Asia & Pacific

Why EU’s Plan to Sideline Russia and China in Central Asia is Sad Joke

EUWhile acknowledging the region’s longstanding ties to Russia and China, the European bloc wants to expand its influence in Central Asia. What could the union offer in exchange?”The European Union (EU) is trying to gain some influence in Central Asia while Russia is involved in the Ukraine conflict,” Dr. Mamdouh G. Salameh, an international oil economist and global energy expert, told Sputnik. “Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, who visited Kazakhstan on November 17-18, is trying to drive a wedge between Russia and the Central Asian countries, but he will fail miserably. The reason is that the Central Asian countries have huge mutual economic and security and energy interests with Russia, which are vital for their development and economic prosperity,” the energy expert continued.Last week, Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, visited Kazakhstan and attended the EU-Central Asia Ministerial Meeting and the EU-Central Asia Connectivity Conference in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. In the aftermath of his charm offensive, Borrell declared on November 20 that even though Russia and China continue to play an important role in Central Asia, the EU is ready to step in and enhance ties with the region.According to him, the EU is willing to develop new transport corridors bypassing Russia, as well as outpace China in terms of investments. “In the past ten years, the EU has invested more than €100 billion in the region, making us the biggest source of foreign direct investments (FDI), well ahead of Russia or China,” bragged Borrell. For comparison’s sake, total Chinese investment in Central Asia was valued at $40 billion at the end of 2020, of which $21.4 billion went to Kazakhstan, according to the Chinese state media.”The EU can offer Central Asian countries direct investments and loans,” suggested Demostenes Floros, senior energy economist at CER-Centro Europa Ricerche and contract professor of the Master Italy-Russia International Relations, University of Bologna. “In particular, European entrepreneurs are ready to transfer or internationalize their productions in those countries.”Speaking to the European press, Borrell reflected on the EU’s new connectivity strategy, dubbed Global Gateway. According to the EU foreign policy chief, it’s the bloc’s way of “showing political presence and ambition” in Central Asia. He also hinted that Global Gateway is meant to become the China-led Belt and Road Initiative’s (BRI) contender.However, the European media admits that Global Gateway’s €300 billion in investments is by no means enough to counter-balance China’s ambitious multinational BRI. On the other hand, this summer, China pledged to step up trade and investments to Central Asia and even open its domestic market to more goods and agricultural products from the region.

"The EU has (…) to contend with China’s huge energy, trade interests and investments in Central Asia," said Salameh. "The EU is after gas and oil resources of the region, but China is already well entrenched in the region and already buying the bulk of the region’s oil and gas exports. Moreover, the Central Asian countries share land borders and oil and gas pipelines with both Russia and China (…) oth Russia and China are the natural partners of the Central Asian countries. Russia has been for years providing employment for Central Asian labor, goods, raw materials, security and routes for their gas and oil exports (…) The EU can never ever provide such partnership and such markets to the Central Asian countries."

WorldEU Supports Creation of Central Asia Transport Corridors Independent of Russia – Borrell21 November, 02:15 GMT

EU: Central Asia’s Fair-Weather Friend

According to observers, the EU started to enhance ties with energy producers only after severing ties to Russia and imposing an energy embargo on Moscow over the latter’s special military operation to demilitarize and de-Nazify Ukraine. Earlier this year, Brussels officials tried to curry favor with African hydrocarbon producers as anti-Russia sanctions backfired on the European bloc, exacerbating the energy crisis and accelerating inflation.If the EU is indeed inclined to build longstanding energy partnerships with Central Asia’s nations, it should invest heavily in the infrastructure necessary to ship those commodities out of the landlocked region, according to Dr. Gal Luft, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security and a senior adviser to the United States Energy Security Council.

"Big investment is needed to build a trans-Caspian pipeline for oil and gas, [the] expansion of the Middle Corridor via Turkey and Azerbaijan, expansion of energy production capacity and storage and logistical facilities," said Luft. "This is what the region needs to become part of Europe's economic system. Of course, Europe can offer all kinds of perks to make Central Asian countries feel more accepted and important, but at the end of the day, investment is all that matters."

The scholar highlighted that Central Asia has been trying to export its energy to Europe for decades with limited success, adding that the regional players “are skeptical of the EU’s promises and declarations and will be waiting to see if they can be backed by real action before they take a step back from Russia.”Luft expects that after the Russo-Ukrainian conflict is settled, the EU will shift goalposts again and “go its way or find an energy remedy in Iran or Africa.” In contrast to EU bureaucrats, Russia will always remain Central Asia’s front yard, the scholar noted, adding that Central Asian countries know this and will calculate their moves accordingly.

"Central Asian leaders recognize that the EU and western countries in general are fair-weather friends who are merely looking for alternatives to Russian oil and gas supplies," echoed Salameh. "They, therefore, don’t trust them to deliver on their promises. Their dealings with the Arab world, Africa and Latin America speak volumes of their self-interests and hypocrisy."

In addition, “everyone is waiting to see how well Europe will hold this winter and whether its economic difficulties will change its stance on Ukraine,” Luft remarked and asked rhetorically: “Who even knows if ten years from now there will even be an EU?”RussiaLavrov: Russia Doesn’t See Central Asia as ‘Arena for Geopolitical Confrontation’5 May, 12:45 GMT

‘EU is Not Leader in International Affairs’

Moreover, the EU is not regarded as an independent entity capable of exercising strategic autonomy, which makes it even less reliable in the eyes of Central Asian countries, according to Salameh.”[The EU] has so far failed miserably to get itself from under the feet of the United States,” the energy expert underscored. “It has let itself be dragged by the United States to a conflict where it has no vital interests, thus deepening the disastrous energy crisis that has been enveloping it since January 2021. So, Mr. Borrell’s advice to Central Asia to develop its strategic autonomy from Russia will be ignored.”The EU has yet to propose anything substantial to Central Asia, and it’s unclear whether it could come up with new long-term solutions for the region, especially given the bloc’s current deplorable economic situation, which includes soaring inflation, energy crisis, and a recession.Earlier, the European External Action Service said that the EU had launched a new Sustainable Energy Connectivity in Central Asia (SECCA) project worth $7 million, aimed at enhancing energy efficiency and promoting renewable energy. However, it appears to be “one of those gimmicks which western countries come up with when they want to con other developing countries and give them the impression that their only concern is to help them with improved technology,” according to Salameh.”$7 million for the entire region is a sad joke,” noted Luft. “Almost an insult. It reveals the way Europe is operating: making big statements on this and that, only to be followed by pittance.”Salameh expressed doubts that EU policymakers “will have the foresight, and crucially, the political will, to promote substantive engagement with the region, rather than continuing its current approach of flimsy, empty initiatives.” According to the energy expert, “the EU will always be a follower, not a leader in international affairs.”

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