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

The ongoing peace process with Pakistan has resulted in the defusing of nuclear tensions over the past year and allowed the consideration of a trans-Pakistan pipeline to India. India and China have put aside decades of animosity to work toward growing trade and economic ties. During Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's visit to India in April, Indian officials floated the idea of joint Indo-Chinese oil consortia in Central Asia. India's government-owned gas agency, GAIL, has invested in Chinese gas pipeline projects in Kazakhstan, indicating that the two countries are already moving in this direction. The Indian government is planning to host a major conference of Central Asian energy producers this fall in an attempt to create economic and political partnerships between emerging energy suppliers and energy consumers in Asia. India's admission to the SCO with observer status gives it further ability to shape the regional energy game in the coming decades.

Both China and Russia are interested in drawing India into the alliance to neutralize U.S. influence, and to avert a close Indo-U.S. strategic partnership that could significantly tilt the regional balance. India, despite its growing economic and military ties to the United States, has not ruled out forming an anti-U.S. alliance with Russia and China. A joint communiqué released at a meeting of Russian, Chinese and Indian foreign ministers in Vladivostok, Russia, in June emphasized promotion of "multi-polarization"--clearly targeting American unilateralism. For India, the impetus to join such an alliance will likely be its displeasure at the close American relationship with Pakistan, particularly if it helps perpetuate the rule of an anti-Indian military regime.

For Iran, a strengthening "eastward orientation", as propounded by newly elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, constitutes a key component of its strategy to escape the shackles of long-standing sanctions by the United States and avoid compromises with Europe over capping Iran's nuclear program. As part of this strategy, Iran has developed close ties to China, Russia and India, and aims to collaborate with those nations in Central Asia. This strengthens Iran's ability to deter American or Israeli military strikes.

Iran's eastern strategy in the region is particularly facilitated by the close convergence of its regional goals with those of China, including opposition to the U.S. military presence, shared concerns over the radical Sunni ideology that spawned the Taliban, the IMU and the Uighur separatists, and energy exploitation. China is helping to develop pipelines traversing Iran, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, which will further its own energy security and provide Iran with an outlet for its oil exports that skirts Western constraints. Central Asian routes for Iran's oil are also coveted by India, which fell short by about 12 percent in meeting its energy needs during 2004.

As part of this strategy, Iran sought admission to the SCO grouping in 2004. For China, Iran's presence as an observer in the SCO brings another anti-U.S. nation to the table and provides a common platform for China, Iran and Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan to discuss regional energy and trade routes. Such growing Iranian links to China, India, Russia and several Central Asian republics are likely to limit the effectiveness of U.S. sanctions and the ability of the European Union to negotiate an end to Iran's nuclear program.

After ousting the Taliban regime in December 2001, the United States shifted toward utilizing the post-9/11 environment to extend and fortify its influence in Central and South Asia. American military bases in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, which were initially slated as being solely for the purpose of fighting the War on Terror, started displaying signs of permanence and began to define the new boundaries of the American empire. By January 2002, American troops were engaged in renovations or additions at some 13 locations in nine countries in the greater Central Asian region, including Pakistan and Uzbekistan.

Russia and China, with a more direct and vital strategic stake in the region, have become wary of U.S. moves into their backyard and have moved to strengthen their hold on the region, setting up competing military bases and drawing Central Asian nations into the SCO, which could become an increasingly anti-U.S. alliance. As American intentions of projecting military power in the region have crystallized, Russian and Chinese incentives for collaboration with the United States have given way to visible antagonism and counter-balancing to dislodge or at least constrain the United States.

American strategy in the region, instead of enhancing its own security, has resulted in a potentially dangerous counter-alliance, even as the initial goals of neutralizing the anti-American forces remain unfulfilled. Fighting with a resurgent Taliban has cost dozens of American lives in recent months. Taliban insurgents continue to launch widespread attacks against the Afghan government, and southeastern Afghan provinces remain destabilized, with some areas under Taliban control. Unless the trends are reversed, the region could again be used for plotting international terrorism.

The current dilemma is largely a result of a U.S. strategy that emphasized power projection into the region rather than comprehensively defeating anti-U.S. forces. Many argued that without a permanent American military presence, instability and sources of international terrorism would return to the region. The flip side of the argument is that prolonged U.S. military presence could itself engender instability of an even worse magnitude. The triggering of a race to establish military bases in Central Asia in response to U.S. intentions of making its bases permanent, the collaboration between China and Russia inside and outside the SCO against the United States, and the shaping of the contours of an anti-U.S. Chinese-Russian-Indian-Iranian axis are some of the unintended consequences. Such a nexus could undermine global counter-terrorism cooperation, impede America's ability to effectively and rapidly respond to future threats in Central and South Asia, and reduce American access to Central Asian energy markets.

Reversing this strategy of preponderance would entail evaluating American interests in the context of regional realities and does not imply isolationism or undercutting key strategic imperatives. China, driven by energy needs and security concerns, has expanded its strategic sphere into Central Asia, and can no longer be considered merely an East Asian power. While other nations, such as Russia and India, also are trying to influence the region's geopolitics, China, with its economic strength, will likely assume a leading role among the various intersecting forces in Central Asia. The United States stands a better chance of achieving its regional goals through engaging China as a Central Asian power, along with Russia and India.

The United States does have a long-term interest in helping the Central Asian republics, Afghanistan and Pakistan steer away from instability and extremism and in ensuring that energy routes in the region are not monopolized by a particular nation. However, collaborating with regional powers on common goals such as counter-terrorism and defusing of Islamist insurgencies, rather than intensifying a new Great Game, may better serve such aims.

1 Devika Sharma, "China's New Security Concept", The Pioneer, July 2, 2004.

Essay Types: Essay