The Tournament of Shadows – same playground, different protagonists

Captain Arthur Conolly, a British officer of the Sixth Bengal Native Light Cavalry left his imprint on the formidable opposition that took place in Central Asia in the XIX century between two great empires, Victorian Britain and Tsarist Russia. The “Great Game” as it was called in London or “Tournament of Shadows” in Saint Petersburg saw for half a century Russia advancing south to secure its interest in Central Asia whilst at stake for Britain was the defence of the “jewel in the crown” India.

Peter Hopkirk in his outstanding book “The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia” tells the stories of heroes from both sides such as Captain Conolly who commenced the mapmaking in Central Asia on foot (yes well Google Maps was not exactly up to date at the time..) and worked to unite the three khanates of Khiva, Bokhara and Khokand so as to thwart the Tsarist Russian expansion plan.

Strategically located between the Russian steppes, the border of China’s Xinjiang province and Afghanistan (giving access to India), Central Asia and its khanates / emirs saw themselves dragged into unwanted intrigues, manoeuvres, invasion, betrayals from the great forces in place at that time.

A new round of the “Tournament of Shadows” has sprung into existence on the Central Asian chessboard, albeit with different protagonists. The Eagle, the Bear and the Dragon are taking their (furry) gloves off. Pawns in the past, Central Asian countries have a greater role to play this time.

 

RUSSIA

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to the creation of the five independent ‘-stans”: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The region nowadays faces intense tensions of ethnic and strategic nature. The conflict between Uzbek and Kyrgyz inhabitants in the south of Kyrgyzstan for instance and the dispute over water resources nature are still very much in play. Thus the stability in the region is critical for the forces in play who see Central Asia as a bridge to their ambitions.

For Russia at stake is nothing less than its ability to remain relevant in its backyard. Its influence is still strong looking at history and also on the military front (Russia has military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan). Russia traditionally has been the guarantor of security in the region, but perhaps the most critical challenge for Russia today is Uzbekistan, the most populous country in Central Asia with about 30 million inhabitants.

Islam Karimov, who ruled the country for more than 27 years, died early September last year. Mr Karimov has always been distrustful of Russia and in the past conducted anti-Russian policy. His death represents an opportunity for Russia to restore its influence. The visits of Prime Minister Medvedev at Karimov’s funeral and of President Putin three days later, or the meeting between Mr Karimov’s daughter and Alisher Usmanov, a Russian oligarch of Uzbek origin were certainly not randomly executed & illustrate the political subplots to which Russia holds the secret. The fear of increased terrorism and ethnic unrest at its periphery makes it all the more critical for Russia to keep involved in the region.

The question being whether Russia has the means to its ambition. The country is in economic recession and has domestic priorities to address. It recently executed plans to withdraw troops from Central Asia. On top of this Russia cannot quite compete with the Chinese financial firepower. The historic distrust between Russia and China makes a Sino-Russian alliance to break the US hegemony in the region quite unrealistic. Thus Russia will have to keep an inquisitive eye on China’s expansion in the region.

 

CHINA

China has stood as the region’s economic trump card as therefore as a major protagonist in the Tournament of Shadows by investing heavily in Central Asia in infrastructure, trade and more recently defence. China’s objective is not so much to compete with other regional forces but firstly to secure oil and natural gas supplies from hydrocarbon-rich Central Asia. In fact, stabilisation in the region for China is paramount. Most tangibly the aggravation of ethnic unrest and terrorism risk threatens the supply of Turkmen gas (as the pipeline runs through Uzbekistan), and has a negative impact on Xinjiang province which is populated by Muslim Uighurs. A breakdown of the stability in Central Asia would create a haven for separatists at its border and would compel China to take radical action. The suicide bomber attack of the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan last August reminds us that China is not immune.

Secondly, the 21st century “Maritime Silk Road” project gigantic project will provide an alternative route to Europe. The control of the oceans was a key reason behind Great Britain’s domination of the international scene in the XIX century, but the Chinese navy force cannot yet compete with its US counterpart. Hence rail and overland developments are critical to Chinese ambitions.

In particular China is funding the reconstruction of the highly strategic Gwadar port in Pakistan, giving a unique access to the Arabian sea. Multiple projects are being discussed or already well advanced, such as railroads from Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang western province to the Iranian sea littoral, or a high speed line from Eastern China all the way to Europe via Kazakhstan. China has also been active outside its shores and had been bidding for the proposed Belgrade – Budapest and Istanbul – Western Europe high speed rail links.

Struggling Central Asian economies have been welcoming China’s support thus far and have become substantially dependant in financial terms. Millions of dollars from the gas route will be reaped annually in transit fees by these countries. According to naturalgasworld.com, Tajikistan for instance is expected to receive $2.5bn annually whilst its GDP stands roughly at $8.5bn…

 

IRAN

Iran is emerging from years of isolation. The rapprochement between Tehran & Washington is still fragile but Iran should strengthen its role in the region, both on the economic and cultural front. Central Asian countries would certainly benefit from a larger regional integration and Iran’s geographical position would provide them with the access to open seas in the south. Additionally, it would to some extent free them from the Russian influence.

But the risk of the export of the Islamic revolution have always hampered the efforts to build a regional force. Also Central Asian countries friendly relations with Israel make it more difficult for Iran to position itself as a unifying power. Iran seems keen to make concessions & promote regional cooperation. The international community surely would have much to gain from a greater Iranian involvement in the region for instance in its efforts against a Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The question really being whether the end of the nuclear dispute can foster the development of regional and bilateral exchanges and put aside ideological differences.

 

It is perhaps interesting to note that the involvement of the Unites States and Europe has significantly decreased over the years in Central Asia and as such the West is not positioned to take a significant role in the game. The main challenge for the West may come from Uzbekistan and an increase in the influence of Moscow. A widening ethnic conflict might also increase migratory pressures on EU and hence again stability in the region is very much in the West’s interest. The United States might actually see Iran as a credible partner to promote further regional integration and counter China’s expansion.