The New Great Game: Rivalry Among Regional And Trans-Regional Powers in Central Asia

April 04, 2024 Rugveda Mayakuntla


Central Asia is described as the ‘heartland of world politics’ along with some East European countries by Halford Mackinder. In his Heartland theory, he says, that whoever controls the Heartland, would control the world. The Central Asian region has been given this importance because of its strategic geographical location and enormous energy resources. Central Asia consists of five countries namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Central Asia is surrounded by the major powers and regional powers, Russia which is its former colonizer in the north. Economic superpower in the region, China borders to the east. Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan share the southern border of Central Asia. Turkey also shares proximity with the Central Asian Region (CAR). The Caspian Sea covers the western borders of Central Asia.

The significance of Central Asia can be understood with two dimensions of world politics i.e. geopolitics and geoeconomics. In this context, geopolitics should be understood as ‘country’s positioning on the world map and nation’s position as a factor influencing the world politics and international relations’ and geoeconomics as ‘possession of abundant natural resources as a factor influencing world trade and international politics’. Central Asia is strategically located in the center of Eurasia and the core of Asia. It serves as a link between Eastern and Western countries, linking Asia and Europe. It is also located at the heart of the Silk Route, a historical trade route connecting China, the Middle East, and the Western empires. Central Asia is also very important because of its surplus possession of energy resources like oil and gas with about 10% of the world's oil reserves and about 30-40% of global gas reserves. Kazakhstan is home to the largest oil and coal deposits in the CAR, which is followed by Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan contains the largest natural gas deposits in the region. And two upstream countries of the region, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have significant hydropower resources at their disposal.

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Great Game and New Great Game

The ‘Great Game’ was the rivalry between the British Empire and the Russian Tsarist Empire particularly in Central Asia and Afghanistan during the 18th and 19th centuries. The fundamental reason for this Great Game rivalry is that both empires aimed to expand their influence and control the Central Asian region. The British Empire assumed the increasing influence of Russia in the Central Asian region, especially in Afghanistan as a threat to its security in its colonial territories that could harm its interests in the Indian subcontinent. Another factor that contributed to this rivalry is, both Russia and Britain were looking to control the Silk Road in order to increase their economic activity, protect their trade, facilitate the transportation of luxury goods like silk, spices, etc, and get access to natural energy resources. The Great Game came to an end with the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 and with several other diplomatic agreements.

Almost after a century, the return of the Great Game occurred, but with different actors, aims, strategies, and agendas due to the significance of Central Asia's and the Caspian Basins' energy deposits, known as the “New Great Game”. One of the main reasons behind the new great game is ‘oil politics’ which means the conflict between different countries to have control over the energy resources available in the region. The major players involved in this include China, Russia, the USA, Iran, Turkey, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Great powers, regional powers, and transregional powers are using different strategies to meet their goals in this region of the world which makes it important for us to study this region from the geo-economic and geopolitical perspectives. In the coming sections, we will be looking into two important questions: Why did these major powers join the New Great Game? What are they doing to succeed in this New Great Game?


China has joined the race of the New Great Game due to its economic and security interests in Central Asia. China is the world's largest energy consumer and the world’s biggest importer of oil and natural gas. Because of its rapid industrial growth, its dependency on imports of gas has increased to 43% and oil has increased to 72%. As a result, China's interest in the CAR has increased. China wants to diversify its energy supply and reduce its dependency on imports from the Middle East, Africa, and Indonesia via the Malacca Strait which is vulnerable to blockade from the US naval bases present there, also referred to as “Malacca Dilemma”. To deal with this Malacca dilemma, China wants to develop pipeline infrastructure in central Asian countries especially Kazhakstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan through Xinjiang. Chinese geoeconomic interest in Central Asia is, it is viewing Central Asia as a promising and vast market for its finished goods. China is also looking to expand its economic activity to Persian markets and European countries through Central Asia by reviving the old Silk Route. China also has a security interest in Central Asia because the troubled region of China i.e. Xinjiang shares borders with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. China intends to maintain peace and stability in these countries because it is apprehensive about the spillover effect of Islamic radicalism and terrorism which may lead to separatist movements in the province.

To realize its economic, political, and security goals, China started investing heavily in developing transit and infrastructural projects through BRI. Ironically, China’s BRI is heavily importing Chinese labor by ignoring the locals causing inadequate employment opportunities for CAR people. China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has also constructed many natural gas and oil pipelines in the CAR to ensure energy supply and improve regional connectivity. China-Central Asia Gas Pipeline (Line-A), China-Kazakhstan Oil Pipeline (Line B), etc, are some of the important pipelines constructed under China’s energy security strategy whereas China-Central Asia Gas Pipeline (Line D) is still at the under-construction stage. The natural gas was transported via the Central Asia-China pipeline network, which commenced operations with Line A in 2009 and Line B the following year. Both pipelines connect the Bagtyyarlyk gas field in Turkmenistan with a transportation capacity of 30 BCM annually.

China is also assisting the Central Asian countries to maintain socio-political stability through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. The ongoing Russia- Ukraine war has disturbed the trade route between China and Europe through Russia. So, China has eyed the Middle Corridor, which connects Southeast Asia to Europe via Central Asia, the Caspian Sea, and Caucasia. China considers this area important for its defense, regional stability, economic growth, and energy interests.


Russia wants to control the Central Asian Region, and it is easier for Russia than any other country because Central Asian countries are dependent on Russia economically, historically, and culturally. Russia shares similar interests as China in the CAR such as energy security, peace, and stability in the region. Russia's main aim is to have security cooperation with Central Asian countries in order to reduce the US influence in the region. It views CAR as a buffer zone between Russia and the West in the context of the expansion of NATO under the leadership of the USA. To achieve these military and strategic goals, Russia maintains its military presence in CAR for eg, 201st Military Base in Tajikistan, Kant Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, etc. To counterbalance the influence of the US in the region, Russia took some collective security initiatives such as the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). Russia and many Central Asian countries are members of CSTO, where they perform joint military activities, intelligence sharing, and enhance their security cooperation. Not just CSTO, Russia also has bilateral agreements through which it tries to strengthen the militaries of the Central Asian countries which includes selling arms and ammunition, conducting training exercises, and providing assistance programs.

Economic cooperation is another important interest of Russia in the Central Asian Region. Russia is one of the biggest trading partners of Central Asian countries and it signed a free trade agreement, Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) with two Central Asian countries Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to increase its economic cooperation. Russia’s geoeconomic interest is to have control over the energy resources and monopolize the energy transit channels in that region. To take economic advantage of the energy resources, Russia purchases the energy at a low price from the Central Asian countries and sells it at a higher price to the world market. Russia’s biggest gas companies like Gazprom and Surgutneftegas have signed agreements with Turkmenistan for the acquisition and transportation of natural gas and are involved in the development of infrastructural developments like the Central Asia-Center gas pipeline. Russia also has control over other two such natural gas pipelines i.e. Central Asia - Center (CAC) 1, 2, 4, and 5 pipelines, and the Central Asia- Center 3 pipeline which connects the oil fields of Turkmenistan to Russia. Russian oil companies like Rosneft, Lukoil, Tatneft, etc made significant investments and joint ventures and partnerships with Central Asian countries. Many of these corporate companies are not just involved in buying oil and natural gas but also involved in their production and infrastructural development.

To maintain its hegemony and secure borders, Russia is looking to curb terrorism and religious fundamentalism in the Central Asian countries. Russia along with China wants the autocratic government to prevail in the Central Asian countries that will run on Western lines giving larger space to the USA to expand itself in CAR. An autocratic government is more conducive for both Russia and China to achieve their objectives. One more important objective of Russia is to ensure the safety and protection of Russian minorities present in Central Asian countries. Russia is also apprehensive about China's growing influence in the CAR. Central Asia is turning towards China not just because of huge trade partnerships and energy project investments but also because they are anxious about Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Although China does not have an interest in protecting Central Asian countries against Russia, rising Chinese acceptance in the Central Asian countries may become a cause of friction between Russia and China in the future. But it is not easy to break the China and Russia partnership and their peaceful competition to gain influence in the CAR as long as both countries consider the US as their common enemy.

United States of America

The relationship between the USA and Central Asian countries was limited till the post-Cold War period. The US started looking into the CAR region and gave importance to it only after starting their military operations in Afghanistan. Central Asian countries along with Pakistan are seen as the gateway for Afghanistan by the USA. After the 9/11 attacks, Central Asian countries have become more significant geopolitically and strategically because the US was largely dependent on the logistical requirements and military bases of the Central Asian countries for its security operations in Afghanistan. However, this importance declined after the Taliban took over and withdrew their troops from Afghanistan. Gradually the US has started focusing on Central Asia after realizing the increasing foothold of both nations Russia and China in the CAR. Hence, another strategic interest of the USA is to contain the expanding influence of China and the involvement of Russia in the Central Asian Region. The US wants to control the routes that are used to transport natural gas and oil to prevent the Russian and Chinese monopoly over the resources in the region. Major American oil and gas companies like Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Conoco Phillips, Marathon Oil, etc. are invested in the oil and gas exploration projects in the region and contributing to the development of the region’s energy production. Though companies from both countries i.e. US and China are investing in Central Asia, Chinese companies are comparatively doing well in recent years thanks to Chinese initiatives like BRI and the Central Asia China Summit. For the US to achieve its objectives, it is very important to have stability and security in the Central Asian region. In this context, the USA shares its mutual interest with the other powers in the region like Russia and China who want to eliminate terrorism and remove religious fundamentalism. However, it is relatively difficult for the USA to achieve its objectives when compared to Russia and China because of its geographical non-connectivity with the Central Asian countries.


Iran and Central Asia both share deep economic and historical relations that serve as a solid foundation for future cooperation. Iran also has a strong linguistic and cultural connection with Tajikistan and some parts of Uzbekistan. The geographical proximity helps Iran to build strong relationships with Central Asian countries. Iran also acts as a connecting link between the CAR and the world market through the ports of Bandar Abbas and Bandar Khomeini and by providing road and railway transportation facilities. The geo-economic interest of Iran in the Central Asian countries is to procure oil and gas from the CAR and export to energy-consuming nations like Turkey, Pakistan, India, and European countries. Iran wants to become the transit country for Central Asian energy resources by countering regional powers like Russia and China. It is considered that comparatively Iran is more suitable for this because of the following reasons- prevailing oil refineries, pipeline infrastructure, seaports with the shortest and least expensive route, and cultural and historical ties. Rather than the traditional route via the Suez Canal, the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) which is a cargo route between Europe, Central Asia, Russia, Pakistan, and India primarily connected through Iran, is cheaper and shorter. However Iran shares less than 2% of its total foreign trade with Central Asia, hence it lacks when it comes to economic cooperation with the Central Asian countries when compared to other regional powers China and Russia. Iran is anticipating increasing its economic and trade relations with Central Asian countries once it signs and implements a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Iran’s strategic goal in the CAR is to counter the growing influence of the US. After the US imposed sanctions on Iran and increased its military presence in neighboring countries like Afghanistan, it was significant for Iran to come out of this isolation and increase its influence.


Turkey’s role in Central Asia is greatly influenced by the USA. Turkey was significant to the USA for its policy to contain communism in the region during the Cold War period. After the disintegration of the USSR, Turkey was encouraged by the US to have cordial relations with the newly independent states to safeguard its interests like containing the influence of Russia and Iran in the region. Also, historically Turkey shares a strong relationship with Central Asian countries along with Caucasia in cultural, linguistic, and religious aspects. Turkey has started using this advantage and formed Turkic Council also called the Organisation of Turkic States in 2005 to pursue its economic interests in the area. Turkey wants to establish itself as a center for energy transit, connecting the energy supplies of Central Asia with global markets. Turkey is particularly interested in the construction of the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline because it will diversify its energy supplies and lessen its dependency on a single source of energy by running via Turkmenistan, the Caspian Sea, and Azerbaijan. Turkey is also using its soft power tools like television dramas, music, and cultural commodities to further its influence in the CAR.


Like Iran and Turkey, Afghanistan also shares historical ties with Central Asia which influences its interest in the Central Asian countries. Afghanistan wants to increase trade and economic relations with Central Asian nations which also results in reducing its dependence on Pakistan and Iran. Central Asian countries share security threats with Afghanistan like spillover effects of terrorism, religious extremism, drug trafficking, and refugee crisis. Apart from energy cooperation, Afghanistan’s interest in Central Asia is the use and management of water resources, especially those from the Amu Darya and Panj rivers. The Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process and the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) program are two regional cooperation and integration projects that are strongly related to Afghanistan's interests in Central Asia. These programs give Afghanistan a platform to interact with Central Asian nations and support regional stability and growth. However, after the Taliban takeover, Central Asian countries face new security and humanitarian challenges from Afghanistan. Central Asian countries along with the neighbors of Afghanistan are apprehensive about the spillover of Taliban. To address these security implications, some central Asian countries held joint military exercises with Russia on Afghan borders.


One of Pakistan's main interests is to diversify and strengthen its economic ties with Central Asian countries, particularly by getting access to Central Asian countries' energy resources and markets. Pakistan acts as a bridge between Central Asia and South Asia which leverages Pakistan's aim of becoming a significant transit country for Central Asia’s trade and energy transportation. Hence to realize this objective Pakistan is playing a major role in the construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline and the Central Asia-South Asia (CASA-1000) electricity transmission project. The strategic aim of Pakistan in Central Asia is to contain the dominance of India in the region by deepening its cultural, historical, and religious ties with Central Asian countries. Pakistan’s religious interests in CAR are to foster Islamic ties, Islamic institutions, and Islamic culture because it shares a Muslim majority in the country. However, it is not geographically connected to Central Asia which brings Afghanistan into the scene. None of the plans of Pakistan can be achieved until regional and political stability exists in Afghanistan.


Despite the fact that India does not directly border any Central Asian country, India regards the region as a part of its extended neighborhood. Like any other country, a key aspect driving Indian interest in the area is its potential for energy production. In addition to securing its energy interest, India has a great interest in promoting regional stability and expanding trade and economic possibilities with Central Asian countries. India’s security interest includes controlling drug trafficking, terrorism, and religious extremism. India is playing an important role in developing infrastructure projects like the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and TAPI to realize its objectives. There was limited progress in the cooperation however, it changed when there was a change in the geopolitics of the region, especially the formation of China’s BRI in the CAR. India started acting provocatively by reinforcing the ‘Connect Central Asia Policy’.

Central Asia's Multi-Vector Policy

Immediately after their independence, the main goal of every Central Asian country was to protect their sovereignty and national integrity. However, the huge influence of Russia can be witnessed in the CAR by avoiding the fierce competition between regional and transregional powers. The most important nation in Central Asia, Kazakhstan has adopted a multidimensional foreign policy where it is trying to gain maximum benefits by balancing between regional and transregional powers and setting up relations with every nation. Other countries in Central Asia also started following the same approach of ‘Multi vector policy’.

The multi-vector policy is the efforts taken by the Central Asian countries to maintain positive relations with other nations in a balanced way to pursue their strategic, security, political, and economic interests. If Central Asian countries strengthen their ties with one side by neglecting the other powers, Central Asian countries will have to face new threats from this polarized world. The lack of economic development in the Central Asian countries is due to their geographical condition i.e. being land-locked countries which makes Central Asian countries distant from the international commodity markets. The transfer of huge oil and natural gas resources becomes a huge challenge for Central Asian countries when there is no sea route. To leverage their rich energy reserves, develop transit
routes, and attract investments, Central Asian countries must establish robust relationships with every regional and transregional power like Russia, China, the USA, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Pakistan, India, etc. As a result of the multivector policy, Central Asian countries are part of Russia led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), China-led Belt and Road Initiative(BRI), Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Turkey-led Organization of Turkic States. To conclude, in this fierce competition of the New Great game between various regional and transregional players to have influence over the Central Asian countries, and control potential energy reserves, Central Asian countries have chosen a pragmatic approach by maintaining friendly relations with the other players to extract maximum benefits from it.


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About the Author:

Rugveda Mayakuntla is currently working as Field Associate at Indian Political Action Committee. She is a Post-Graduate in Politics and International Relations from Pondicherry University.


The research article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Indic Researchers Forum.

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