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Competing Digital Futures: Europe and China in Central Asia’s Tech Development

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Crossroads Asia | Diplomacy | Central Asia

Competing Digital Futures: Europe and China in Central Asia’s Tech Development

Both the EU and China aim to establish technological leadership in Central Asia, but their focuses differ. 

Competing Digital Futures: Europe and China in Central Asia’s Tech Development
Credit: Depositphotos

China and the European Union are interested in developing digital infrastructure in Central Asia to enhance economic cooperation and regional connectivity, and facilitate trade and market access. To achieve this, China is actively implementing the Belt and Road Initiative, and the EU has been cooperating with Central Asian countries since 2022 through projects launched under the Global Gateway Initiative. 

Additionally, both aim to expand their geopolitical influence and establish technological leadership by promoting their own standards and technologies​. While the EU’s approach is known for its transparency and emphasis on human rights, it faces challenges competing with China’s extensive and rapid investments. 

China’s geographical proximity and willingness to make large investments have given it a significant advantage. Moreover, the EU’s focus on democratization and human rights may resonate less with governments in the region. This article will examine Chinese and European perspectives on the development of digital infrastructure in Central Asia, and provide insights into the potential competition and cooperation between the two actors for influence in this field.

China: Proximity and the BRI

Geographic isolation and a lack of feasible trading partners have made several Central Asian countries more susceptible to dependence on China and this extends beyond trade into development. These countries are particularly interested in cooperating with China through initiatives such as the BRI, and its Digital Silk Road, aimed at developing digital connectivity, seen as a necessity for modern and future economies.

The landlocked nature of Central Asia disconnects it from large fiber optic cable networks, making quality broadband extremely expensive. As of 2021 only 38 percent percent of people in Kyrgyzstan had access to the internet, and a similar number lived below the poverty line. The country’s lack of connectivity acts as a critical obstacle to the potential of development projects. 

Huawei has accounted for 80 percent of Kyrgyz communication networks and provides 90 percent and 70 percent of the hardware for two of Kyrgyzstan’s top telecommunications companies, Sky Mobile and Alfa Telecom, respectively. In 2019, China National Electronics Import and Export Corporation (CEIEC), which provides defense and security solutions to foreign markets, gave free facial recognition cameras to the Bishkek city administration, with enough capacity to cover every street in the city.

In 2018, Bishkek’s Committee on Information Technology agreed to a deal with Chinese firm Shenzhen Sunwin and Russian tech firm Vega to install facial recognition cameras throughout the city. CEIEC then built a police command center and China-based IZP Group followed up by installing a data center – both in Bishkek. China’s top facial recognition companies, Hikvision and Dahua, have cameras set up throughout Bishkek as well. Huawei also provided the 5G network that connects the city’s data and servers. 

Bishkek’s entire digital security network is funded and managed by international firms, predominantly China-based, giving Chinese tech companies a monopoly on the surveillance industry in Kyrgyzstan. This dominance makes it challenging for domestic Kyrgyz companies to establish the technology to operate within the system.

As part of the BRI’s Digital Silk Road initiative, the Chinese government subsidizes many tech companies. Notable Chinese tech firms like Huawei, Hikvision, CEIEC, and Dahua have supplied Central Asian countries with connectivity solutions. These solutions encompass AI, nanotech, quantum computing, cloud computing, smart cities, and big data to drive forward innovative development. In Kazakhstan, like Kyrgyzstan as noted above, digital technologies are used for “Smart City” programs to improve public services and traffic control, with significant involvement from Chinese companies like Hikvision.

The EU: Promoting Multi-directionality, Connectivity, and Sustainability

Back in 2022, the European Union launched two flagship projects under the Global Gateway initiative, one of which was focused on the development of digital connectivity in Central Asia. The initiative seeks to increase access to secure internet for businesses and citizens in Central Asia through reliable satellite connectivity. The EU will finance at least 40 million euros toward technical management assistance and infrastructure investments, with additional participation from member states and international financial institutions. Technical assistance will support the development of governance in the countries, including telecom reform, cybersecurity, and personal data protection. Ground stations with integrated internet exchange points and green data centers will be deployed in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan and connected to existing broadband infrastructure.

The European Union has aimed to position itself as a partner that contributes to the diversification of Central Asia’s external relations. In the article “Central Asia’s growing importance globally and for the EU,” EU High Representative Josep Borrell highlighted that Central Asia seeks to diversify its relationships and views the EU as “a partner of choice.” In the same article, Borrell noted that the EU should deepen ties with Central Asia and utilize the huge potential it has to offer in terms of energy supplies, critical raw materials, and new transport corridors that do not depend on Russia.

Digital connectivity plays a crucial role in diversifying and strengthening the relationships Central Asian countries have with external partners, particularly the EU. Enhanced digital infrastructure facilitates smoother and more efficient communication, trade, and governance, which are essential for economic development and integration into the global market.

In a joint declaration “EU-Central Asia Connectivity Conference: Global Gateway” from November 18, 2022, promoting diversified transport routes was emphasized as key to strengthening connectivity between Europe and East Asia via Central Asia. This diversification not only improves trade and logistics but also supports energy security through the development of alternative energy supply routes. The declaration underlined the EU’s commitment to supporting sustainable development in Central Asia, with a focus on enhancing transport infrastructure and digital connectivity to create more resilient and integrated economies.

Thus, digital connectivity is seen as a foundational element, enabling Central Asian countries to become more competitive and less dependent on a limited number of partners. By improving digital infrastructure, these countries can better attract investments, facilitate trade, and ensure that their development pathways are sustainable and inclusive, aligning with the EU’s and China’s broader goals for the region.

Competition and Cooperation Dynamics between China and the EU in Central Asia

China’s geographic proximity and its ability to make large investments quickly provide it with a significant advantage over the EU. Chinese projects often proceed at a faster pace, which is attractive to Central Asian governments seeking rapid development solutions. The BRI is a prime example of China’s large-scale investment strategy that has financed numerous infrastructure projects, including highways, railways, and digital networks.

In contrast, the EU’s investments, while substantial, involve more procedural rigor and lengthier timelines. The EU’s Global Gateway initiative aims to mobilize 300 billion euros by 2027 for global infrastructure projects, including digital connectivity in Central Asia. However, the initial commitment for digital connectivity in Central Asia is 40 million euros, which includes both technical assistance and infrastructure investments​​. The EU’s approach, while ensuring sustainable and inclusive development, does not match the rapid scale and speed of Chinese projects.

The EU emphasizes high standards of governance, transparency, human rights, and sustainability in its projects. This approach aligns with the EU’s broader principles and aims to foster inclusive and sustainable development. For example, the EU’s initiatives in Central Asia include support for telecommunication reform, cybersecurity, personal data protection, and the establishment of green data centers​. The focus on regulatory frameworks and human rights is intended to ensure that digital development is robust, sustainable, and aligned with international standards.

However, these high standards may not resonate as strongly with the less democratic regimes in Central Asia, which may prefer China’s less conditional approach. China’s investments often come with fewer political and governance-related conditions.

Both the EU and China aim to establish technological leadership in Central Asia, but their focuses differ. China emphasizes the deployment of hardware and infrastructure, such as advanced communication networks and surveillance systems. Huawei’s deployment of 5G networking, facial recognition technology, and data centers in Central Asia illustrates China’s focus on providing cutting-edge technological solutions quickly. The EU, on the other hand, focuses on developing robust regulatory frameworks and promoting sustainable development practices, alongside digital governance, green technology, and cybersecurity.