Central Asia: A Battleground for the ‘Great Game’

Col B S Nagial (Retd)
The ‘Great Game’ theory, also known as ‘BolshayaIgra’, resulted from a struggle between British and Russian empires to establish control over Central Asia in the 19th century from 1830 to 1907. Britain wanted to show power over Central Asia to contain the Russian empire and create a buffer zone. Whereas Russia wanted to expand its territories, lay influence over Central Asia and even wanted to have control over the Indian Subcontinent by throwing the British away. Russia controlled Central Asia and created the frontline linking Tibet, Afghanistan and Persia while the British ruled the Indian Subcontinent.
Roots of conflict.
The British Lord Ellenborough initiated the ‘Great Game’ on Jan12, 1830. The aim was to establish an authority on India’s trade route to Bukhara using Turkey, Persia and Afghanistan as a buffer zone between British and Russia and denying Russia access to the Persian Gulf. However, Russia wanted to have access to the Persian Gulf by making Afghanistan a neutral zone.
The British lost a series of battles in efforts to control Afganistan, Turkey and Bukhara. They suffered great loss in all four significant battles; the First Anglo-Afghan war of 1839, the First Anglo-Sikh War of 1845, the Second Anglo-Sikh War of 1848 and the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878. So, as the British suffered humiliating defeats in Afghanistan they created Afghanistan as a buffer state between India and Russia. However, Russia was able to exert its control over Central Asia, including Bukhara. In Tibet, Britain could lay its control roughly for two years only after the Young husband Expedition of 1903 to 1904 but was defeated and displaced by Qin China and after seven years later allowed Tibet to rule itself once again.
End of the ‘Great Game.’
With the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, officially the ‘Great Game’ ended. After this ‘Great Game’, Persia came into a Russian-controlled northern zone, a nominally independent central zone, and a British-controlled southern zone. The Convention clearly stated a borderline between the two great empires running from Persia’s eastern point to Afghanistan, and declared Afghanistan an official province of Britain.
The term “Great Game” is attributed to British intelligence officer Arthur Conolly and was popularised by Rudyard Kipling in his book “Kim” from 1904, wherein he plays up the idea of power struggles between great nations as a game of sorts.
Following the 1917 Russian Revolution when the Bolsheviks under Lenin set out, ‘through armed uprisings, to liberate the whole of Asia from imperialist domination’,the eventual result of this was the consolidation of Bolshevik power over the old Tsarist domains. Hegemony over territory was the key aim of the Great Game, with the stakes being imperial domination.
Great Game begins once again.
‘When everyone is dead, the Great Game is finished. Not before.’
Rudyard Kipling, Kim (1901)
A new Great Game has emerged for competition, for influence, power, hegemony and profits in the Central Asian region after the fall of the former Soviet Union (USSR) in 1991. Russia is still in a geo-strategically defensive position in this region and is engaged in complex geopolitical manoeuvres as is competes with the West to control Central Asian countries. However, the West does not want Russia to control this region once again.
Natural resources, especially energy resources, are the main attraction in this part of the world. Access to natural resources and their potential to create wealth causes national ambitions, motivates corporate interests and rekindles historical claims, reviving imperial aspirations and igniting international rivalries and disputes. The struggle for harnessing these energy resources in the Central Asian region is multidimensional security and geopolitical issues. Thus, the new Great Game is a competition of influence, whether political, economic or cultural. The US, Russia and China have established their presence in Central Asia at the strategic level. A subtle attempt to secure and control Central Asia’s natural resources and enhance one’s influence is already underway. Whether this is the new version of the Great Game! is a debatable point, but there is no denying that competition among the countries is already on. The Caspian region adjoins Central Asia (Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are littoral states), and the strategic value of the Caspian region is perhaps higher than that of Central Asia. Hence the Central Asian region has become an intense battleground among various countries of the world. All these countries are interested in the exploitation of mineral wealth. Many countries, such as China, Russia, Japan, Iran, and India, are involved in this region’s developmental work. Russia, by virtue of its location and historical links, is playing its role. However, some people see this as an extension of the US’s strategy of ‘War on Terror.’ The relationship between Central Asian Countries and the rest of the world is political, economic, and strategic. These countries joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in 2001 to indicate that these countries are independent and have their own objectives and aspirations.
Despite India’s assertion that Central Asia is part of its strategic neighbourhood, its policies were not as robust as they ought to have been. India has perhaps been unable to match their expectations in economic terms, but Central Asia’s stability is in India’s interest.
India and Central Asia
Roots of relations between India and Central Asia are deeprooted in the history- ancient as well civilisational. India’s historical links to Central Asia go back to the 2nd century BC to the 4th century AD when Indo-Scythians or Kushan kings migrated from Central Asia across the Oxus (Present-day Amu Darya) river into Bactria, Arachosia, Gandhara (present-day Afghanistan) then eastward to Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujrat. These Indo-Scythian tribes are the Sakas, Yavanas, Kambojas, Pahlavas and so on were absorbed in many Kshatriyas and Jat communities. We share geography which has facilitated prosperous commerce throughout history; the movement of goods, ideas and people travelling in both directions.
India was connected very closely to Central Asia through the famous Silk Route until the 15th century AD when India connected to Europe through the sea. This discovery of sea route made the land journey unviable because it was riskier, longer in duration, more expensive, and much more extensive cargo could be carried by sea-faring vessels than by caravans over the land route. The Silk Route connected India with Central Asia for trade and commerce and the regions effectively exchanged thoughts, ideas, religions and philosophies. Buddhism travelled over this route from India to Central Asia and West China in the contemporary Xinjiang region. In medieval times, Babar came from Fergana Valley after losing his kingdom to try his luck in foreign lands. Nevertheless, the Partition in 1947 and subsequent creation of Pakistan Occupied Jammu and Kashmir(POJK) finally led to the cutting-off of India’s land routes to Central Asia. Pakistan does not permit people and cargo to pass through its territories.
Bilateral relations, moreover, suffered considerable neglect in the 25 years after the emergence of these countries as independent States in 1991. Central Asia is of great strategic importance to India. There is enormous scope for pragmatic and profitable engagement between the two. The relationship between the Central Asian Republics (CARs) and India lies in the region’s peace and stability. Despite India’s current under-involvement in CARs; these countries offer great opportunities, which if availed would help in consolidating India’s short and long-term foreign policy goals in this region. After the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, Indian Prime Minister P. V. Narshima Rao visited these countries in 1993 and 1995 and emphasised the creation of cooperation and promotion of stability in the region. India perceived a threat emerging out of the civil war in Tajikistan from 1992-1997 as it was believed to be supported by external forces namely, Pakistan and Taliban in Afghanistan. India’s concern deepened when the Taliban assumed centre stage in Afghanistan and Pakistan became a nuclear state, and as subsequently American and Chinese influence increased in the region. Help in terms of materials and logisticswas provided to theNorthern Alliance (to fight the Taliban) through Tajikistan. India imparted training to military personnel of Tajikistan and the first-ever military base was established in the country at Ayeni.
Tashkent has been an arms supplier from which India acquired six IL-78 in-flight refuelling aircrafts. India’s military involvement in the region was restricted mainly to military education and training and establishing military hospitals. In 2011 India conducted its first-ever military exercise with Kyrgyzstan.
In 2012, India took a new step forward and as the ‘Connect Central Asia Policy’ was announced in Bishkek by the Indian Minister of State for External Affairs E. Ahmed who drew the world’s attention to Central Asia; and its prevailing political, economic and strategic situation, laying emphasis on its integration. Furthermore, it highlighted India’s concern regarding the region, declaring it as an ‘Extended Neighbourhood’, and emphasising strategic, economic and security cooperation, including Afghanistan. In 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited all five countries in Central Asia from July 6 to July 13. This visit infused the much-needed enthusiasm between Indian and CARs. Since then, significant progress has been made in the fields of Defence, Energy, and Connectivity. India joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation(SCO) in 2017 as a permanent member, SCO represents almost half of the world’s population and area. It is beneficial for both, India and CARs, to remain in touch. India has stressed on the need of strengthening mutual understanding, dialogue and cooperation among the member countries of SCO. Taking their relationship to the next and higher level, India and CARs on January 13, 2019, conducted their first-ever dialogue under the chairmanshipof the External AffairsMinister of India. The subsequent second dialogue was conducted virtually on October 28, 2020. Foreign Ministers of India and CARs called for building comprehensive and enduring cooperation based on their historical, cultural, and civilisational bonds and people to people contact. The ministers welcomed $1 billion Line of Credit for priority development projects in IT, connectivity, energy, healthcare, education, agricultural etc. India agreed to provide help for the implementation of High Impact Community Development Project (CDP). They (Foreign Ministers of CARs) also welcomed the first India-Central Asia Business Council (ICABC) in new Delhi on Feb6, 2020 to promote business links and better understand taxation regulations, trade and investment especially in Small and Medium Enterprises. The ministers condemned terrorism in all forms and reaffirmed their support to combat this menace by destroying safe havens of terrorists’ network, infrastructure and funding channels. They all welcomed Afghanistan’s participation in this meeting and called for the settlement of Afghan conflict on the principle of Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled process.
Conclusion: The ‘New Great Game’ indicates the conceptualisation of modern geopolitics in the Central Asian Region after the former Soviet Union breakup. Competition is growing in the region between regional, extra-regional and external actors for hegemony and power. Russia, the US, China, India, Britain, Turkey, and Israel involve themselves in CAR to woo the local governments and their people. The Central Asian Region has remained involved in a sort of tussle between big brothers, it seems. In reality, the ‘New Great Game’ divides the countries into two blocks: one block consists of Britain, the US and many other members of NATO and the other block consists of countries like Russia, China and other countries which are part of SCO.
India’s relation with CAR is both old and interwoven in ancient and civilisational history. India and CAR are strategic neighbours and natural allies. They need to carry forward the goodwill earned from the past centuries. India has to work with Russia to focus primarily on three aspects: cooperation on the reconstruction of Afghanistan, commercial partnership and joint economic development projects to achieve meaningful and long-lasting collaboration in Central Asia. Moreover, the onus lies on India-which is an emerging regional power. India can thusachieve its goals pertaining to the regionwhile simultaneously benefiting CARs, through her image of being a soft-power and the world’s largest democracy and a strict adherer to the policy of non-interference in others’ internal matters.