2015_Summit_of_the_Shanghai_Cooperation_Organization_03Of key players in


Abdul Rasool Syed

With the collapse of Soviet Union back in 1991, the great game that began between the Russian and the British Empire, and culminated in the fight for dominance over Afghanistan, came to an end. This, however, created a power vacuum in the Central Asian region that rich in with hydrocarbon and other precious mineral resources. The big players in world politics, i.e. Russia, China and the United States with their respective vested interests rushed to fill the vacuum left by the Soviet Union. This led to the resumption of a new version of the great game; a collision of three great powers that are out to eliminate one another’s influence in this part of the world. Unlike the previous version, today’s Great game, also dubbed as a new great game by geopolitical experts, is global, more complex and much more dangerous.

“It is now clear that with the renewed great game” remarked G. Asgar Mitha, “there are more players and more rivalry than it was during the game being played out between Britain and Russia in the nineteen and twentieth centuries. In that game there was one winner and one loser. The stakes for which the game is now being played are global supremacy, energy, geography, geopolitical security, religion and financial control.”

The geopolitical, geostrategic and geo economic importance of Central Asia is not unknown to any. This region has been described as the heart of the world. In 1994, a modern geographer Halford John Mackinder wrote: “The one who rules Eastern Europe, commands the heartland and the one who rules the heartland, commands the world.” This region is called the heart of the world because the energy resources here are far larger than those of the Middle East. Experts believe that the Central Asian energy resources are enough to satisfy the needs of big energy consumers such as Russia, China and the United States, and they can be the best substitute for the Middle Eastern energy resources the supply of which is vulnerable to fluctuation due to risk of terrorism and ongoing civil wars. It is due to this reason that big players are striving to outsmart each other so as to gain as much share from the available pool of energy resources as possible. This competitive engagement among the three big powers to establish hegemonic control over the region is euphemistically called “the new great game”.

These three key players in this new great game have their respective vested interests in the region that are briefly discussed hereunder.

China is one of the most influential players in the new great game. Bejing’s political strategy for Central Asia is guided by two important factors : ( i) to get lion’s share in the hydrocarbon resources of the region with the help of profitable and long-lasting economic ties with the countries here; and (ii) to ensure physical integrity of the People’s Republic of China, security of its national borders and promotion of regional stability.

Apart from this, what is more important is the launch of China’s BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) which has added a new chapter to the great power rivalry over the Eurasian chessboard. The land routes of the BRI can potentially wean Chinese trade off the traditional maritime routes, rendering it invulnerable to a naval blockade — a priority in the face of ongoing tensions between China and the United States. At the same time, the project also clashes with the established Russian initiatives in the region, all of which feeds into common fear of Beijing attempting to usurp Moscow in its traditional sphere of influence.  Against this backdrop, the prospects for Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union look dim against China’s BRI. The arrangement is fairly stable for now, yet fears of instability from South and Central Asia have forced Beijing to slowly increase its security profile there as well.

Another key player in this great game is Russia that too is aggressively working to pursue its interests in the region. Moscow’s interests in the region are diverse. The first is the fear of proliferation of the region’s secessionist movements, especially those   tinged with Islamic extremism, a perception shared by Beijing as well. Religious extremism, along with weapons-smuggling and drug trafficking is considered an existential threat by Russia. Its second interest in the region, for sure, is the quest for hydrocarbon resources. Russia leaves no stone unturned to maintain its central role in the extraction, refining and exportation of these energy resources to the European market.


However, after realizing that it alone cannot scupper the hegemonic plan of the United States, Russia has now tilted towards those states that share its concern over the US penetration into Central Asia. This perception has brought Russia closer to China which also wants to contain growing American influence in the region. The mutual cooperation of Russia and China to counter American moves is conspicuous in the shape of SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) of which they are the founding members.

The United States, another big player and the formidable rival of both China and Russia, is also deeply interested in this new great game. Its interest rose in the region with the disintegration of Soviet Union in 1991, and subsequent shift in the international power structure. Its first here was to obliterate the communist ideology from Central Asia, and to introduce capitalism or market-based economy instead through liberal political and economic reforms.

The United States’ interest in Central Asia got a dramatic boost after its 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. The Pentagon quickly negotiated basing deals in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to supply for its war effort; as well as protecting its commercial interests in the energy-rich Caspian basin and securing its supply lines to Afghanistan. The US was keen to prevent what Fiona Hill called the “Afghanicisation” of Central Asia, spillovers from Afghanistan and the growth of homegrown terror groups.

Additionally, it is also an indubitable fact now that Washington too has unambiguous interests in rich energy resources of Central Asia for it has found yet an alternate to hydrocarbon resources of the Middle East. It has, therefore, entered into many agreements with CARs (Central Asian Republics) to fulfil its desire to have as much share from available energy reservoirs as possible. To this end, America is eager to establish its hegemony over the region so that it could ensure an uninterrupted supply of energy to meet its requirements.

To counter imperialistic designs of the United States, China and Russia have entered into a marriage of convenience. They have created a synergy to shatter the American dreams in the region. While China does not seem as driven by aggressive anti-West sentiment as Russia does, Beijing and Moscow share the strategic goal: to reduce Western influence particularly the Americanization of the world. China delivers the capital to bolster new alliances whereas Russia delivers political poison to weaken the old ones. It is a perfect match.

In addition, while Russia offers military might, China offers a mercantile variant. Unlike the West, China doesn’t let human rights and the rule of law get in the way of investments. In late 2017, Beijing increased its investment in Ukraine, announcing it as an important building block in its new Silk Road to Europe. The government in corruption-ridden Kiev has already gladly declared 2019 “The Year of China” in Ukraine. China and Russia stand ready as alternative models and protective powers to CARs, offering new arrangements for bilateral and multilateral alignments.

To cap it all, it is premature to conclude as to who will win this new great game? All three key players are equally powerful and well-equipped with the required paraphernalia to outshine one another. However, it is advisable that the participants of this new great game should never resort to armed conflict for humanity cannot endure more wars and more loss of precious human capital.

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