01.04.2024 Author: Boris Kushhov

Central Asia – EU: the semi-closed gates of the “Global Gateway”

Central Asia - EU: the semi-closed gates of the

In previous articles we have looked at the process of increasing European engagement in Inner Asia through bilateral initiatives. This time, the reader will get an overview of the interaction between the parties in the framework of the European Global Gateway initiative.

On 25-26 October, Brussels hosted the Global Gateway Forum, which was soon described by journalists as “an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative”. It is noteworthy that it took place only a week after the third Belt and Road Summit, at which only Hungary was represented among the EU member states.  These circumstances suggest that while the EU and China have a clear and coinciding priority to develop continental transport infrastructure, the Europeans plan to promote it through their own projects.

Obviously, the Global Gateway project, which was initially rather abstract in geographical and sectoral terms, began to take a more distinct regional and sectoral shape soon after the first forum: the Global Gateway Investment Forum on the development of sustainable transport corridors between Europe and Central Asia was held on 29-30 October.  Representatives from some countries in the region – notably a delegation from Kazakhstan – attended the October forum, which featured an international discussion on the prospects for rare earths mining in the country, as well as hydrogen production. However, the January Forum was already specifically dedicated to projects planned for implementation in Central Asia under the Global Gateway initiative.

The EU’s interest in sectoral projects in Central Asia is clearly part of its strategy to contain Russia and China. As part of this objective, the region offers a number of opportunities: from developing Eurasian transit routes that bypass Russia and limit its foreign trade with Asian partners, to reducing Western dependence on China for supplies of strategic resources such as rare earth metals. Such perceptions are confirmed by the facts: for example, by the end of 2023, the volume of freight traffic on the China-Europe route through Central Asia doubled to 2.8 million tonnes; Kazakhstan is increasingly attracting the attention of foreign investors for the mining of rare earth metals on its territory; and the EU is refusing to participate in an equal dialogue with China and transit partners within the framework of the existing and developing Belt and Road project, inventing some alternatives or additions to it.

During the forum, a number of agreements were signed between representatives of the EU and Central Asian countries: including a memorandum on the provision of 500 million euros to Kazakhstan to ensure sustainable transport links with Europe, a memorandum of cooperation on strategic transport initiatives within the framework of the Trans-Caspian route, a number of agreements between the European Investment Bank and banks of Kazakhstan, as well as memoranda of understanding for a total amount of 1.47 billion euros between the EIB and the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and a memorandum of understanding between the EBRD and Kazakhstan in the amount of 1.5 billion euros. In total, the EU announced plans to invest up to 10 billion euros in the development of regional transport infrastructure.

As a result of the forum, it seems that the EU is focusing its infrastructure projects in Central Asia on Kazakhstan. This fact curiously contrasts with the results of the Uzbek President’s visit to China a few days earlier, during which it was announced that bilateral relations had reached the level of an “all-weather, all-round strategic partnership” and the need to accelerate dialogue on promoting the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan highway. Priority partnership with Kazakhstan in the field of transit projects is necessary for the EU for one reason – massive financial and political support for routes bypassing Russia with Kazakhstan’s participation can become a tool for the Europeans to put pressure on Kazakhstan to promote similar projects with Russia’s participation. As we know from previous articles, this republic plans to participate in the widest possible configuration of the China-Europe route, developing the infrastructure of both the northern and southern routes. On the other hand, the transit projects of the “China-Europe” highways with the participation of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, due to geographical peculiarities, do not imply the establishment of a logistical link with Russia. Why does the EU, which wants to exclude Russia from the China-Europe route, want to cooperate primarily with the country whose transit potential in Central Asia is most closely linked to Russia’s participation in the Eurasian transit? Obviously, to impose on such a country the exchange of financial aid for some projects in exchange for its refusal to promote others. Under different circumstances, Europe would pay more attention to countries in the region that are less compatible with the northern modifications of the route.

Moreover, the EU’s focus on the Central Asia-South Caucasus Trans-Caspian route, without promoting other complementary projects, excludes from this initiative Iran, which could become a significant participant in the China-Europe route, which runs along the southernmost route – through the northern regions of the Islamic Republic.

Another conviction that confirms the politicised nature of the European initiative follows from this analysis. While the concepts of the Greater Eurasian Partnership and the Belt and Road Initiative put forward by Russia and China are inclusive projects involving the maximum number of continental partners, the European Global Gateway assumes a significant role of the political agenda in determining its participants, focusing in particular on cutting off Russia, the largest Eurasian state, as well as Iran from Eurasian transport projects.

Thus, at the end of January 2024, inclusive and open Eurasian projects were challenged by the semi-closed transport and infrastructure initiative of the European Union aimed at containing one of the largest countries in Eurasia – Russia and China, which hides a large-scale political-ideological and imperialist agenda behind generous financial incentives. This fact makes it all the more urgent to develop the partnership between the EAEU and the Silk Road Economic Belt on the principles of conjugation and integration of integrations, as well as to create new links between them and the SCO. The most civilised, culturally and religiously diverse (as well as the largest and most populous) continent on earth needs more than ever depoliticised and inclusive initiatives based on the principles of equal and mutually beneficial partnership – as far removed in spirit as possible from the EU’s political adventure discussed in this article.


Boris KUSHKHOV, Department of Korea and Mongolia, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences. Especially for online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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