Monday, June 26, 2006

The Great Game, Part II

Great Game was the rivalry between the Russian and British empires for the markets of Central Asia. Great Game began in 1807 when Napoleon proposed a joint attack to Tsar Alexander I on India and ended in 1907 when the two sides formally agreed on spheres of influence. That century of suspicion and deception resulted in some bloodletting, but the two great powers, though they came close, never went to war with each other.

Great Game II has some familiar as well as new aspects. The main players are Russia, China, the United States and Iran. As in the 19th century, ideology plays a secondary role, as the real stakes are gas, oil and strategic advantage. Unlike the 19th century, the Central Asian states are now primarily sellers rather than buyers. As always, these states prove adroit at playing the great powers off one other.

Turkmenistan gas is shipped to Europe through Russian pipelines that pass through Ukrainian territory.

Uzbekistan, the Belarus of Central Asia, granted the United States rights to use an airbase to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida but withdrew those rights when the United States criticized Uzbekistan for the still-murky slaughter in Andijan in May 2005. Russia deftly moved to fill the vacuum. By September Russia and Uzbekistan held joint military exercises and two months later signed a treaty promising mutual military assistance in case of aggression.

Doubters say the contest for influence in the region does not directly challenge the vital national interests of China, Russia, or the United States. The need is mainly energy and policial. There is little business motivation to sell broadcloth in Bukhara.

The United States now has troops in an arc from the Caucasus to Kyrgyzstan and has made no secret of its position on Caspian oil and the Baku-Tbilisi-Cejan pipeline.

Russia will re-establish its old relations with Central Asia and the southern Caucasus, and reassert its sphere of influence in that region, once it gets its economy rectified.

This out of the way and little understood part of the world (few could name or locate the five south central Asia nations -- Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan) will play a greater role in world energy and political markets.

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