In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the titanic New Silk Roads project, officially called the Belt and Road Initiative. Ten years later, The duty visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, two countries at the heart of these new trade routes. Sixth in a series of eight travel journals.
When we enter the Chorsu market, a huge bazaar in the old city of Tashkent, all our senses are awakened. Fragrances of spices float above the stalls of brightly colored pomegranates, eggplants and quinces. Our fingers discover the softness of Uzbek silk and cotton beneath the constant hubbub of haggling that accompanies each transaction. While our palate delights in bread Naan bread just out of the wood ovens.
This frenzy, so characteristic of places of exchange, reflects the neuralgic position that Uzbekistan occupies today on the new Silk Roads. Located at the junction of East and West, the territory in the center of Central Asia is crossed by two Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) routes and the four corridors of the China-Central Asia gas pipeline.
Uzbekistan could thus become one of the “biggest beneficiaries” of the new Silk Roads if it continues the political and economic reforms started since 2016, estimates the World Bank. A sunny path for the economic development of this former Soviet republic, still linked to Russia, but which inevitably brings it closer to the Chinese giant.
In 2016, in an undoubtedly strong gesture, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, himself traveled to the Uzbek parliament to present the workings of the BRI. Rasul Kusherbayev then sat there as a deputy. “That’s when I realized the scope of the project and how important it was for China,” he recalls. According to political scientist Farkhad Tolipov, director of the non-governmental organization Caravan of Knowledge, since the launch of the BRI, “the highest authorities of our country have constantly shown their full and unreserved support for this project”.
Over the years, Uzbekistan has become a transit route for goods leaving China for the European market and a key player in transporting natural gas from Turkmenistan to China. The Middle Kingdom has also carved out a place of choice in several Uzbek economic sectors by investing, among others, in green energies and cement factories.
Trade between the two countries is now approaching US$10 billion per year (last year it totaled US$8.9 billion, while trade between Uzbekistan and Russia was slightly higher, to US$9.3 billion). Investments which undeniably stimulate the Uzbek economy, but which also fuel distrust towards China.
Open door to corruption
For Farkhad Tolipov, the BRI is not a “precise or clear” program, but rather “opaque and non-transparent”. Contracts are generally not made public, he says, leaving the door open to corruption, which is said to be widespread, even endemic.
Met on a terrace in the center of Tashkent around a plov, Uzbekistan’s most popular dish consisting of rice pilaf garnished with meat and caramelized carrots, economist Otabek Bakirov makes the same analysis. “Our authorities love the Chinese because they corrupt them,” he says bluntly. This lubrication would also lead to violations of environmental rules, particularly in the cement sector, while local authorities turn a blind eye to certain polluting practices of Chinese investors.
The debt trap
At the same time, fears also arise about the preservation of Uzbekistan’s sovereignty. “If there are hidden objectives, political or ideological, in the BRI, we must stop it immediately,” says Rasul Kusherbayev. According to this MP who resigned from his post last winter, it is “easy to obtain loans from China, but we do not know what is hidden behind it”.
During our stay in Kazakhstan, the economist Kassymkhan Kapparov compared China to a huge pawnbroker offering loans, at unfavorable rates, to countries weighed down by a bad credit rating, failing to obtain loans. loans from international financial institutions, which would lead them to over-indebtedness.
A quagmire which would not threaten Uzbekistan (in 2022, its debt to China was US$4 billion, which represents 17% of its external debt), but which led partner countries of the new Silk Roads to getting caught in the so-called “debt trap”: an inability to repay Chinese creditors, which allowed China to get its hands on assets in these countries. This would notably be the case of Sri Lanka, which in 2017 leased the operating rights of the port of Hambantota to Chinese interests for 99 years – an example which is, however, debated.
“China also tends to first influence a country’s economy, and then influence its policies,” warns Otabek Bakirov. An avenue that is all the more worrying for several experts interviewed as it is not in China’s interest for the country to democratize. With democracy comes transparency, particularly in contracts awarded by the state, and also a free press and free elections, which could lead to a rise in the power of religious groups and nationalist movements. According to political analyst Kamoliddin Rabbimov, “it will immediately be a problem for China if the forces in place in Central Asia start supporting the Uyghurs”, this Muslim minority in the province of Xinjiang in China which is being persecuted by Beijing.
China also tends to first influence a country’s economy, then influence its policies
A few meters from the Chorsu market, Ziyouddin and Fayzullah, aged 20, chat in the interior courtyard of the sumptuous Koukeldach madrasa, built in the 16th century.e century. The Koranic school, which had fallen into oblivion in the 18the century before being converted into a caravanserai, has started welcoming students again since 1999. “We are at the time of a return of Islam to Uzbekistan,” rejoice the two young men, who wish to become imams. A spiritual force that could one day turn into a political force.
With Askar Djumanov
This report was financed with support from the International Journalism Fund
Tomorrow: Uzbekistan-China: a friendship that pierces mountains