”The Great Game” comes to South Asia
by M.K. Bhadrakumar
Travellers to Bukhara in Uzbekistan seek out an obscure, ill-lit, vermin-infested dungeon not far from the palace in
which Arthur Conolly, British intelligence officer of the Sixth Bengal Light Cavalry, was confined for over six
months before Emir Nasrullah Khan ordered his execution in June 1842 on charges of spying for the British Empire, and
had him buried in an unmarked grave in the town square.
Conolly had set out from Calcutta (now Kolkata) on his perilous mission of espionage and intrigue -- and, it so happened, he was also the person to coin the term "Great Game". This was the nearest that India came to the classic great game.
That is, until a meeting of the Indian cabinet announced its decision that India would join the US-backed
Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan gas pipeline (TAP) project. The TAP would stretch from the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan
border to Multan in Pakistan, and up to the borders of western India. The project is estimated at $ 3.5 bn.
The Indian Petroleum Ministry, which recommended the TAP to the cabinet, was obviously promoting the business interests of Indian petrochemical companies. But, Delhi also took into consideration that the TAP would be "in tune with the latest US strategic thinking for the region".
There is nothing ambivalent about the "latest US strategic thinking for the region". It is clear for anyone who
followed the proceedings of the US Congressional hearings in Washington on April 25-26 on "US Policy in Central Asia:
Balancing Priorities". In a nutshell, the hearings were devoted to Washington's so-called "Greater Central Asia"
policy. The new thinking resulted from a policy review in Washington following the collapse of the US regional policy
in Central Asia in the recent past.
At its summit meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, last June the six-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) called on the US to set a timeline for the withdrawal of Americantroops from the Central Asian region.
Additionally it ignored an American request for observer status and proceeded to consider requests from Iran, India
and Pakistan to join the body. Acutely conscious of the US's marginalization, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
undertook a tour of the Central Asian capitals in October to make a first-hand assessment of how US diplomacy could
have gone so horribly wrong. The "Greater Central Asia" concept was born out of this self-assessment.
Returning, Rice ordered a revamp of the Central Asia desk in the State Department by merging it with the South Asia Bureau. But this was more than a knee-jerk reaction involving personnel changes. It also reflected new thinking.
The US has built up an unprecedented level of influence in the South Asian region in the recent years. Rice estimated
that the South Asian countries would serve its interests if they only could be persuaded to play a proactive role in
Central Asia. Equally, the Central Asian states should be made to rethink their deepening involvement with SCO.
Washington would be essentially nibbling away at the SCO at no real cost to itself, by simply flagging in the Central Asian political consciousness a "South Asia option". The ultimate nightmare for US regional policy would be if the SCO were to grant full membership to Iran, Pakistan and India.
Iran is manifestly keen on SCO membership. So is Pakistan. Western capitals have prevailed on Moscow (for the time
being, at least) to factor that any SCO membership for Iran at this juncture would be regarded as a provocation in
The SCO foreign ministers' meeting in Beijing decided to take a "pragmatic and constructive" stand on the issue, even as the SCO invitations to the heads of states/governments of the observer countries to attend the forthcoming SCO summit meeting on June 15 were dispatched.
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmedinejad and Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf have since accepted the
invitation. Washington is at a loss to fathom what really happened. US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack
asked Russia to give explanations.
"I've seen press reports on it, and we want to have certain explanations," McCormack said.
The Congressional hearings in Washington in May threw into relief these criss-crossing tendencies in a highly complex
"tournament of shadows" (which is how Russians call the Great Game) -- and the US's policy response.
Testifying at the hearings, assistant secretary of state for the newly created Bureau of South Asian and Central Asian Affairs, Richard Boucher, claimed a paradigm shift in the region's strategic landscape had taken place, and "exciting new possibilities" had opened up. Boucher claimed Afghanistan had reached a level of transformation that it now acted as a "bridge" connecting Central and South Asia rather than posing an "obstacle" separating the two.
He painted a fascinating panorama: "Students and professors from Bishkek [Kyrgyzstan] and Almaty [Kazakhstan] can
collaborate with and learn from their partners in Karachi and Kabul, legitimate trade can freely flow overland from
Astana to Islamabad, facilitated by modern border controls, and an enhanced regional power grid stretching from
Almaty to New Delhi will be fed by oil and gas from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and hydropower from Tajikistan and
In political terms, Boucher admitted, "a lot of what we do here is to give the countries of the region the opportunity to make choices ... and to keep them from being bottled up between two great powers, Russia and China." But the leitmotif of any grand US geostrategy will always be the region's immense energy reserves.
Boucher said, "Our vision includes new energy routes that will ensure the next generation of South and Central Asian
entrepreneurs have access to the resources they need to prosper. We want to give South Asians access to the vast and
rapidly growing energy resources in Central Asia, whether they are oil and gas in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan,
thermal power in Uzbekistan, or hydropower in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan."
"This vision is within our grasp. Within the next few years, we expect to see private investment lead to the establishment of a 500 kilovolt power line transmitting much-needed electricity from Central Asia across Afghanistan to Pakistan and India."
Clearly, the ultimate profitability of the Baku-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline (from Azerbaijan through Georgia to
Turkey), which has cost $ 4 bn to build and still needs expansion, may depend on the volume of Kazakh oil on this
route. But Kazakhstan is fighting shy of committing to a Trans-Caspian pipeline, which the US is seeking, for linking
the BTC with Kazakh oil fields. Simply put, Kazakhstan will not ride roughshod over Russian interests.
In a virtual riposte to Cheney's recent criticism of Russia, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev said after a meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, "This kind of Russia, the powerful Russia, the Russia that speaks out as a world power, is important to us, Russia's partners and strategic allies, in many ways, from all possible viewpoints."
Boucher would be wrong to assume that Kazakhstan was desperately seeking new transit options. Cooperation with China
is already allowing Kazakhstan transit options. Similarly, he overlooks that any export of hydropower from Tajikistan
in the foreseeable future would inevitably involve the Russian companies Rusal and UES, which are already the major
players in the current power projects in that country.
As for TAP, will the US be in a position to push the project through? The main issue is Turkmenistan's gas reserves. China recently contracted to begin moving up to 30 bn cm of Turkmen gas annually in 2009 via a Central Asian pipeline system.
Russia's 25-year agreement with Turkmenistan signed in April 2003 envisages its right to purchase up to 100 bn cm of
Turkmen gas annually. Most American analysts say that Turkmenistan's gas production is not sufficient enough to
fulfil the contractual obligationsto Russia and China.
Besides, transport is the greatest challenge so long as conditions remain unstable in Afghanistan and until such time when India-Pakistan relations reach a certain level of mutual trust and maturity.
The US strategic thinking remains obsessed with minimizing the Russian and Chinese presence in Central Asia. The
strategy is fundamentally flawed in so far as it lacks the dynamism and creativity that can only come out of positive
energy. It overlooks what is apparent to the naked eye.
The US, in effect, having lost its petty squabbles and having been slighted time and again in the Central Asian capitals, has evacuated itself to South Asia, bringing with it the entire baggage of the Great Game. From the South Asian perspective, Washington may prove to be putting spokes in the wheel of the region's promising cooperation with the SCO.
M.K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).