The April uprising in Kyrgyzstan illuminates the latest phase of the Great Game.
The game’s initial phase ran fr om 1807, when Napoleon proposed to Tsar Alexander to invade British India, until 1907, when tsarist Russia and imperial Britain sat down and — like civilized Europeans — divided spheres of interest, some of which ran right through countries like Iran.
For Britain, the Great Game had primarily been about securing the jewel of the imperial crown — India — fr om Russian encroachment. For Russia, eastward expansion was a form of Manifest Destiny that wouldn’t be satisfied until the mountains of Asia were under its control and the shores of the Pacific were reached.
There was another flare-up of the game during World War I when Kaiser Wilhelm tried to instigate a Muslim jihad against Russia and Britain, a process that Punch, the British humor magazine, termed “Deutschland Uber Allah.”
Soviet control of the area seemed to terminate the contest, but as Peter Hopkirk, who quite literally wrote the book on the subject (“The Great Game”), says, Central Asia is a “volatile area wh ere the Great Game has never really ceased.”
But now the questions are: Who is playing? What is at stake? And who is winning, at least at the moment?
Britain has been replaced by the United States, which has interests to protect, not territory. Both China and Russia see the United States as a dangerous interloper in their geopolitical backyard, but Afghanistan is an “accidental” area of interest for Washington. If al-Qaida had attacked from Yemen, for example, U.S. bases in Kyrgyzstan would not currently be an issue.
The Central Asian states and the United States are engaged in a purely utilitarian relationship. Washington wants the right to use air space and air bases to supply its war effort in Afghanistan. Hungry for money and respect, the Central Asian leaders worry that the United States will “betray” their purely pragmatic relationship and protest their despotic policies. U.S. protests against Uzbekistan when government forces opened fire on protesters in Andijan, Uzbekistan, in 2005 were a case in point.
Russian authorities and opposition intellectuals do agree on one thing: China is more likely to be a source of trouble for Russia than the United States. Russia doesn’t like having NATO troops on both sides of its territory, but the United States has so far shown no signs of putting down roots in Central Asia. In fact, after any “success” in Afghanistan, the United States will greatly downplay its presence in the region. Its enduring interests are in the Middle East, not Central Asia.
China, on the other hand, recently broke the Russian monopoly on energy transmission in the region, completing a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to western China that crosses through nominal Russian allies like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. That’s another big difference between the old Great Game and the new: The Central Asia states are benefiting from the jockeying among the great powers instead of just being exploited by them.
The Central Asian dictators love doing business with China. It has plenty of money and a foreign policy that is not constrained by ethics. Yet that sword can cut both ways. China is now projecting its naval force all the way from the South China Sea to the Persian Gulf to protect the flow of vital energy supplies to China. As it builds more pipelines across Central Asia, logic will dictate protecting those costly and valuable assets as well. That’s when an ethics-free Chinese foreign policy might suddenly seem less appealing to the rulers of Tashkent and Astana.
Economics will become entangled with politics when future unrest occurs among the oppressed Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighurs of China’s western province of Xinjiang. Unstable countries like Kyrgyzstan could become the base and refuge for Uighur insurgents. The pipeline from Turkmenistan, in fact, terminates in Sinjiang, offering an obvious target to separatists. In an underreported and rather ominous development, the Dalai Lama recently used a term forbidden in China when referring to Sinjiang, calling it “East Turkistan.” The implication is that he recognizes that Sinjiang is not intrinsically part of China but belongs to the Central Asian “stans” based on its language, culture and religion. And he may also have been hinting at a willingness to ally Tibet with the Uighurs in a common struggle against what both nations consider the oppressive hegemony of the Han Chinese.
Central Asia’s importance is also geological. Aside from gas and oil, the area is rich in minerals, especially gold and uranium. As Paul Nazaroff, a Russian mining engineer who fled the Bolsheviks during the Civil War in 1918, noted in his book “Hunted Through Central Asia” — “What a rich country it is, wh ere a man, fleeing for his life can casually stumble upon valuable deposits of ores and other minerals!” For example, Kazakhstan has the world’s second-largest uranium reserves and expects to control some 30 percent of the world uranium market by 2015.
The latest version of the Great Game has a “green” dimension as well — something that previous variations lacked entirely. Kazakh uranium will only become more valuable as the world turns its back to nuclear power plants as a source of energy. There is a down side here, too: The Kazakhs still do not adequately protect the nuclear waste they produce.
China wants to switch its economy from coal to gas. Liquefied natural gas now has to be shipped through the pirate-infested Straits of Malacca, and this is one of the reasons why China is beefing up its navy. Pipelines across Central Asia are faster, cheaper and safer. And they’re greener as well, something that China has clearly perceived to be economically beneficial in the long term.
In the latest round of the game, all the players have scored. The Central Asian states got money and prestige, the Chinese got their pipeline, the Russians gained renewed influence, and the Americans secured their air base in Kyrgyzstan. But trouble is coming. The leaders of the two most important countries — Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan — are in their 70s and in dubious health. Moreover, between both of them, they have five daughters and not one son. (Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev reportedly has a son from his third wife.) If no clear line of succession has been mapped out, the death of either of those leaders could result in turmoil. And then, of course, China would need to protect its pipelines.