In the wake of Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s visits to Paris in 2018 and 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron paid a two-day official visit to Uzbekistan on November 1 and 2. The visit holds profound symbolism, as it coincided with the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between Paris and Tashkent. The visit’s importance resonated not only within Central Asia but also across Europe, given France’s substantial influence within the European Union (EU).
The rationale behind France’s proactive efforts to bolster cooperation with Uzbekistan and the other Central Asian nations amid intense global power competition can be understood through several key factors.
First and foremost, France is driven by its own ambition to adjust its status as a secondary actor in the strategically vital Central Asian region. The region is often viewed through a “great game” framework, with Russia striving to maintain its strong presence through organizations like the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), and China deeply embedding itself through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). France’s enhanced engagement with Central Asian countries serves as a counterbalance to ensure that no single power dominates the Eurasian region.
Second, France is keen on intensifying cooperation with Central Asian countries, especially with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, to diversify its sources of energy. Recent disruptions in global energy markets, along with political tensions, have underscored the need for France to expand its energy import partners. Central Asia, with its untapped hydrocarbon reserves, offers a promising solution. Notably, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have significant uranium reserves, with Kazakhstan being the world’s largest producer and Uzbekistan the fifth largest. Given that approximately 70 percent of France’s electricity comes from nuclear power, deepening partnerships in the region could ensure a steady supply of uranium for French reactors.
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Third, France aims to enhance cooperation with Central Asian countries to reduce risks associated with the import of critical minerals, vital for the green energy transition. These minerals are essential in the production of a wide range of technologies, from smartphones and wind turbines to rechargeable batteries for electric vehicles. Despite being relatively underexplored, Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries have the potential to assist France and other EU countries at large in reducing their heavy dependence on China for these essential minerals, thereby mitigating the risks associated with their technological advancement.
At the same time, France’s deliberate efforts to step up cooperation with some Central Asian countries on a strategic level could open up various opportunities for Tashkent across political, economic, and environmental dimensions. Strengthened ties with France offer Uzbekistan a chance to diversify its international engagement and enhance its international standing, creating opportunities for collaborative diplomacy in light of recent global trends and geopolitical developments in Eurasia. Addressing crucial regional issues can foster stability not only in Central Asia but also in Afghanistan, promoting peace in the broader region. Furthermore, political cooperation with Paris can significantly support the Uzbek government’s “Uzbekistan – 2030” strategy, outlining the country’s vision for the next seven years. France’s expressed willingness to support Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in their reform and modernization efforts aids in diversifying their international relations effectively.
In addition to political collaboration, closer ties between Paris and Tashkent could facilitate greater economic and investment partnerships. The economic relationship between the two nations has flourished, marked by a tripling of joint ventures involving French companies in Uzbekistan. With an active project portfolio exceeding 10 billion euros, French businesses are poised to boost investments in Uzbekistan’s growing sectors. This collaboration not only promotes economic growth and job creation but also facilitates technology transfer. France’s expertise in technology, smart agriculture, and tourism can help Uzbekistan reduce its dependence on traditional industries, fostering economic diversification. Moreover, France, home to leading nuclear energy companies, can assist Uzbekistan in addressing the complexities of constructing a nuclear facility. This collaboration could promise a comprehensive and enduring partnership, contributing significantly to Uzbekistan’s energy sector.
Beyond economic collaboration, Paris and Tashkent can join forces to tackle shared challenges related to water resources management. France’s expertise in sustainable water practices can assist Uzbekistan in efficient water use and conservation. Additionally, France can help mitigate the adverse effects of climate change by sharing green technologies and best practices. This support aids Uzbekistan in environmental conservation and sustainable development. Importantly, Paris can also mobilize public and private funding, particularly through guarantees and blending, to further increase investments for European initiatives like the Global Gateway on Water, Energy, and Climate.
Despite all these positive rationales, there is a persistent challenge hindering enhanced cooperation between the two countries. This is the limited capacity of the Trans-Caspian Transport Route, also known as the “Middle Corridor.” which links China and Central Asia via the Caspian Sea to the Caucasus, Turkey, and Europe. In 2022, transit volumes through the Middle Corridor witnessed an impressive surge, nearly tripling compared to the previous year. This spike in trade activity has placed considerable strain on already overburdened borders, resulting in visible delays in cross-border transport operations.
To address these challenges, France should collaborate closely with not only with Central Asian nations but also other EU countries to foster the development and prominence of the Middle Corridor. If achieved, it would reduce transit times from 38-53 days in the previous year to just 12-23 days. This would not only provide Europe with alternative optimal trade routes but also encourage the active participation of Central Asian nations in global connectivity and collaboration.
In conclusion, France’s strategic moves in Central Asia, exemplified by Macron’s visit to Uzbekistan, are driven by a multifaceted approach, aiming to balance regional power dynamics, diversify energy sources, and ensure a stable supply of critical minerals for sustainable technological development. These efforts underscore France’s commitment to fostering cooperation and stability in the region, bearing broader implications for both Central Asia and Europe. At the same time, France’s deliberate efforts to strengthen cooperation with Uzbekistan can result in a multitude of opportunities for Tashkent. By focusing on political collaboration, economic growth, and environmental initiatives, both countries can foster mutual benefits, regional stability, and global partnerships.
Looking ahead, the future prospects of the partnership between France and Uzbekistan are promising, offering mutual benefits in political, economic, and environmental dimensions. By leveraging each other’s strengths and addressing challenges collaboratively, both nations stand to gain significantly, contributing to regional stability, economic growth, and sustainable development in the years to come.