Frank Maracchione - Uzbekistan’s agency in its relations with the People’s Republic of China

Entrance to Uzbekistan - China Frindship park, a large sand coloured building
The Uzbekistan-China friendship park was built next to one of the largest conglomerate of Chinese companies in Uzbekistan

About my PhD

My PhD project focuses on the global interactions of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), particularly in the Global South and East, and the hierarchies and power negotiations that these involve. I adopt a constructivist lens and focus on narratives of cooperation, their development, and effects. By exploring China’s relations with Uzbekistan, I investigate the processes that led to the development of common security and economic narratives by paying attention to the role and agency of Uzbekistani actors in their production. Examples of the narratives that I analyse critically are the Three Evils Doctrine that conflates terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism, as well as the use of the imaginary connected to the Ancient Silk Roads to justify commercial ties in terms of historical heritage. 

My research uses mixed qualitative and quantitative methods. I started by collecting decades of political communication from the Uzbekistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs to then analyse them through a Structural Topic Model (STM), a machine-learning method that finds latent topics from a corpus of documents. I used the STM to find nodes of change in political narratives in Uzbekistan that I explored qualitatively through in-depth interviews during fieldwork in Uzbekistan. I interviewed a variety of actors involved in Uzbekistan’s relations with China (elites from government, business, and civil society) as well as local experts on foreign policy and on China. The aim is to produce a diverse and complex picture of China’s interaction with partners in the Global South and East. Where simplistic theories of structural hierarchical power relations between China and its partners fail to understand China’s success in the Global South and East, my research fills a gap with a plurality of stories of political and economic interaction focussed on perspectives from the actors involved.

Frank Maracchione standing on a balcony in front of the Samarkand city
My visit to Samarkand, Uzbekistan, one of the most important centres along the Silk Road

Why I'm interested in this topic

This is a question that I get asked a lot. Why would an Italian researcher decide to focus their attention to relations between countries so far away that I share no cultural bonds with. I believe my interest comes from being educated in a Western environment where knowledge about histories, cultures, and politics of spaces beyond Europe and North America is developed only around Eurocentric needs and interests. Which means that entire areas of the world are understudied in the West, or treated as a proxy of other powers, or regions, considered worthy of being discussed and studied. 

My interest in Central Asia was born out during a master’s seminar I was participating to as a 26-year-old man, where for the first time I learned about the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, an organisation that focuses China’s and Russia’s attention to a region of the world, Central Asia, that I had never learned about in detail before. The reasons for which such relevant global players would decide to prioritise relations with that region and take the time to develop an organisation to do so were unclear to me. This created a desire to understand the role of Central Asia in these countries’ foreign relations. The focus on China is also related to my background in China studies and Chinese language. Uzbekistan instead was a choice dictated by the country’s very peculiar and fluctuant foreign policy during its first President Islam Karimov that made the country more interesting as compared to other regional countries. You can read about Uzbekistan’s foreign policy on my latest research article

Frank Maracchione stodd in a line of people at the institute for advanced international studies at UWED
My visit to the Institute for Advanced International Studies at UWED Uzbekistan

What's new about this work

Following from above, research on Central Asia has historically been obsessed with Russia and has looked closely at Central Asian connection with the Russian empire (in its Great Game versus the British empire), the USSR (post-soviet developments included), and the Russian Federation (with dependency or decolonial lenses). More recently, Central Asia has also been a focus region of US-led efforts in the neighbouring Afghanistan, and research has followed with a strong security focus related to counterterrorism and regional security. Finally, as China has become to be perceived as a threat to Western global role, research on China and Central Asia has boomed. For the first time the focus seems to be beyond the West, yet many of the assumptions that underlie these research agendas are similar. 

Taking from the work of Global IR scholars such as Prof. John Hobson, who’s here at Sheffield, or Prof. Amitav Acharya, I critique the Western-centrism of research on China’s relations with Central Asia, as well as the use of Eurocentric theories to explain their interactions. A core of my criticism revolves around the idea of a Western model that is opposed to a Chinese model of security and economic relations that are in conflict with each other and exert contrasting influences in the Global South and East. The objective of this work is to contribute to debunk this view of a coherent Chinese (or a Western) model of cooperation that is imposed on developing countries as a top-down narrative. Hence the focus on Uzbekistani actors and their role in shaping their relationship with plural China.

What's most interesting about my work

During my PhD I had the chance to spend time in four states in Asia (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, People’s Republic of China), as well as to live for four months in the United States as a visiting scholar at George Washington University in Washington DC and as a fellow for the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, a position that I still maintain. I was also able to present my work in around 10 conferences around the world (APSA, BASEES, ASIAC, CESS, BISA, EISA, EACS, etc). The most interesting part of my work has been the life experience that all these travels, networks, people, conferences, seminars have given me. I think these possibilities that my ESRC White Rose scholarship have granted me are a big reason why I am strongly considering staying in academia after my PhD.

Frank Maracchione stood next to a big sign reading 'I Love Tashkent'
I spent three months doing fieldwork in Uzbekistan in the city of Tashkent

The impact my research could have

I think impact is a core of my research agenda, and something I have been able to achieve through constant engagement with public institutions in the UK and Central Asia. Firstly, given the lack of empirical research on China in Central Asia, the data that I collected has been useful for developing policy papers. I am regularly called by Uzbekistan’s diplomatic institutions to comment on relations with China and to provide policy briefs for Uzbekistani institutions. I was often asked to provide information on my research to diplomats from the United States, France, and the United Kingdom. I was interviewed by local (Dunyo, UZA) and international news outlet (Voice of America, RadioTre, Der Standard), about current affairs related to Central Asia, and I was invited to roundtables organised by regional research centres. Some of my more practical findings can be read in a piece that I wrote for Eurasianet, one of the main international sources of information on Central Asia and the Caucasus. 

Moreover, I have collaborated with Global Partners Governance, a London-based NGO, in a project funded by the British government’s Conflict, Security and Stability Fund (CSSF) for which we produced a report on the effect of Russia’s war in Ukraine on China’s relations with Central Asia. I contributed to present the report to the British Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) during a dedicated panel and during the partners’ day organised in Central Asia. You can read a blog post on my experience with GPG in the organisation’s website.

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