The New Great Game

The New Great Game

Mini Teaser: The re-emergence of the ancient Silk Road provides Central Asia with a promising alternative to another reincarnation of great power conquest in the region.

by Author(s): Subodh Atal

Of all the regional powers vying for influence in Central Asia, China is likely to have the most lasting and broad impact. Geographical proximity and security and economic interests all play a factor in the region becoming a top strategic priority for China.

A major factor in China's outreach across its western border has been its exploding energy demand. Its economy, growing at the torrid pace of 9.5 percent per year, has made the nation the world's second-largest oil importer and will likely account for one-fifth of the world's growth in global energy demand in the next quarter-century. With much of China's current energy imports arriving via the insecure Malacca Strait, its energy strategy emphasizes diversification of energy routes, including pipelines from Iran and Kazakhstan.

Moreover, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan all share borders with China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The Uighur population of Xinjiang shares religious and cultural links with the Muslim Turkic population of Central Asia. The Islamic unrest in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan has spilled over into XUAR in the form of Uighur separatism, with periodic bombings, uprisings and other violence. Links between Uighur separatists and terrorist groups in Central Asian nations, particularly Kyrgyzstan, have been uncovered in recent years, raising fears of Central Asian Islamic extremists joining forces with Uighur separatists to form a united front. Such a possibility has prompted authorities in Central Asian nations such as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to collaborate with China in sharing intelligence on Islamic extremist activities. Oil and gas pipelines traversing Central Asia and XUAR territory would be particularly susceptible to sabotage by extremists. Thus, stability on its western border is critical to China in ensuring a suitable environment for its continued economic growth. Furthermore, China wants to avoid drawing the United States into broader involvement in the region in response to terrorism and instability.

With much at stake, China has patiently and skillfully built strong ties to its western neighbors. Initial distrust of the nation by its smaller neighbors such as Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan has given way to close economic links as China has moved to resolve border disputes, invest in infrastructure projects and provide assistance to the Central Asian nations. China has set up trade missions in every Central Asian country, is paying for a highway to be constructed from Kyrgyzstan to China and has offered to help Uzbekistan develop several small oil fields. China has even promoted the revival of the ancient Silk Road era through economic integration between Xinjiang and the eight Central and South Asian nations of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.

Chinese strategy in Central Asia draws upon its "New Security Concept", wherein the "use of force and the threat of use of force" are replaced with multilateral "mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination".1 This framework evolved during the late 1990s and was enunciated in official white papers published in 1998 and 2000 on China's defense policy. The New Security Concept aims at achieving China's geopolitical goals through multilateral dialogue and cooperation and thus at challenging the emerging American unipolarity after the Soviet disintegration. The abrupt entry of the U.S. military after 9/11 into bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, the latter one near Bishkek and thus rather close to China's border, has strengthened Chinese suspicions of an American attempt at encirclement. China's fears of American encroachment in Central Asia mirror U.S. concerns over burgeoning Chinese ties to Latin America, where China is rapidly expanding energy and trade links.

China's strategic leadership in Central Asia is reflected in its role in the creation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO started out in 1996 as the Shanghai Five, consisting of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Initially focused on resolving long-standing border disputes between China and the ex-Soviet states, after 1998 the focus of the group expanded to dealing with terrorism and separatism as China's concerns in Xinjiang converged with those of several Central Asian nations battling the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), as well as those of Russia, which has been fighting Chechen rebels since the 1990s. The group was renamed the SCO with the inclusion of Uzbekistan in June 2001. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, with American entry into Central and South Asia and Uzbekistan's close alliance with the U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan, the SCO project faltered temporarily. However, as the operations in Afghanistan wound down in 2002, and as the March 2003 American invasion of Iraq deepened fears in China and Russia of American unipolarity, the two nations worked to revitalize the SCO. The declaration of the June 2003 SCO meeting emphasized the role of the United Nations in dealing with international disputes, clearly targeting U.S. "unilateralism".

The SCO charter, established in 2002, set up several councils of representatives at various levels of the member nations' governments. The councils meet regularly to discuss regional and international issues as well as organizational budgetary matters. A new permanent organ set up in 2004 is the Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS), with headquarters in Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent. The RATS coordinates SCO member activities against terrorism, separatism and extremism. The SCO has since progressed to holding joint military and anti-terrorism exercises, signaling that it wants to fill in roles similar to those currently carried out by the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan. Apart from its work in regional issues, the SCO has begun to interact with other international agencies, sending representatives to such forums as counter-terrorism conferences, thus establishing itself as a significant international force.

Some observers regard the SCO as an anti-U.S. grouping, even comparing it to the Warsaw Pact. While the SCO was far too divided in earlier years to warrant such a comparison, and even today its cohesiveness is suspect, its transformation into a more robust organization is presaged by the consensus declaration at its recent annual conference in Astana, Kazakhstan's capital. The declaration minced no words in demanding a time-bound withdrawal of U.S.-led coalition forces from Central Asian bases in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The participation of Uzbekistan in the issuance of such a statement is a far cry from late 2001 and 2002, when Tashkent was considered a close American ally. Russia and China have clearly leveraged Uzbek differences with the United States over the repression of dissidents, using the SCO forum to help President Islam Karimov loosen his ties to the United States. The deep antagonism to hosting the American military is not limited to Karimov's regime. In Kyrgyzstan, the new government, which replaced Aksar Akaev's regime, has made strong statements calling for Americans to vacate the Manas base. Kurmanbek Bakiyev, at his first press conference after winning the presidential election, emphasized that the rationale for U.S. presence at the base needed to be reconsidered.

At the July 2005 SCO summit, three nations--India, Pakistan and Iran--were admitted as observers. For India, the move brings it a voice in the future of Central Asia, where it desperately needs access to energy markets. Pakistan's SCO membership as an observer gives it a voice in a regional alliance that could help achieve its economic aims, as well as ensures it a status within the organization on par with that of its rival, India. India's presence at the SCO is important to Russia for balancing against Chinese power in the region, while the inclusion of Pakistan was insisted upon by China to balance against a potential Russian-Indian bloc in the SCO. Iran's acceptance within the SCO provides it with a hedge against U.S. and European pressures on terrorism and nuclear weapons development. That the summit was able to issue a strongly worded declaration against U.S. military presence hints at the ability of the alliance to overcome the complex antagonistic interplay among the member nations.

With Chinese economic and political influence clearly eclipsing that of Russia, some Russians have expressed concern that in seeking China's help in regaining influence in its near abroad, Russia may itself become China's near abroad. Despite such concerns, Russia appears to regard the growing American influence in Eurasia as more threatening to its interests than a rapidly growing China. Thus, both China and Russia are eager to foster a strategic partnership aimed at heading off American ability to extend its global dominance into the region.

India does not border any Central Asian nation or Russia. Yet, India's concerns over terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir are tied firmly to the fate of the Islamic extremist movements that span several Central Asian nations. India was reported to have established a military base and medical center in Tajikistan soon after 9/11 and has been working to re-establish a presence in Afghanistan. India is keenly interested in ensuring that a Taliban-like regime does not re-emerge in Afghanistan and that the influence of Islamic extremists based in Afghanistan and Pakistan on Central Asia is minimized.

India has another critical imperative to engage with Central Asian countries and the other regional players: It already imports two-thirds of the oil it consumes. Consequently, Indian strategy has shifted considerably toward reconciliation with Pakistan and unprecedented partnership with China to pave the way for exploring various options for energy routes through Central Asia.

Essay Types: Essay