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The Great Game

For centuries Central Asia has been a key piece on the geopolitical chessboard. Its relevance peaked in the 19th century, when Great Britain and Russia vied for control of the region. Russia's desire for expansion and England's fear that the Russians were after India and access to the Indian Ocean created an explosive situation that brought the two great imperial powers to the brink of war numerous times. This competition came to be called "The Great Game."

The US, China, and Russia are the main actors in a 21st century version of The Great Game. Complicating the updated version are the natural resources that Central Asian countries have in abundance.

In 1997 Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot, describing America's long-term view of the region, noted

  • If economic and political reform in the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia does not succeed—if internal and cross-border conflicts simmer and flare—the region could become a breeding ground of terrorism, a hotbed of religious and political extremism, and a battleground for outright war.
  • It would matter profoundly to the United States if that were to happen in an area that sits on as much as 200 billion barrels of oil. That is yet another reason why conflict-resolution must be Job One for US policy in the region: It is both the prerequisite for and an accompaniment to energy development.9

Central Asia is home to the second-most important regional alliance in the world. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization's (SCO) global influence is exceeded only by NATO's. The SCO, which was established June 15, 2001, includes China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Its secretariat is located in northeast Beijing. The SCO was formed to resolve issues between China and the states of Central Asia. It gradually expanded its reach into counterterrorism, defense, energy, and economic cooperation. The US tried to get observer status at the SCO in 2005 but was turned down. India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan currently enjoy observer status.

The West has routinely dismissed the SCO as nothing more than a talk shop. But geopolitical events, particularly the US-led war in Afghanistan, have proved this assessment wrong. If countries that now hold observer status eventually attain full membership the alliance will represent more or less half of the world's population and four nuclear powers. Critically, the SCO has brought China and Russia closer together, aligning their interests, to a point, with regard to issues arising in Central Asia and beyond. The two countries have jointly voiced their opinions about global and regional issues, using the SCO as a platform. The SCO's advocates' major geopolitical argument is made in favor of "multilateral diplomacy." The organization's communiqués regularly include language that gently cautions the US about its global plans.

In late summer 2008, the heads of the SCO's member states gathered in Dushanbe, Tajikistan's capital, to discuss issues of international and regional importance.

The introduction to the official statement released following the meeting characterizes the thinking among policymakers around the world:

  • In the 21st century interdependence of states has grown sharply, security and development are becoming inseparable. None of the modern international problems can be settled by force; the role of force factor in global and regional politics is diminishing objectively.
  • Reliance on a solution based solely on the use of force faces no prospects, it hinders comprehensive settlement of local conflicts; effective resolution of existing problems can be possible only with due regard for the interests of all parties, through their involvement in a process of negotiations, not through isolation. Attempts to strengthen one's own security to the prejudice of security of others do not assist the maintenance of global security and stability.
  • Search for effective response to common challenges and threats that are global in nature must be conducted in strict accordance with the UN Charter and generally accepted norms of the international law, by uniting the efforts of all states, overcoming the bloc mentality, bloc politics and unipolarity, using the means of multilateral diplomacy.
  • The member states of the SCO believe that in modern circumstances the international security must be built on the principles of mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and cooperation. The creation of a global antimissile defense system does not assist the maintenance of strategic balance, international efforts on weapons control and nuclear non-proliferation, strengthening of trust among states and regional stability.10

Central Asia is now vital to the maintenance of geopolitical stability. The rise of radical Islam and its military manifestation, jihadism, in the area is a critical danger. The US, China, Russia, and India share a common interest in drastically containing this phenomenon, the only geopolitical interest these four states share in common. US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke said during a trip to Central Asia in February 2010:

  • I think the real threat in this region is less from the Taliban but from al Qaeda, which trains international terrorists...this is an issue of common concern to the United States and to all the countries of this region. And by all the countries I definitely include Pakistan and China and India.

The war in Afghanistan makes many countries in the region important in terms of establishing supply routes for Western armies. Part of Russia's air space has been opened to Western military traffic as well, an indication that the Russian government continues to support US efforts. Russia has a keen interest in seeing militant Islam defeated or drastically contained. For this reason Russia has provided an air corridor for American and European supply lifts to Afghanistan, which remain open and was actually expanded more during the conflict with Georgia in August 2008, when Russia was being heavily criticized by America's mass media establishment. Although Russia and the US compete in the area, both their efforts to gain influence in Central Asia and the Caspian and a slice of the region's hydrocarbons have as a prerequisite minimizing the influence and actions of the jihadists.

Most important, a global consensus views instability in the region as extremely dangerous to the global situation. Afghanistan's neighbor Pakistan could also suffer greater destruction at the hands of radical Islamists, who could potentially gain access to the country's nuclear arsenal.11 According to Seymour M. Hersh of The New Yorker, this scenario is at the top of Washington, DC, policymakers' discussions, as Pakistan's military and secret services are believed to have relationships with Islamic fundamentalists.12

Russia's problem with violent Islam is centered on what's called the Caucasus Emirate, which was founded in 2007. This is the latest manifestation of a jihadist movement that's plagued the northern Caucasus since the mid-1990s. Russia has long-term relationships with these newly independent countries. Their proximity to its borders means Russia can't afford to be a bystander to the changing military and strategic balance of power in its backyard, particularly as Russia has traditionally considered the region a strategic buffer against outside threats.

China is also tied to Central Asia. It shares common borders totaling more than 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Its long-term strategic plan for the region includes three priorities: Keep Central Asia stable; use the region as another way to diversify its energy resources; and contain separatist movements in its oil-rich Xinjiang province. China also views the region as a potential destination for its exports; already many Chinese products are found in Central Asian countries, and they're gradually displacing Russian-made goods.

The first strategic interest is rooted in China's history and the centuries-old internal debate over Chinese strategic security between proponents of maritime power and land power. Land-power advocates often prevail in these debates, a fact reflected by Central Asia's significant presence in China's strategic thinking.

The second interest concerns efforts by China to reduce its dependence on oil imports from the Middle East. Roughly 80 percent of Chinese oil imports pass through the 600-mile Strait of Malacca, which divides Singapore from the Indonesian island of Sumatra; Chinese officials see this as a weakness because the route can be easily closed down during conflicts, particularly where the conflict would involve China and the US. Pipelines from Central Asia are considered more reliable and are therefore highly desirable.

In 2005 the 1,000 kilometer oil pipeline connecting Atasu in Kazakhstan to Alashankou in western China started pumping oil. The pipeline, which boasts capacity of 20 million tons, was an important milestone in China's investment in the region, not only because it allowed China to further diversify its energy deliveries. China also financed most of the USD800 million construction cost for the project completed in ten months, record time for such an undertaking. In December 2009 China signed a deal with Turkmenistan to build a 1,800 kilometer pipeline to deliver gas from Turkmenistan to China. The pipeline, which will also pass through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, will deliver up to 40 billion cubic meters of natural gas a year to China by the time it reaches full capacity in 2013 and should serve the Middle Kingdom for the next 30 years.

The third long-term strategic interest—keeping the region stable—has to do with what the Chinese view as an unstable situation in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The more than seven million ethnic Turkic Uighurs living in the region, who are largely Muslim, identify more closely with their Central Asian neighbors than with ethnic Chinese. Because many Uighurs desire greater autonomy—and it's believed that foreign-based, radical Islamic organizations are instigating a separatist movement—Chinese leaders view them as a potentially destabilizing force.

China's fast and decisive moves to secure natural gas and oil from Central Asian countries coupled with Russia's equally swift moves to guarantee Central Asian gas will keep flowing through Russian pipelines have made similar efforts supported by the US and other Western interests seem less viable. The best example is the highly advertised Nabucco gas pipeline, a 3,300 kilometer pipeline that's supposed to bring natural gas from the Caspian Sea to Eastern and Central Europe, bypassing Russian territory. Initial talks about the project took place in February 2002; the timetable calls for transporting gas by 2014. According to market studies the pipeline has been designed to transport a maximum of 31 billion cubic meters per year. Estimated investment costs, including financing costs, for a complete new pipeline system amount to approximately EUR7.9 billion (USD11 billion). Set aside the high cost and the engineering challenges the Nabucco project entails, because of the projects detailed above involving Central Asian countries and China and Russia, there's simply not enough natural gas to fill this pipeline and make it even remotely economical. Azerbaijan, which would supposedly supply most of the volume, doesn't have enough gas.

Further complicating matters, Russia has already signed a deal with Italian, Bulgarian, Greek, and Serbian energy companies to push its South Stream pipeline forward and double its capacity. The South Stream will take gas from Russia to South and Central Europe from an entry point on the Bulgarian coast. This is one of two additional pipelines planned by Russia to deliver gas to Europe, both of which avoid Ukraine's pipeline network and the problems associated with it. Another very important project is the Nord Stream pipeline, which would deliver gas from Russia directly to Germany through the Baltic Sea.

If the Nabucco project fails to live up to expectations, the US will eventually abandon its heavy involvement in Central Asia, although it will continue to cooperate on issues that are vital to its operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

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