The Great Game in Central Asia

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Central Asia is the Jewel in the Crown that is now up for Grabs. Once part of Soviet Union the CIS States are rich in vast natural resources with large Oil/Gas reserves in areas near the Caspian Sea & Nuclear Material like Uranium.  From a Geo-political point of view, Central Asia has always been important. From the middle to the end of the 19th century, while the region was part of the Russian Empire, the oil-bearing areas of Baku were producing half of the world’s oil supplies. In World War II, during his campaign against Russia, Hitler tried to capture Baku and the Caucasian oil fields as part of his strategy for world domination. After the war, the Soviets retained these areas as reserves, choosing to exploit oil deposits on Russian soil, in Tatarstan and Siberia. Following the collapse of communism the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia, especially Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, have been trying to exploit their natural resources, since they consider oil to be the prime means of securing their economic and political independence.
 
Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – the other three post-Soviet countries in Central Asia – are not yet seen as major energy players. That could change though, with new investments being considered. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, with no substantial raw materials deposits – though it is believed oil and gas resources in Tajikistan’s Bokhtar field are significant – rely on hydro power. They account for more than 70 percent of Central Asia’s total capacity.
 

China and Russia in Central Asia:
China’s presence and influence in Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – have been increasing. The westward strategy articulated by Chinese President Xi Jinping in his “New Silk Road economic belt” highlights Central Asia’s importance for Chinese economy and development. Central Asia is resource rich, and, because of its proximity to China offers a great opportunity for cheap, reliable energy imports. China has been investing billions of dollars in the energy sector, which include a series of contracts with Kazakhstan worth $30 billion, 31 agreements of $15 billion value with Uzbekistan, and natural gas transactions with Turkmenistan in 2013, which reached about $16 billion. China has also provided loans and aid of $8 billion to Turkmenistan and is expected to provide at least $1 billion to Tajikistan. Last year, China upgraded relations with Kyrgyzstan to a strategic level. China’s strategic aims in central is to secure an alternate energy route preparing for eventual standoff in Indian Ocean & South China Sea in future which has the potential to choke off China’s Crucial energy supplies from Gulf Region via the Andaman Sea.
 
Kazakhstan is the leading oil producer in the region, with output of roughly 1.6 million barrels per day (bbl/day), of which approximately 90 percent is exported. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan network that came online in 2006 is not the only Kazakh attempt to break Russia’s monopoly. Astana is already one of the most significant oil suppliers to China. The first pipeline connecting the Caspian shore with China’s Xinjiang province, is one of the longest links in the world at nearly 2300 km. China in fact controls around 20 percent of Kazakhstan’s oil production and is its key trade partner. Bilateral trade should reach $40 billion next year. Similarly Turkmenistan is the main gas exporter and possesses the largest gas deposits in Central Asia and one of the richest in the world. It has similar goals. The first Turkmen undertaking to break Russia’s transit dominance was a pipeline to Iran built in 1997. The recent major venture – the Central Asia-China gas pipeline – allows Ashgabat to transfer its hydrocarbons directly to China. Interestingly from a regional perspective, it also offers to connect spurs from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Unlike other pipelines that are consortia, the China-Central Asia pipeline is itself comprised of three separate join ventures, each based on 50% ownership between China and Turkmenistan, China and Uzbekistan and China and Kazakhstan. Essentially this means that China is the arbiter in Volume, Maintenance of this pipeline project.
 
The Central Asian Republics have been mostly in the sphere of influence of Russia having close geographical & strategic positioning being energy rich former soviet states. Russia has long standing political, historical & cultural ties with Central Asian States. Moscow too has upped its game to consolidate its position in its backyard with Floating a Eurasian Economic & Customs Union with countries like Kazakhstan being part of it. Though EEU has kicked in Jan 2015 yet you have Kazakhstan trying to assert its strategic autonomy & not being totally depend upon Russian Sphere of Influence. Kazakhstan has refused to accept the plummeting ruble as a common currency. Ukraine Crisis, the resulting economic recession & crash in ruble has badly hit Russia’s power to exert economic might over the crucial region in its backyard that has forced Astana to look towards China. 
 
China and Russia both are part of SCO that includes central Asian states & the new entrants India & Pakistan. But the fact remains that unlike EEU the SCO is a Shanghai based Order with China trying to increase its sphere of influence in the Crucial Resource rich region; a strategy that directly undercuts the Russian Influence over the region. It has to be stated along that China has the advantage of 10 Trillion $ Economy & Robust Military to project its soft power not only in central Asia but even getting involved in the Afghan Peace Talks viz-a-viz Taliban & Pakistan giving it a vital foothold in the region. China also has crucial stake in this region given central Asia is hotbed of Jihadi Recruitment & terrorist Organisations like ISIS & the ones operating in the neighboring Xinjiang Province of China. 
 
Russia is reluctant to further empower China, even in a multilateral setting, as it prefers instead to promote its own regional economic architectures such as the Eurasian Economic Union (comprised of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan as of May 2015), or the Russian-Kazakh Eurasian Development Bank. Beijing in private has grown frustrated with this Russian reticence, but, undeterred, China has continued its economic activities bilaterally, often referring to its own initiatives as “SCO” projects. China is beginning to reassert itself as a continental power, while Russia struggles to maintain its economic and political supremacy in Central Asia. Facing greater competition from the US in East Asia, Beijing is shifting attention westward to take advantage of what it perceives as a vacuum in Central Asia.
 
India in Central Asia:
Kazakhstan has 12% of the world’s uranium resources. In 2009 it became the world’s leading uranium producer, with almost 28% of world production, then 33% in 2010, 36% in 2011, 36.5% in 2012, and 38% in 2013.  Kazakhstan, a leading uranium producer globally, will supply 5,000 tonnes of uranium to India during 2015-19 during PM Modi’s Recent visit to 5 Central Asian states in July. India also agreed to have major Military Exercise with Kyrgyzstan a country that Borders China. Turkmenistan was also part of the proposed TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) pipeline but given the security concerns of transporting the gas is through troubled region of Afghan-Pak the project has been in doldrums. After Iran Nuclear Deal going through & India getting access Chabbar Port on Iranian Coast a new proposal of TII (Turkmenistan-Iran-India) pipeline seems more feasible. The Iran Nuclear Deal has really put India back in the game with Iran & Afghanistan being pivot to this central Asia strategy. Indian PM Narendra Modi made a significant statement during the recent Central Asian Tour directly taking Swipe at China by mentioning that Reviving Old Silk Route is about benefiting Central Asia as a hub of trade not part of pivot between Global Powers expanding its Sphere of Influence. It is also pertinent to state that Indian Air Force already operates a Military Base in Farkhor. Tajikistan on the northern periphery of Afghan Border. 
 
US Foreign Policy in Central Asia:
Central Asia has not only been on the radar of Continental Powers like like Russia & China but even the Global Super Power like US. The United States has very nuanced foreign policy to tap into natural resources of the central Asian nations but provide aid & economic assistance to let these countries develop critical infrastructure that they need with an intended consequences of pushing them out of the Russian Influence Zone. The Region is very critical to United States not only being an energy rich nation but also being a strategic location giving access to Russia, Iran & China the continental, regional powers. US was heavily involved in central Asian region before 9/11 when it was negotiating Dauletabad Pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan Sea Coast via Afghanistan & subsequently it also backed the idea of TAPI Pipeline.
 
In wake of 9/11 & Afghan invasion US Bases in Central Asia allowed critical NATO supplies into Afghanistan during the Afghan war. As the war winds down, US has vacated many bases like Manas in Kyrgyzstan. It is in Afghan-Pak context that central Asia becomes equally crucial for united states & its strategy against Terror Groups in Afghanistan be it Taliban or ISIS or Qaeda. The US strategy in central Asia is not only of being a soft one of Economic Aid through its Corporations & Financial Institutions but also allowing Powers like India, China & Iran to now access Central Asia directly which undercuts & checks Russian Sphere of Influence in the Region.
 
Conclusion:
With the Signing of Iran Nuclear Deal the Flood Gates for Central Asia have opened with Global & Regional powers trying to extend their sphere of influence over the Region. While Russia tries to retain the influence over the region it dominated once, on the other hand you have china that plans to integrate its Energy Policy with its Trade Policy of One Road One Belt extending its sphere of influence over Central Asian Region. On the other side you now have the rising  & regional powers like India & Iran too eyeing for their share of pie; while the United States exerts its Soft Financial & Covert power in the Region playing the respective players against each other. The Great Game of Central Asia has just begun.

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