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[Special contribution article ] National Strategy Needed for Korea to Turn Central Asia into a Land of Opportunity

KF Features >  [Special contribution article] National Strategy Needed for Korea to Turn Central Asia into a Land of Opportunity
National Strategy Needed for Korea to Turn Central Asia into a Land of Opportunity Looking to the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Republic of Korea and the Central Asian regionspan

Oh Eunkyung, professor, Dongduk Women's University

The international political landscape has changed rapidly since the Biden administration took office amid a struggle for hegemony between superpowers. Both conflict between the US and Russia and the US-China rivalry continue to escalate. A growing fault line, with the US and the EU on one side and Russia, China, and North Korea on the other, is fueling concerns that the world is approaching a new cold war. At the same time, as the US rejoined the Paris Agreement and pledged to achieve carbon neutrality, the introduction of a carbon border adjustment mechanism, also known as a carbon tax, took a step closer to reality. Against this backdrop, reconfiguring existing production lines is a must for businesses to survive. Additionally, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 has made realigning economic structures inevitable for countries around the world.

As recent developments in international politics and the global economy highlight a need for restructuring, Central Asia’s significance and importance also deserve a fresh look. Notably, the US has been working to expand its influence in Central Asia to guard against China and Russia. Over the past decade, Central Asia has not ranked high on the US government’s agenda, particularly since it pulled military forces from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in 2014. However, as the role of the C5+1 forum, comprised of the US and the five Central Asian countries, comes to the fore, the US is likely to solidify its presence in the region for economic and security reasons. While the US may use potential threats from Taliban forces in Afghanistan to justify its return to Central Asia, its hidden agenda is likely to use the region as a counterweight against China.

The return of the US may be welcome news to Central Asian countries that are increasingly concerned about their growing reliance on Russia and China in economic and military spaces. In particular, Central Asian countries that participated in China’s Belt and Road initiative have become vigilant against China due to worries that its investment in Central Asian infrastructure will be used for military purposes. Previously, Central Asian countries that desperately needed aid to support infrastructure such as highways, railroads, seaports, and dams had no choice but to accept China’s intervention. Recognizing such pressing issues, the US is expected to make compelling offers to Central Asian countries such as economic collaboration projects and investments in infrastructure. In particular, with the launch of the Mirziyoyev administration, Uzbekistan has been pursuing drastic reform policies, opening up its economy to foreign investors in an effort to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) and warming up its relationship with the US.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the resulting formation of new states in Central Asia, Turkey emerged as a considerable force in the region. Turkey has since expanded its presence in Central Asia and has become the largest economic and investment partner of the Central Asian countries following Russia and China. Since the establishment of the Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States (Turkic Council) in 2010, Turkey has notably increased its influence in the region. Excluding Tajikistan, four out of the five Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) are considered Turkic countries. As the Turkic Council also includes Azerbaijan and Turkey itself, the Turkic-speaking population on the Eurasian continent is estimated to range between 200 million and 250 million people. The group of countries that form the Turkic Belt are building a cooperative solidarity system that covers a wide range of areas, such as politics, economics, commerce, logistics, culture, transportation, education, and tourism. Uzbekistan was the last to join the Turkic Council as a full member in 2019, and Turkmenistan remains an associate member state in order to maintain its UN-recognized international neutrality status. In light of this, it is difficult to predict how the profile of Turkic-speaking states will evolve over the next 10 years.

Central Asia is a key economic partner and component of South Korea’s New Northern Policy, which involves engaging with countries situated north of the Korean Peninsula. While the region has often been overshadowed by Russia and China in Korean foreign policy, US-Russian conflicts and the US-China rivalry over global hegemony underline Central Asia’s strategic importance and potential for Korea. Ahead of the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with Central Asian countries, Korea should revisit the past decades to develop a future-oriented plan for bilateral economic collaboration. Most importantly, carbon neutrality, pandemic-driven digitalization, and the transition to domestic or regional value chains present opportunities that Korea cannot afford to miss.

Most of all, as carbon neutrality is now critical for businesses and countries to address in order to stay relevant and competitive, Central Asia is well-positioned to offer opportunities in the energy and automotive sectors. Energy infrastructures warrant attention as a promising investment target, and Central Asia has an excellent environment for new renewable energy industries, such as solar photovoltaic and wind power. In the automotive industry, General Motors and Hyundai Motor Company face a pressing need to convert their assembly lines in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to electric vehicle production lines. The COVID-19 outbreak prompted Central Asian countries to ramp up their efforts toward establishing domestic or regional value chains that would enable local sourcing by fostering manufacturing industries. One such example is the commitment by Uzbek President Mirziyoyev to making Uzbekistan capable of independently manufacturing auto parts. It is also notable that Central Asian countries fully embrace digitalization as a new reality.

A thorough, systematic entry strategy is needed for Korea to take advantage of Central Asia’s transformative economic and industrial changes and turn them into opportunities. The Korean government should lead efforts to establish strategies to enter Central Asian countries and collaborate with them from a comprehensive perspective that encompasses politics, diplomacy, economics, and culture to gain a full understanding of regional characteristics and proper responses.

First of all, Central Asia has a state-led economic structure. That is, without the government’s support, it is difficult for private sector businesses to make progress, no matter how well they may have started out. There are too many obstacles to overcome, while bureaucracy, corruption, and institutional differences present too large a challenge for these private businesses to navigate. Accordingly, public-private partnership (PPP) projects in the region are often derailed when businesses fail to get financial guarantees from the government. As Central Asia remains an untapped market for Korean investors, Korea trails behind China in expanding economic partnerships with the region. For Korean businesses to win large-scale projects in Central Asia, such as the Surgil Project, a landmark integrated gas-to-petrochemicals endeavor, it is necessary for the Korean government to take the initiative in identifying and developing new projects. Additionally, a special task organization dedicated to addressing challenges and issues facing Korean businesses needs to be established in all five Central Asian countries as well as Korea. This organization must have a direct reporting line to each country’s ministerial offices in order to be fully functional.

Second, extensive research in Central Asia is needed for the Korean government to proactively identify projects and spearhead economic partnerships. Despite the need for comprehensive humanities and regional studies research, there is a dearth of Korean researchers specializing in Central Asia due to the absence of a system that would foster related experts and researchers. The government should establish such a system to support both industrial and academic researchers in the various fields needed for businesses to expand to Central Asia, including logistics, transportation, construction, law, artificial intelligence, agriculture, blockchain, and energy. That said, it is difficult to expect universities to step up, given that the very survival of many of these institutions is in danger in the face of Korea’s demographic cliff. Accordingly, the government needs to take the lead in establishing a support plan through collaboration with the private sector and academia at large.

Third, a low level of awareness about Central Asian countries also weighs on Korea’s economic collaboration with the region. As the consumption of foreign cultures in Korea is dominated by content from the US and Europe, there are few opportunities to learn about non-Western cultures. With the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with the five Central Asian countries drawing near, this is a prime time to establish a center to introduce and promote Central Asian cultures. Ideally, establishing individual centers organized by language and cultural group (for example, a Turkic cultural center, Persian cultural center, and Mongolian cultural center) would be preferable to grouping all these demographics within a single Central Asia center. A Turkic cultural center could be supported by various organizations such as the International Turkic Culture and Heritage Foundation or the International Organization of Turkic Culture (TURKSOY) under the Turkic Council. As most Central Asian countries are Turkic, forming a trans-Eurasian network spanning from Azerbaijan to Turkey would present many opportunities. As Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan are individual nation-states with different ethnicities, there are differences in their historical and cultural backgrounds. However, if both differences and similarities are skillfully presented, they can become advantages in terms of diversity. A Persian cultural center would be also meaningful given the absence of spaces that represent Persian history, culture, and countries such as Iran and Tajikistan in Korea. As for a Mongolian cultural center, although there are organizations and institutions in Korea that offer opportunities to learn more about Mongolian culture, there is still a need to put these historical and cultural resources into a more organized context.

The year 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of the independence of Central Asia from the former Soviet Union. Next year, in 2022, Korea and the five Central Asian countries will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the establishment of their bilateral diplomatic relations. In many societies, a person’s 30th year is often referred to as a point at which they know where they stand in life. And according to The Analects of Confucius, 30-year-olds are well-equipped to stand on their own two feet and lead their own way. In other words, reaching the milestone of 30 years means having the ability to develop a long-term plan by fully understanding one’s identity and being able to focus selectively. In this context, it is time for Korea to reflect on the past three decades and chart its path forward with a clear blueprint of its role as Central Asia’s partner. It is up to Korea to turn Central Asia into a land of opportunity.


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