ASTANA – Global transformations are opening new horizons for Central Asia. Countries are interested in establishing relations with the region to access its vast resources. Meanwhile, Central Asian states heavily rely on Russia and China, said analytical journalist Mark Temnycky in an interview with The Astana Times.
“The five Central Asian states are now slowly distancing themselves from Russia and China. They are now seeking to build new partnerships with other countries. The United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union seem keen on establishing relations with Central Asia,” he said.
The interest in cooperation, the expert noted, is driven by the vast resources of the region – natural minerals, rare earth elements, and agricultural production.
Temnycky is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, the Washington-based think tank. The center’s activities are aimed at enhancing transatlantic cooperation and promoting democratic values in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Türkiye in the West to the Caucasus, Russia, and Central Asia in the East.
Russia and China’s influence on the political and economic portrait of Central Asia
Over the three decades of independence since 1991, Central Asian states have strengthened a unified perception of shared values and objectives and continue to overcome remnants of the past.
“The challenges, such as continued corruption and power struggles have prevented governments from reaching their full potential. Ongoing Russian meddling and Chinese influence have also undermined the work in these states,” said Temnycky.
“For example, Russia is now trying to force Central Asia into a gas union. It wants to increase its energy clout. At the same time, China is hoping to expand its energy partnership with Central Asia so that the five countries become dependent on China,” he added.
Russia is the undisputed leader in the number of enterprises with foreign capital in Kazakhstan with nearly 20,000 companies operating in the country.
As for the bilateral trade turnover, it hit a record high of $27 billion in 2022, with direct investments from Russia exceeding $20 billion.
“China is starting to boost its trade relations with Central Asia. The Chinese are also the region’s largest gas consumer,” said Temnycky.
China accounts for 21% of Kazakhstan’s foreign trade turnover. Bilateral trade between January and August in 2023 hit $19 billion, 22.6% higher compared to the same period in 2022.
Apart from that, Kazakhstan and China opened a new chapter in cooperation by establishing visa-free travel last November.
Recent events, however, have seen the Central Asian states slowly distance themselves from Russia and China, according to Temnycky.
“Stiff sanctions imposed by the international community on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine have seen Russia’s economy decline. Russia’s war has also undermined economic development in key markets. In a surprise turn, Central Asian states have even provided humanitarian, medical, and financial aid to Ukraine during the war,” said Temnycky.
Temnycky noted that at the 24th EU-China summit in Beijing last December, the EU stressed the importance of achieving a more balanced economic relationship.
“The Europeans want to see the Chinese take a more concrete action to improve market access. Despite the economic relations, the Europeans and the Chinese have different world views. The EU is assisting Ukraine in its fight for democracy and sovereignty, while China is aiding Russia. The Europeans also oppose China’s activity in Southeast Asia,” he said.
The expert paid particular attention to the growing Turkic unification. The heads of Turkic states regularly review the collective responsibility of the Turkic world in addressing international challenges.
The Organization of Turkic States (OTS) is seeking to unite Europe and Asia, he said.
“The organization is working to improve national security between Europe and Asia and enhance border security. The OTS explores ways to strengthen energy security. Finally, Central Asian states are increasing their trade relations with countries in Europe,” said Temnycky.
The territory of the OTS countries, brimming with vast economic opportunities, is home to 260 million people. Last year, trade turnover between the Turkic states surpassed $22 billion.
Central Asia’s global partnerships
The EU remains Central Asia’s main trading partner. Data from the European Commission indicates that EU goods imports from Central Asia continue to increase (by 67% in 2022) and exports from the EU to Central Asia also grew (by 77%) in 2022.
“The Europeans are committed to build a stronger partnership with countries in the region. Energy and raw materials are major imports from Central Asia to European countries. Meetings between officials from both sides have stressed the importance of continued relations,” he said.
The EU and Central Asia continue to expand dialogue, seeking touchpoints in critical mineral development and forging sustainable solutions in energy and transport. Kazakh and European experts continue to explore cost-effective and sustainable supplies of critical raw materials and decarbonization of energy production.
China was the third largest partner for EU exports in 2022. “China was also the largest partner for EU imports. The Europeans, however, will seek to expand their trade by enhancing its relationship with Central Asia,” noted Temnycky.
Central Asia’s efforts to build relationships with other countries throughout the world keep bringing new opportunities for the region, particularly for its greater integration.
The inaugural C5+1 summit of five Central Asian leaders and United States President Joe Biden in September last year outlined prospects for economic collaboration.
“During the session, the participants established a new business initiative to complete diplomatic engagements. The United States expressed its interest in investing and developing Central Asia’s energy structure. Both sides will expand energy export routes,” said Temnycky.
As part of the meeting, Biden expressed gratitude to Central Asian leaders for their regional security cooperation and pledged ongoing collaboration in border security, counterterrorism, and law enforcement.
“Finally, the United Kingdom has stressed the importance of enhancing its relationship with Central Asia,” noted Temnycky.
The journalist mentioned the report published by the House of Commons Committee on Nov. 10 last year.
“It concluded that the U.K. cooperation with Central Asia would defend the region’s independence from China and Russia. The report also called for the British government to help Central Asian states in their anti-corruption initiatives,” he said.
“We encourage the government to lead by example in terms of closing off opportunities for entities involved in sanctions evasion to use the City of London and U.K. services. We also encourage the government to simultaneously work with Central Asian economies to reduce the dependence of their economies on that of Russia in the medium- to long-term,” stated the report.