January 30, 2014

WILL IT BE A TURNING POINT FOR CENTRAL ASIA? – ANALYSIS

By Richard Weitz

Source: Journal of Turkish Weekly

Journalist(s) Gulay Mutlu

Central Asia, the longtime focus area for great powers within the international system, has managed to maintain its significance. Although in the last three years the Middle East and the Arab Spring seem to have occupied the agenda of international actors, in fact these actors had never given up chasing Central Asian energy and energy routes, nor fighting terrorism in Afghanistan. This year is a turning point for the region in terms of security and energy. Traditionally, great powers have been the region’s primary actors. After 2014, however, there will be a big change of balance. Why?   

During the 19th century, the underground rivalry between Tsarist Russia and Great Britain, the “Great Game”, transfixed our attention on the region. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the “New Great Game” has appeared. However, there is a big difference between the two Great Games. In the first, the two great powers competed for India’s resources and to reach its warm waters. The latter, which has drawn in the U.S. and China and not Britain, in Karl Mayer’s and Shareen Brysac’s words, is over “pipelines, tanker routes, oil and gas consortiums, and the signed contracts”

It is still up for debate whether there is a New Great Game. For some experts like Richard Weitz, “Central Asia does not represent the most important geographic region for any external power (…).”[1] So there are no rivals; on the contrary, there is cooperation between great powers in the region. Another view contends that the New Great Game is continuing in terms of energy resources competition. Russia, which still dominates the pipeline routes in the region, sells Central Asian gas to European markets—though it buys it at very low prices. On the other hand, China is looking for its future energy supply, since its consumption is gradually increasing. It can be said that China has similar concerns about the region’s energy resources. However, the objectives of the U.S. are somewhat different from those countries. Its main target after the 9/11 attacks has been to fight terrorism by invading Afghanistan with its allies. That mission was completed after death of Osama bin Laden in 2012. Sourcing energy from the Caspian Sea basin is a minor aim for the U.S. However, during this period the U.S. has continued to promote market economics and democracy in Central Asia and funnel development assistance towards regional countries. Besides the discussion of the Great Games, the main question is what will happen in Central Asia after the withdrawal of the U.S. and NATO from Afghanistan, as Central Asian countries have been good partners for the NATO mission in Afghanistan. They also have the same concerns about the Taliban, terrorism, and extremism in Afghanistan.   

Central Asian countries’ position

Whether the New Great Game is a still valid concept or not, when we look at Central Asia we see that regional countries have been considered “secondary actors” in the competition between great powers. It is a mistake to call or treat them as secondary actors since their position is highly critical for regional stability. And their positions determine the balance among the great powers as well as among each other. For example, during the U.S. War on Terror in Afghanistan, Central Asian states took a position against terror, and like Russia, they kept silent about the war, which means that they supported the U.S. Although Russia does not want to the U.S. to be involved in Central Asia, it remained silent, sometimes even giving support to the U.S. and the NATO alliance.

This year Central Asian states will celebrate their 23th anniversary of independence. Most of them have gradually strengthened economically and have played roles in the international arena. For instance, Kazakhstan chaired the OSCE in 2010. They are also involved in regional and international organizations. They act with the great powers and they take initiative on regional and international problems. At the end of the day, Central Asian countries act as individual actors in the international arena. Although there are still big powers like Russia, the U.S., and China, today Central Asian countries are no longer secondary actors in the region.

In the last decade Russia-China relations have improved. And they try to balance each other in Central Asia. For example, both countries are starting new initiatives with the Central Asian countries. China has launched a Central Asia-China pipeline project and increased its economic relations with the countries. Russia is planning to enlarge its Customs Union (for Eurasia), taking in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. This year, with the withdrawal of the NATO alliance from Afghanistan, the U.S. has become a limited but still an actor in the region. So the stability and the security of the region will be first issue on the regional agenda and the Central Asian countries will be the main actors.    

To sum up, the term “Great Game” has been used to refer to the last centuries’ competition of the great powers within the Central Asia. However, in the coming period, the region’s new premier actors—Central Asia and Afghanistan—are ready to decide for their future.  

  • Richard Weitz