The Role of Uzbekistan in Connecting Asia with Europe through the New Silk Road

The 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) was open on 15 September 2020 at the UN Headquarters in New York, in a virtual format and will be held until 30 September 2020. Heads of states and governments from 193 Member States exchanged statements via pre-recorded messages, played in the General Assembly Hall, on the theme “The future we want, the United Nations we need: reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism – confronting COVID-19 through effective multilateral action”.

The President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, took part virtually in the event to champion the importance and urgency of global solidarity and support towards ending the COVID-19 pandemic and rebuilding health systems and economies to achieve Universal Health Coverage (UHC) and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). During the General Debate of the 75th session of the UNGA on 23 September 2020, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev informed the international community in detail about the reforms being carried out in “New Uzbekistan,” and put forward more than 10 important and timely initiatives and statements on commitments to universal values and resolving of current challenges such as: ensuring global solidarity during the pandemic, international security and stability including prevention of terrorism, protection of human rights, poverty eradication and food security, development of transport and communication infrastructures, environmental issues and preserving cultural heritage.

 

Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev with  USA President  Donald John Trump

In particular, the President of Uzbekistan has initiated to develop and adopt an International Code on Voluntary Commitments of States during the pandemic, as well as to support international initiatives for widespread admission/access to the results of the development of necessary drugs and vaccines against COVID-19, to arrange a Global Summit on Poverty Eradication and Food Security, to adopt UN Convention on Youth Rights and Resolution on enhancing the role of parliaments to achieve SDGs and ensure human rights and to declare the Aral Sea region a zone of ecological innovation and technology. The Head of State has named stability in Afghanistan as an important condition to ensure not only regional but global security. In this regard, he has addressed the session delegates with proposals to set up a new format of international cooperation on Afghanistan through establishing a Permanent Committee at the UN on this issue and to arrange an international conference in Tashkent dedicated to the 10th anniversary of adoption of the Joint Plan of Action for the Implementation of the UN Global Counter Terrorism Strategy in Central Asia.

Noting the importance of strengthening the policies and capacities of countries for the rehabilitation of the rich cultural heritage in the world, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has proposed to organise with UNESCO the 2021 the International Forum “Central Asia at the Crossroads of World Civilisations” in the historical city of Khiva, Uzbekistan. President Mirziyoyev noted that it is necessary to develop a strategy for the development of regional transport corridors in Central Asia, as well as to adopt a regional programme on the sustainable development of the transport system for the countries in the region. In this context, he has initiated to form the Regional Centre on Transport and Communication Systems under the auspices of the UN. It is interesting that the practical implementation of these ideas will transform Central Asia not only into an international transit hub, but also a key link in the transcontinental economic space between South Asia, the Asia-Pacific Region, the CIS, Europe and the Middle East.

Uzbekistan's geo-strategic position in the Central Asian region is crucial in terms of transports linking East with West. Central Asia has long been part of the trade route known as the ‘Silk Road’. The region was once visited by travelers such as Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta. In addition, Samarkand, the ancient historic city of Uzbekistan, was once a center of Islamic studies and civilisation. One of the main focuses of Uzbekistan's foreign policy, since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev took over the reins of government in 2016, is the policy of regionalism and regional development that provides mutual benefits to countries in Central Asia and this includes transportation and communications. In November 2017, the Uzbek government organised an international conference “Central Asia: One past and common future, cooperation for sustainable development and mutual prosperity”, in Samarkand. Speaking at the conference, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev proposed initiatives for joint cooperation and development in various fields in the Central Asian region.

Currently, Uzbekistan is intensifying its reforms with the aim of liberalising and modernising the country's economy, ensuring its sustainable development and consistent integration into the international economy. Apart from that, the objective is also to increase the competitiveness of manufacturing products and the country's export potential. For the execution of a set task, the following factors are very important. First, increasing productivity and competitiveness at the same time attracts Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). In 2019, total exports increased 28 per cent compared to 2018, amounting to 17.9 billion. In addition, FDI is expected to reach USD23 million with 206 new large production facilities. One of the main missions is the localisation of high value-added products and their sales in foreign markets. 

 

Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev with  Russian President  Vladimir  Putin

Second is the diversity of the sales market. In 2019, Uzbekistan's main exports of goods and services in foreign trade earnings (USD57.9 billion) were to neighboring countries such as China (14.1 per cent of total exports), Russia (13.9 per cent), Kazakhstan (8 per cent), Turkey (6.7 per cent), Kyrgyzstan (3.8 per cent), Afghanistan (3.4 per cent) and Tajikistan (1.9 per cent) accounted for about 50% of total exports, further confirming the importance of expanding export geography. Taking into account the effects of COVID-19 transmission, in late January–May this year, Uzbekistan's foreign trade revenue reached USD12.9 billion (compared to the same period in 2019, it decreased by USD2.4 billion).

Modernisation of the economy, growing export potential of Uzbekistan and the need to expand sales markets for domestic products, required the adoption of additional advanced measures to create favorable conditions for the further diversification of foreign trade routes, the formation of alternative and most efficient transit corridors that ensure the output of export products of Uzbekistan to promising international markets. In this regard, Uzbekistan is giving strategic importance to the development of the transport system by taking large-scale measures aimed at the development of transport infrastructure at the national and regional levels as well as consistently working to integrate it into the international transport system.

In order to radically improve public administration in the sphere, strategic development and ensure sustainable operation of transport communications, the Ministry of Transport was established by the Decree of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev dated
1 February 2019, and defined as a government body for the development and implementation of a unified state policy in the development of road, rail, air, river transport, metro and road facilities. According to international experts, Uzbekistan’s transit potential can be increased from the current 7 million to 16 million tons, and through implementation of regional projects – up to 23 million tons by 2030.

As part of the implementation of the “Comprehensive programme to improve transport infrastructure and diversify foreign trade routes for the transportation of goods for 2018–2022” systematic work is being carried out to improve bilateral legal framework and practical implementation of international agreements, develop new transport, transit corridors and network of logistics centers, expand the fleet of vehicles and aircraft and create conditions for efficient transportation of Uzbek goods to neighboring countries. In addition, the “Strategy for the development of the transport system of the Republic of Uzbekistan 2035” is currently being developed, which envisages:

  1. creating conditions for the increase of volume and quality of passenger and cargo traffic,
  2. improving management systems of the transport sector, and
  3. introducing fundamentally new approaches to training and of the specialists in the transport system.

One of the initiatives of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev was the adoption of the UN Resolution to “Strengthen regional and international cooperation to ensure peace, stability and sustainable development in the Central Asian region”. This UN resolution was agreed upon during the UN General Assembly in 2018. The UN resolution proposes sustainable development and support of transport and transit corridors. In addition to strengthening the transport network, is creating new highways and railways as well as a number of flight and routes.

This move is part of the ‘Great Silk Road’ initiative, to revive the glory of the Silk Road by connecting Central Asia with the international market. The strategic location of the Central Asian region allows connection between East and West and North and South. In 2018, Central Asia had over 22,000 km of railways and it is expected to continue to grow. Among the most significant projects is the China-Kyrgyz Republic-Uzbekistan railway, which will connect the three countries and is expected to reduce the distance from China to Europe by 900 km. The project also will shorten the transport time for rail shipments between China and the Middle East by seven to eight days (from about 17 days between Shanghai and Dubai currently) and will generate new logistics services such as transhipment along the railway.

All three countries are member countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). This line provides an opportunity to transport goods from Lanzhou, Gansu province and Kashgar, Xinjiang province (China) via Irkeshtam and Osh (Kyrgyzstan) to Tashkent (Uzbekistan) then to Eastern Europe and the Middle East. This is one of the closest and safest routes from Asia to Europe. At the same time, the railway line is also a catalyst for the construction of transport infrastructure for Central Asian countries.

At a meeting of the Council of the Heads of the SCO Member States (Qingdao, China, 10 June 2018), it was proposed to consider the possibility of establishing an International Transport and Logistics Association of the SCO. In addition, the Qingdao Declaration of the Council of Heads of SCO Member States supported to hold the first meeting of the heads of the SCO Member States’ rail administrations in Uzbekistan aimed at promoting transport accessibility and connectivity. At a meeting of the Council of Heads of SCO Member States in Bishkek (June 2019), the President of Uzbekistan called for the development of the SCO Cooperation Strategy for interconnectedness of efficient economic and transport corridors, as well as the concept of interaction in the field of smart agriculture and the introduction of agro-innovations.

 

Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev with  Turkish President  Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan

It should be noted that the initiatives and proposals of the Head of Uzbekistan found wide support among the SCO member states. A striking example of this is the approval of the concept of interaction between railway administrations of the SCO member states, put forward by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev during a meeting of the Council of Heads of Government of the SCO States in Tashkent in November 2019. In 2018, the new Corridor Tashkent – Andijan (Uzbekistan) – Osh – Irkeshtam (Kyrgyzstan) – Kashgar (China), which connects Central Asia with China by road was opened. In addition, the Uzbek government through the logistics body known as the International Intermodal Logistic Center “Navoi” has been strategically connecting links with air logistics centers in Europe such as Frankfurt, Berlin, Brussels, Vienna and Oslo, in West Asia such as Dubai, Tehran and in Asia such as Shanghai, Delhi and Singapore.

Uzbekistan is contributing in the rebuilding of Afghanistan. In 2011, Afghanistan's first railway line, “Hayraton-Mazari-Sharif”, which connects Afghanistan with Uzbekistan, was built. The long-term impact, of the Mazari-Sharif-Herat railway, has made a significant contribution to the Afghan economy. This railway line is able to increase the volume of transported goods and trade between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. In addition, it also has the potential to connect Uzbekistan via Afghanistan to Iranian ports, including Bandar Abbas and Chabahar. Besides that, air flight between the two countries has been established. Tashkent International Airport (Uzbekistan) has become an air-hub for Afghan passengers to connect flights between Kabul to European destinations such as Berlin and London.

Thanks to the efforts of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, the new railway bridge Turkmenabat – Farab was built, connecting Central Asian countries with the Middle East. Within the framework of the Ashgabat agreement, the formation of the Russia-Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-Iran-Oman-India sub-regional transport corridor has begun. The Uzbek government has also shown a keen interest in the North-South Corridor project linking the port of St. Petersburg, Russia with the port of Mumbai, India. This route will pass through the ports of Bender-Abbas, Chakhbahar, Iran. According to President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, during the SCO Conference in Qingdao in June 2018, the North-South Corridor for Uzbekistan will allow the transportation of goods from Central Asia through Iran to the Persian Gulf. It is estimated that annually 3–5 million tonnes of cargo can be transported.

To conclude, Uzbekistan used to be known as the center of Islamic civilisation during the ancient Silk Road. Now, however, it is the center of transportation and communication in the New Silk Road connecting Asia with Europe.

 
Dr. Roy Anthony Rogers
Senior Lecturer
Department of International and Strategic Studies
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
University of Malaya