By Aatrayee Chatterjee*
The Great Game essentially refers to a political and historical confrontation between the British Empire settled in the Indian subcontinent and Russia, in the 19th and 20th centuries. Both the countries were fearful that the other would extend their power mostly over Asia which will be detrimental for their self-interests. It was basically a clash of imperial ambitions which led to a constant threat of war between the two countries. There was constant fear in the minds of British officials of the company that the advancement of the Tsarist Russia into Central Asia would make their position in the region insecure. The British also wanted to make sure that India was out of Russians’ reach and the game is essentially how they did this. The fear of losing out territories resulted in the Anglo-Afghan war in 1838 and the victory of British facilitated them to establish a puppet regime in Afghanistan which acted as a buffer state against the advancing Russians.
After the disintegration of the former Soviet Union, the Central Asian region has essentially come into focus for its geo-economic and geo-political importance in the globe. The region is rich in natural resources, fossil fuels which attract the major powers to get involved there to meet their need for oil and other resources. The New Great Game can be referred to as the conceptualisation of modern geo politics in Central Asia. This game includes various aspects like trade, commerce, connectivity, infrastructure, oil, ethnicity, ideology as well as terrorism. The area is important for different countries for different reasons like for the United States and its allies it is valuable for the Afghanistan war effort, for Russia it is important for expanding its political influence and for China it acts as source of energy, and a partner to develop the Xinjiang province. Other regional players are interested in the region because of its geo-political and geo-strategic importance.
This foreign rivalry serves multiple and paradoxical purposes. This game is quite intensifying but at the same time it serves the purposes of Central Asian governments in preserving their domestic security. The role played by different powers has been different as their motives behind the involvement in the region have been different.
We have seen that all the major powers like US, Russia, China, Turkey, Iran and India are trying to exert influence over the Central Asian states and therefore ties are being established but a country like Kazakhstan is not a silent spectator. This country is trying to use all the external influences in their favour. They are building strong relations with these powers not by mistake but as a result of its Multi-vector foreign policy. This policy calls for an open trade system. This policy would accommodate all major powers by trading with them which would in turn encourage inflow of foreign direct investments. This would also put restrictions on the misuse of resources by the external powers. By accommodating foreign powers like United States and China, Kazakhstan’s dependency on Russia would decrease which could not provide the much-required assistance to develop its natural resources. So, the involvement of the major powers in Central Asia stands as a blessing in disguise for Kazakhstan.
India understands the need to forge ties with Central Asian states especially Kazakhstan as she realizes that the resources of the countries can help in the development of its economy. India also realised the need to play a pro-active role in the region’s geopolitics. The rise of extremism and cross-border terrorism backed by fundamentalist forces in the Central Asia region demanded the above. Mainly after the 9/11 attack, India realized that it is important for her to maintain a stable relation with the Central Asian states. Establishing influence in the region is tough for India because of the presence of several regional and extra-regional players. Therefore, India is trying to influence the region through trade and economic diplomacy. China’s growing influence in the neighborhood is detrimental to India’s interests and therefore Central Asia is important for India to maintain its status as a regional power and as an emerging power. Central Asia is seen as a substitute to the Middle East for its oil and energy reserves. In that respect, India finds Turkmenistan as a potential partner which would provide her energy security. The Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India pipeline project was envisaged with the vision of energy security but that could not be carried out successfully as India was reluctant to depend on a route controlled by Pakistan. The Connect Central Asia policy of India also stand as an example showing the moves made by India to develop political and economic relations with the Central Asian countries. Joining of India in the Shanghai Co-operation Organization in 2017 also shows the efforts made by India to connect holistically with the region. The visits made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in all the five countries also show the above.
Prof Ajai Patnaik rightly mentioned India’s concern- “India’s economic success in recent times has changed the nature of its ties with the region. The attractiveness and capacity for India’s involvement in the region have grown. India’s engagement with the region has faced obstacles due to lack of land access routes, competing interests of China and U.S. hostility towards Iran.” Iran has become extremely important for India as it will provide a way to Central Asia through the Chabahar Port. This Port will remove the dependency of India on Pakistan to reach Central Asia. The involvement of India in the region will increase and she will also play a major role in the region once the Chabahar Port starts operating effectively.
The New Great Game in Central Asia is different from the old Great Game in various aspects. The players in the game have increased as well as private players have now come in the scenario. Central Asian states are no longer being used as puppets rather they have started using the external involvements to their advantage. Today, Central Asia is seen as a region of great potential and all the major powers are trying to establish ties with them for their benefit. The role of India is quite different from the role played by Russia and Unites States because of its geographical position and historical linkages.To conclude, Central Asia has become an important region in the global because of its untapped resources and geostrategic location with the major striving to assert their authority there.
*Aatrayee Chatterjee is PG student of International Studies and History of Christ University, Bangalore, India.