French President Emmanuel Macron spent last week in Central Asia, courting trade relations with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in the interest of boosting France’s energy security. Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are naturally rich in the uranium that France depends on to keep its nuclear-heavy energy industry running, and Macron is highly invested in diversifying the country’s uranium supply chains in order to ensure that turbulent global geopolitics don’t leave his country in the dark.
As global support for nuclear power grows as the urgency of climate change mitigation grows – and the recent memory of the Fukushima nuclear disaster fades – global demand for yellowcake uranium is sharply increasing. In fact, global demand recently hit a ten-year high, and prices have risen accordingly. In the midst of this increased competition for existing uranium supply chains, France had a recent scare with one of its most important sources of the resource when a coup in Niger interrupted uranium production in July.
As a result, France is seeking to strengthen its trade relationships in uranium-rich Central Asia in order to diversify its supply in the interest of greater energy security – although, it must be noted, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are run by autocratic governments, and not often associated with political and economic stability. In return for increased cooperation with France, those countries – and especially Kazakhstan – seek greater knowledge-sharing with Europe so they may build up their own nuclear power sector.
As nuclear power grows in the West and global demand for Uranium surges, strengthening multiple uranium supply chains is essential for energy security on the whole, but it’s also essential for avoiding a return to Moscow’s long arm of energy influence. On the whole, the global nuclear resurgence has been great news for Russia, which controls much of the world’s uranium production and refining capacity. According to the Royal United Services Institute in London, companies in the United States alone sent nearly $1 billion to Russian state-operated nuclear energy firm Rosatom in 2022.
But according to reporting from Time Magazine, the motive for Macron’s trip may be about more than just establishing new, stronger, and non-Russian sources of uranium. Anonymous sources with insight into the French President’s strategy suggested that France is trying to take advantage of current political instability in the region to not only reduce their own dependence on Russian exports, but to help these former soviet republics to do the same – while also forging stronger strategic alliances for their own interests.
In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, global energy markets have been thrown into turmoil. The ensuing energy war between Brussels and the Kremlin has rewritten the rules of global geopolitics, and France sees an opportunity to sow influence in Central Asia before new trade patterns are settled. Europe is now on track to end its reliance on Russian fossil fuels before the end of this decade according to a statement from the European Commission earlier this month – an incredible feat considering that the bloc sourced nearly half of their total natural gas imports from Russia in 2021. Now, it wants to encourage some of Russia’s strongest dependents to follow suit.
But Europe is not alone. In the context of Russia’s current instability and waning control over former soviet republics, many of the world’s powers are rushing to fill the power vacuum and win influence in the resource-rich region nestled between Russia and China. Beijing is seeking to spread influence in Central Asia through President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road infrastructure project, while the United States also tries to increase its trade relations in the region. While China has made some successful inroads into the region’s economy, the West sees Central Asia as a particularly promising potential ally, as the region has formally sided with Western sanctions against Russia as the war in Ukraine continues.
Time also notes that France’s renewed interest in Central Asia comes at a time when the country is losing influence in its former colonies in Africa. “Since 2020, coups in nine sub-Saharan countries have variously spooked or sent home French diplomats, and in some cases the threat to French interests has been powered by Russia, in the shape of the mercenary Wagner Group,” Time reported. As a result, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are increasingly tempting allies for a nation fast losing friends in resource-rich emerging economies.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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