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What Explains Growing European Engagement in Central Asia?

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What Explains Growing European Engagement in Central Asia?

In recent years, the EU has shifted how it views Central Asia. That effort culminated recently with the first EU-Central Asia leaders summit.

What Explains Growing European Engagement in Central Asia?
Credit: European Council

At the end of October 2022, President of the European Council Charles Michel paid his first official visit to Astana and held a summit with the leaders of all five Central Asian states — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The EU-Central Asia leaders’ summit took place for the first time as Russia’s influence in Central Asia has been showing early signs of dwindling amid its unprovoked war with Ukraine. Michel called the summit “more than just a dialogue between two regions” and stressed that the two regions are “coming closer together and becoming more and more connected.” While in the Kazakh capital, Michel also called for greater cooperation between the EU and Central Asia, adding he was looking ahead to the Samarkand EU Central Asian Connectivity Conference planned for November 18, which his colleague, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, attended.

What is the rationale for the EU’s latest engagement with the five Central Asian countries and its call for boosting cross-border cooperation between Central Asia and the EU?

First, the EU is driven by its geopolitical ambition to adjust its status as a secondary actor in the region that straddles a strategic geographic space at the heart of Eurasia, bordering Russia to the north, China to the east, and Afghanistan and Iran to the south. Until now, the region has been largely seen through the lens of a new “great game” competition among three great powers — Russia, China, and the United States. The three have attempted to dominate the region in pursuit of their largely divergent interests by applying classic “divide and rule” tactics. Russia, with firm persistence, has attempted to maintain a strong presence in the region by forming security and economic alliances – the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). China, in turn, loaned Central Asia billions to build major import-export and energy supply connectivity projects as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that complement its economic and geopolitical ambitions. Meanwhile, the U.S. sought to encourage neoliberal institutions in Central Asian states and develop them on the path toward democracy and market economy. 

In startling contrast to these powers, the EU did not have significant geopolitical interests in Central Asia and considered the states in the region as “neighbors of its neighbors.” For that reason, the EU put Central Asia presumably into the fold of its wider European Neighborhood Policy. However, with the continuing Western “polycrisis” and growing Chinese and Russian assertiveness in Central Asia, the EU has begun to reconsider its foreign policy direction, taking into account the differences of the states in the region. This led to the adoption of the New Strategy on Central Asia in 2019, which shifted EU foreign policy from a Brussels-centric normative power to principled pragmatism and resilience.

This is guided by a series of changes in the Global Strategy for the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy (EUGS) toward identifying geopolitics as an essential if not definite factor of EU foreign policy in the 21stcentury.  Prior to her visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan on October 30, German Foreign Minister Annabella Baerbock stated that Germany does not want to see Central Asia “being straitjacketed in Russia’s front yard or being dependent on China.” This statement clearly demonstrated the geopolitical aspirations of both Germany and the EU to take part in a new “great game” to prevent the unhindered growth of Russian and Chinese influence in the region. 

Second, the EU aims to intensify cooperation with Central Asia in order to attain its geoeconomic ambitions to increase Euro-Asian connectivity — physical and non-physical infrastructure via which goods, people, ideas, and services can move freely. Although the EU has not introduced its own BRI in Central Asia, it has been deeply involved in the sphere of connectivity. In the 2007 Central Asia Strategy, the EU set a priority to establish energy and transport connections linking the two regions.

However, Brussels has been passive in actualizing the Caspian-Black Sea pipeline and an “e-silk highway,” lagging behind the Chinese BRI and Russian-led EAEU. In late 2018, the EU put forward its strategy on connecting Europe and Asia with concrete policy proposals and initiatives to improve energy, transport, digital, and people-to-people connectivity in Eurasia. The strategy states that non-engagement is not a choice for the EU while China is growing its influence in Central Asia.

By endorsing the revised strategy on Central Asia, the EU acknowledged the strategic importance of Central Asia in its global efforts to strengthen sustainable, comprehensive, and rule-based connectivity within Eurasia. To that end, the EU intended to bolster relations with the Central Asia states through a bilateral approach based on broad-based and mutually beneficial Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (EPCA), which has been underscored over the regional approach considering the unique characteristics of each and every country in the region. The EU has implemented an EPCA with Kazakhstan, and also signed a Temporary Trade Agreement with Turkmenistan. In July 2022, the EU and Uzbekistan successfully completed three-year talks and signed a new EPCA in Brussels. Furthermore, the EU’s revised strategy on Central Asia proclaims that Brussels is also committed to implementing EPCAs with the other interested states of Central Asia — Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

In late 2021, European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen proclaimed that the EU would mobilize up to 300 billion euro of investments for the launch of a new connectivity initiative — Global Gateway for 2021-2027. This ambitious project can be elucidated as a response to China’s BRI, which is now affiliated with 139 countries. It also gives signals that in the upcoming years, the EU will push forward networks with various states in different parts of the world and extend up to the Central Asian countries.

Third, the EU aims to step up cooperation on security challenges in Central Asian states and Afghanistan. It should be noted that the EU’s security interpretation is strikingly broad and entails a larger number of threats and a wider range of actors than traditional definitions. With the foreign policy shift to principled pragmatism/resilience, the EU developed a pragmatic approach to broader issues of global security underlining the impact of neighboring states and their close neighbors on the EU with respect to security, terrorism, migration, and economics. For that reason, the EU gives priority to domestic and border security in line with a pragmatic ad hoc emphasis on external powers close to Europe. In this context, it is to the strategic benefit of the EU to promote the resilience of states and societies in Central Asia.

The EU is particularly interested in enhancing cooperation with Central Asian states against such common security issues as radicalization, violent extremism, terrorism, hybrid and cyber threats, and nuclear safety and security. The EU furthermore emphasizes the significance of confronting the socioeconomic roots of radicalization. During Michel’s official visit to Astana at the end of October, the EU and Central Asian leaders remarked on the potential of cooperation in border management and security, the joint fight against terrorism, transnational organized crime and drug trafficking, migrant smuggling, and other new security threats in compliance with universal principles.

The sudden withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the subsequent collapse of the Afghan Republic government worried both Central Asia and the EU; both were concerned about Afghanistan turning into a source of threats to regional and international peace and security. Acknowledging the crucial role of Central Asia in global efforts to promote inclusive peace, security and sustainable development in Afghanistan and emphasizing that these efforts should bring advantage to the region, the EU aims to encourage closer connectivity between Central Asia and South Asia via Afghanistan.

Overall, the first official summit between the president of the European Council and Central Asia’s leaders is a crucial development in the new “great game.” The EU’s engagement is driven by its geopolitical and geoeconomic interests to prevent the unhindered rise of Russian and Chinese influence, and by its domestic concerns to tackle security challenges in Central Asia and beyond. New EU ambitions will give an opportunity to the states in the region to intensify comprehensive partnerships with the EU, which can play a positive part in the region by offering an alternative to Moscow and Beijing and assisting the Central Asian states to diversify their economies, intensify regional connectivity, and develop their societies.

In this context, the EU’s ambition to change its secondary player status seems relatively feasible. However, the EU will have to compete with Russia and China, along with other rising regional powers in the region like Turkey, India, and Iran.