How useful is it to characterise the presence of foreign states in Central Asia as a new ‘Great Game’? 1

The States of Central Asia

The recent resurgence of the geopolitical and geostrategic importance of Central Asia (hereafter CA) has led to the re-adoption of the Great Game discourse[1], recalling the strategic rivalry which opposed the British Empire and the Russian Empire in the XIX century.

Specialised magazines, newspapers and academic journals are full of articles about this “New Great Game”, implicitly agreeing that the new strategic situation in CA formed after the demise of the Soviet Union resembles in many way its famous ancestor; according to this wide literature, the present participation of external great powers in the area is fully comprehensible by using the analytical simile of the Great Game.

However, this essay argues that the analogy is misused and conceptually misleading, since both the nature and the development of the new involvement of other states in CA differ from the ‘original’ game. The present situation, comprehending more actors than the XIX century, is far more complex than the previous one, it involves different levels of analysis and action, it is not an array of zero-sum relations and presents different patterns of interaction among the authors, in which the degree of involvement varies accordingly to different issues.

The essay is structured as follow: firstly, a very brief description of the Great Game in the XIX is provided, thus setting the ground for a proper comparison; secondly, a detailed analysis of the present behaviour of the actors involved in CA, the causes of their involvement and of their expectations are examined, arguing and showing that the analogy of the “New Great Game” is not feasible when described current patterns of relations among states in CA; the last section concludes that in order to profitably analyse the Central Asian security complex, Deyermond’s “matrioshka hegemony model” and Cheng’s “complex power structure model” are more useful analytical devices than a misconstrued historical analogy.

The Great Game in the XIX century

As stated in the introduction, the term “Great Game” usually describes the strategic rivalry in CA between the Russian Empire, which was looking East-Southwards after the failure of Peter the Great’s attempt to engage with Europe, and the British Empire which, conversely, was aiming at protecting India from a possible Russian influence through Afghanistan, at that time was the pivotal centre of the whole “game”[2].

CA at that time was certainly not a complex of sovereign states, nor state entities under the control of an overarching political hegemon as under the Soviet Union. In the XIX century, CA was made up of khanates,( i.e. medium-sized political communities ruled by an autocrat), following the Turkic-Mongolian medieval tradition.

While energy sources and fertile lands were a propeller to competition among the two empires, it must be emphasized that the origin of the so-called “great game” was primarily political and related to security, since the driver of the whole conflict was the British strife to protect India from Russian aggression.

Another characteristic of this intense geopolitical rivalry was the total passivity of the khanats: while the two empires were dynamic and determined in assuring their claims in the region, the khanats limited themselves to the signature of treaties, conventions and agreements formalizing the changes occurred to their boundaries. In IR theory terms, it might be said that the system level pressure was so heavy that there was no room for the birth of any single regional framework of action.

Therefore, the characteristics of the “original” Great Game may be summed up as follows:

  • two powerful actors involved
  • Afghanistan was the primary chessboard on which the game was played
  • pre-eminence of the system level and absence of a regional level
  • weak political communities in the region (khanats)
  • political-strategic concerns

Turning to the second section, it will be argued that nowadays, despite the present literature and the current trend of using such a metaphor, the situation is highly different.

Central Asian states nowadays: from victims to observers to actors

After the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, five independent republics filled the vacuum left by the previous regime: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan[3].

Such states were shaky and unstable in the very first years of independence, and passed through several political, economic and societal difficulties, such as the violent civil war which took place in Tajikistan from 1991 to 1997. As Ahmed Rashid put it, “their relations with the rest of the world were dominated not so much by what they wanted, but by what the rest of the world desired to do with CA”; ethnic minorities, drug commerce, shrinking economies and tough, corrupted regimes (still in power) made possible the intrusion in the domestic affairs of the newly born Russian Federation of Boris Eltsin. However, Russia was itself embroiled in a difficult economic situation with  its productive apparatus, opening and reinventing itself for the external free market; therefore, due to internal constraints and difficulties, Allison and Jonson concur that “Russia lacked the personnel to occupy the bases it coveted and the financial means to realize the various joint military tasks with CIS states necessary to establish a new strategic glacis to the south”.

The West in general and the US in particular had far less interest for CA than for other parts of the former URSS. Robert Cullen has suggested that developments in the region did not generally impact upon any vital US or Western national interest and that therefore it was always unlikely to be at the centre of  major investments of time or money.

From the mid-1990s, however, Central Asian states began diversifying their foreign policies in search of more reliable partners, such as Turkey, Iran, China and the US[4], thanks also to their newly sponsored rich oil and gas resources in the Caspian region. From then till the beginning of the new millennium, thanks to the involvement of this vast array of regional and external powers, Central Asian states started a process of development that, although relatively slow and inconstant, contributed to consolidate internal regimes, created a statehood-awareness and spurred the feeling of potentially be protagonists in this new pattern of economic relations, rather than mere subjects.

From 1998 to 2000, trade among Central Asian states and China grew threefold (from $350 million to $1 billion), energy agreements between the US and Kazakhstan were signed and the EU provided more than $1 billion in foreign assistance plans from 1992 to 2000. In this period, the consolidation of at least the perception of having an active role in the region was strengthening .

This process reached its apex in 2001 after 9/11 and the declaration of the war on terror(ism), thanks to which CA became (and in many ways still is) the American bulwark from which to hinder the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, given also the percentage of Turkic Muslims who inhabit the region[5]and to coordinate military operation in Afghanistan and, to a certain extent, Iraq.

From 2001 onwards, Central Asian states, and particularly Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, have assumed a central position in managing the involvement of the external great powers, thanks also to the formation of a proto-regional security complex in the region which creates its own dynamics detached from the global, systemic level; in the words of Rumer, “[t]he eleventh of September altered the existing structure of power and influence radically. It made CA the epicentre of geopolitical shocks on a global scale and redefined the geopolitical situation surrounding CA” (2002).

The American militarily and strategic penetration was, in a first moment, accepted by the Putin administration, who was seeking an appeasement with the US and a pretext to readjust Russia’s role both in the world and in the region; however, when it became clear that that the US presence in the area would have been more long-lasting, Russia and, after the creation of the SCO in 2001, China have become suspicious and alarmed about the possible alteration of the geopolitical equilibrium in CA.

It is precisely in this complicated framework of interrelated structures of interactions that Central Asian states have found relatively easy to exploit their potential advantages in dealing with the great powers competing on their territory. The present situation, de facto, shows that “Central Asian security affairs have become much more complex than during the original nineteenth-century great game”.

In order to better evaluate the Central Asian recent strategic shift, it may be useful to distinguish three level of analysis, as implicitly suggested in the introduction:

  • relations among great powers, the superpower and outside states: it is clear that, after the prolongation of the AmeriCentral Asian presence in CA, a complex set of rivalries has sprung, concerning different piles of chips; the US want to prevent a further Chinese expansion in a region whose natural resources that, if properly exploited, could maintain the Asian power on the edge of development for decades if not for centuries; Russia wants to maintain its pristine hegemony in the region, but it has to compete with the Chinese presence on the East boarder, the US military presence and the Turkish-Iranian support of Islamic groups in the region, which remains an important factor of instability in many Central Asian countries; lastly, China wants to avoid US-fuelled “colourful revolutions” in the area to maintain its control over Xijnjang and to keep its hands on several energy resources, thus competing on this side also with Russia.
  • Relations among the great powers, the superpower, the outside states and Central Asian states: it is at this level that the transformation of Central Asian states form objects to subjects is most visible; thanks to the constant and significant foreign economic aid in the 1990s and in the early 2000s, Central Asian states have been able to coordinate their economic policies within a multilateral framework through the creation of the Eurasian Community (2000). The EC hinders the great powers in play in the region from a heavier intervention in the domestic and regional economy; as far as energetic resources are concerned, Central Asian states are acquiring more and more a sense of property of their territories which finds its outcomes in contracts more advantageous for themselves. Kazakhstan has recently underlined that every concession on energetic resources will be made on the basis of mere national interest; Turkmenistan has recently risen its oil price unilaterally, and Tajikistan, thanks to its economic ties with Moscow, has seen its $250-million debt Central Asian cancelled . In the military field, Uzbekistan, once close ally of the US, shifted towards Russia and China in 2006, only to return to the West after having seen is sovereign prerogatives endangered by Moscow and Beijing. The country even proposed the setup of a “6+3” special group to solve the problem of Afghanistan at the 2008 NATO summit. Conversely, Kyrgyzstan “restored” the balance of power in 2009 by shutting down an American military base and accepting, in return, a huge financial aid from Russia concerted with Beijing. On a broader political level, it is noteworthy how Kazakhstan has recently labelled itself as the “Eurasian Bridge” between the great powers, thus creating a diplomatic and political niche from which exploiting its relatively strong position in the region, a position strengthened by the tenure of the OSCE Presidency in 2010.
  • Relations among Central Asian states: both Allison and Jonson and Buzan and Waever recognize that there is a (sub)regional security complex in formation in the region, in the sense that the security of one country is perceived as having implications on the other members of the region. Although patterns of amity and enmity are not clearly discernible among states, dynamics such as the sharp competition between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan for sub-regional hegemony in the area[6], or the relatively friendly relation between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in relations to Chinese pressures on their borders may be considered as movements towards the institutionalization of a RSC. In particular, other example of increasing consolidation of patterns of amity and enmity may be found, on the one hand, in the “cooperative trend developed within the region” among Central Asian states and, on the other and, in the potentially explosive stalemate in the Ferghana Valley.

Generally speaking, however, all Central Asian states (possibly with the exception of Tajikistan) have been pragmatically cooperative to maintain, on the one hand, their quasi-dictatorial, nepotistic regimes and to seek, on the other hand, the exploitation of the resources of the great powers involved in the region through a series of bilateral and multilateral agreements.

The outcome of the insertion of the (sub)regional level in the picture leads to unexpected results if the New Great Game narrative is applied: the US and Russia cooperate in containing the Chinese influence in the region, but China cooperates with Russia to avoid democracy and human rights promotion from the West; the US and China agree on keeping the Russians aside, but they are as well competing on economic and political issues. Moreover, Central Asian states are worried of the US presence in the region[7] and rely heavily on the SCO to face it. However, they go on maintaining strong economic ties with the Western powers to balance Russian and Chinese penetration.

This balanced diplomacy therefore allows for the creation of an East-West axis (US, Turkey and China; Caspian energy development, trade diversification and NATO-oriented security programmes) and a North-South axis (Iran and Russia; trade routes, oil and gas transport and military-security links): the overall containment of these dynamics is beneficial to the sub-regional actors and pernicious to the external forces involved, struggling for a hegemony which is never, and cannot be, a zero-sum game.

It is precisely this level of analysis, missing from the previous Great Game narrative, that does not allow speaking of a “New Great Game” any more.

Conclusion: “the comedy of small powers”

The new great game seems not to be the most appropriate metaphor to illustrate the present geopolitical configuration of CA; without pushing the argument too far, great and external powers not only show less interest than in the previous Great Game and then it was expected nowadays, but also may seem as tools in the hands of these small powers which are driving them towards the best option for themselves, letting us assist to the “comedy of the small powers”.

In the XIX century Great Game, as shown, CA’s khanates were passive spectators of the imperialist ambitions of two major powers, trying to balance each other in the region: the global level was the play-table, and the whole game was clearly led by a neorealist logic; today, the presence of a subregional complex of relations and the clashing interests and policies of several different actors are better understood with Deyermond’s matrioshka hegemony model. Through this model it is possible to analytically discern the global level from the regional one, in which a global hegemon challenges a regional one (Russia), a potentially global one (China) and an alleged subregional one (Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan).

Moreover, this multi-layered framework is compatible with Cheng’s “complex power structure model”, according to which the role played by Central Asian states compels the external actors to cooperate on certain issues and to compete on others (see above). These two theoretical intuitions, if compared to the New Great Game narrative, provide a far better representation of the actual observable trends in the area under inquiry, and allow us for analysing and theoretically discussing the embryonic presence of a regional security complex in CA.

Last but not least, it must be recalled that, especially for the US and China, the fact that “Central Asia does not represent the most important geographic region […] also works against the revival of a traditional, geopolitical great-game conflict”.

The New Great Game may be still used as a heuristic, as a cognitive short-cut to imaginatively represent the interaction of external powers in CA but, if used, then we must be aware that Central Asian countries are both “the chessboard and players”and that actually this time the rules are slightly different.

Filippo Costa Buranelli


[1]    Apparently, the term was coined by Sir Arthur Connelly, a British officer in CA in the XIX century, while writing a missive to Sir Henry Rawlinson in 1829.

[2]    It is interesting to note that nowadays Afghanistan is not considered part of CA; Buzan and Waever treat it as an “insulator”, whereas Menon treats it as part of a “wider Central Asian complex”. This may be seen as a preliminary argument against the (mis)use of the analogy.

[3]    As stated in the previous footnote, I follow Allison and Jonson when choosing not to include Afghanistan in the region. If Afghanistan and Xinjang were part of the complex, then we would speak of the so-called “wider CA”.

[4]    Rashid underlines also the role of  Pakistan; the US involvement in CA was epitomized by Brzezinski’s words: “[it is necessary to] consolidate and perpetuate the prevailing geopolitical pluralism on the map of Eurasia” (1997).

[5]    Among the several Islamic groups present in the region, noteworthy are certainly Hizb ut-Tharir (Party of Islamic Liberation) and the IMU (Islamic movement of Uzbekistan).

[6]    Such rivalry dates back to 1992; see Rashid (1994: 227).

[7]    “As if it was not enough that CA is squeezed between Russia, China and the Muslim world, now we also have an AmeriCentral Asian eagle flying over it” (Kadyrbekov, a Kyrgyz deputy).

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  1. Pingback: Il Grande Gioco in Asia centrale: un concetto ormai superato? | Cronache Internazionali | Notizie dal Mondo

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