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CASPIAN REGION: THE GREAT GAME REMAKE

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Uzbekistan was an important recipient of new US aid, but has pulled towards Russia and China in the midst of Western criticism for its human rights violations. Since this shift, Russia and China have taken advantage the opportunity to fortify their position with Caspian states. 

By Ayesha Villalobos

Times gone by and the history of the Caspian region is subjected by a cyclical pattern of conflict between global powers. The era of The Great Game is a historical period extraordinarily identified for the clashing of empires, the 19th Century, the Ottoman, British, and Czarist Russian Empires squabbled for power in and around the Caspian region.

An established fact, the Caspian Sea is the largest inland body of water in the world and borders Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Iran. Oil and gas are the sea’s most precious natural resources. Caspian oil production currently accounts for 2.8 percent of the world’s oil supply, whereas, gas production accounts for about 5 percent. Estimates of the Caspian Sea region’s proven oil reserves vary widely by source.

The United States Department of Energy estimates that the region holds between 17 to billion barrels. The British Petroleum’s estimates are 47.1 billion barrels. These figures

indicate that the Caspian’s oil resources are much less than those of the Middle East.

Stated differently, the Caspian Sea will not replace the Middle East as the main reservoir of world oil. Still, production from the Caspian will add more oil to international markets and contribute to global energy security. The sea has yet to be divided among the littoral states, and each is in quest to gain the biggest share possible.

The Caspian region does not only consist of the littoral states but also Armenia, Georgia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. Russia is treated uniquely as a global power. Due to the Caspian Sea location within the geographical area. Its oil rich resources, strategic location, and history of global conflict combine to make this region vital to its neighbours.

A global level competition within the Caspian region. During the early 19th Century, Britain and Tsarist Russia were both expanding their empires into Central Asia. Both of these powers soon congregated on the borders of the Ottoman Empire. As these empires are closer with each other, a period of competition known as The Great Game was created.

Apprehension that the Russians would use Afghanistan to stage an invasion of India, the British initiated the First Afghan War in 1838. The objective was to set up a puppet government in Afghanistan which would provide a buffer against advanced Russian intrusion. The First Afghan War ended with the retreat of British troops from an Afghanistan that rejected to be submissive. For a while Russia and Britain shifted to coercion and proxies but rapidly a Second Afghan War was fought, only to suffer the same fate. A momentary peace followed. When that agreement was upset by the Bolshevik Revolution, a Third Afghan War erupted. Similarly, this rivalry ended in stalemate, and The Great Game was briefly abandoned and the world became entangled in World War II.

Subsequently, World War II, a destabilized Britain was replaced by the United States as a global power. The Cold War period saw the development of a global balance between Soviet Russia and the United States. In the Caspian region this balance of powers resembled like another Great Game, and Afghanistan found itself entangled once again. This time around it was the USSR that attempted to suppress this defiant country. The Afghanis resisted fiercely and bloodily repulsed the invading Soviets. Soviet expansion ground to a halt, and the Soviet Union disintegrated thereafter.

Presently, the Caspian region remains a crucial point in international affairs, motivated by the value of oil and a reinvigorated US presence. Russia, China, and the US now find themselves engaged in this blueprint of global rivalry. Beyond doubt, this has the unfolding of a dramatic sequel of The Great Game, and all three powers juxtaposed. These three states will be referred to as the global powers.

Russia

Russia has had the longest history of participation in the power struggles within the Caspian region. Even throughout the era when its power has declined, Russia has never completely abandoned its stake in the regional game. It has had vested interests in this region since it affirmed its power in the commencement of The Great Game. Today, control in this sphere is not just an issue of regional security, or energy requirements, but one of supremacy. This region is Russia’s backyard. The collapse of the Berlin wall, in 1989, signifies the end of the Cold War, and it marked the beginning, of re-examination and identification of international relations, filling the void left by the collapse of Cold War alliances. As the Cold War ended and the USSR started to disintegrate, Soviet treaties with Iran came into question. To guarantee the stability of the Caspian region, the Minsk Agreement was ratified on December 21, 1991. The Russian Federation, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and other former soviet republics signed this accord to affirm compliance with all treaties signed with the former Soviet Union.

Four days later, the Soviet Union ceased to exist as a state. The agreements between Iran and the USSR concerning control of the Caspian Sea, on the other hand, were annulled in the wake of this disintegration. Now Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan would want a fraction of this sea’s wealth. This issue swiftly drew controversy. In 1994, Kazakhstan proposed the first draft convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea. This prompted other states to each one to propose and construe their own convenient interpretation with regard to the procedural division of the sea.

In 1996, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan signed the Ashgabat Declaration. In this declaration, all approved on a single plan for the division of the Caspian. In the wake of this agreement, Azerbaijan was in peril of being locked out of Caspian negotiations. In 1997, oil disputes broke out between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, as well as with Iran. Russia stepped promptly into both of these conflicts, and demonstrating Russia’s continuing influence among the Caspian states. Once these disagreements settled, Azerbaijan began to work more closely with Russia. In April 1998, both states stunned the world by establishing a formal agreement to divide the seabed on their coasts. Still, a unanimous agreement on the division of the Caspian has yet to be realized.

In the wake of September 11th, Russia cooperated with the increased US military presence in the region. Both states share a common interest in fighting terrorism. Collaboration in counterterrorism, nonetheless, does not mean that Russia is indifferent with the US presence. The United States’ amplified involvement has changed the military power balance in the region. Prior to US intervention in the region, Russia and China were providing security through the entities like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In light of new US military participation, Russia is working to strengthen its security structures in the region. Russia has consistently pursued policies that would make the Caspian states dependent upon it for security. In 2002, Russia formed the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSO) with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Belarus, and Armenia. Russia is clearly the dominant state and acts as a “security manager.”

In addition to its security concerns, Russia has economic priorities in Central Asia. Among the greatest economic issues for Russia has been the division of the Caspian Sea. Russia has worked to create an agreement that would be mutually beneficial for all the littoral states while preserving Russian hegemony. Russia does not appear interested in seeing the development of regional cooperation that would undermine its role as a regional hegemony. For Russia and China, economic advantages appear to be practically as valuable as military or security advantages.

China

Chinese entry into The Great Game is a new development, but should not be surprising. China can no longer be considered just an East-Asian power. It has established trade missions in every Central Asian state and “offered to help Uzbekistan develop several small oil fields.” China has also turned its north-western region (Xinjiang) into a hub that will facilitate economic growth. This region shares its border with Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Pakistan can only    benefit if it should act quickly to draw pipelines for India and Gawadar for onward despatch to outside world. To date, China possesses trade ties with more than 100 countries and regions.

Demographically, China’s presence is being felt as well. Kazakhstan now has 100,000 Chinese living within its borders. The geographical proximity of the Caspian region makes it a Chinese priority for both economic and security reasons. As China engages this region, it has an interest in balancing the influence of the US and Russia. US bases in Central Asia place US military forces closer to China’s western border than ever before. China, Russia, and the other members of the SCO, have called for the United States to set a deadline to withdraw from military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Russian and Chinese relations have been relatively cooperative to date. It would be noteworthy to mention, though, that these two are competing for oil. Cooperation agreements on security issues may find themselves secondary to China’s demand for oil.

The economic growth in China has produced an insatiable need for energy resources. While China wants to import Caspian oil, Russia wants to direct it to the West. The rising demand for oil is doubtless one of the most vital factors motivating Chinese foreign policy in the region. It also has the potential to be one of the most unstable issues in the new stage of this global game.

United States

The United States has a distinctive position in the game, as a power from half-way around the globe. After the downfall of the USSR, the US was slow to engage itself in the Caspian region. US interests for this region, on the other hand, was designed to develop notably in the post-Cold War period. Between 1992 and 1999, the US would afford approximately $1.9 billion to the Caspian states under the Freedom Support Act. In 1994, the Clinton administration established an agency committed exclusively to designing the Caspian policy. By 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright travelled to this region and met with various leaders. Also in 1998, President Clinton appointed a special advisor for the Caspian region.

Oil has always been one of the United States’ leading interests in the Caspian but should not be regarded as a lone motivation of US policy. As a global hegemony (though presently, seen in a crepuscular stage), the US also has a concentration in scrutinising the intensification of Russian and Chinese power. After September 11th, the global War on Terror also became a key factor in determining US foreign policy. At present, the administration of Barack Obama appears to place anti-terrorism beyond economic considerations, and US interests in the region have never been as vigorously exerted as they are at the present. Strong US financial and military concern quickly followed the devastation of the twin towers. This integrated the establishment of the military bases within and outside the Caspian region that alarmed China. Massive financial aid was granted in exchange for state cooperation. Such commitment of troops and finances has made the US a major player in the Caspian region but the rules of the game are presently determined by Russia and China.” The US is left with modest choice but to employ these powers, due to its commitment to Afghanistan and enormous financial and manpower outlay.

United States aid was a smart enticement for Caspian states, but the US presence weighs greatly in the region. As its propensity to use bi-lateral agreements signify, the US has revealed an inclination to act autonomously. This commitment to unilateralism causes some tensions among regional states. US normative aspirations could also amplify this feeling of isolation, as authoritarian states feels imperilled by US endorsement of democracy. This is evident in the case of Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan was an important recipient of new US aid, but has pulled towards Russia and China in the midst of Western criticism for its human rights violations. Since this shift, Russia and China have taken advantage the opportunity to fortify their position with Caspian states. Despite all these, nonetheless, the US has acquired some success in its oil priorities. In December of 2006, the Shah Denis field began supplying the new South Caucasus pipeline, carrying natural gas to Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey. This pipeline is intended to expand to Europe and reveal a US desire to bypass Russia and Iran. These current power struggles between the three global powers pursue a pattern similar to The Great Game. The greatest security threat to the Caspian region may not come from external forces but from interstate conflict.  Evaluation of that threat will speak to the cohesiveness of the Islamic civilization.

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