The “New Great Game” became a much-debated term of current events in the region. Currently, the analogy of “great powers” transformed into hegemony, powers, regional security. It is basically focused on the importance of the geopolitical security, financial control, global supremacy and energy. This renewed game brought more competition, more rivalry among the players. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, it strengthened the regional security and decreased the tendency for the ruling of only one power over the regions. It is very obvious that “New Great Game” is dynamic in nature. . The renewed geopolitical interest determines the actions, behaviour and the role of the players in this game. It is mainly maintaining the balancing game internationally. Almost for a decade, the major external, as well as Regional players struggled for hegemony, power, global supremacy, natural gas resources, energy, and towards the control of oil resources of the region of Caspian Sea were described as the ‘New Great Game’. The major four combatants are China, Russia, U.S.A and EU.
Lately, in the 19th century, few experts used the term, “The New Great Game” and analyses that “it is an international competition between foreign rivalry and within the Central Asian region”. The term New Great Game has been used both as an opportunity and a constraint for major players in global politics. There is competition for control, power, dominate, own motives and interest. The new sources of hydrocarbon resources, natural gases and extracting oil were probably available for major external actors. The growing use of this analytical value could be described as politico-religious goals, maximization of profit, and promotion of religious security and revival of geopolitical interests. These two ideas have perceived the political, social, economic security. The contemporary use of the geopolitical approach in this region is self-evident, which has increased their roles in the foreign policy of global powers. Some Western observers suggest that the Caspian Sea countries contain the largest amount of energy resources. ‘The Caspian region’ has become a significant source of global energy production as well as a centre of extending geopolitical and economic interest. The aim of the renewed game is more focused on independent sovereignty, attaining control over the oil, energy assets and secure transportation routes to global markets than balancing their neighbours.
The Caspian region possesses the rich amount of energy resources, “which is playing a significant role politically and economically in order to dominate the region over the Caspian region countries and the world”. After Kazakhstan proclaimed its independence in 1991, it found itself landlocked and located between two major powers China and Russia. Kazakhstan has enormous energy resources of oil and natural gas, but Kazakhstan lies far from the world’s energy markets. For Kazakhstan, the route of pipelines exporting oil and gas is a major interest, and both a source of prosperity and potential political dependence. For both the United States (US) and China, Kazakhstan and Central Asia represent an alternative source of stable oil and gas supply and help to limit China’s oil dependence on the Middle East and organisation of petroleum exporting countries (OPEC). Several commentators, authors and scholars have described the competition for energy resources in Central Asia between the world’s major powers as a “New Great Game.” “This policy is based on Kazakhstan’s need to build relations and partnerships in multiple directions”. Kazakhstan’s location in Central Asia with powerful neighbours and a landlocked position, demands Kazakhstan to cooperate with others to secure export routes for its resources and protect its interests more broadly. “The country’s large reserves, growing production and export of oil and gas give Kazakhstan an opportunity to use energy resources as a tool, to promote and achieve foreign policy interests and objectives”. Energy resources can potentially help Kazakhstan to overcome its difficult foreign policy position, and avoid too much dependence on any one state, especially Russia.
Dynamics of New Great Game and Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan is a young sovereign state. The economy of Kazakhstan depends densely on oil sector. After Russia, Kazakhstan places second in terms of mineral production among the CIS countries. It is also a landlocked country and a transit country. In 1911, Kazakhstan became an oil producer. In the decade of 1960s and 1970s, the production became expanded to a relevant level. The rich resources, oil and natural gas, in the region has attracted the international community. Recently, the oil production of Kazakhstan is influenced by two giant onshore fields, namely, Tengiz and Karachaganak. Kazakhstan makes an effort to perform strategy among other countries of the world community that makes it an equivalent partner.
Energy has become the focus of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Since its independence the leadership in Kazakhstan has followed multi-vector and balanced principles in its relationship with all the countries in the international arena. The geography of Central Asia is such that due to its natural resources and its proximity to the Caspian Sea, they attract the focus of the developed and developing countries for their growth. Hydrocarbon reserves have been the greatest boon for Kazakhstan and since independence it has greatly utilized this capacity.
“New Great Game” as the utmost generally used analogy for the geopolitical change of Central Asia. For Kazakhstan, this game approach is mainly for three reasons: territorial integrity, regime legitimacy and universal recognition in regional as well as international affairs. The countries of Central Asia have been the focus of this great game since the disintegration of former Soviet Union: “Central Asia, for good or for ill, is back once more in the thick of the news, and looks like staying there for a long time to come.” This approach reflects awareness among central Asian states. Central Asian states play a central role in interactions between European Union (EU), America, Russia and China. Kazakhstan is an independent state, who have been changed its ideology and focused on both a constraint and an opportunity of game approach. On the one hand, original great game was fought between Britain and Russia for dominance in Central Asia.
In 2013, as Laruelle and Peyrouse says “a realistic interpretation of the interaction between Central Asian countries and external actors is therefore not of a ‘Great Game,’ but rather of many ‘little games’ that are modular, evolving, negotiable, complementary, and not exclusive of one another”. The “great powers” discourse has transformed and now focuses on the importance of the region principally as suppliers of energy resources to the global market; increasing competition has led to increasing conflicts in the region. In the “New Great Game” the fight for control over territory has now been shifted to the control of oil and gas reserves and pipeline routes.
The new players to join this great game are USA, China and the EU. As Cooley (2012) has stated, the game is not the sole preserve of the global players: “the Central Asian states, even the weaker ones, are not passive pawns in the strategic manoeuvrings of the great powers, but important actors in their own right. Thus, the new game is being played at a number of levels. The rules of the game are not dictated solely by the big players. The Central Asian states themselves have drawn up the ‘local rules’ that guide many of these geopolitical interactions, learning to leverage this interest and even fuel perceptions of regional competition to guard their domestic political power and extract economic benefits”.
Kazakhstan is a predominant actor among Central Asian countries. It is a key player in terms of supplying natural resources to the outside world. As Khidirbekughli (2003) puts it, “Kazakhstan has become the focal point of strategic rivalries in twenty-first century”. However, in the power rivalry between Russia and China, Kazakhstan becomes very vulnerable. The key observer of the game for the Kazakhstan government is both internal and external. As a newly independent nation Kazakhstan has a need to establish its legitimacy domestically and internationally. Its multi-ethnic political entities that have emerging from its colonial and imperial past have also contributed to this great game. The President of Kazakhstan has also promoted “economy first” principle and has also associated himself and his government with set targets. These targets give importance to economic development ahead of democratic ambition. In the past decade Kazakhstan has been among the top five fastest developing countries. Territorial integrity and regime survival have been the aim of the elite in Kazakhstan. Moreover, personal wealth and status have also been important. Kazakhstan has asserted its independence by developing diplomatic relations with 139 countries, diplomatic missions in 74 and accredits diplomats from 107 states. Kazakhstan is also an enthusiastic participant in regional and international organisations. These include the WTO, the OSCE, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), and the World Economic Forum in 2013.
Greater Eurasia: New Great Game formulate abundant possibilities for Central Asia
The title “New Great Game” became the most conversed topic in the contemporary realm of global politics. The heart of the Eurasian continent, the Central Asian region, already witnessed a colonial battle between Russian and Britain. The position of Geopolitical status more fueled up the conflict. The Great Game furnished an unpleasant impact on the entire Central Asian region; it grasps by the Russian empire. Russia’s century-long predominance over the Central Asia region concluded with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, it nevertheless has a massive impact over the countries of Central Asian states Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Following centuries, they were preceding reappeared different New Grete Game, where the foremost global power countries have engaged. The internal scenario of central Asian states is struggling over hegemonic power. Subsequently, the central Asian nations are well equipped with natural resources like oil, gas like Kazakhstan’s largest uranium producer, that attracts all major countries to penetrate in Central Asia.
The New Great Game impacted both as constraint and opportunity in Central Asia. The central Asian states are adopted the multi-vector approach to the foreign policy due to landlocked country. So, the developed countries are offered various development schemes in the region. Currently, three major powers are Russia, US and China compete with each other to become a prominent player in Central Asia. Every nation is looking for their interest through the region. Nowadays, Washington mostly engaged in the New Great Game, after the US entered in Afghanistan, and it required Central Asian states cooperation to expand the authority of NATO in Eurasian land. Although, following the attack on 9/11, the US mostly keep eyes on terrorism activities and central Asian states are becoming significant for security purpose. Moscow always indeed to the presence in Central Asian internal politics and seems to maintain its status quo. Russia always considered the Central Asian states as his campaign, with the significant military, economic and political influence. Moscow consistently rated Central Asian nations as “soft underbelly”. Russian culture, music, food highly incorporated with Central Asian states, but Moscow seems fallen the economic competition with Beijing. China is somewhat successful in pushing Russian influence in Central Asia.
China expands its control over in the pecuniary sector, Dragon becoming larger trade partner and investor in that region. China’s visionary project ‘Belt and Road initiative’ and China’s strategy to influence and grow its economic power over the Eurasian continent required Central Asian states linear involvement. China shared more than 3000 k.m of the direct border with CA, this is an opportunity for China to enhance its strength and became more dominant rather than other countries. Central Asia is a crucial component in the Geopolitical puzzle. The abundant of natural resource in CA is the primary purpose behind for more intense of New Great Game. The Caspian Sea contains a large amount of natural resource. The superpower countries followed up the pathway of the dependency model, and they create opportunity with precisely inside their acquisition. The new Great Game change the notion of Geopolitics on a broader level. China is steadily expanding its influence over the Eurasian mainland with hegemonic expansion over the south china sea. There is an appearance of another cold war (economic domain) between China and the US; both countries headed for intense competition for global supremacy. That’s why central Asia states played an essential function to determine immense superiority over the Eurasian landmass. All these countries participated in New Great Game implemented the soft power and made an effort to pull Central Asian nations through proffering opportunities. The central Asian States compensated relishes the possibility, although faced reluctance from significant players. The potential development of the Central Asian Region endures the growth of the Eurasian continent.
Territorial Disputes in Central Asia: Myths and Reality
One of the focal points of any state foreign policy is the issue of territorial disputes, irrespective of its geographical size, economic opportunities or geopolitical ambitions. At the same time, in the modern world, the scenario of the use of force as a possible option for China to resolve territorial disputes in Central Asia is hardly probable. None of the parties, including neighboring countries, are interested in intensifying territorial claims and initiating a real conflict. Despite the apparent advantages, a guaranteed response from the international community jeopardizes all benefits for the potential aggressor (for example, Beijing) from possible territorial acquisitions. In addition, the system of control and monitoring has been formed in the region with the direct participation of Russia. The guarantors of the system are, in particular, the SCO and the CSTO; the latter one has a sufficiently deterrent effect on the capacity of regional players to demonstrate invasive intentions.
Meanwhile, the international community developed a civilized way to resolve territorial disputes through diplomatic means such as long-term leasing of land, the creation of joint jurisdictions, etc. China has experience of transferring territories, for example, the 99-year lease of Hong Kong by the United Kingdom or the recognition of Macao as “Chinese territory under Portuguese administration” followed by the signing of the joint Declaration on the question of Macao. Since China became a successful economic power, Beijing has preferred to resolve territorial disputes through diplomatic instruments, rather than from a position of strength.
It should be pointed out that implementing its Belt and Road Initiative, China has never presented it as a charity project. Moreover, the initial goal was the development of the Central and Western regions of China. All foreign countries participating in the initiative expressed their desire to join it on the terms of mutually beneficial development. By accepting China’s offers and agreeing to its loans and investment projects, any of the countries had the opportunity to assess the risks and not participate in them, or to make a choice and develop their own economy on the terms of other financial institutions, such as Western ones. In this case, China acts in the Central Asian region like most major powers interested in strengthening their positions and promoting their political, economic and humanitarian agenda.
Possible allegations of Beijing concluding economic contracts on bonded terms should also be addressed to officials of the “affected” countries who agreed to these proposals from the Chinese side. At the same time, if it appears that one of the parties has not acted in its national interests, this is more a problem of the internal state structure of a particular country and its attitude to the work of its own officials, and to a much lesser extent – a claim to the development of bilateral relations with China.
It is also necessary to distinguish the official position of the state from the statements of individuals who often act in their own interests. For example, an article with the title “Why Kazakhstan seeks to return to China,” which is given as an example in the publication “Land leases and territorial claims of China in Central Asia and the South Caucasus,” was written by an anonymous blogger with just over 80 thousand subscribers (insignificant number according to the Chinese standards). An analysis of how the news was spread geographically by international media, as well as the contents of official statements, confirms the opinion of experts-sinologists that it was an attempt to gain popularity and “collect likes,” and has nothing in common with the official position of Beijing.
Another example of using the foreign policy agenda in the internal political struggle is the statement of the leader of the opposition party of Tajikistan, R. Zoirov, who accused China of moving the borderline 20 kilometers deeper into the territory of Tajikistan.
On the eve of the presidential elections in 2013, Tajikistan’s opposition once again tried to “accuse authorities of surrendering land to China” in the framework of the 2002 border demarcation agreement. China claimed 28 thousand square kilometers of Tajikistan’s territory, but as a result of the negotiations, it received just over 1 thousand square kilometers of high-altitude land unsuitable for life, without proven volumes of large deposits. The results of negotiations can be evaluated in different ways, but each country has the right to seek convenient forms of dispute resolution and debt repayment. In addition, this agreement was ratified by the government of Tajikistan only in 2011. The official representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan described the statement of the opposition as a provocation, due to the fact that the author acts in his own interest. Later, it was revealed that Zoirov’s statement refers to 2011 and was “made two years ago and published just now.” According to R. Zoirov, he determined the distance to the border based on the statements of local residents. The official authorities of Tajikistan, China, Russia and other regional powers ignored information about China’s occupation of Tajikistan’s territory as unreliable.
Recognizing the high public sensitivity of transferring land from one state to repay credit obligations to another, it is necessary to proceed from the analysis of the contents of specific international agreements, the motives for signing them by current authorities, and the national interests of the parties involved. Otherwise, one is likely to discover a distorted interpretation of key events in line with the populist rhetoric of an unknown blogger or to be the recipient of information propaganda carried out by major powers competing for regional influence.
From our partner RIAC
From Central Asia to the Black Sea
In early June, China unveiled a new transportation corridor when a rail cargo of 230 tons of electrical appliances worth some $2,6 million arrived in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. Though distant from the South Caucasus, the development nevertheless has a direct impact on the geopolitics of the South Caucasus energy and transport corridor.
For centuries, Central Asia has been notorious for the lack of connectivity. Highways, railroads and pipelines were solely directed northwards towards Russian heartland. Geography also constrained the development of alternatives, but the problem is that other routes were also purposefully neglected during the Soviet times. Therefore, nowadays breaking these geographical boundaries equals to decreasing Russian influence in Central Asia.
Indeed, over the past 30 years, crucial changes have taken place where newly developed east-west transport links (from China to Central Asia, then South Caucasus) allow the region to be more integrated with the outside world. The primary motivator for this is China. The country strives to involve itself into the region’s economics and politics and, specifically, build ties with arguably the region’s most important geopolitical player – Uzbekistan. Beijing has already taken several important steps. For instance, China has become Uzbekistan’s top economic partner through growing trade and direct investment. Take the most recent example, Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) will lend $100 million to Uzbekistan to help deal with the coronavirus pandemic and future public health disasters.
The new China-Uzbekistan corridor is some 295 km shorter and cuts five days off the standard 15 days-corridor which goes through Kazakhstan and Russia to reach Europe. As different forecasts indicate, the Kazakhstan-Russia corridor could lose some 10-15% of Chinese freight per year to the new China-Uzbekistan route – a significant number considering the massive amount of goods that move between between Europe and China.
What is crucial here is that the only viable route to ship freight to Europe from Uzbekistan is across the Caspian to Azerbaijan, Georgia and the Black Sea. Another possibility would be sending goods via the Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, then Iran and Turkey. However general insecurity along this route makes the Caspian option more promising.
These infrastructure changes in distant Central Asia as well as steady growth of shipments from China will further boost the fragile South Caucasus transport and energy corridor, which struggles to compete with enormous trade routes which go through Russia and elsewhere.
What makes the Caspian routes more interesting is the progress made in port development in Azerbaijan and Georgia. The ports of Baku and a small city of Alat have notably improved their infrastructure over the past several years. Located to the south of Baku, Alat is particularly promising as an estimated transshipment of the new port complex is potentially up to 25 million tons of cargo and 1 million TEU per year.
Similar trends of improving infrastructure take place along the rest of the South Caucasus corridor. In March, the Georgian government granted the APM Terminals a permit to start the expansion of Potin port. Essentially the project, which will add more than 1000 local jobs, involves the construction of a separate new deep-water multifunctional port (officially still a part of Poti port).
The project consists of two major phases: first stage of $250 million will take nearly 2-2,5 years to complete and will involve the development of a 1 700-meter-long breakwater and a quay with a depth of 13.5 meters. A 400-meter-long multifunctional quay for processing dry bulk cargo and further 150 000 TEUs will be added; the second stage envisages a 300-meter-long container quay. If all goes as planned, 1 million TEU yearly container capacity could be expected. What is more important for the infrastructure of the eastern Black Sea region and the geopolitics of transcontinental transshipment, the expanded Poti port would have the capacity to receive Panamax vessels.
Expansion of Poti will have regional implications. The port already enjoys the role of the largest gateway in the country and a major outlet for Azerbaijan’s and Armenia’s trade with Europe. For instance, liquids, passenger ferries, dry bulk and container traffic go through Poti. Moreover, Poti port also serves as an alternative route for exporting wheat from Central Asia to the Black Sea and elsewhere.
As the work on the Poti expansion speeds up similar developments are taking place in Batumi. In 2019 Wondernet Express, Trammo and the government of Georgia announced plans to build a new terminal with total investment cap of 17,5 million euros. More importantly, the new facility will store up to 60 000 tons of mineral fertilizers coming from Central Asia through Azerbaijan.
From a wider geopolitical perspective, both port expansions enjoy US government support as American business interests are deeply intertwined. PACE terminals, a company which operates in the port of Poti for almost 30 years, is partially owned by a US-based company. This connection raises a possible longer-term vision of Poti’s and Batumi’s development as gateways not only for Georgia, but generally for the South Caucasus and Central Asia.
Overall, these connectivity trends will reinvigorate Trans-Caspian shipping. Moreover, though considered by many as unrealistic, the dormant Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP), could gain traction. There is more to the story. I have mentioned the US support for the Georgian ports. Europe and Turkey share an identical position. All parties are interested in breaking Russia’s grip on gas export routes from Central Asia. Support for the east-west corridor across the South Caucasus has been present since the break-up of the Soviet Union, but rarely there have been such promising trends as there are now: steadily increasing China-Europe shipping; Chinese Belt and Road Initiative’s expansion into Central Asia; gradually improving rail-road and ports infrastructure in Georgia and Azerbaijan.
On a negative side, much still remains to be done. For instance, in Kyrgyzstan, through which the new China-Uzbekistan route goes, Chinese cargo has to be shipped by road which complicates shipment operations. Nearly the entire 400 km of the Kyrgyz section of the railway still needs to be built. So far, no solution is in sight as difficult mountainous landscape and Russian opposition complicate the issue. But the overall picture, nevertheless, is clear. Central Asia is gradually opening up, shipment across the Caspian increases and the expansion of the Georgian ports takes place creating a line of connectivity.
Author’s note: first published in Caucasuswatch
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