BAKU, Azerbaijan, December 4. On November 1 and 2, French President Emmanuel Macron made official visits to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, during which declarations were signed to expand cooperation and continue political dialogue (including the future upgrade of relations with Uzbekistan to a "strategic partnership"), and agreements were reached on issues such as continued cooperation in uranium mining and French investment in renewable energy.
A number of preliminary commercial deals were also signed, according to a report in the French online weekly La Gazette. Furthermore, France has declared a willingness to enhance development and education collaboration, with plans to continue efforts to open two French universities, increase student exchanges, and spread the French language.
Deeper engagement in the region is crucial for France and for Europe in general. Strengthening ties with Central Asia could ensure Europe's energy security, secure supplies of rare earth elements, and restore the geopolitical balance in the Central Asian region.
President Macron is the first French leader to visit Central Asia since 1994. However, collaboration in the sector of raw materials between France and the region's countries (mostly Kazakhstan) has grown rapidly during the last 30 years. TotalEnergies' investments in oil fields and close cooperation in uranium mining demonstrate this: Kazakhstan accounted for 29 percent of France's uranium purchases as of 2022, while Uzbekistan accounted for 17 percent. The war in Ukraine has fueled this reconciliation, as evidenced by the French president's recent visit, among other things. As a result, the EU and its member states have increased collaboration with Central Asian countries in energy, transportation, and trade.
The region is likewise keen on promoting cooperation, as indicated by the travels of Kazakhstan's and Uzbekistan's presidents, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and Shavkat Mirziyoyev, to Paris in November and Berlin in September, respectively.
Potential collaboration in the energy industry is one of the clear benefits of expanding the alliance with Central Asia. Notably, Kazakhstan has considerable uranium reserves and is one of the world's main uranium producers. Given that nuclear power generates over 70 percent of France's electricity, a stronger relationship might ensure a constant supply of uranium for French reactors.
In addition, the partnership could solve Europe's growing energy problems. Recent disruptions in global energy markets, combined with political tensions, have highlighted the need to diversify Europe's energy sources. Central Asia, with its untapped hydrocarbon reserves and renewable energy potential, represents an effective solution.
The primary goal of Emmanuel Macron's trip to Central Asia appears to be to expand cooperation on uranium mining and imports to France. The prospect of lower imports from Niger (the French market's second supplier in 2022), which has increased since that country's July military coup, has emphasized the importance of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In this regard, the signing of a memorandum of cooperation on vital raw material imports with Kazakhstan, as well as the President of Uzbekistan's approval of the development of geological and uranium mining operations, are practical outcomes of the visit. The agreements concluded in the renewable energy sector (a $1.4 billion wind power project in southern Kazakhstan in which TotalEnergies will participate) and transportation (a project to build an Alstom electric locomotive plant) are in the interest of French companies and concretize the priorities of the European Union in terms of cooperation with the region.
Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries are rich in rare earth metals, which are vital for the transition to green energy. These metals are essential in the manufacture of a wide range of technology, from smartphones to wind turbines and electric vehicle batteries.
Europe is currently strongly reliant on China for these essential minerals. This reliance on a single supply chain is dangerous and jeopardizes technical advancement.
France and Europe may diversify their rare metal supply chains by actively strengthening ties with Central Asian countries. This action would minimize reliance on China while also encouraging greater economic independence and resilience to potential trade crises.
Kazakhstan is preparing to organize a referendum on the construction of a nuclear power plant on its territory. Given France's deep experience in the nuclear sector, this presents an excellent opportunity for cooperation.
France, home to some of the world's largest nuclear power companies, has both the experience and technical acumen to help Kazakhstan meet the challenges of building and operating a nuclear power plant. The potential partnership promises more than just construction; it includes knowledge sharing, the implementation of safety measures, and long-term maintenance and operation contracts.
Kazakhstan's nuclear power concerns should be viewed as congruent with the Old Continent's broader goals of energy security, climate change mitigation, and regional stability. Because the EU considers nuclear power to be a critical industry for reaching carbon neutrality by 2050, Kazakhstan's ambitions may garner backing from Western partners.
Russia and China are actively seeking influence in Central Asia, an area that has historically been at the center of the so-called "Great Game." Russia has historical and commercial ties to Central Asia, as does China, which has the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and its "One Belt, One Road" plan.
A strengthened French engagement in Central Asia can serve as a counterweight to ensure that no single power dominates the region. This strategic approach serves the interests of both Europe and Central Asia.
The time has come. While Kazakhstan maintains close economic and cultural ties with Russia, its leaders have refused to condone Russia's invasion of Ukraine. On the contrary, they have called for a cessation of hostilities and the start of peace talks in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Charter.
In addition, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev emphasized that his country would adhere to Western sanctions.
In terms of specific initiatives, the promotion of new trade routes between Europe and Asia, such as the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITM), also known as the Middle Corridor, would be a significant step forward for Europe. This trade route, which starts in Türkiye, passes through the South Caucasus (Azerbaijan and Georgia) and Central Asia before reaching China, potentially diversifying and speeding up trade routes.
Transportation time along this route has been reduced from 38–53 days last year to just 19–23 days. The goal is to further reduce this time to 14–18 days. The expansion of this corridor could serve as a center for strengthening trade, cultural exchange, and geopolitical cooperation between Europe and Asia.
Beyond simply counterbalancing the influence of the great powers, France's expanding participation in Central Asia could actively contribute to the development and importance of the Middle Corridor. This not only provides Europe with alternate economic routes that can minimize transit times, but it also emphasizes Central Asia's strategic relevance as a bridge between East and West.
France may also position Central Asian countries as active players in global links and cooperation rather than as passive viewers of the larger geopolitical scene.
From the standpoint of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the recent visit by the French president has widened the Western dimension of these countries' foreign policies, which has deepened since the commencement of the Ukrainian war.
Tashkent and Astana perceive their cooperation with the West as an opportunity to boost their international standing, particularly with respect to Moscow and Beijing, while also attracting investment and modernization (in terms of technology and education). They also promote themselves as dependable and strategic raw material trading partners of the EU and its member states. This has been proven, for example, by Kazakhstan's recent role as one of France's two most important oil supplies, as well as the fast expansion of uranium cooperation with Uzbekistan. The joint venture formed in November with the French group Orano, which carried out its first uranium transportation on the eve of Emmanuel Macron's visit, is an ideal example.
As a result of the complex geopolitical situation, commodities traveling from east to west must be rerouted to different routes. And Azerbaijan's importance in this regard has only grown. The logistics and transportation cooperation between Azerbaijan and Central Asia is rapidly expanding. With EU countries increasing their need for the region's resources, Azerbaijan's position in these deliveries is becoming increasingly important. Azerbaijan is already a transit hub for Kazakhstani oil and uranium, Turkmen fertilizers, and a variety of other items. In addition to increasing relations with Central Asian countries, France and other European powers should pay particular attention to the potential Azerbaijan provides.