Another op-ed in the Chinese press, this time in 中文 for the Oriental Morning Post (东方早报). Looks at the question of Chinese-European cooperation on Central Asia. More detail on this topic coming soon. As usual, Chinese on top, English submission below.
Europe in Central Asia
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan has had a busy few weeks. In the space of a few weeks it has hosted a EU-Central Asia Ministerial meeting and then the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Prime Minister’s Summit. Whilst unconnected, the two high level meetings in Kyrgyzstan show Central Asia’s importance, but also the potential for the region to act as a link between China and Europe.
Currently, China is the rising power in Central Asia. Its growing investment, appetite for natural resources and development of regional institutions are reorienting the region towards China. The recent SCO Prime Ministerial Summit in Bishkek highlighted all of this as Premier Wen Jiabao encouraged Central Asian powers to take advantage of the $10 billion loan that China was extending through the SCO to encourage regional infrastructure investment. The hope for China is that the region would develop economically, and more importantly, that it would develop in a way that would help encourage development in Xinjiang.
Europe’s Ministerial meeting was far less ambitious, but highlighted once again the importance that the EU attaches to developing Central Asia. Visiting all of the regional capitals except Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, European foreign minister Catherine Ashton used the opportunity of the Ministerial meeting in Bishkek to emphasize the ‘potential to further develop our energy, trade and economic relations.’ European investment in Central Asia is currently quite limited, trapped between a lack of opportunities and a very challenging investment climate. But clearly the hope and intention is there to try to develop this connection.
Back in 2007, the EU launched a strategy for Central Asia. The paper was ambitious in its scope, and aimed to lay out a new plan for Europe to engage with Central Asia. Phrased as being an expansion of the EU’s ‘European Neighbourhood Policy’ the strategy aimed to increase and target’s the EU’s focus towards Central Asia. Nurtured and launched under a German Presidency of the EU – a member state that has always had a keen historical interest in the region – there was a great hope that it might finally help develop a more practical approach towards a set of states the EU had long overlooked.
Unfortunately, in the five years since the strategy was launched, very little has tangibly been achieved. The EU has spent considerable resources in Central Asia – something that is visible on the ground as you drive around with European Union flags on schools and development projects around the region. It has also helped try to develop border controls across the region through a special Border’s Management Program that has tried to bring modern training and methods to Central Asia’s underdeveloped border guards. But its regional footprint is still very light, with most Central Asian countries not considering the EU one of the region’s major players. Large-scale energy projects like the Nabucco pipeline have yet to get going and are trapped in endless discussion rounds.
In contrast, they increasingly see China as a major player. Over the past year, I have been to all of the Central Asian countries at least once. And in each one, officials, citizens and analysts all told me that China was the rising power in the region. What is interesting is that while they all see the growing consequence of China in the region, they all aspire to be like European states. The model offered by the EU of stable prosperity and a developed state is something that they would all like to achieve eventually and they were eager to emphasize that they would like to do business with Europe. The EU, it seems, is winning the soft power conversation on the ground in Central Asia.
But these parallel achievements by the EU and China in the region highlight the potential for a great alliance between the EU and China through Central Asia. China’s interest in the region is in essence an extension of its strategy to develop Xinjiang. The underlying plan laid out during the China Eurasia Expo is to develop Xinjiang into becoming a ‘gateway for Eurasia’ as Premier Wen Jiabao put it in Urumqi earlier this year. The idea is to develop links through Central Asia and ultimately through to Europe. This would bring prosperity and economic development to a part of the country that has thus far suffered from underinvestment and under-development. It would also finally have the effect of rebuilding the Silk Road that used to bring Europe and Asia together.
This is a plan that has great appeal to all involved. It would not only help China’s goals for regional development, but also help bring prosperity to Central Asia, and finally, help improve direct trade links between China and Europe. All of which would have the net effect of improving prosperity.
Of course, there are a number of obstacles to overcome. While people in Central Asia were often eager to highlight that China was the rising power regionally, they were equally eager to tell me stories of the dangers of Chinese domination. People in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan told stories of Chinese companies paying badly and treating workers unfairly, while Tajiks would repeatedly talk of Chinese men marrying their women. China has a great deal of soft power work to do in the region. But here is something that Chinese firms regionally could learn from their European counterparts. Hiring local staff, offering them good working conditions and establishing ways to help improve the societies in which they are working are methods that the Chinese investors in Central Asia might be able to help improve their image. Making contact with European companies regionally might be a way to try to learn some strategies they have deployed.
All of this is a very long-term game. Europe’s renewed interest in Central Asia needs to be followed up with more concerted action. But an expression of interest from China that Europe is a partner with which China would like to work with in helping regional development in Central Asia is something that could help spur greater European attention on the region. While it is cliché to talk about the New Silk Road, repaving the link between China and Europe through Central Asia could help finally bring the EU-China strategic partnership to fruition.