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Great Game Encore: Power Rivalries Are Playing Out Loud In Central Asia – Analysis

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By Anurag Tripathi*

The continuing crisis in Ukraine has led to the end of the post-Cold War status quo in Europe and a return to US-Russian rivalry that reflects the competition for power that had taken place between Russian and British Empires in the 19th century in the Central Asian region. As the Russian involvement in the neighbouring Ukraine’s rebellion has grabbed the world’s attention, it is worth looking at the power rivalry between Russia and the US that is underway at this moment.

To begin with, the rivalry has its root in the Cold-War period. During this period that lasted between 1945 and 1991, both the powers were engaged in confronting each other through a system of alliances, counter-alliances and a tacitly belligerent arms-race. Towards the end of this long confrontation, the events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, the disintegration of Warsaw pact, the Soviet withdrawal of troops from Eastern Europe were supported by the US-led western alliance and finally, the Cold-War ended with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Russia ceased to be a super-power following the Soviet break-up and pursued a pro-US policy for sometimes. However, after this short honeymoon in relationship, their interests started to clash as the latter started to flex its muscles as ‘the’ super-power in the world. After many years of Cold War, events like the eastward expansion of NATO, the September 11 attack which was followed by the US war against Taliban forces in Afghanistan brought the former adversaries into the sphere of power-rivalry once again.

The independence of Central Asian Republics (CAR) after the Soviet disintegration, the emergence of terrorist outfits like al-Queda and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the region, all are matters of pressing concern for the US. Russia would not like to leave its traditional sphere of influence unwatched. Any happening in Central Asia may have its serious repercussions in Russia as well as for the US. This is more so in an age of globalisation of economy and terror, when political boundaries and geographical distances are not difficult to transcend and cover.

Thus, it is in the interest of both the powers to keep Central Asia stable. This common concern on part of both the powers is reflected by a willingness to harmonize their interests in the region. Besides their common interests, both the powers are competing for the vast natural resources of the region.

The geo-strategic importance of Central Asia is heightened by the geo-economic potentialities it has to offer. The Central Asian states are rich in economic and energy resources. Oil reserves of the Caspian region are estimated as high as 200 billion barrels. The region has more than 6% of world’s proven oil reserves and almost 46% of its gas reserves. The energy and other natural resources of Central Asia have attracted major regional and global players. The oil and gas pipelines have added new dimensions in the regional politics of Central Asia.

The region which was previously the centre of ‘Great Game’ between Russia and Britain in 19thcentury due to its geographical location as gateway to Indian subcontinent and the Persian Gulf came into prominence in the post-Cold War period. The geo-strategic flux generated shortly after the disintegration of Soviet Union attracted many regional players like China, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and India and great powers like the US and Russia towards the untapped potentials contained by these Republics. Some even went to the extent of suggesting that the end of Cold War has marked the beginning of the “new great game” in the region. In fact, the father of geopolitics Halford J. Mackinder had once said that ‘whoever controls Central Asia controls the world’. So, this region has become a playground where different actors are striving to carve niches of influence.

The US engagement in Central Asia has forced the regional actors to formulate their own strategies to maintain their foothold while containing the growing influence of the US. Broadly, it can be regarded as a power rivalry between the two major powers such as Russia and the US, although regional players like China too need to be taken into account while equations are assessed in Central Asia.

Currently, the competition for supremacy in Central Asia has reached a critical stage, when the major actors like Russia and China are engaging in this region jointly on the one hand and individually on the other. While Russia the true successor state of the demised Soviet Union, has begun its involvement by restructuring the old regional security structure like Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and engaging bilaterally with individual CAR, China on the other hand is growing into a critical regional power that is engaging itself with the individual states of Central Asia with many bilateral economic treaties and agreements.

Furthermore, both the powers are at loggerheads with the US through a regional multilateral organisation-Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) which was created as a forum for settling the border disputes of the concerned member states: China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Later on, Uzbekistan, the most populous and militarily superior state of all CARs joined this multilateral forum. In this context, from the Chinese perspective, the SCO should be viewed as a direct attempt to undermine the rationale for the US security presence in the region. Furthermore, Russia and China, the leading members of SCO want to take India which has traditional linkages with Central Asia and stakes in the oil and gas resources of the region in their struggle to prevent the establishment of the US global hegemony under the cover of fighting international terrorism.

In a summit meeting of the SCO which was held in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana on July 5-6, 2005 in which India got the observer status, the six members’ regional grouping called upon the US led anti-terrorist coalition to set a deadline on its military presence on the territories of the SCO member states. The fact is that in the run-up to the SCO summit in a meeting in Moscow on July 5, 2005, the Chinese President Hu Jinato and the Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a joint declaration rejecting the efforts by any power to achieve a monopoly in world affairs.

On the other hand, the Central Asian countries are scared of the US’ aggressive policy of democratisation which has attempted to change the governments of Ukraine, Georgia and Kazakhstan under its banner of colour revolutions. In the present scenario, the leaders of the Central Asian Republics those who backed the US in its war against terrorism are tilting towards Russia and China. In an instance, Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov ordered to close the Karshi Khanabad base, which was offered to the US during the war on terror.

Currently, this power rivalry between Russia and the US in Central Asia has reached such a stage where Russia along with China is going to lead in containing the US influence in the region while making the whole of Central Asia a battlefield for great-power rivalry.

*Dr. Anurag Tripathi is an Assistant Professor at Christ University, Bangalore. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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