Central Asia 末 A Chessboard for Power Play

By P K Jain


New Delhi, 25 March 2006

Central Asia is the region of ex-Soviet Union extending from the west of Caspian Sea to China in the east, Iran/Afghanistan in the south and Russian Caucasian states in the north. It comprises what are now independent republics 末 Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgystan 末 the last two have no littoral with the Caspian 末 and all have mainly a Muslim population. Central Asia was conquered by the Czars in the second half of 19th century and became a Russian backyard after being ruled by the Mongols and then Ottoman Turks. Prior to industrial revolution in Europe, it was known for the 都ilk route that carried trade from China and India. After remaining on the back burner for a century, this region has again assumed significance because of the large oil and gas finds in Kazakhastan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan as well as its strategic location vis--vis China, Iran and Afghanistan. Azerbaijan being west of Caspian, adjoins another jostling zone of the Caucasian Republics of Georgia and Armenia with a large Christian population.

Central Asia

The Caucasus

Bordering Georgia and Azerbaijan is the northern Caucasia, comprising the Russian federal States of Chechen (Grozny), Ingush, Ossetia and Dagestan which have long ongoing ethnic, regional and religious conflicts with a raging Muslim led insurgency in Chechnya. Furthermore, the five littoral states of the Caspian 末 Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan 末 have unresolved issues regarding maritime borders in the Caspian, problems of the sea-bed delimitation in the southern sector, rules of military activities and transit as well as conditions for sub-sea pipelines. Nevertheless, in the absence of an overall pact, Moscow has gone ahead with bilateral agreements with Kazakhstan in 2002, and Azerbaijan in 2003. Last July a high level international conference on Caspian security was held on board Russia's Caspian Flotilla flagship, Tatarstan where an idea was voiced for creating a joint naval force of the littoral states, similar to the Black Sea Force, presumably under the Russian aegis. It is to be noted that Russia maintains a largest naval force in the Caspian.

Rivarly for Power and Influence

While conceding the local control over Central Asia to Russia, European powers led by Britain first and now the USA have played chequers throughout the 20th century to deny Russia an easy access to the Persian Gulf, Middle East and South Asia, an endeavour which in the earlier era was the dictum that imperial Russia must stay off Persia and "the frontiers of Afghanistan and Balochistan. The recent Wars in Afghanistan 末 first to throw the Russians out by creating the monster of Taliban, which ultimately led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and then against the Taliban forces themselves 末 are nothing but the American version of the earlier military expeditions undertaken by the British from India. With the dismemberment of the Soviet state, and the weakening of Russian hold, the power games for control/influence in West Asia, Caucasus and Central Asia have once again been resumed under the US banner, which have been further fueled by the prospects of large reserves of oil and gas in this region. With its burgeoning economic growth and energy needs, China has also become an active player in this power game.

Besides direct military presence obtained under cooperation for the War on Terror, US has tried to topple pro-Russian regimes by the so called 祖olour revolutions 末 first the Rose Revolution of Dec 03 in Georgia, then the Orange Revolution of Dec 04 in Ukraine, followed by the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan and the bloody Andizhan uprising of May 05 in Uzbekistan. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Washington managed to set up military bases 末 Karshi Khanabad in Uzbekistan and at Manas in Kyrgyzstan from where thousands of US flights to and fro Afghanistan have been handled. In addition, it is also seeking three military-cum-air bases in Azerbaijan (Kurdamir, Nasosnaya and Guyullah). With Georgia being the second largest American aid recipient after Israel, use of military bases there by Pentagon is a tacit possibility which Russia has strongly objected to. Tehran apprehends that any US bases in Azerbaijan would encircle Iran. It therefore negotiated a defense agreement with Azerbaijan last April so that neither side would allow its territory to be used against the other.

With differences among littoral states regarding the legal status of the Caspian Sea, collective security amongst Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan remains a difficult idea, while potential for conflicts arise, which, in turn, become a pretext for American involvement. Russia on its part fears that radars installed in any American bases in Azerbaijan or Georgia would cover its industrial regions south of the Urals, which play a vital role in Russia's overall defenses. It does not want troops of any other country in Georgia after the Russian withdrawal. US has already attempted to undermine the Russian monopoly on oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia to the west with the inauguration in May 05 of the Baku傍iblisi砲eyhan (BTC) pipeline that passes through Georgia and Turkey. (More about the oil and gas game in the next article)

As the American aggressive moves cut through the vital interests of Russia, Iran and China, they have done their best to undermine the US influence and gains. The color revolutions in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan have been unraveled and the governments there are now in the hands friendly to Russia. In Georgia too, president Mikhail Saakashvili's rule is fast reverting to good old Caucasian ways much to the exasperation of Washington despite the generous American bankrolling of the pink government there. The US agenda of eliminating the Russian military presence from the south Caucasus also remains unfinished. The elections of Nov and Dec 05 in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan too, have given power in the hands of friends of Russia. Thus, it has been more or less driven home to US that its political moves in this region have been brought to nought. On the military front, in July last, president Karimov of Uzbekistan 末 (a look at the map will indicate why Uzbekistan is strategic for exercising or preventing control over Central Asian oil pipeline routes to Russia and China) 末 served a notice to US for eviction from Karshi訪hanabad 末 also known as K2 末 air base and despite serious diplomatic efforts for staying on, the Americans had to finally depart in end Nov 05. The Uzbek government also told the NATO alliance it could no longer use Uzbeki territory or airspace for operations in neighboring Afghanistan. Germany still uses a base near Termez, along the Uzbek泡fghan border but that too appears finite.

As if taking a cue from next-door Uzbekistan, the president of Kyrgyzstan, Bakiyev 末 a product of the 典ulip Revolution, in Sep 05 demanded that the Pentagon should pay higher rent for its base in Manas and also dismantle it as soon as the situation in Afghanistan became stable enough. He made this statement while on a visit to the Russian military base at Kant to the north of its capital Bishkek 末 in the presence of the visiting Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. Bakiyev on 22 Dec followed this up by asking the United States to pay "tens of times more" than it currently does. Apparently the demand is close to $200 million a year, a  figure so high that it tantamounts to saying, 努e want the United States out altogether. Bakiyev has also called for another military base to be opened at Osh in Ferghana Valley either under the Collective Security Treaty Organisation or SCO in addition to the Russian one in Kant.

It is, however, unlikely that Moscow will unduly pressure Bakiyev with regard to Kyrgyz剖S relations. So long as Washington accepts the ground reality that Russia has legitimate interests in its neighboring regions, the latter will let the three-way equation between Moscow, Bishkek and Washington (leaving out Beijing) remain as it is. Moscow would even prefer that Washington remain engaged in Kyrgyzstan, given the uncertainties in the Kyrgyz situation. The Kyrgyz economy which is critical, needs all the help it can get from abroad. Kyrgyzstan also needs time to recover from the volatility caused by the "Tulip revolution". Not wanting to be left out of all these contagious thoughts raging across the post-Soviet space of Central Asia, Tajikistan's president Rakhmonov announced during a tour of the eastern regions (bordering China) in Sept 05 that "in Tajikistan there never was, nor will there be, a US military base" thereby stifling the possibility of the US troops and equipment to be based there on being vacated from Uzbekistan. The French air force has a base at Tajikistan's Dushanbe airport that hosts about 200 personnel. Russia also has, besides a base in Kyrgyzstan at Kant, troops based in Tajikistan since the collapse of the Soviet Union and a recent agreement between Moscow and Dushanbe has formalized the legal status of these troops there.

Russia砲hina Join Hands to Keep US Out

Russia and China are making effective counter-moves in the region to checkmate the Americans and Iran is giving them a helping hand. The American move to secure bases in Azerbaijan is being met with the renewed efforts by Moscow, Tehran and Baku to collaborate on a North亡outh transportation corridor from Russia to the Persian Gulf, Middle East and South Asia. As a counterweight to US dalliances in West and Central Asia, Russia and China are evolving a common position by making strategic as well as tactical moves. The formation of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, China and Russia and then last year issuing a joint statement that the active military phase of the Afghan operation was coming to an end and hence the US-led coalition must set a deadline for ending the temporary use of bases and air space in member countries. China has poured more resources into maintaining the SCO than any other member state (India and Pakistan have been given Observer status). China has invested heavily in Central Asia to enhance its energy security. A 1,000-kilometer pipeline from Kazakhstan's central Karaganda region to its own northwestern Xinjiang region was commissioned in Dec 05. China is also working with Uzbekistan to develop its oil fields in the Ferghana Valley and has invested in hydroelectric projects in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Coinciding with the Andijan uprising trial, Uzbekistan conducted its first-ever military exercise with Russia on its soil and signed a mutual defense pact. Considering the tortuous course of Uzbek乏ussian relations during the 15-year period since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tashkent indeed made an important political statement that geography and history cannot be easily wished away by neighbours. In May 05, China gave a red-carpet welcome to Karimov the Uzbeki president, just days after his bloody crackdown on protesters and congratulated him on his handling of the riot. Both Russia and China have made it clear that Washington's interest in bases in Central Asia has little to do with its ongoing Afghanistan operations as it already has mega-bases in Afghanistan, Iraq and Gulf region with no problems for keeping as many troops and equipment as it wants to. Hence US bases in Central Asia have more to do with serving as "lily pads" from which troops may be leapfrogged to nearby trouble-spots at a moment's notice in pursuance of Yankee interests. Although Russia was initially concerned about China's deepening influence in its backyard and China too was keen to weaken Russia's political grip over these countries by enhancing its economic links, both now see a mutual interest in checking the growing US influence as also the Islamic insurgency.

India 末 A Small Player

India has no common border with any of the Central Asian States with Pakistan and Afghanistan in between. Its energy needs are an important reason for developing close ties with the region but vis--vis China and Russia it can at the most, exercise only a 都oft power influence largely due to the historic links and the existing goodwill. Prospects of trade could also be beneficial. Recently, China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and India's ONGC Mittal Energy (OME), a consortium comprising of the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and Mittal Group competed for the Canadian oil company, PetroKazakahstan but China won the deal. Besides a long term gas deal, Iran and India have agreed to jointly develop the Iranian port at Chahbahar as well as the road linking the port to Afghanistan and Central Asia, with India having exclusive rights to the port. The US-backed Turkmenistan泡fghanistan鳳akistan (TAP) or Trans-Afghan pipeline is also on the table and with an improvement in India鳳akistan relations, the pipeline could potentially be extended to India and renamed TAPI. The Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline is also on the table though not being benignly looked at by the US. India has reportedly established a military and medical facility in Tajikistan. It is also providing large scale developmental financial and technical aid to Afghanistan.


After a three year tug-of-war, the US has lost ground to Russia and China in the Central Asian region. Russia has shown that it is not competing with US in the region in zero-sum terms, but will not hesitate to do what it takes for retaining its influence. In concert with China it wants to ensure this backyard to be trouble free. Last August, the Russia砲hina relationship reached a symbolic point when both countries engaged in their first-ever bilateral war games. The exercises, called Peace Mission 2005, took place from August 1825 and consisted of large scale sea, land and air maneuvers. The establishment of SCO with emphasis on a common defence against any outside intervention and the 鍍hree evils of extremism, terrorism and fundamentalism, are signs of a determined posture to serve own interests in the region. In his recent visit to China on 21 Mar 06, president Putin gave a go-ahead for an oil pipeline from Siberia to China with priority over the one to Nakhodka for supply to Japan besides of course upholding a strategic partnership between the two countries. It is now clear that the Western integration process in the post Soviet republics of Ukraine, Caucasus and Central Asia is very much linked to and conditional on Russia痴 own Western orientation. These republics have realized that for some more time to come, the integration with the West is counterproductive if it means a form that separates them from Russia. Furthermore, for China, the influence in this region besides meeting its energy needs, also means asserting itself as a global power to rival the United States. The coming decade is going to be of great interest to watch the Eagle, Bear and Dragon in action in this region and how India plays its cards to serve its own interests.

(In next Article read 迭ace for Oil and Gas in Asia)

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