EU’s increased involvement in Central Asia to compete with China and Russia

The EU and the CARs have been obliged to reevaluate their foreign policies in relation to the sovereignty, security, and stability of the area as a result of the geopolitical and security crises.

In Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan, on June 2, 2023, Charles Michel, president of the European Council, had a second regional high-level conference with the presidents of state of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and the vice chair of Turkmenistan. The summit evaluated the relationship between the EU and Central Asia as well as the effects of world events since the first gathering in Astana, Kazakhstan, in 2022. Numerous EU commissioners, the High Representative (foreign minister), as well as the defense, foreign, and prime ministers of European Union (EU) nations—Germany, France, and Italy—have all made high-level trips to the area since 2022.

The EU leverages its leadership position in renewable technology, trade, international regulatory frameworks, peace-building, regional integration, and societal development in its visits, which are much more understated than the showmanship and extravagant visits made by China to the Central Asian Republics (CARs). These visits are ongoing, growing, and come with significant policy instruments.

The EU and Central Asia have since had high-level meetings in an effort to forge ambitious, forward-thinking, and complementary ties.

The geopolitical and security dilemma, which includes the war in Russia and Ukraine and the looming danger in Afghanistan, has compelled the CARs to reconsider their foreign policy with reference to the sovereignty, security, and stability of the area.

EU outreach through CARs
In order to create their own “strategic autonomy” in connectivity, commerce, and security, CARs welcomed the EU as a partner in 2022. The EU and Central Asia have since had high-level meetings in an effort to forge ambitious, forward-thinking, and complementary ties. Germany and France, two EU members, have placed a special emphasis on this concept, however this is depending on how they define “strategic autonomy” and “strategic sovereignty.”

In order to enhance social and economic cooperation with CARs after the establishment of autonomous CARs after the fall of the USSR, the EU negotiated Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PCAs). Even though PCAs didn’t make much headway until 2001, the US-led conflict in Afghanistan gave EU-Central Asian ties a much-needed boost. The EU assisted the area in addressing issues like terrorism and narcotics coming from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region by using CARs as the transit route for supplies to Afghanistan for NATO soldiers. It also placed a strong focus on democratization, the rule of law, and human rights, which often alarmed authoritarian governments in Central Asia, especially in the wake of events like the Tulip Revolution and the turmoil in Andijan. As a result, the authoritarian Central Asian regimes and the EU’s emphasis on institutionalizing good governance have had a complicated relationship.

The EU assisted the area in addressing issues like terrorism and narcotics coming from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region by using CARs as the transit route for supplies to Afghanistan for NATO soldiers.

Interstate ties have been harmed by the demonstrations in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in January and July 2022, as well as the disputed boundaries between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which have compelled CARs to take regional integration more seriously. By looking into partnerships with the EU to support regional goals and build inter-institutional decision-making structures, integration vehicles, and intra-trade, the CARs have adopted a multi-vector foreign strategy to enhance “strategic autonomy” and reduce Russia’s and China’s influence. The EU has reacted by increasing communication, finance, high-level visits, and institutional knowledge sharing while maintaining a quiet but steadfast commitment to cooperation in areas like border and conflict resolution.

The new CAR strategy for the EU in 2019 placed a strong emphasis on regional integration, sustained, all-encompassing connectivity, and connectivity based on rules. The EU’s regional participation was further strengthened by the geopolitical concerns for beyond 2022. The EU has established itself as a beneficial trading, investment, and connectivity partner for the CARs. As opposed to this, CARs have given the former access to dependable sources of vital raw materials, connectivity to East and South East Asia, and supply-chain hubs with potential connections to the Middle Corridor, also known as the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR).

For regional cooperation and integration, the EU has set aside US$150 million from 2021 to 2024, with a focus on co-financing projects for the region’s digital connectivity (including satellite), hydrogen, and hydrocarbon energy through international financial institutions, member states (Team Europe), and existing Global Gateway funds. As part of the CAREC digital strategy 2030, CARs are working to improve cross-border freight movement via automated payment systems and encourage paperless information through e-logistic platforms, which they hope will increase bilateral commerce and investment between the EU and Central Asia.

The new CAR policy from the EU placed an emphasis on regional integration, collaboration for peace and security in Afghanistan, and comprehensive, sustainable, and rule-based connectivity.

The Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRACECA), which manages the Middle Corridor’s construction, needs more EU money, according to several senior EU officials and neighboring nations like India and Turkey. The Middle Corridor’s current commerce and transportation routes in the area were put under pressure by the Ukraine conflict. This tunnel efficiently carries 75,000–100,000 TEU (20-foot equivalent unit) without going via Russia. An investment of 18 billion euros in the Middle Corridor, targeted at regulatory harmonisation, shipbuilding facilities, improved and more efficient connection points, reduced red tape, and intra-regional and Central Asian customs harmonisation, can increase its full capacity beyond 600,000 TEU, according to a recent impact assessment by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

From a security perspective, the EU and CARs are coming to similar conclusions about the worsening situation in Afghanistan, particularly in regards to the human rights of women and ethnic minorities, preventing radical terrorism, and promoting an inclusive Kabul administration. From its strongholds in northern Afghanistan, the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISKP) and other militants launched rocket strikes on Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in 2022. On the tense Tajikistan-Afghanistan border in April 2023, Tajikistani authorities killed two militants and confiscated a large number of automatic firearms.

Furthermore, the presence of terror organizations with roots in Central Asia, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), Jamaat Ansarullah, and terrorists from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan within the ranks of ISKP and al-Qaeda in the Af-Pak area, has raised concerns in the CAR and EU.

From its facilities in northern Afghanistan, the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISKP) and other organizations launched rocket assaults against Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

The existence of terrorists in the Af-Pak area also presents a security danger to the EU given its increased connections with CARs and regional interests. The EU Parliament has circulated several internal memos calling for a more security-oriented stance through mechanisms like the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) or other monitoring and training missions in light of the serious and direct consequences of terrorism, conflict, forced migration, and terror spillover to the entire region, including the EU.

Hegemony between China and Russia in concert
While China and Russia have chosen a completely different approach, prioritizing short-term interests, security, and investments above the long-term stability, economy, and governance of the area. Russia assumed security responsibility for the area under a paradigm of mutually beneficial cooperative hegemony, while China expanded its hegemonic economic influence via the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Additionally, China exploited the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) to take advantage of the strategic position and resources of the area for its own narrow interests without taking co-ownership principles into account, leaving CARs under debt stress. China pursues its territorial ambitions and reduces security risks in Xinjiang, the nation’s most turbulent and militarized western region, via BRI projects. Due to China’s BRI debt trap, there are now worries that poorer nations like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan may be compelled to give Beijing more strategic control over their assets in the event that they weren’t able to pay back their loans.

However, given their centuries-long cultural and religious links to Xinjiang, the general people of Central Asia have become more critical of China as a result of its oppression of its Uyghur Muslim minority. More than 150 anti-China rallies have taken place in CARs since 2015, with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan seeing the most. In order to portray Beijing as a partner in the area rather than a hegemon, Chinese President Xi Jinping convened the China-Central Asia Summit (C+C5) in May 2023. The China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) railway line is one of the proposed aspects of the US$15 billion investment, trade, and cooperation agreement with Uzbekistan that was signed after the C+C5.

Poorer nations, such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, may be compelled to give Beijing more strategic control of their assets under BRI’s required contractual requirements if they fail on loan repayment, according to worries highlighted by China’s BRI debt trap.

While rising anti-Chinese sentiments sparked instability, Russia’s aggressiveness against Ukraine compelled CARs to reevaluate their reliance on Moscow for security. At this point, regional security, sovereignty, and territorial integrity are all perceived as being threatened by the Kremlin. Most people in Kazakhstan attribute the current conflict to Russia. The same is true in Kyrgyzstan, where the younger generations are increasingly placing the blame on Russia and seeing Ukraine as the victim of Russia’s expanded security ambitions and neocolonialist policies.

EU-CAR goodwill serves India’s best interests.
The partnership between the CARs and the EU is based on common strategic values. The CAR’s increased emphasis on strategic autonomy is consistent with India’s position not to take a side in the developing superpower competition of the twenty-first century. The EU’s interest in the Middle Corridor also aligns with India’s ambitious ambitions for the North-South Trade Corridor.

The CAR’s increased emphasis on strategic autonomy is consistent with India’s position not to take a side in the developing superpower competition of the twenty-first century.

Political reforms are constantly changing the CARs. Many of countries, like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, have enacted populist constitutional amendments, proving their ambitions for a stronger legal system and eventual democratization. Since it competes with value-free China and Russia, the EU may lead convergence on these political and economic changes, but it should proceed cautiously. It should also take into account CAR’s justifiable worries about regional instability. The EU’s Central Asian strategy must be aligned with its new due diligence laws, prioritize the rule of law, the environment, and workers’ rights, while also ensuring significant investments in new regional supply chains. It must also concentrate on the pragmatic, commercial, and stability-inducing forms of democratization.

From a security, democratic, and commercial standpoint, partners like India are well-positioned to assist the EU and CARs’ new policies, particularly given that all players now value independent and strategically autonomous policymaking.