Interested in big power games? If yes, reserve a balcony seat to watch a new version of "The Great Game" taking shape in western and central Asia.
In its original form in the 19 th century the "Great Game" was aimed at controlling the region stretching from the Caspian Sea to the northern frontiers of China. There were two key players, Great Britain and Tsarist Russia, with anaemic Persian and Ottoman empires playing second fiddle.
The latest version of the game, however, includes a number of new features that reflect changes in the past century or so. It now attracts several new players, including China and India, while one of the two original players, Britain, has become part of a new team led by the United States. Iran is also emerging as a more important player than it was in the old times while Turkey; successor to the Ottoman Empire, has all but dropped out.
Until five or six years ago, prospects for the revival of the "Great Game" in any form appeared remote. The United States appeared to be in a position of unchallengeable ascendancy and, through the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), was forging military links and, in some cases, setting up bases, in former Soviet republics in central Asia and the Caucasus. Nato was even able to sign partnership agreements with virtually all of the newly independent republics.( At least two republics; Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan, were slated to become full members over the next decade.) Acting closely with the US, Turkey was also playing a significant role in those states where a majority of the population speak one or another of Turkic languages. Wherever one went, American oil companies were leading the way in developing the region's energy resources.
Then came the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington that, in turn, led to the toppling of the Taliban in Kabul and the inclusion of Afghanistan within the US zone of influence.
Paradoxically, however, what had at the time looked like a geo-strategic coup for Washington has, over the years, emerged as a point of decline for its influence in the area of the " Great Game."
In the past two to three years most of the US bases in the region have closed down while the much-advertised accords with Nato have been put on the backburner.(In a recent meeting with a handful of journalists in London a senior Nato commander had to admit that the alliance had lost " almost all the ground" it had won in the region.)
Clearly, Washington's retreat in the area of the " Great Game" represents a major diplomatic setback.
But why did this happen?
The first reason was that Washington failed to develop a broad vision to respond to the region's strategic needs for security, economic development, and political reform. Those who had believed that close ties with the US would mean an immediate improvement in their living standards were disappointed, as were those who had dreamt of a gradual movement towards democracy.
Unable to distinguish strategic friend from foe, the US ended up losing on both opposite counts. Democratic forces began to distrust the US because they saw it as an ally of the local despots. The despots, however, also distrusted the US because of its pro-democracy rhetoric.
The US made another mistake.
It did not try to enlist either China or Russia on its side, forcing the two regional big-hitters to come together despite deep-rooted hostilities and territorial claims and counter claims. The way the US was playing its hand also meant that other smaller, though significant, regional players- such as India, Iran, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan- felt either excluded or, at best, called upon to act as cheer leaders for American policies.
Since the 19 th century the stakes in the "Great Game" have risen dramatically. The Caspian Basin and the Persian Gulf region now account for more than 70 per cent of the world's oil reserves and , perhaps, half of natural gas deposits. With rising giants like China and India, the broader area of the "Great Game" also represents the world's third , soon to become the first, largest market.
In the absence of US leadership, it was China's turn to set the regional agenda. This came in the form of the Shanghai Group, which, having begun as an alliance to fight Islamic terrorism, is developing, into a traditional-style alliance of states whose chief interest is to keep rival powers out of the area.
The traditional style of this alliance is highlighted by the fact that it demands no ideological certificate of good conduct from those applying for membership. The militantly anti-American Islamic Republic of Iran is as welcome as a member as the new pro-American regime in Afghanistan. The Central Asian republics and Kazakhstan have also been welcomed, along with Pakistan, without being lectured about democracy and human rights. The alliance has gained much from Russia's decision to join it rather than look to Europe, and beyond it the United States, for strategic allies.
With the possible exception of Afghanistan all the Shanghai allies share a common interest in reducing American influence. This means, in part, that they will try to make sure that all new oil and gas pipelines in the region run from west to east, that is to say towards China. In the past three years Russia and China have negotiated contracts worth some $180 billion in oil, gas and nuclear energy with states within the alliance or on its peripheries.
As far as security is concerned the alliance pursues two objectives.
The first is to develop a regional market for military hardware so that the member states would end up depending on Russia and China for arms and weapons technology. Even pro-American Afghanistan has to look to Russia and China for weapons if only because Nato is giving it little more than old, and often inadequately repaired, Soviet-built tanks and Russian-made AK 47s. For its part the Islamic Republic has now become the single largest export market for both Russian and Chinese armament industries.
The second objective of the alliance is to woo other regional powers away from the US and towards itself by targeting Arab states with traditional ties to Washington. Because the Shanghai Group is the kind of club that would even admit Groucho Marx as member, it is bound to appeal to those regimes that are tired with and feel threatened by Washington's hectoring about democracy and human rights.
The problem, however, is that the Shanghai Group might not have the resources, not to mention the long-term political stability, to meet the challenge of securing the region, leading it onto the path of sustainable economic development, and promoting overdue reforms. Whether one likes or dislikes the United States, its absence from efforts to stabilise this key region would be
a handicap for all concerned.
How will Washington respond to the challenge that it faces in the region of the "Great Game"? This is the question that some are asking in the regional capitals.