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Central Asia: A New Great Game?

Authored by LTC Dianne L. Smith.

June 17, 1996

48 Pages

Brief Synopsis

In January 1996, the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) hosted a conference on "Asian Security to the Year 2000." One focus of the conferees was the growing relevance of events in Central Asia.

Perhaps nowhere on the continent was the Cold War transformation in the security environment more dramatic than in Central Asia. There the sudden retraction of Soviet power and decline in superpower competition was rapidly followed by the creation of new states, whose prospects for legitimacy, development, and independent survival were, at best, uncertain.

The half-decade that has followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union has not been sufficient time for any of the vast challenges facing Central Asia to have been addressed definitively. Nor can we be confident that a stable regional "system" has coalesced. Yet, the past 5 years have produced an emerging pattern of relations amenable to tentative analysis.

Lieutenant Colonel Dianne Smith of SSI details the complex problems facing the region and then turns her attention to Central Asia's evolving security structure. By involving the "Great Game" analogy, she takes the perspective that, for this part of the continent, it is the nations surrounding the region that will play the primary role in shaping its future (although the new Central Asian nations are participants, not pawns, in this struggle for influence).

Colonel Smith's analysis focuses on the interests and actions of five of those surrounding nations: Iran, Pakistan, India, Russia, and China. Each has significant interests in Central Asia, and each, thus far, has tempered, to some degree, its actions to advance those interests in recognition of the competing objectives of the others. For the United States, a power vacuum in Central Asia seems a remote concern at first blush.


A new "Great Game" is being played out in Central Asia, one in which powers on the periphery compete for influence, but also one in which the Central Asian states themselves are active players. Their own struggle for power can influence immediate neighbors Russia, China, and Iran, and even beyond into the Indian subcontinent.

Serious political, economic, ethnic, religious, and social challenges confront the five Central Asian states. How each state is able to resolve these problems will determine its ability to emerge as a viable force in the regional struggle for influence.

Instability might seem to provide opportunities for states such as Iran or China, but the risks that such instability would ricochet back on them are too great. Thus, Iran, Pakistan, India, Russia, and China each seek, in their own way, to promote stability within Central Asia while expanding their own regional influence.

Threats to Central Asia.

The greatest threats to Central Asia are internal. The painstaking process of nation building, the legitimacy crisis, rapid social and economic transformation, environmental degradation, decolonization, ethnic diversity, and border disputes are among the sources of instability. The core issues are the ethnic composition of each state and the ability of each republic to mold a "nation" within the artificial boundaries inherited from the Soviet empire. Democracy has been sacrificed at the altar of stability in all five republics. The continuing civil war in Tajikistan remains the most crucial inter-regional security threat, while the civil war in Afghanistan remains the most immediate extra-regional threat.


Iran has vital interests in the maintenance of peace and stability within the region, but its international isolation and pariah status prevent direct action in support of its genuine security concerns. As a contiguous state with shared ethnic minorities, Iran has the most to lose if domestic instability should cause the implosion of Central Asia, but it also has the least ability to shape events.


Pakistan's security policy, long dominated by a fear of India and the search for a superpower patron to counter that threat, now must confront threatened spillover from civil wars in Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Islamabad's hopes that the new states of Central Asia would provide it with strategic depth, Islamic allies, and collective security partners in its struggle with India have been dashed. Geographical constraints and concerted efforts by non-Islamic neighbors, especially Russia and China, have stymied her efforts to become a major player in Central Asia. But, through bilateral ties and agencies such as the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), Pakistan can still provide technical and economic assistance to the Central Asian states' efforts to resolve the issues threatening their domestic stability.


The breakup of the Soviet Union and the loss of its superpower patron have created serious security concerns for India. India fears that Central Asian border realignment, ethnic disputes, and resurgent Islam or civil war would directly affect the territorial integrity of Afghanistan, which, in domino effect, would influence Pakistan, Iran, and Kashmir. To promote stability in Central Asia, India has focused its efforts on bilateral technical assistance and economic programs, building upon existing links dating back to the Soviet era. The fact that India does not border Central Asia (Pakistan and Afghanistan lie between) has hampered development, as has a shortage of investment capital. India must rely on a non-Islamic proxy, Russia or China, to provide regional security.


Having earlier dismissed Central Asia as a burden gotten rid of, Moscow then sought to bring Central Asia, if not back into the empire, then, at the very least, back into the fold. Russia seeks to prevent other states from achieving regional hegemony, protect and expand its own economic interests, protect ethnic Russians living in the region, and stop the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. The region remains militarily tied to Russia through the Commonwealth of Independent States and the 1992 Tashkent Treaty, which created a formal collective security agreement. Russia supplies around 25,000 peacekeeping forces in Tajikistan and provides border troops along the CIS' external borders. More recently Moscow has pushed harder for closer economic and political integration and a greater share of the profit from developing energy deals. The Central Asian states are landlocked; almost all transportation and pipeline routes abroad must pass through Russia. But, Russia is hampered by a lack of funds to execute many of the bilateral agreements signed, and calls by ultra-nationalists for a return to the Soviet Union cause fear in Central Asia and drive the republics to seek alternatives to renewed Russian hegemony.


China's security position in Asia has improved with the fall of its superpower rival, the Soviet Union, but the advent of five unstable, nominally-Islamic neighbors, the war in Tajikistan, and growing unrest in the Fergana valley (which leads into China's ethnically Muslim province, Xinjiang) all support a nightmare scenario in which unrest in Central Asia spills over into China. Yet, China also hopes to use Central Asian markets as a catalyst to fuel a new prosperity zone in Xinjiang, revive the Silk Route for international trade, and gain access to Central Asian energy resources.

Implications for U.S. Policy.

America has no vital interests in, nor will it assume responsibility for, Central Asia's security. The primary focus will be damage control--to prevent existing problems from escalating into crises that might engage the other Asian powers. This is best achieved through development of free market democracies in Central Asia, for economic dislocation breeds ethnic, religious, and political extremism. A strong, vibrant economy is a prerequisite for political stability.

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