While the economic and diplomatic benefits are evident, the real win for the EU would be in shaping a narrative of partnership and shared progress, Emil Avdaliani writes.
Last week, Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz held a landmark summit in Berlin with leaders from the five Central Asian states.
While the primary topic was how to advance regional and economic ties with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, the underlying focus was undoubtedly on geopolitics.
Relations between the Central Asian nations and Russia have deteriorated since Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, giving the five countries bigger room for manoeuvre in foreign policy.
This situation presents the EU with an opportunity to expand its ties with Central Asia and play a more prominent role in this dynamic region.
A solution to Europe's energy concerns is within reach
There are numerous advantages to Europe deepening its ties with Central Asia.
Firstly, as European countries aim to address energy security challenges, especially their reliance on Russian energy, the diversification of energy sources becomes crucial.
Strengthening ties with Kazakhstan, the largest of the Central Asian states both geographically and economically, can offer a solution to Europe's energy concerns.
Kazakhstan, blessed with abundant oil and mineral reserves, already supplies oil to the German market through the Druzhba pipeline, which starts in Russia and stretches to multiple European destinations.
Since the start of 2023, Kazakhstan has exported 500,000 tonnes of oil to Germany. After talks with Chancellor Scholz last week, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said that Astana is ready to increase supplies and make them long-term.
Kazakhstan and several other Central Asian states are also rich in rare earth metals, important for the green energy transition.
These metals play a pivotal role in the manufacturing of a vast array of technologies, from smartphones and wind turbines to rechargeable batteries for electric vehicles. Currently, Europe relies heavily on China and Russia for these indispensable minerals.
The Middle Corridor, a major inroad
Considering the intricate and at times strained relationships with China and especially with Russia, Europe should proactively seek to diversify its rare earth supply chains, and a deeper partnership with Central Asian nations could be a strategic move in that direction.
However, many supply chains and primary trade routes from Asia to Europe pass through Russia, posing potential complications if relations remain strained or deteriorate further.
Consequently, both Central Asian and European nations are keen on establishing alternative trade routes. Circumventing Russia, the Trans-Caspian Trade Route, also known as the Middle Corridor, stands out as a particularly promising conduit for enhancing trade between Asia and Europe via the South Caucasus and Kazakhstan.
Transport times along this route have been cut from 38-53 days in the previous year to just 19-23 days. The aim is to further decrease this to 14-18 days.
During his visit to Berlin, President Tokayev proposed synergising the Trans-Caspian route with the Trans-European Transport Network and the EU’s Global Gateway initiative, a worldwide strategy to compete with other global projects by investing in infrastructure projects and establishing economic partnerships.
Knocking the Kremlin off its perch
The war in Ukraine, amplified by Russia's aggressive actions, highlights the urgent need for Brussels to reinforce its strategic alliances, especially in a region traditionally under significant Russian sway.
By deepening relations with Central Asian nations, Europe not only expands economic and political cooperation but also strategically counters Russia's dominance, achieving meaningful geopolitical advantages.
Kazakhstan, notably, has expressed a keen interest in broadening its ties with the West.
While it maintains close economic and cultural connections with Russia, Kazakhstan has refused to support its neighbour’s invasion of Ukraine, instead calling for an end to hostilities and the commencement of peace negotiations in line with the principles of the UN Charter.
In his discussions with Scholz, Tokayev emphasised that Kazakhstan would abide by Western sanctions imposed on Russia.
Igniting a game of dominance should be off the table
However, while Europe can capitalize on the current situation, it must remain aware of Central Asia’s complex geopolitical landscape.
The EU should steer clear of igniting a new “Great Game” for dominance in Central Asia, as no nation wants to be perceived merely as a pawn.
It’s important to recognise that displacing the influence of Russia and China entirely isn’t just unfeasible but might also not be in the best strategic interest of the Central Asian countries.
Given its geographic position and historical ties, Central Asia will invariably aim to keep balanced relations with its major neighbours.
Tokayev, for example, recently said that Kazakhstan will continue cooperation with its major allies on all strategic issues, in line with its “multi-vector” foreign policy.
Central Asia’s approach to fostering positive ties with all major players can eventually promote stability and collaboration across the broader Eurasian region.
And while the economic and diplomatic benefits are evident, the real win for the EU would be in shaping a narrative of partnership and shared progress.
Such an inclusive and collaborative approach might just be what Central Asia is looking for.
Emil Avdaliani is a Professor at the European University in Tbilisi and Director of the Geocase think tank.
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