Revisiting the Great Game

Feb 23, 2002 01:00 AM

by David Howell

One hundred and fifty years ago, the Great Game was in full swing. The game was conducted between two main players, the colossal and ever-expanding Russian Empire and the mighty British Empire, then approaching its zenith. Persia, Turkey, Afghanistan and India were all pawns on the game board. The prize for Russia was access to the warm-water ports of the Mediterranean, the Gulf and the Indian Ocean. The British goal was to keep Russian influence and power from spreading south, to protect the sea routes to India and to maintain British naval supremacy worldwide.
Empires pass away and old ambitions are forgotten. Yet by an extraordinary twist of events, it looks as though a new version of the Great Game is becoming the focal point of geopolitical events. This time there are numerous new players in the game, and the newest and biggest of all is the United States, whose presence suddenly dominates the entire region as never before. Following the cataclysmic events of Sept. 11 and the war in Afghanistan, the US now has enormous military bases dotted around Central Asia in a pattern that would have seemed impossible only a year or so ago.

"Cities in a box" -- large military encampments with full supporting infrastructure -- have sprung up in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Bases in Turkey are being reinforced. Military facilities have been made available in Turkmenistan. All this is in addition to strong US defence establishments in the Gulf, both naval and land-based.
It is true that the Americans have indicated their distaste for prolonged involvement in the policing of Afghanistan itself, preferring to leave that task -- which is fast beginning to look unmanageable -- to their other allies, including the British. But what cannot be denied is that, thanks to the global war on terrorism, the Americans have now arrived in Central Asia in a remarkable and pronounced way -- and one that causes very mixed feelings among all the other nations with interests in the area.

This time the cast of players is greatly enlarged. Russia continues to jostle for position, anxious to regain influence over former parts of the Soviet Union (and the czarist empire before that) and to bring rebellious provinces like Chechnya to heel. China feels thoroughly uncomfortable with American military forces now entrenched nearer to its Western border than ever before. Iran is determined to undermine any increased American influence, especially in the Caucasian regions.
Islamic rivalries and pressures run through the whole region, making most of the governments in the "new" nations, from Georgia and Azerbaijan through to Turkmenistan, unstable and vulnerable. So what brings all these states, and many others from outside, including European nations and Japan, buzzing like bees round a honey pot? Why the growing struggle everywhere for influence and access? It is not sea power, as in the 19th century, but energy power -- the immense oil and gas reserves of the whole region, particularly the Caspian Sea basin and the surrounding states.

Central Asia could become the world's new major oil and gas region, second only to the Gulf states. Estimates vary and are prone to exaggeration, but one expert estimates that the Caspian Sea fields contain 95 bn barrels of reserves. Add these to Iran's 92 bn barrels of reserves and a picture begins to emerge of a new centre of gravity in world energy supplies, matching Saudi Arabia's hitherto unchallenged position.
No wonder US and British oil corporations, Japanese oil-importing companies, French and German interests, Russian networks and Chinese and Indian consortiums have their eyes firmly fixed on the new possibilities. The risks may be enormous -- especially the risks of constructing and guarding the pipelines needed to get the oil and gas to world markets. Every overland route is fraught with political problems and potential insecurity. Plans for pipelines through Dagestan and Chechnya, and even through Afghanistan, have had, understandably, to be abandoned.

There is also the tangled issue of ownership and which states round the Caspian Sea have offshore exploration rights. But there is one even bigger Great Game consideration that drives all the players to take the new potential very seriously, despite the huge uncertainties: The existing heavy dependence of the advanced world on supplies from the Arab states in the Persian Gulf is itself becoming a much riskier posture. Anti-Western feeling runs deep in the Persian Gulf, despite the defeat -- for the moment -- of the al-Qaeda forces. Anti-American feeling, aggravated by the unending problem of Israel and the Palestinians, runs even deeper.
These are dangerous waters in which the rulers of the Gulf region have to swim. Regimes that seem insufficiently radical and anti-Western are all under constant threat from extremists. From the Western viewpoint, alternative energy sources to the Gulf are urgently needed, if only as a backup in case the worst happens.
Hence the new global focus on Central Asia, where oil, politics, religion, terror and drugs all swirl together in a brew of fiendish complexity and constantly shifting composition. The stakes are growing ever higher while the prizes, although immense, remain elusive. But that was always the case with the Great Game. Some things do not change over the centuries.

David Howell is a former Cabinet minister and former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. He is now a member of the House of Lords.

Source: The Japan Times
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