The New 'Great Game' in Central Asia

Published: 22nd July 2015 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st July 2015 11:23 PM   |  A+A-

In 1839, Captain Arthur Connolly of the Sixth Bengal Light Cavalry of the East India Company spelt out his vision of the ‘Great Game’, a term that he had coined, “If the British Government would only play the grand game — help Russia cordially to all that she has a right to expect — shake hands with Persia — get her all possible amends from Oosbegs (Uzbeks) — force the Bokhara Amir to be just to us, the Afghans, and other Oosbeg states, and his own kingdom….” Three years later, he was beheaded by that same Emir of Bukhara; as one of the many victims of the ‘Great Game’ played between Tsarist Russia and Victorian England for supremacy in Central Asia (CA). At stake was India, key to the wealth of British Empire.

Soon after Connolly’s beheading, the British lost interest in this game because they were preoccupied with bigger stakes in Afghanistan and the opium war in China. Tsarist Russia used the opportunity to the maximum and their domination of Central Asia lasted till 1991 when the Soviet Union disintegrated.

Since then, another Great Game has been underway with Russia and China as major players. At one time, after 9/11, it seemed that the US too was aiming to be a decisive factor in Central Asia. It tried hard for a while; using money power, promoting dissent through fancily titled peoples’ revolutions and human rights campaigns. However, it ended up making the Central Asian authoritarian regimes wary of it.

Russia continues to be a major strategic, political and economic partner. In Soviet times, the network of original Central Asian oil and gas pipelines was almost entirely laid in the northern direction towards Russia. So was the case largely with trade flows.

The change came with 9/11 when the world began to acknowledge the region’s strategic importance. The US started wooing the Central Asian states for bases to station its troops and military aircraft. It was successful too because Central Asian states were anxious to loosen the Russian hold over them. But the relationship soured steadily and the US is no longer an ardent suitor. The ‘new’ Great Game is largely a regional affair now.

But let us first list some basic facts. Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are spread over 4 million sq kilometres. Despite this enormous size, their combined population is just about 60 million people. This agriculturally rich land of vast steppes contains large deposits of mineral resources, many of which remain unexplored. Its oil and gas reserves are conservatively estimated at four per cent each of the total global reserves.

It was this untapped potential that attracted China, and it acted fast. China’s trade with CA states was languishing at $1 billion in 2000. Over the next ten years, it leapt 30 times to reach $30 billion. By 2013, the two-way trade had reached $50 bn and with that China had replaced Russia as Central Asia’s largest trading partner. But China’s aim is not mere exchange of commodities. Rather, it has developed long-term stakes. Most new oil and gas pipelines in Central Asia have been laid in an easterly direction towards China. A major oil pipeline connects Kazakhstan with China, as does a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan that by the end of 2015 will supply 55 billion cubic metres of gas, annually providing 20 per cent of China’s gas needs. It has also acquired stakes in oil and gas fields in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, ensuring the security of supplies over the long term. To make that bond stronger still, it has also obligated them financially by giving major loans of $13 bn to Kazakhstan and $8 bn to Turkmenistan. Insofar as Tajikistan is concerned, 41.3 per cent of its external debt is owed to China, compared with a smaller 16 per cent to the World Bank and 14 per cent to the Asian Development Bank.

Thus far, China’s political importance in Central Asia has remained largely under-reported. The fact is that it has become a significant player in multiple ways. When the fear of terrorism and Islamic extremism first started being talked of in CA states bordering China in the 90s, its response was to set up a security mechanism. This was the raison d’être for the Shanghai Five that graduated in 2001 to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. It was never intended to replicate NATO, but to serve as a forum for active security related consultations. It has served China’s objective well, but how effective it will be in checking the spread of extremism is moot, especially if the IS activates itself in the region.

Still, China has done significantly well, be it through its new Silk Road initiative or bilateral bonding. Today, its influence in the CA region has grown from being purely trade-related to development finance and emergency lending besides an occasional nudge on governance. It has also settled on its terms all its borders with the neighbouring CA states. It may not be a perfect relationship, and that is rarely the case, but it is comprehensive and considerable. How does India fare in comparison? Well, the short answer is that comparisons are unfair. India’s biggest handicap is the lack of connectivity with CA. In all fairness, India should have had easy access to CA had the POK not been snatched by Pakistan. But given the present circumstance, we stand disadvantaged and the results are obvious.

Our trade hasn’t yet crossed the $1 bn mark. And our connectivity hopes by land are largely dependent on the mood of dispensation in Afghanistan. Still, we haven’t done too badly. Starting from 2002, because that’s when we thought up our grand plan for CA, India has had some notable successes. For the first time all the five CA states were connected by air with Delhi. Our serious moves for taking a share in Kazakh oil fields began to be pursued then. We made a major effort and acquired an air base in Tajikistan. With that India became only the third country in the world, after the US and Russia, to have such a facility in another state. A variety of other defence and economic interests were also mapped out then, including that for the supply of natural uranium, the latest agreement for which was signed during PM Modi’s recent visit to Kazakhstan.

Since connectivity continues to be a handicap, India will have to come up with innovative ways to overcome it and increase its presence to a meaningful level. One way of doing that is to ‘Make in Central Asia.’  For example, Indian firms could set up a fertilizer plant to utilise Turkmen gas in Turkmenistan and a refinery in Kazakhstan near an oil field, overcoming the geographical barrier. But we must move quickly, as the Chinese are way ahead in this new Great Game.

The writer is a former diplomat.

He is the author of Where Borders Bleed



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