The legendary ancient and medieval land route of about 6400 km. long by which silk was was carried from China to Europe in return for other goods ran west along Gobi desert in present day Mongolia and Pamir ranges. It passed through one of the oldest city of the World in Uzbekistan- Samarqand to Middle East and Europe. Romans exchanged glass, textiles, precious stones and gold for the Chinese silk, ceramics, furs and weapons. Later when the Chinese knew the importance of these objects to Europeans, they began to use the bargain as diplomatic weapon. As the trade profits grew and the Arab and Parthian middlemen were taking greater share of it, the merchants began to use the alternative route via India and sea.
Later, in the second half of 19th Century, when the Russian Empire was gaining control over territories around Central Asian cities like Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and was about to knock at the door of British India with some strategic planning to keep foothold in Afghanistan – a British protectorate, the noted British military explorer Francis Younghusband encountered his Russian counterpart Colonel Yanov at the village of Bozai-Gumbaz in the famous Wakhan corridor in 1891.
The meeting initially was cordial. They dined and drank together, but later it turned into a squabble while Yanov claimed that Younghusband has entered Russian territory. As stated by Parag Khanna Younghusband responded that the Russians are “opening their mouth pretty wide”. Yanov responded that it was just the beginning. He passed a message to Younghusband that whoever could conquer Central Asia; would control the world. And their meeting ended while expelling the Younghusband from the territory. In 1895 Russia and Britain established a Pamir Boundary Commission that reached on settlements on the Northern and Southern border of the vital strategic Wakhan corridor in Central Asia.
More than 100 years later, in December 2007,echoing the same great game between Russia and Britain, Afghan government expelled two high level diplomats one a British UN political officer Mervyn Patterson and the other Michael Semple –the acting head of the European Union mission.
The government of Afghanistan claimed that both senior diplomats were involved in unauthorized and unfriendly activities, in Helmand province – with a hint that they were engaged with Taliban militants. According to BBC online their colleagues have claimed that half of the international community’s combined knowledge on Afghanistan went away with Michael and Mervyn.
The 19th Century Great Game was aimed for controlling the territory and trade in Central, South and South East Asia. But the Great Game of 21st Century is for the huge reserve of untapped minerals, oil and gas in Afghanistan, Central Asia and Caspian Sea beds. The Caspian Sea is estimated to contain the largest amount of untapped oil and gas reserve. Likewise Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan alone are projected as containing some more than one hundred billion barrels of crude oil.
The oil barons, industrial giants, military strategists, diplomats, political leaders and academicians in world capitals are sketching the future course of Great Game borne out of strategic marketing of the huge oil, gas and critical industrial minerals available in Central Asia.
Central Asia, to quote Khanna again, has obviously been the “historical drain into which all surrounding regions and cultures overflow. Lodged among the Slavic, Arab, Persian, Indic, and Sinic Civilizations” the region has seen conquerors from Greece to Mongolia and merchants from Italy to Korea. But now the “historical drain” is becoming the part of the great game being played among the major powers of 21st Century.
Geo-politics of a new great Game
Sino- Russia unison in UN on Syria and Iran is only a part of the story. In Central Asia they are however rival geo-political powers-dead set to contest with each other for oil and gas markets and gain political influence and competitive military edge as well.
China’s far –western Xinjiang province with Uighur population with Turkic language and Islamic faith are closer to neighboring Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries. China’s strategically ambitious thrust to promote Ethnic Han population in Xianjiang has infused a stronger Uyghur resentment cultivating separatist movement in a volatile Muslim dominated province.
Amid Relative decline of Russia and financial crisis of Europe and America, Chinese economy has bought many admirers in Central Asia including international financial institutions including IMF and World Bank. Chinese aid agencies, infrastructures support and cheap goods stuffed in local markets have also earned many favors in Central Asia for Chinese authoritarian politics and state controlled economy.
The Russia led nine member Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the six members Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) have brought Russia and Central Asian states together on some of their common strategic agendas, but they have yet to develop some practical modalities for promoting their collective security interests.
On the other hand the five Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have seen increasing strategic competition involving China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. Similarly India, Tajikistan and Russia are claimed to have negotiated on the joint use of the Ayni Air Base, close to the Tajik capital Dushanbe that will acquire greater strategic significance after US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.
China’s growing strategic ambition has been revealed under the pretense of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a six-member group founded in 2001 that includes China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan aimed to enhance security cooperation between its members. And of late, SCO has expanded its scope to cover economic, cultural, and other forms of cooperation.
All major powers have their strategic interest in Central Asia. For Russia, it is both a strategic shield against a traditional competitor – China. Russia wants to use Central Asia as major theater to exert its political influence. America finds it as a strategic region from where it can check Russian and Chinese influence extending west wards. And for China, it is vital for its great source of energy, minerals and also a critical partner for stabilizing and developing the Xinjiang province.
For this reason, China is much worried after US withdrawal from Afghanistan on the prospects of a Taliban led Afghanistan that would be lending support and sanctuary to restive Uyghur community in western region of Xianjiang adjoining other Muslim dominated Central Asian countries as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In this context, the SCO member countries in recent meeting have committed for the first time to a regional collective security agreement focused on enforcement of borders. China has also signed up joint military maneuvers with Kyrgyzstan, followed by the development of rapid deployment forces based in western China, intended to put down any trouble that may arise in Tibet or Xinjiang, and help enforce border security of other SCO member countries.
“The New Silk Road: Transport and Trade in a Greater Central Asia”
Referring to a Pentagon sources The New York Times (June 13,2010) reported that Afghanistan stores nearly $ 1 trillion mineral wealth including the huge reserve of critical industrial metals like lithium- a key raw material needed to manufacture batteries for laptops and mobiles. Afghanistan can become the most important mining centers of the world and “Saudi Arabia of lithium”, the renowned daily states. According to other estimation the price tag of Afghanistan’s mineral reserve including high quality lithium and cobalt exceeds $ 3 trillion.
S. Frederick Starr in a book -The New Silk Road: Transport and Trade in a Greater Central Asia, explains how the links of trade and transport are bringing fundamental changes in world’s largest continent and explores the fortunes of some fifteen countries most directly affected by it. The book has reflected- if each country from Turkey to India in Greater Central Asia, can prudently manage the continental transport and trade they can gain rich dividends beyond imagination in economic life and security of all the countries in the region. This is inevitable as a result of natural process driven by the forces of modern global economy and not merely by geopolitics.
Starr further illustrates that the trade expansion across the emerging Transport Corridor Europe- Caucasus – Asia (TRACECA) will enormously affect the mutual trade between China, India, Russia and Europe. This will provide Russia’s backward Urals region and West Siberia easy transit access to India, South East Asia and the Middle East. Azerbaijan and Turkey will become key transit countries on east- west routes crossing both Central Asia and Iran and get closer to the great European market. Similarly Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan will be massively benefitted from the expansion of North- South routes linking Northern Europe and Russia with the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea with preeminent road and rail networks.
Gas and oil production in Caspian Sea region and the multiple pipelines extended up to South Asia and Western Europe and long distance hydro electric lines extended from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to the eager markets in Pakistan will give energy markets a new impetus. Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan will be able to export their high quality cotton to multiple buyers in South Asia much nearer than to the Russia and Baltic 7,000 km. away, Starr reveals.
But more than any other thing the new East – West Silk Road needs the fuel of trust among the countries and their ability to build trust and manage trust in constructing and running the New Silk Road. Undoubtedly, it will give Central Asian countries and the regional economy a new source of life.
Keshav Prasad Bhattarai is the former President of Nepal Teachers’ Association,Teachers’ Union of Nepal and General Secretary of SAARC Teachers’ Federation. Currently a columnist in an English language weekly from Nepal – ‘The Reporter’, where this article appeared.