First Germany-Central Asia Summit. Why Does It Matter?

Central Asia map
The map of Central Asia (Credits: Ian Macky)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 34 Issue 9
Author: Giuliano Bifolchi

The Germany – Central Asia summit held in Berlin serves as a tangible testament to the European Union’s concerted efforts to forge closer ties with the Central Asian republics while strategically safeguarding against the growing influences of Russia and China.

The onset of the Ukraine conflict marked a turning point for Central Asia, rendering it an increasingly alluring prospect for foreign nations owing to its abundant natural resources and pivotal geographic location.

From the perspective of Brussels, Central Asia holds the potential to emerge as a significant energy market, capable of bolstering EU natural gas imports and providing an effective counterbalance to Russia’s dominance.

However, there remains a level of apprehension regarding the extent to which Central Asian states may support Kremlin’s endeavours to circumvent international sanctions, casting a shadow of doubt on their role in the broader geopolitical landscape.

Germany-Central Asia Summit: Background Information

On September 29th, 2023, Berlin hosts the first summit “Germany – Central Asia” which gathered together the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Central Asian leaders.

As Kazakh Presidente Kassym-Jomart Tokayev stated recently, the summit will focus on Central Asian republics’ commitment to adhere to the Western sanctions regime against the Russian Federation avoid that the region might become a Kremlin’s tools to bypass the restrictions.

This summit serves as a pivotal platform for fostering stronger ties between Germany, the European Union, and the Central Asian states to counter Russia’s influence and China’s economic expansion in the region.

Central Asia:
A Geopolitical Scenario of Previous Summits

Central Asia has emerged as a focal point in the geopolitical contestation between the United States and the European Union on one side, and Russia and China on the other.

The recent Germany-Central Asia summit, following US President Joe Biden’s meeting with Central Asian leaders in New York, marks a significant shift in diplomatic engagements between the West and the Central Asian region, catalysed by the developing situation in Ukraine.

While during the first United States – Central Asia Summit held on September 19th, 2023, President Biden refrained from explicitly mentioning Russia, the overarching context left little ambiguity. Paramount issues, such as border security, anti-narcotics efforts, and economic collaboration, took centre stage.

Biden’s emphasis on the need for further augmentation of the current $31 billion investment by US corporations in the region underscores the shared aspiration for deeper ties and mutual growth.

Recent months have witnessed a flurry of diplomatic activity, with regional leaders engaging with various foreign representatives in a series of summits and forums. These interactions underscore the strategic significance of Central Asia and serve as a clear sign of the nuanced approaches adopted by both regional and international actors in their bid to establish a local influence.

This heightened engagement highlights Central Asia’s pivotal role in shaping the geopolitical landscape, with each stakeholder vying to secure their interests and advance their respective agendas in this dynamic and critical part of the world.

For instance, on September 11th, 2023, the 10th Cooperation Forum China – Central Asia, held in Xiamen, brought together representatives and experts from China and the Central Asian republics who discussed areas of cooperation and regional development, including the digital economy, maritime routes, sister city relationships, the role of women in safeguarding intangible cultural heritage, and the automotive industry. The forum epitomised the collective commitment to fostering collaborative progress across diverse sectors of mutual interest.

In May 2023, in the city of Xi’an, Chinese President Xi Jinping met Central Asian leaders in the first “China-Central Asia” Summit cantered on a substantial investment package of approximately 3.7 billion dollars, focusing on implementing key infrastructural projects that support the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

In this context, it is worthy to mention the Central Asia + Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (CA + GCC) Summit convened on July 18th-19th, 2023, in Saudi Arabia. This summit provided a platform for assessing Gulf Arab monarchies’ projects in Central Asia and evaluating collaborative efforts in cultural and religious spheres.

Saudi Arabia, as a leading and influential nation in the Persian Gulf region and a pivotal player in the Islamic world, underscored the unifying potential of religious ties in establishing robust political, economic, and cultural connections among the participating nations. This emphasis on religious unity signifies a strategic step towards bolstering multifaceted relations between the parties involved.

In the equation, we cannot forget the Russian Federation since on October 14th, 2022, Astana hosted the first Central Asia – Russia Summit where Russian President and Central Asia leaders agreed to intensify and deepen economic contacts between their countries and emphasised the importance of cooperation on a mutually beneficial basis.

Central Asian leaders in Berlin: Why Does It Matter?

The recent meeting between German and Central Asian leaders serves as a definitive affirmation of the European Union actions to bolster its presence and sway in the region. Notably, Berlin’s aspiration to take the lead in this strategic initiative within the EU is discernible.

The EU’s overarching objective lies in fostering enhanced trade and cooperation with Central Asia, particularly in vital sectors such as energy and mining, given the region’s abundant reservoirs of oil, gas, and mineral resources.

A dual motive propels this determination: to tap into the economic potential of Central Asia and to counterbalance Russia’s growing influence, which includes Moscow’s strategic use of the region to circumvent Western sanctions. The fact that Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) further underscores their susceptibility to Kremlin’s manoeuvres aimed at evading EU economic restrictions.

However, navigating the economic landscape and countering the People’s Republic of China’s substantial presence in the region presents a formidable challenge for Brussels. Beijing’s massive investments in Central Asia, driven by its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), have significantly reshaped the economic dynamics of the region. This economic influence poses a considerable obstacle for the EU in its pursuit of economic engagement and influence in Central Asia.

Although the current goals are enhancing diplomatic and economic relations, Brussels should also consider a pressing concern in Central Asia pertaining to the complex issue of human rights. While certain Central Asian nations like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have demonstrated attempts to modernise their societies and embrace democratic principles, lingering doubts persist.

The events of 2022, including protests and demonstrations in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO), and Uzbekistan’s Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan, underscored critical challenges surrounding human rights and societal dynamics in the region.

These incidents serve as potent reminders that, despite strides towards progress, Central Asia continues to grapple with the imperative of upholding and advancing fundamental human rights principles. This nuanced dimension of the region’s political and social landscape demands vigilant attention from Brussels as it seeks to navigate its engagement in Central Asia.

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