The new great game
THE nineteenth century con cept of The Great Game by Rudyard Kipling is taking a set of new dimensions. The Central Asian Republics are trying to reassert themselves and quite contrary to play in the hands of the great powers like they did in the past, are now exhibiting a dramatic change in their tactics primarily due to their leaders. The New Great Game revolves around the big three i.e. Russia, America and China; and their interests in the Central Asia.
Putin has been able to resurrect Russia from the consequences of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. He seems quite confident to possess the status of a great power by dominating the Central Asia. On the other hand China appeared to have more expertise regarding the region. Beijing initially wanted to secure its Xinjiang province that has geographical proximity with the Central Asia where Uighur Muslims are concentrated. Since the province shares border with the volatile region, so China wanted to enhance security and stability by focusing on Central Asia. But Chinese have shown their superior tactics and have greatly enhanced energy cooperation in the region.
The Moscow and Beijing led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) seems pretty instrumental to put an end to the three evils of extremism, separatism and terrorism. It can be argued that these Great Games are actually being won by the Central Asian leaders who have accomplished in the pursuit to set the rules for these games to be played. It is quite evident that even the weak Kyrgyzstan can also play the game. The Kyrgyz leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev engaged Russia and America into a bidding war over the Manas Air Base in 2009 and eventually retrieved payments from both sides.
The authoritarian leaders of the Central Asian Republics have disguised their practices as anti-terrorist such as the Andijan Incident of 2005. They have developed a discourse that regime survival is state security and have used this rhetoric to control internal security. They have used this narrative to suppress human rights and democracy in the name of security. The authority they possess is leading to mega-corruption and embezzlement. The leaders have begun to consider state resources as their personal ones.
The good thing is that the great powers had no choice but to accept the local rules of the Central Asian regimes; for them to be there and have access. Russia has a large number of Central Asian people working there and by this Moscow uses its soft power to influence the region. On the other hand United States intends to promote civil society and democracy in the region but the episode of Andijan in 2005 has greatly affected the efforts.
It can be said that in this tug of war or pursuit to dominate the Central Asia, China has been the “biggest winner”. China has been able to greatly minimize the Russian monopoly over Turkmenistan’s natural gas. Since Moscow used to buy gas from Ashgabat at low prices and then exported it the European markets at a high price. The Chinese pipelines have significantly reduced the dependency of Central Asian republics and Turkmenistan’s in particular, on Russian markets. Chinese have done it all in a quite skillful manner and they are also the least demanding as compared to Russia and the United States. Since Moscow wants a privileged status coupled with obedience and loyalty, and Washington seeks to enhance the role of the civil society and democratic reforms in the region which is quite contrary to the strategic culture of the Central Asian regimes.
It cannot be denied that America, Russia and China have learned to maintain an equilibrium of strategic interests in Central Asia after 9/11. The nineteenth century zero sum game has transformed into cooperation and coordination and these three great powers has been in a peaceful coexistence in the region. Apart from everything, it is revealing that the real winners of this new great game are the Central Asian regimes. They have effectively and quite opposite to the expected, have established their own rules to be followed by the external actors. The way they have used the three powers against each other for their use and benefit clearly shows their multi-dimensional foreign policies as well. The Central Asian regimes have successfully used domestic and foreign threats to legitimize their authority. — The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.