their cooperation is not only larger than the area of energy resources but also remains a constantly changing realm of social construction between the main actors.

With the change of leadership of Uzbekistan, we observe several changes in its orientations. There is an obvious change in the focus of its leadership from global issues (as exemplified by attempting to balance China, Russia, and the United States with some role given to South Korea and Japan in CA and to position Uzbekistan as a regional superpower) towards a more pragmatic foreign policy which aims to resolve regional problems while prioritizing improved relations with regional states. There is also a shift in the way Uzbek foreign policy defines its priority areas. The Karimov administration was more concerned with the issues related to political problems with neighbors (e.g., borders, water, ethnicity, and religion), using mostly heavy-handed policy responses, which in many instances were counterproductive. The Mirziyoev administration attempts to establish a soft approach in which it is prepared for compromises that not only take into account Uzbekistan’s concerns but also consider conditions in neighboring countries. The technology transfer and establishment of production facilities in Uzbekistan with China, South Korea, and Japan helps to enhance its production capacity and economic outreach towards its neighbors, ideally turning Uzbekistan into an industrial hub of CA. This aim dictates the task to position Uzbekistan as a liberalizing state open for foreign (Chinese, Japanese, or Korean) engagement.   

1. For details see Timur Dadabaev, “’Silk Road’ as foreign policy discourse: The construction of Chinese, Japanese and Korean engagement strategies in Central Asia,” Journal of Eurasian Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1 (2018), pp. 1-12.

2. Ryutaro Hashimoto, “Address to the Japan Association of Corporate Executives Tokyo, July 24, 1997,”

3. Zaidan Hojin Kokusai Koryu Senta, ed., Roshia Chuo Ajia taiwa misshon hokoku: Yurasia gaiko e no josho (Tokyo: Roshia Chuo Ajia taiwa misshon, 1998).

4. Timur Dadabaev, “Discourses of rivalry or rivalry of discourses: Discursive strategies of China and Japan in Central Asia," The Pacific Review, pp. 1-25,

5. Timur Dadabaev, “Engagement and contestation: The entangled imagery of the Silk Road,” Cambridge Journal of Eurasian Studies, No. 2 (2018).

6. Timur Dadabaev, "Uzbekistan as Central Asian Game Changer? Uzbekistan’s Foreign Policy Construction in the Post-Karimov era," Asian Journal of Comparative Politics (2018), pp.1-14.

7. Bernardo Teles Fazendeiro, “Uzbekistan’s defensive self-reliance: Karimov’s foreign policy legacy,” International Affairs, Vol. 93, No. 2 (March 2017), pp. 409–27,

8. See Falyahov, “Uzbekistan ne speshit v Evraziiskii Soyuz,” Gazeta, April 5, 2017,

9. Shavkat Mirziyoyev, “Effektivnaia vneshniaia politika: Vazhneishee uslovie uspeshnoi realizatsii vneshnei politiki,” January 11, 2018.

10. “Uzbekistan’s Development Strategy 2017–2021,”

11. Catherine Putz, “Uzbek President Mirziyoyev Lands in South Korea, Reaffirming a Strong Partnership,” The Diplomat, November 22, 2017,

12. Seifu Kaihatsu Enjo (ODA) Kunibetsu de-tabuku 2014 (Chuo Ajia/Kokasasu Chiiki), Tokyo,

13. Timur Dadabaev, “The Chinese economic pivot in Central Asia and its implications for Post-Karimov re-emergence of Uzbekistan,” Asian Survey, Vol. 58, No. 4 (2018), pp. 747–69.

14. Timur Dadabaev, Chinese, Japanese and Korean in-roads into Central Asia: Comparative analysis of the economic cooperation road maps for Uzbekistan (Honolulu/Washington: East West Center, forthcoming).

15. The $22.8 billion includes both Chinese and Uzbek shares in the deals signed. The amount of the solely Chinese contribution/investment is roughly $10 billion, while the remaining Uzbek contribution includes both monetary sums and the costs of land and infrastructure development.

16. Timur Dadabaev, “The Chinese economic pivot in Central Asia.”

17. Rahn Kim, “Uzbekistan president arrives for state visit,” The Korea Times, November 22, 2017,

18. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea, “Outcome of Foreign Minister’s Official Visit to Uzbekistan,” April 19, 2018,