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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 35

US’ Grand Game in Central Asia

Tuesday 19 August 2008, by Ash Narain Roy


In 1904, British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder wrote: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the world.” A hundred years later, the heart (centre) of the world has moved east. Were Mackinder to write today, he would have said: “Who rules Central Asia commands the world.” It is this critical importance of the region that explains why Central Asia is witnessing a new “Great Game” today with the US vying for influence with Russia and China. It was Rudyard Kipling who had first used the phrase “Great Game” to refer to the rivalry between Czarist Russia, Victorian England and the Ottoman Empire in Central Asia for control of trade routes to India in the 19th century.

The “Great Game” today is by no means confined to the three actors.
Today, the players are far more diverse. Central Asia has many new actors jockeying for influence. Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia are using their clouts—cultural, linguistic and religious— to have a slice of the geopolitical cake. Germany has drawn up a new plan to boost EU dialogue with Central Asia. France and India are also working overtime to establish a foothold in the region. All the countries consider Central Asia vital to their economic and geopolitical interests.

While Europe is manoeuvring to satisfy its energy needs, China and India, the fastest growing economies, depend greatly on the region’s huge reserves of hydrocarbon to quench their booming economies’ thirst. Corporate intrigue, fierce diplomacy and muscle-flexing are in full play. A proxy global energy war is underway. Today’s scramble is not merely for “black gold” but also geopolitics. Central Asia, the Caucasus in particular, is a potential bridge between the North and South and a major transportation and communication link between the East and West. The area is a transit route for oil and gas pipelines, but has also become a haven for terrorists and drug smugglers.

It takes no great political wisdom to surmise that the US policy in Central Asia is aimed at securing its strategic interests and to wean the energy-rich states away from Russian influence. By forestalling the powers and influence of a Eurasian power on either continent, the US is seeking to extend its vital geostrategic interests. The strategy has floundered. But Washington has not given up.

The US has made a policy shift in the region after Uzbekistan evicted the Pentagon from an air base that it was using to support the war in Afghanistan in 2005. Though democracy promotion is still very much on agenda, Washington now pursues what International Herald Tribune calls “a wider portfolio of interests”. These include access to oil and gas, improving trade and transportation infrastructure and expanding military, counter-narcotic and counter-terror cooperation with the region. While the US had to face the ignominy of being evicted from the Karshi-Khanabad base in Uzbekistan, the American military is having its presence in Kyrghyzstan for the last seven years. D. Petreus, commander of the multinational forces in Iraq, has said that Kyrghyzstan “wants to widen and strengthen existing relations with the US”. He further indicated that the expansion and improvement of infrastructure at Gansi base in Kyrghyzstan “will go on”.

He is also hopeful of better bilateral military ties with Turkmenistan. To Petreus, “Dushanbe remains a reliable partner supporting operations of the coalition forces and it is willing to expand military ties with the US”. All is not lost in Uzbekistan for the US. Germany stations 300 troops with helicopters at Termez in Uzbekistan for the US. Washington is negotiating to have its warplanes there as well. Admiral William Fallon of the US Central Command undertook a visit to Central Asia early this year including Uzbekistan. Analysts believe there was more to his visit to Tashkent than coordination of the Afghan war efforts.

It is true that following the repression of May 2005 and the rebuke it received from the West, Tashkent turned to Moscow and Beijing and it even joined the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. However, today the Russian-Uzbek ties are less cordial. Washington is trying to take advantage of this situation. Admiral Fallon’s visit to Tashkent could thus be seen as activisation of efforts by the US in Central Asia to prevent Moscow from solidifying its energy and strategic positions in the region. He met President Karimov and held consultations with Defence and Foreign Ministers. Whether the mission was to get American bases back or to prevent Moscow from permanently stationing Russian forces in Uzbekistan, which is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, is not clear. Russia has formed the CSTO to prevent the former members of the Commonwealth of Independent States from aligning with the NATO and the US is attempting to sabotage this defence organisation. Admiral Fallon also went to Ashkhabad and Dushanbe. Richard Lugar, the senior US Senator, also undertook a tour of Central Asia prior to Admiral Fallon’s visit.

RUSSIA has emerged as the world’s first energy superpower. No one has any doubt about its military and nuclear capabilities. Geography favours Russia’s desire to play a major economic role, especially in the energy sector. Although most Central Asian countries have begun to reach out to the global marketplace, the Russian capital continues to capture a major share of their markets. Russia is still a major trading partner for all the Central Asian countries, especially on the import side. Moscow is also a major defence partner. More importantly, Russia’s soft power is what has given it the edge over the rest. Moscow is using both its hard and soft powers to achieve a power projection capability in the region. The Navoi air base in Uzbekistan is part of Russia’s larger effort to encompass all of Central Asia under a single defence organisation.

It is this power projection that Washington is trying to undermine. US interests in Central Asia are as much aimed at securing access to energy as they are strategic in nature. Democratisation of the region is only a cover. The US is working overtime to ensure access to American firms seeking energy exploration, refining and marketing. As Stephen Blank, Professor of National Security Studies at the US Army War College, says, “the leitmotif of US energy policy has been focused on fostering the development of multiple pipelines and links to foreign consumers and producers of energy”.

The US has at least 11 military bases in the region, including Turkey and Iraq, far more than anyone else. In Central Asia itself, the US has one base–Manas Air Base, near Bishkek in Kyrghyzstan, while the NATO maintains at least three others in the region. Ostensibly, the objective of these bases is to support the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But pipeline protection is the real aim.
Russia under President Putin was able to largely reclaim its energy and political dominance throughout the Central Asian region. Energy resources are reshaping the geopolitical map in Central Asia. It has now come to a virtual pipeline war. Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are landlocked countries. They depend on their immediate neighbours for access to the Western markets. The essence of the new geopolitical game in Central Asia is two-fold—control of production of the oil and gas and control of the pipelines to transfer the hydrocarbon to the Western markets.

The existing pipelines pass through Russia. Moscow wants Kazakhstan to expand its existing pipelines to link them to the Russian network and Azerbaijan to build a pipeline from Baku to Novorossiysk. The US, on the other hand, favours pipelines that bypass Russia. Even though the costs incurred will be enormous, the US favours construction of pipelines from Baku to the port of Ceyhan on the Turkish Mediterranean coast. The US is not only trying to extricate the Central Asian states from the Russian sphere of influence, but to hit Russia where it hurts.

The US along with Western firms has been relatively successful in gaining access to a number of Kazakhstan’s oilfields. But in the realm of gas resources, it has encountered greater difficulty due mainly to the monopolistic power of the Russian petroleum company, Gazprom, and Russian control of the pipelines.

While the great game is getting intense, Central Asian states are themselves getting into the game, using the contradictions between the various powers competing for influence. The race for control of energy resources is accompanied by power projections of a military kind as well. One could see gleaming rows of US Air Force KC-135 midair refueling tankers line the airstrip at Manas airport. Russia, of course, flies Sukhoi-27 fighters from its base at nearby Kant. China is also reportedly negotiating its military presence in Kyrghyzstan. Indian engineers are quietly reconstructing a former Soviet airfield near Dushanbe. French Air Force planes could also be seen sitting on the tarmac at Dushanbe airport.

All said, Washington Post was not off the mark when it wrote not long ago that Moscow was “on its way to becoming the next Houston—the global capital of energy”. Geopolitics is working in Russia’s favour.

The author is the Associate Director, Institute of Social Science, New Delhi.

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