21st Century Silk Road: Malaysia-Uzbek Relations

Malaysia established diplomatic relations with Uzbekistan on 21 February 1992. Malaysia was the first Southeast Asian country to recognize Uzbekistan as soon as it achieved independence on 1 January 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union (USSR). Although the two countries are separated by their geographical distance, they share similarities.

Firstly, Malaysia and Uzbekistan have a very strategic position because they are both centrally located in their respective regions. Uzbekistan borders all Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan) while Malaysia shares the borders of almost all countries in Southeast Asia. 

Secondly, both countries have been in international trade routes since time immemorial. For example, Melaka was famous as a center of Islamic trade and spread in the 15th century while Uzbekistan was also once a center of Islamic studies and civilisation. In fact, Uzbekistan has long been part of the trade route known as the 'Silk Road'. The city of Samarkand was once visited by travelers such as Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta. In addition, Uzbekistan once gave birth to famous scholars such as Imam Bukhari, Imam Tirmidhi and Abu Mansur al Maturidi in the 9th century as well as Islamic astronomers such as Ali Qushji and Ulugh Beg.

Thirdly, Malaysia and Uzbekistan have almost the same population (about 34 million people) and the majority is made up of Muslims. In Uzbekistan 90% of the population is Muslim, the remaining are Russian Orthodox Christiansand other religious groups. Nevertheless, the rights of the minority population in Uzbekistan and Malaysia are protected as citizens in both countries live in harmony with oneanother. Fourthly, both countries are also rich in natural resources such as oil and natural gas, steel and bronze.

During the Cold War, many Malaysians and Uzbeks did not know one another as a result of the Cold War politics. At that time, the people of Malaysia only knew about the USSR, but as soon as the fall of the USSR and the independence of Uzbekistan took place, Malaysia-Uzbekistan diplomatic relations were established. 

In 1993, Malaysia established its embassy in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan while the Uzbek embassy in Kuala Lumpur was established in 1999. Currently, the Malaysian Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Hendy Assan presented his credentials to the President of Uzbekistan, President ShavkatMirziyoyev in 2018. Similarly, the Uzbekistan Ambassador to Malaysia, Ravshan Usmanov delivered the credentials to the Yang DipertuanAgong in the same year. The Malaysian Embassy in Tashkent also has a joint mission with the Republic of Kyrgyzstan and the Republic of Tajikistan.

This relationship has grown exponentially over the past 29 years. In particular, reforms introduced by Uzbekistan President ShavkatMirziyoyev, who took office in Dec 2016, brought warm and friendly bilateral relations between thetwo nations to a new level and created more possibilities to further enhance cooperation in every possible sector.The reforms taking place in this country have indeed, brought New Uzbekistan to international attention, particularly reforms in the social, economical and political spheres.

Talking about the recent major achievements in bilateral relations, one can note the High-level Delegation of Uzbekistan participated in the Kuala Lumpur Summit under the theme “The Role of Development in Achieving National Sovereignty” on 18 – 21 December 2019 in Malaysia. It is important to emphasise that the Uzbek delegation was the only Central Asian countrythat was invited by the Malaysian Government to attend this High-level Event. In the framework of KLS Uzbek side met with the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohammed. The parties noted their commitment to further building up multifaceted cooperation in the political, trade, economic, investment and cultural-humanitarian spheres.

Uzbekistan is keen on the further intensification of Inter-parliamentary ties with Malaysia. In 2020 the Interparliamentary Friendship Groups have been established in the House of Representatives of the Parliament of Malaysia and Legislative Chamber of the Oliy Majlis (Parliament) of Uzbekistan. Also, in June 2020 sides held the first Interparliamentary forum on “Development of parliamentarism: The experience of Uzbekistan and Malaysia” under the chairmanship of the First Deputy Speaker of the Legislative Chamber of the Oliy Majlis of the Republic of Uzbekistan Akmal Saidov and Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives of the Parliament of Malaysia Mohd Rashid bin Hasnon.

Also, in the frame of the visit of business delegates headed by MATRDE to Uzbekistan in October 2019, the MATRADE’s Trade Office was opened in Tashkent at the Malaysian Embassy in Uzbekistan.

In addition, integrated engineering services provider SerbaDinamik Holdings Bhd secured an engineering, procurement, construction and commissioning (EPCC) contract in Uzbekistan, worth an estimated USD 250 million. The EPCC job, for a 90-tonne per day chlorine processing plant in Uzbekistan, as well as a 26MW/h steam turbine independent power plant, was secured via its wholly-owned SerbaDinamik International Ltd.

On 8 September 2020 there was a very comprehensive and productive virtual meeting between H.E. Dr. Sardor Umurzakov, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of International Trade and Investments of the Republic of Uzbekistan and H.E. Y.B. Dato' Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali, Senior Minister, Minister of International Trade and Industry of Malaysia. In the frame of the event it was covered a wide spectrum of topics and deep dived into several key areas for the enhancement of Malaysia-Uzbekistan trade ties. The Parties reaffirmed that there are more opportunities for Malaysia and Uzbekistan to work together, acknowledging the need to enhance trade between the two countries. It was agreed to revive the Malaysia-Uzbekistan Join Trade Committee Meeting. The discussion also touched on the prospect of setting up a travel and tourism bubble between Malaysia and Uzbekistan, considering the success of both countries in dealing with COVID-19 spread.

In addition, Malaysia and Uzbekistan have the potential to develop the tourism industry. Uzbekistan offers tour packages to cities that were once part of the Silk Road such as Samarkand and Bukhara. Meanwhile, Malaysia is a tourist destination for Uzbekistan’s to enjoy the tropical forests and beaches that are unavailable in their country. It is estimated that 12,000 Uzbek tourists visited Malaysia and the number of Malaysian tourists to Uzbekistan also increased from 3,000 in 2018 to 5,000 in 2019.

During the pandemic, Uzbekistan has introduced the “Uzbekistan. Safe Travel GUARANTEED” campaign.Measures taken under this campaign include a new operating system of sanitary and epidemiological safety in Uzbekistan for tourists based on world standards. In accordance with the “Uzbekistan. Safe Travel GUARANTEED” requirements, foreign tourists are even paid compensation payments in the amount of USD 3 thousand in case of infection with COVID-19 during the trip on the territory of Uzbekistan. 

The Malaysian Government through the Malaysian Technical Cooperation Programme (MCTP) has worked with Uzbek government agencies to train government employees in various areas of expertise. For instance, a total of 653 experts from Uzbekistan have been trained by MCTP. In addition, Malaysia and Uzbekistan have cooperated in the field of education. Both governments signed a memorandum of cooperation in education in 2014. At the same time, researchers from Malaysia visit Uzbekistan to study the history of the Silk Road and Islamic civilisation such as Islamic manuscripts preserved in Bukhara and Samarkand.

Moreover, now Uzbek students can further their studies from bachelor's degree to doctorateat thefirst Malaysian universityin Uzbekistan - Binary International University (BIU) established in Urgench Cityof Khorezm Region. BIU was established in collaboration with the Government of the Republic of Uzbekistanand the Malaysian Binary University of Management and Entrepreneurship. Students from Uzbekistan and surrounding Central Asian countries can pursue contemporary programmes that will enable them to acquire high-quality education, industry-relevant skills and embrace entrepreneurship skills.

In 2020, trade between Malaysia and Uzbekistan amounted to 75.8 million US dollars. This figure is expected to increase especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. Malaysia has the potential to be a gateway for Uzbekistan investors, students and tourists to the Southeast Asian region. At the same time, Uzbekistan also serves as a 'bridge' connecting Malaysia to the new Silk Road in Central Asia.

In general, a systematic analysis of the basic principles and characteristic features of the modern foreign policy strategy of New Uzbekistan under the leadership of President ShavkatMirziyoyevdemonstrates a growth of bilateral relations between Uzbekistan and Malaysia which is based on deep thoughtfulness foreign policy, productive dialogue and mutually beneficial cooperation.

By Roy Anthony Rogers, Ph.D.
Senior Lecturer
Department of International and Strategic Studies
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences,
University of Malaya