By Raffaello Pantucci
First published in EU Observer November 28, 2012
Picture from here
BRUSSELS – World media has been abuzz with America’s “Asia Pivot” and President Barack Obama’s groundbreaking trip to Rangoon.
But while the visit signals the importance of Asia as a strategic focus for Obama’s second administration, the same cannot be said of Europe.
This week’s visit by Catherine Ashton to Central Asia offers a possible key that could both refocus Europe on an area it has long ignored, as well as helping shift its relationship with China onto a more practical basis.
European leaders talk of paying attention to Asia and have long cultivated a “strategic partnership” with China, but there is little evidence of much of this having any relation to what is happening on the ground.
Instead, Europe remains on the sidelines as a whole new region emerges on the global stage.
It does not need to be this way. Europe has as much of a claim to be involved in Asian affairs as the United States – it just needs to find the right key.
While the regular Asian-European meeting (Asem) offers a forum in which Europe can talk with East Asian powers, it has yet to really live up to its full potential.
The EU-Central Asia ministerial this week offers an underexplored avenue that Europe could use to re-engage with a region that is crying out for outside assistance, as well as engaging with China on its neglected flank.
Central Asia is one of the ignored regions of the world.
Stuck between China and Russia and adjacent to Afghanistan, it has been relegated in global attention. Insomuch as it does figure in current strategic thinking, it tends to be as an extension of Afghanistan, with the current focus largely being on which nation to use as a staging point for leaving in 2014.
If thinking goes much beyond this, then there is some awareness that the region is rich in energy resources and is primarily Russian speaking.
But a new narrative is emerging regionally, with an old Russian-centric order increasingly being nudged aside through gradual Chinese investment.
Focused on developing its westernmost province, Xinjiang, into a gateway for Eurasia, China has built roads, rail and other infrastructure to help develop the region and connect it better to China.
The idea is not just to connect Central Asia to China, but rather to connect China through the region to Russian and European markets.
China and Europe’s visions and interests in Central Asia broadly align.
Both are eager for the region to develop and become prosperous, to see the natural wealth in the region as something to their benefit.
There are slightly different priorities underlying these decisions: for China it is key in developing its west, while for Europe more abstract regional “security, governance and energy” are the issues laid out in strategy papers.
But both recognise the potential danger of Afghan instability spilling across borders, with European member states engaged militarily in Afghanistan and both the EU and China implementing or announcing police training missions in Afghanistan.
As 2014 approaches and the need for greater focus on Central Asia is going to grow, a breach opens into which Europe has an opportunity to have its own “Asia Pivot” focused instead on China’s western flank.
This would be welcomed by Beijing, which would be eager to see Europe connecting across their common landmass, and would be welcomed by the regional powers that are eager to have as many international partners as possible.
Europe’s aim should be not just to continue to do the development work and infrastructure projects that it has long done, but rather to focus on developing its economic and trade links to the region.
Beyond this, it should develop its regional security programs aimed at helping improve border security and supporting counter-narcotics efforts.
Clearly there is a delicate balance that needs to be struck here with regards to human rights – but simply lecturing is not going to get the answers or responses that we want.
Engagement may help reduce security concerns and will enable better practices to be instilled regionally. All of which would ultimately also align with Beijing’s regional interests, offering a window for a new and productive discussion between Brussels and Beijing.
It could finally provide some meat on the bones of its “strategic partnership” with China, offering a practical outcome beyond the regular summit meetings.
Over a century has passed since Halford Mackinder presented his idea of Eurasia as the “geographical pivot of history” to the Royal Geographical Society in London.
The idea at its core remains sound and is the key through which Europe should orient its own “Asia Pivot” today.
Focusing on Central Asia as a region in which it can try to engage with China offers a new avenue to develop its key relationship in Asia and to focus on an area that is going to be increasingly important to Europe.
Europe needs a way to stay relevant in Asia – focusing on its connective tissue across the Eurasian landmass offers a currently underexplored vehicle.
Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS). His research can be found at chinaincentralasia.com