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Central Asia: The New Great Game

The vitally strategic region of Central Asia, which links the key zones of Asia and Europe together, has historically taken center stage due to its geographic significance. Before the emergence of the concept of a ‘Great Game’ centered in the region; the belt had been used as crucial passage for armies since centuries.


From Alexander riding east in the time of the ancient Greeks, to the Mongol and Timurid hordes that swept across the west as a wave during the medieval period, the territorial significance of the region has never been in doubt. The concept of an actual ‘Great Game’ being played on the region emerged much later though, once the entrenched western empires begun their domination of the world through a wave of colonization.

Zehra Akbar is a graduate in BSc Politics & Economics from the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). She is currently working with USAID Power Distribution Program for the International Resources Group (IRG), Washington as a Gender Coordinator. Zehra’s research interests are politics of gender, and South Asian regional studies.

The Old Great Game

Britain emerged as one of the great colonizing western forces, in spite of its late entry to this stage (as compared to the Russian, Portuguese and Spanish Empires). The jewel in the British colonial crown was its key prosperous colony of India. Having arrived in search for trade in the 17th century, and being in complete control of the subcontinent a hundred years later, were no small achievement and one the British were willing to guard zealously. Being one of the most profitable colonies, Britain was willing to go to great lengths to retain control and it was with this aim that the British tried, unsuccessfully, to move in westwards and to gain control to the region that is modern day Afghanistan. The repeated failure of the British forces (which were largely formed through indigenous recruitment) owed to various factors but this region of present day Afghanistan came to form the buffer that the British had to be mindful of, if they were to guard their treasured colony (Hopkirk 1992, 1).

The reason for this cautious British approach was the growing presence of Tsarist Russia within the Central Asian region, populated at the time by the comparatively weak khanates of Bokhara, Khiva, and Khokand. The British feared the Tsar’s motives as it was firmly believed that control over the Central Asian zone could be a preemptive step and a foundation to set up a platform in Afghanistan to invade the British Raj. Entry into the Raj would also give Russia access to the warm water ports on the shores of the Arabian Sea, enhancing Russia’s trading prowess. Furthermore, control of the Indian Subcontinent would provide Russia with the opportunity to completely cave in on, the historically preconceived threat of China on the western border.

Thus, this perceived Russian interest in India and on the British side, fuelled the idea of a Great Game in motion. The Game began with the two imposing empires separated by the entirety of the Central Asian land mass at the start of the 19th century. Russia had established itself as challengers to the British dominance in South and Central Asia by imposing its own dominance in Eastern Europe. It provided a platform for the Russians to start posturing eastwards, towards Central Asia, tailing off with Afghanistan at the end, and the prestigious Indian colony beyond that.  The Game’s scope initially, expanded with political and diplomatic influence of the Russians growing in the Khanates, particularly in Bokhara. With British intrigue growing, intelligence officers were dispatched to the region to chart the Russian progress. This led to the exposition of the Tsar’s intentions of taking definitive control of the region, chronicled by the famous letter from Arthur Connelly, wherein is the first known official reference to the ‘Great Game’.

According to Hopkirk, the suspicion provided the stimulus for the British to take a more active approach towards the issue, culminating in them the need for their own push into Afghanistan, so that the Russian advancement could be curtailed. The first Anglo-Afghan war of 1838 allowed the British to set up a puppet regime that had loose control over the region and allowed for a British garrison in Kabul. The victory was short lived though, as constant local rebellions inevitably led to the British, along with their puppet government, were unable to retain any real control of the region. What followed was an annihilation, as by 1842, all but one of the British contingent were ruthlessly massacred on their withdrawal from Kabul. This first battle was a representative of the trend that The Game would follow. The Russians continued their incessant advance through Central Asia by managing to annex Tashkent by 1865. On the other hand, the British faced a crushing defeat in Kabul, followed by the rebellion of 1857 within India, which cut short any British hopes of expecting the empire to take an aggressive approach to The Game. The strategy of using the Afghan state as a buffer between the two empires was the most viable option for the British. Though the Russians did eventually try for a push in towards Afghanistan, the Afghan state was unbiased in its hostility towards any foreign presence and provided firm resistance. Luckily for the British, the Russian domination of Afghanistan, crucial to any eventual move for the end game of India, never materialized and the British were able to switch to more diplomatic practices, such as controlling the Afghan policy to keep the Tsar at bay. According to Hopkirk’s account, the game fizzled out with the Bolshevik deposition of the Russian Tsar and the advent of the Great War diverted British and Russian attentions elsewhere.

Having shown how the original game played out, it is crucial to analyze the true significance of The Game by reviewing it with a critical mindset by utilizing contemporary tools for international political analysis. There is a line of reasoning that argues against the significance of the Great Game, citing various reasons as to why there is a possibility that the concept of The Great Game greatly exaggerated the ground realities on either side, and mythologized the interplay between the two empires. ‘Myth and Reality in the Great Game’ by Gerald Morgan is a particularly interesting contemporary take on the historic concept of The Great Game and manages to significantly reduce the importance attributed to the first game (Morgan 1973, 64). Morgan reasoned that the perceived threat of a Russian invasion into the Indian subcontinent may have been present but the idea had always been farfetched. The threat to the British India lay more directly with the possibility of the locals rising up against colonial rule, as shown by the much greater significance of the 1857 rebellion. Furthermore, Morgan cites a failure to recover any considerable evidence of a British intelligence network functioning to further British ends within Central Asia, in spite of extensive research of archives of the British Raj. Thus it may be claimed that the region had always carried geopolitical weight, but the extent of its importance may have been exaggerated. Morgan even credits this dramatization of the events to the romantic mindset of Victorian Britain at the time.

Moreover, this detailed account of the original Great Game, derived from Hopkirk’s work, is moot without a critical analysis of it and how it’s symptomatic of the prime concern of this paper, the new great game. The first and foremost thing to consider is the dynamics of this game. The game centered purely on the actions of the two major empires, vying for control of the region, with other players only playing a marginal role. Afghanistan becomes crucial, in its role as a buffer state and as this paper will show, manages to retain this role, a century later, within the framework of the New Great Game. The duopoly of the two empires in the region made the Old Great Game a systematic process of moves and counter moves, with reactionary force driving the game forward.  With no other players to upset the order, and the weakened state of the politics within the region, the empires had a clear trajectory to take. Another aspect of the game to be considered was its militaristic nature, in synch with the aggressive nature of the dominant empires of the time and prime method of control and major source of power.

The New Great Game

Whereas the Old Great Game emerged out of strengthening of the Russian empire; the New Great Game arose with its demise. While the fall of the Russian Tsarist regime at the hands of the Bolshevik revolution ended the Old Great Game, the New Game took shape with the fall of the Soviet Regime. Having had to fend off its rival super power, The United States, since the end of the Second World War, the cold war had been taxing for the oversized Soviet Union. The Union’s resources had been stretched too thin and its excursion, ironically, in Afghanistan had dealt the Soviet’s a final blow. It would seem the Russian’s had failed to heed the lesson of history, as Russian efforts in Afghanistan had been a futile attempt, one century ago, under the Tsar as well.

Coupled with the internal strife now tearing apart the Russian federation, the Soviet Union’s demise came from within. Gorbachev’s final few attempts had failed to retain the federation and the Soviet Union disbanded with the emergence of the Russian flag. Under Soviet rule, “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent” and with its fall came the rise of the soon to be independent Central Asian Republics that would collectively provide the playing field for the New Great Game (Churchill 1946). The severe reduction of the stern control Russia had maintained in the region, through the Soviet Union, lead to a power vacuum in the region. Since the independence of the Central Asian states, all the players of the New Great Game are vying to garner individual control and fill this void. The countries that together comprise of Central Asia today include Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. These nations, though each having its own distinct identity, are firmly bound together by their shared history. The region as a whole has historically suffered foreign domination, initially under the Ottoman Empire, and most recently being part of the Soviet Regime with Russia pulling the strings.  

Maybe the most pertinent question to ask, before undertaking a lengthy analysis of the New Great Game being played out in Central Asia, is if this Great Game holds sufficient consequences as its grandiose name suggests? This question is especially vital after the reevaluation of the Old Great Game tried to debunk the game’s historical significance. And if it does hold sufficient consequences, what are the reasons behind its strategic worth?

Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani political scientist, an active writer and a strong authority on the subject due to his intricate knowledge of the region, has best summed up the contrast between the Old and New Great Game, and made apparent the very real existence of this new game he writes:

‘The Great Game is no fun anymore. The term “Great Game” was used by nineteenth-century British imperialists to describe the British-Russian struggle for position on the chessboard of Afghanistan and Central Asia – a contest with a few players, mostly limited to intelligence forays and short wars fought on horseback with rifles, and with those living on the chessboard largely bystanders or victims. More than a century later, the game continues. But now, the number of players has exploded, those living on the chessboard have become involved, and the intensity of the violence and the threats it produces affect the entire globe’ (Rashid 1994).

Furthermore, to confirm this conception of a New Great Game, one only needs to look at the reasons that have contributed to the world turning its attention to this region of the globe, ever since Russian control faded with the end of Soviet rule. The Central Asian Republics derive their importance through two major factors. The region on the whole has continued to have geostrategic value, not only due to its location at the center of the Eurasian landmass, but also due to the political significance of the countries that border Central Asia. Secondly, and possibly a lot more significantly, the region now also has massive economic implications for the whole world. The true depth of the extent of how resource laden the region is has been a recent discovery, in stark contrast to the region’s key location, which provided the impetus for the Old Great Game. Ironically, this development has made the region of Central Asia itself the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ that is being aimed for by the various competing players in the New Great Game. This factor adds to the centrality of the region for the new game, where Central Asia is an end in itself rather than the means to an end, further solidifying the argument in the favor of the presence and significance of this new great game.

Significance of Central Asian Countries

Economic Worth

Central Asia, comprising of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and the energy-rich lake called the Caspian Sea, owes its significance to its vast economic potential and its geo-strategic location and is fast becoming an economic center of the world (Khwaja 2003, 7). With a total population of 92 million people, near universal literacy and abundant energy resources, Central Asia is an attractive destination for investment and trade (Competitiveness Outlook 2011). The region has a strategic location at the crossroads of Asia, Europe, the Persian Gulf, the Middle East, and the Far East; surrounded by some of the fastest growing economies in the world including China, Russia and India who are not only investing in the region but are competing for the leading role. From 2000 to 2009, foreign direct investment flows into Central Asia increased nine folds; while the region’s gross domestic product grew on average by 8.2% annually (Ibid.).

Due to growing markets, an increased potential for trade in agricultural commodities and a service sector niche open to be exploitation, Central Asian republics can be vital trade links between Europe and Asia. However, regional and trans-regional states are very well aware that it’s the energy resource endowment in Central Asia which is of prime importance. These energy reserves form a basis for economic growth and development. Central Asia is, in fact, poised to become a major world supplier of energy, especially in the oil and gas sectors.

The most well endowed state in the Caspian region is Kazakhstan; ranked 6th in the world in terms of natural resource reserves.  Out of 110 elements of the periodic table, 99 were discovered in the bowels of Kazakhstan including oil, gas, uranium, zinc, tungsten, bohrium, silver, lead, chromites, copper, fluorides, molybdenum and gold (Invest in Kazakhstan 2011). Moreover, it has proven oil reserves of 30 billion barrels, highest in the region followed by Azerbaijan which has 7 billion barrels (CIA 2010). Turkmenistan has the world’s 4th largest gas reserves at 7.5 trillion cubic meters while Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan follow close with 2.41 trillion and 1.84 trillion cubic meters respectively (Ibid.). Thus, collectively the Caspian region contains about 46 per cent of the world gas resources. The two states, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which are not endowed with great hydrocarbon resources, have water wealth instead. Water is the biggest source of power production in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan has an abundance of water resources and the energy potential of its mountain rivers is estimated at 163 billion kilowatt-hours (bkwh) per year (Khwaja 2003).

Energy resources are not all the region has to offer. Kazakhstan is extremely well enriched in terms of commodities as well, especially iron and steel. The Kyrgyz Republic is home to the 8th largest goldmine in the world and exports a large quantity. Tajikistan also has potential for production and export of aluminum. There is also agricultural potential in the region with Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan producing large amounts of high quality cotton. Uzbek cotton is considered the best in the world (Competitiveness Outlook 2011).

With such opportunities and untapped natural resource reserves, economic powers from all over the world have their eyes on this region and are attempting to outdo the other in facilitating the Caspian region. Access to this market means a boost of exports, while development projects and FDI in the energy sector have prospects of unprecedented returns as well as access to massive amounts of cheap energy resources. In a nutshell, Central Asia will be the jewel in the crown of any economic power that is able to facilitate it first and effectively.

Geostrategic Worth

The geostrategic worth of Central Asia is harder to determine, since its relevance to the stage of international politics is a normative matter and harder to quantify, as compared to its economic worth. Moreover, the consistent turmoil within and outside of the Central Asia means there is a need for constant reevaluation of the issue. On the more permanent side of things, Central Asia borders two of the permanent members of the Security Council in Russia and China. The implications of sharing a land border with two of the most powerful nations in the world are manifold. Not only does it provide avenues of trade and diplomatic depth for the Central Asian Republics, it provides an avenue for the current world hegemon, The United States, to keep a closer check on its rivals. Gaining control in Central Asia thus, is crucial for all three of these great powers. China can couple its rampant economic growth and use it as a tool to gain a strong political backing by taking control of one of the most vital regions of the world, and dealing a blow to the US which is keen to expand its means of control further in the region, having significant presence their already. Similarly, Russia having lost this power bloc in 1991 needs to recover its control in the region so that it may continue to benefit by proxy.

Furthermore, the Central Asian Region has a very important role to play in reference to the future of Muslims in the world. The territory also happens to border Afghanistan and Iran to the East and South respectively. Together with Pakistan, and the Middle East region in close proximity, the potential for a hugely powerful Muslim bloc is apparent. Depending on how the politics in the regions play out, the perceived threat of a Muslim bloc is a frightening possibility for the rest of the world to consider. The probability of such an occurrence though, seems low at best. The severe segmentation within Central Asia, let alone considering the other Islamic countries and their internal problems, make this outcome unlikely. Even if an Islamic bloc were to emerge, for it to be a uniform propagator of radical Islam, due to such great variance among the countries, is next to impossible.

Players in the New Great Game

Having highlighted the multitude of ways in which the Central Asian region is so important for world politics, it is now vital to consider the various players involved in this New Great Game, what their specific interests in the region are, and how they are addressing those interests and trying to gain a stronger foothold in the area. The six players broadly involved in the game, include the United States, Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, India, and of course Pakistan. Of these, some of the bigger powers such as Russia and the US are more major players and constitute more to the game then countries such as India and Turkey.

The United States of America

The United States’ hegemonic interests, in the post cold-war world, have directly resulted in the increased presence of the US in the Central Asian region. US policy has not only focused on improving bilateral ties between individual Central Asian states and the US but has also “aimed at facilitating their cooperation with the US and NATO stabilization efforts in Afghanistan and their efforts to combat terrorism, proliferation, and trafficking in arms, drugs, and persons” (Nikhol 2012). Moreover, The US has, in the last two decades, become an increasingly vocal sponsor of liberal democratic values and capitalistic free markets and has hence, sought to inculcate these systems in the Central Asian and South Asian regions. Establishing trade links is also an imperative of this policy direction. The US has also “enhanced policy and aid to support conflict amelioration, humanitarian needs, economic development, transport and communications, border controls, democracy, and the creation of civil societies in the South Caucasus and Central Asia” (Ibid.).

With Kazakhstan’s large natural energy resources and Uzbekistan’s strategic geographic location along with its dominance in the region, the US interests and involvement in specific states has varied over time. As a general policy outlook, US investment, political and economic, has a broader agenda of neutralizing the influences of other power players in the region, such as China, Russia and Iran. The US policy makers also have a vested interest in preventing an accumulation of military technology and weapons by any terrorist regime/group or even a state so as to minimize any potential threat. The U.S has also repeatedly stressed its role as a superpower entitles it with the responsibility of maintaining human rights and of increasing democratization and hence its military presence is necessary in the region (Ibid.).

After the September 11 attacks and the US declaration of the war on terrorism, many Asian states including Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan became ready military allies of the U.S, hosting coalition troops and providing access of their airbases to the U.S. “In 2003, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan also endorsed coalition military action in Iraq. About two dozen Kazakhstani troops served in Iraq until late 2008” (Ibid). However, in 2005, Uzbekistan rescinded the rights it had allotted to U.S military forces to establish bases in its territory after political tensions. In 2009, Kyrgyzstan also shut down a US base apparently due to fall out in lease payment negotiations.  Most states, though, are still part of the Northern Distribution Network which facilitates the transport of U.S. and NATO supplies to Afghanistan.

Political inconsistencies and instability have often marred US interest in the region. The authoritarian tendencies of some of the regimes have often made them unreliable sources of trust for the US. Moreover, “U.S. energy firms have invested in oil and natural gas development in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and successive administrations have backed diverse export routes to the West for these resources” (Ibid.). Similarly, in Tajikistan, US offered to undertake an economic reconstruction following the political turmoil in the late 90’s so as to align and stabilize the emerging regimes with US interests. By undertaking occasional aid provision in the humanitarian, health and education sectors, the US has, on the whole, managed to maintain bilateral ties with the region.

Observers of the US policy in Central Asia have often criticized the direct interventionist approach the Unites States has historically undertaken, especially after 2001. The threats that the US potentially stepped in to neutralize are discounted on the grounds that “anti-Western Islamic extremism would [not] make enough headway to threaten secular regimes or otherwise harm U.S. interests in Central Asia” (Ibid.). It is also argued that a process of forced democratization would not take root in an inherently authoritarian state structure and hence US interests should primarily focus on “anti-terrorism, nonproliferation, regional cooperation, and trade.

The Obama Administration’s objectives of an enhanced US engagement in Central Asia center on maximizing cooperation of the states with coalition and counter terrorist forces in the region. Moreover, the development of the region’s energy sources and supply routes along with an intention to increase free trade and market economies in the region also serve inherent U.S economic interests. A special focus is accorded to maintaining political stabilization and good governance on the region, especially in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, so that any future policy objective of the US could be successfully implemented (Ibid.).


With the breakup of the USSR, the Iranian foreign policy paradigm suffered a significant alteration whereby, instead of focusing on balancing diplomatic ties with a monolithic whole in the form of the united Soviet stretch, policy makers now had to contend with a cluster of separately independent states whose objectives may or may not have been aligned with Iranian interests in the region. Over the years, Iran focused much of its energies on countries in Central Asia with which it had shared ties of a ‘primordial’ nature, such as Tajikistan. Given that much of Central Asia was once a part of the Persian Empire, the disintegration of the USSR gave Iran huge opportunities to exploit not only its cultural connection to what is sometimes termed as ‘Middle Asia’, but also to utilize its geostrategic position to maneuver the dynamics of this region, tweak them in its favor and counterbalance the influence of competing nations such as Russia and China, and of countries and organizations which are perceived as direct threats to Iran’s security and sovereignty, such as the United States and NATO. Furthermore, Iran finds it advantageous to counter the influence exerted by Turkey (considered as a lackey of the west) and Pakistan (a traditional adversary of Iran) in Central Asia (Dario 2010).

Over the last 15 years, Iran’s traditional focus on the Persian Gulf has gradually shifted to the Central Asian states. Given the landlocked nature of this region, Iran has tremendous economic potential to offer to the landlocked Central Asian States through routes leading not only into the Indian Subcontinent, but also port facilities in Iran. Fundamentally, Iran has made inroads in the CAS by concentrating on trade and infrastructure investment, with a focus on Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Armenia.  “Tehran’s aim is to create a diffuse patchwork of regional ties and institutions that can serve as a counterweight to US geopolitical pressure” (Kucera 2006).

Iran had a vital role to play in building the “Anzab” tunnel that was to connect the northern and southern parts of Tajikistan and provide a road corridor from China through Central Asia to the Persian Gulf. It also constructed the Sangtudinskaya-II hydroelectric plant in Tajikistan. This project was a component of a broader investment in the power sector in the country worth US $ 700 million. “In 2005, Iran completed the $43 million, 125-km road from the Dougharoun region of Iran to Heart” and announced that it will build a 176-km railroad from Iran to Herat. “In 2004, Iran completed the 1000-km Bafq-Mashhad railroad, which cut two days off the rail journey from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf. Tehran has steadily increased trade in recent years with its regional neighbors, in particular Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In addition, Iran is working with Armenia to build a natural gas pipeline” (Ibid.).

Even though China and Russia have been the staunchest supporters of Iran on diplomatic issues such as those pertaining to the nuclear standoff between the US and Iran, the complex sets of relationships between these three countries prevents the formation of a unified bloc exerting influence emanating from a coherent strategy of domination of the Central Asian region. This is because even though China and Russia would not like to see the weakening of the Iranian regime, which stands as a bulwark against enhanced western hegemony of the Persian gulf and the Arabian peninsula, the fact remains that all three are competing forces in central Asia and would only offer each other as much leeway as is needed to impede the progress of US/NATO interests (Kucera 2006).

In the context of an emerging multi polar world order, Tehran has strategically positioned itself in regional organizations to extract maximum diplomatic leverage. These include the Economic Cooperation Organization, a trade and investment cluster which includes countries from central Asia and Pakistan and Turkey and serves as an observer in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

However, certain constraints prevent a greater degree of Iranian domination of the Central Asian region, to which it could act as a natural facilitator, ally and diplomatic chaperon. These include the CAS’s rejection of Iran’s economic model and preference for western models of growth; the countries’ natural revulsion to ‘guides’ and ‘mentors’ in the region following their breakup from Russia and the ensuing attempts at preventing a relapse into a state of Russian domination; and the financial inability of Iran to tap its strategic potential in the region.


During the first few years following the disintegration of the USSR, Russian policy makers were hard-pressed to articulate a coherent strategy and a viable foreign policy framework in the context of the Central Asian States. It would appear that ‘new’ Russia had failed to capitalize on the colonial hangover of the 5 CAS and instead, had opted to allow them flexibility in establishing their own economic and political structures. Hindsight suggests however, that Russia stood to gain from such a policy; the emergent nation-states found it challenging to create efficient systems, and voices formerly critical of the Moscow-led functional paradigm found it untenable to take recourse to blaming the centralized nature of Soviet rule for all and sundry.

Following this, the latter half of the 1990s gave birth to the ‘Primakov doctrine’ – a policy fundamental which sought to regain lost space in Central Asia – which was put into implementation following the election of Vladimir Putin as President of Russia in 2000 (Laruelle 2009, 4). The pillars of Russia’s new approach to the CAS included an acceptance of internal constraints; the need to build relations with Iran, India and China; following an aggressive economic strategy for establishing position of significance in the energy sector; and securing the borders of the southern Central Asian States through cooperation and engagement – not through imperial interference – in order to create a buffer downstream to check the progress of Islamic fundamentalism which continually threatens to creep up the CAS to Russia (which has been involved in a long drawn battle to suppress the Chechen uprising). “The key security challenges for Russia in Central Asia are multiple and complex: any destabilization in the weakest (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) or the most dangerous (Uzbekistan) states will have immediate repercussions in Russia” (Ibid.). Two other vital points of engagement in the realm of Russia-Central Asian military collaboration include the provision of military equipment and cooperation between military-industrial complexes.

On the multilateral level, “the two Moscow-initiated organizations, the Eurasian Economic Community, created in 2000 on a Kazakhstani proposition, and the Collective Security Treaty, founded in 2002, today function as the major institutional frameworks of Russo–Central Asian cooperation” (Ibid.). Russia’s economic objectives in the region focus on the need to secure valuable space in the energy sector. “Moscow’s aim in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is to gain a firm hold over the sale of highly profitable oil products, while Gazprom is undertaking the exploration of Tajik gas deposits in Sargazon (in the Khatlon region) and in Rengan (close to Dushanbe), as well as of Kyrgyz gas deposits in the country’s south. Gazprom is also hoping to acquire a share of the state-run companies Kyrgyzgaz and Kyrgyzneftegaz as they enter the privatization phase” (Ibid.).

During the 1990’s, Russian oil companies often functioned independently of state policies and objectives – a situation which was drastically altered with the arrival of President Putin. With a unification of corporate-state interests, multiple objectives are now being aimed for and achieved through an uninhibited policy stream: first, to maintain political influence over the Central Asian regimes through the control of resources; second, to continue collecting considerable transit revenues from these landlocked countries; third, to slow down – but not stop – the emergence of competing export routes to China, Iran and Turkey; and finally, to meet growing European energy demands (Ibid.). However, again, the diversification of the strategic landscape has allowed for creation of new routes to Iran and China and the rise of oil prices other countries are ready to pay to prevent the creation of a quasi-monopoly by Russian entities such as Gazprom, Lukoil and Rosneft.

By building firm bilateral relations with countries which were more amicable towards Russia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan  and Tajikistan), thawing relations with those which were previously bent on resisting what was seen as Russian ‘interference’ (Uzbekistan and Tajikistan); containing US influence in the region in the context of deteriorating relations between the US and the CAS; acknowledging competition in the CAS with countries such as China, the US, India and Iran – which has also allowed the ceding of political space – and most importantly, by not tying political conditions to support of the CAS has allowed Russia to once again enter the fray and tailor (to an extent) the political dynamic in its favor. The growing authoritarian rule within the CAS, the admiration for the Russian turnaround within the older generation and latent affinity to the previously ‘soviet’ culture as a civilizational link are all manifestations of the stabilization of Russian rule in the region. However, China appears to be a potential threat to any ambitions for domination in the region. Given that fact that China has limited its involvement to solely the economic sphere in the CAS, the main concern for Russia would be the possibility for China to convert this into a strategy which encompasses trade and finance, energy, security and military engagement and cooperation in the region.


With the emergence of new power players in the region, after the fall of the Soviet Union and India’s growing significance as a global player, the country’s interest and prominence in the Central Asian region has developed. India’s growing energy needs and the potential energy resources that Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have to offer are not the only driving forces for India in the region.  “Central Asia is also important as an avenue for access to Afghanistan, where India wants to be a significant player and to blunt Pakistani influence. India’s involvement in Central Asia includes energy ties, trade and investment, and the beginnings of a military relationship (Schaffer and Hate` 2007)”.

With respect to its energy needs, India’s policy formulation has focused on this issue for the past several years so much so that it is “at the heart of India’s engagement of Central Asia”. The states that emerged out of the dissolution of the USSR offer immense potential for Indian markets to capitalize on. “Kazakhstan has substantial oil; Turkmenistan has gas; Uzbekistan has more modest hydrocarbon resources; and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have surplus hydro power” (Ibid.). However, the problem arises with regards to India’s engagement with these markets. India, however, has already started to take initiative to address this issue. “India’s public sector energy company, ONGC Videsh (Oil and Natural Gas  Corporation), already has a 15 percent ownership stake in Kazakhstan’s Alibekmola oil field and has announced a $1.5 billion investment in the joint Russian-Kazakh Kurmangazy oil field in the Caspian Sea” (Ibid.). India is looking to import gas from Turkmenistan through a potential pipeline via Afghanistan and Pakistan. Such a venture however, has several political roadblocks that India would have to deal with before making any headway. This is one of the crucial geo-strategic implications for India. Future investments and potential expansion to foreign markets is not only a financial but also a critical political decision for India; especially when it concerns Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Developing an intra regional transportation infrastructure and fostering bilateral economic ties is key to India’s energy venture. “India’s trade with Central Asia is to the tune of approximately US $200 million, a negligible portion of India’s overall international trade. India is also trying to foster bilateral economic relations with several Central Asian states; it has extended lines of credit to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and has supplied 30 percent of Kazakhstan’s pharmaceutical needs (ibid.).” Creating military ties through joint ventures is also a strategically beneficial undertaking for India. India’s primary military cooperation has been with Tajikistan, its closest physical neighbor in the region; a relationship which can prove to be mutually beneficial.

Another major factor for India in the region is Pakistan’s role in the region’s economic and political development. As traditional competitors both India and Pakistan seek to not only outdo the other but also to politically and economically dilute the other’s presence in the region and hence, in the international arena. Afghanistan is a key manifestation of this competitive relationship. Pakistan’s interests lie in neutralizing a potential threat from the Afghan regime so as to not have an “extension of the Indian threat” (Ibid.). India similarly seeks to maximize its presence on Afghanistan’s western borders to expand the scope of its trade routes. For this reason India has made has made a “substantial investment in aid, trade, and diplomatic presence [in Afghanistan]. Its relationships with the Central Asia, while they do not involve the same intensity or resource commitment, are in part intended to reinforce this” (Ibid.). While India may possess the resources to “establish a larger trade and investment presence” in the region, it cannot, however, ignore Pakistan’s geo strategic location. Pakistan’s presence in the middle of India and Afghanistan prevents a direct overland trade route between the two countries and has hence, forced India to seek out alternative options.

While Russia has historically maintained an amicable relationship with India, especially during India’s non alliance years, its current relationship with the U.S may deem it a potential threat in Russian outlook. The U.S also has vested interests in India’s booming economic and political role in the region. India can not only serve as a potential base for neutralizing security threats in the region, its growing influence can also keep Russian power domination at bay in the Central Asian countries. By developing economic ties with India, the Central Asian countries would be less dependent on Russia. Moreover, if India’s energy needs are met through the Central Asian markets, it can also minimize a potential relationship between India and Iran; another important U.S objective (ibid.).

India’s role and developing influence in the region is multi faceted. While it serves India’s and the U.S interests for this influence to grow, there are also several significant roadblocks in the process. Pakistan’s geographical location is probably the most important consideration in Indian economic expansion. Moreover, Pakistan can also offer a competitive challenge to growing Indian domination in the region as its interests are not very divergent from India’s. Russia also plays a very critical role in the region and any future Indian imperative must factor in this vital dynamic (Schaffer and Hate` 2007).


The creation of 5 newly independent states in Central Asia was viewed as a crucial opportunity by policymakers in Turkey to acquire a solid footing in a region of significant geostrategic importance. It is seen however, that Turkey’s early exuberance may have caused the downfall of this policy framework and made the CAS wary of Turkey’s ambitions in the region (Cornell 2003). Given that Turkey was incapable of supporting widespread economic reforms in the region, its alacrity in opening embassies, receiving delegations, establishing the Turkish International Cooperation Agency (TICA) – which was to concentrate on providing support to the CAS (Republic of Turkey Website 2010) – and keenness to maintain an overall mentoring role in the region alerted countries such as Iran and Russia which ramped up efforts to thwart Turkish efforts at domination in the region (which they achieved successfully, given constraints faced by Turkey as are discussed in the following sections). Moreover, Turkey’s ‘big brotherly’ attitude disillusioned the now independent CAS which had just begun to asset their sovereignty in the international arena.

However, by the late 1990’s, Turkey had downgraded its ambitions in the region, allowing the private sector, civil society and NGOs to take a role in making inroads into the CAS, which were provided with government support when necessary (Cornell 2003). This new pragmatic streak emphasized more on economic, political and cultural interactions with the CAS instead.

This new diplomatic posturing can be summed up in the following excerpts from the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Turkey.  “Turkey’s policy towards Central Asian Republics is based on following principles:

a) to contribute to the consolidation of their state structuring,

b) to preserve political and economic stability and promote regional cooperation,

c) to encourage political and economic reforms

d) to assist their integration with the international community and Euro-Atlantic structures

e) to develop bilateral relations in all fields on the basis of equality, mutual interest and respect for sovereignty.

f) to support the transportation of their energy resources to international markets freely and through alternative routes” (Republic of Turkey Website 2010).

Thus, even though Turkey had been unsuccessful in achieving its objective of gaining early dominance in the region, it retraced its steps and embraced a fresh approach which aimed to start slow. However, this too, was to suffer setbacks in the form of internal pressures, national stabilization and insulation.

The economic crisis of February 2002, followed by the ailing health of Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit during the spring of the same year forced early elections in November 2002. The following dramatic turn of events saw the moderate, Islamic-oriented AK Party (AKP) grab 34% of votes and a two-third majority in Parliament. The hope of fresh faces bringing change with regards to the CAS and the early visits to Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan by PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan was however, undermined by the inexperience of provincial politicians who had suddenly found themselves at the national level. Pressures faced by the new government included jumpstarting the economy, legislating relevant political and judicial reforms which were a pre-requisite to formal entry into the European Union and the vote on facilitating US forces for the war in Iraq mitigated the urgency with which engagement with CAS was being pursued. The failure of the latter vote prevented Turkey availing political and diplomatic goodwill internationally, and remuneration in return for facilitating the US. Furthermore, the Kurdish uprising (PKK), together with a re-alignment away from the EU and towards the Persian Gulf and the Arabian peninsula decelerated CAS-Turkey advancements (Cornell 2003).

Turkey’s evolving, contemporary approach to the Central Asian States can be said to have 3 salient features:

  1. Balancing its relations in the region with the other great powers, Russia, Iran, China, India, and Pakistan
  2. Work on policy’s that create stability and security in the region
  3. Facilitate energy relations, especially regarding transportation routes (Frost 2008)

Turkey seeks a more powerful role in strengthening the independence and sovereignty of social, political and judicial structures in the CA countries, mediating intra and inter country conflicts (actual and potential), institutionalizing relations between these countries, and augmenting the ability of these countries to fully integrate with the international community through multi-lateral organizations (Niklas 2007).

Given Turkey’s success in not only establishing a workable democratic model under a Islamic-oriented government, its stable role in the region and its generally consistent policy of non-interference has allowed it with much political capital, something which it can use to become a leader of sorts of soft power in the Central Asian region.


It could be said that the Chinese are one of the most important stakeholders in the new great game, and probably second only to Russia. The genesis of China’s cultural influence in Central Asia can be found in the Silk Road route of a bygone era. However, if anything, China’s engagement with the CAS over the last one decade would be difficult to contextualize in any other fashion: engagement has been aggressive, yet not overtly expansionist; the focus of this extension into Central Asia has been more commercial, infrastructural and trade-related than military; and a policy of non-interference has prevented China’s involvement in the region to be viewed through the lens of the antagonistic competition that was witnessed during the first rendition of the Great Game. Such a diplomatic orientation is explained in the following sections.

For the Chinese, engagement with the Central Asian States goes beyond the enlargement of their sphere of political and military influence. The engine driving China’s ambitions in the CAS is powered by its concerns against the ‘three evils’, namely separatism, fundamentalism and extremism (Demitras 2010). The fear of a rise in separatist and fundamentalist activity in the western province of Xingjiang has paved the way for disproportionate attention being paid to the ethnic Turkic Uighur population of the province, a large part of which is Muslim and in conflict with the Hans of the area. Given existing sympathies across Central Asia for the Uighurs, it is largely in the interest of the Chinese that political and economic stability is maintained in these countries. Moreover, it would be advantageous for China to have an authoritarian rather than a more democratic form of government in these countries so as to allow them to maintain greater control over their populations, functioning through more centralized forms of governments. Beijing has been successful in projecting the commonalities between its own interests and those of the CAS in the context of containing not only the potential for radicalization within their populations, but also to act as bulwarks against the spread of Islamic fundamentalism to the North and the East from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Given reports of new recruits traveling from Afghanistan to China via Kyrgyzstan, the role of the latter becomes vital in curtailing this threat. It has also been seen that the Kazakh government has come down hard on Uighur refugee and diaspora populations in the country (Demitras 2010). Given that disarray in any of the CAS states would weaken this buffer against extremism, the Chinese have actively attempted to strengthen the counter-terrorist abilities of these states through joint exercises and transfer of expertise.

Chinese concerns with regards to energy security relate to the route that previously established supplies took to reach the country. These included going through the Strait of Hormuz and the Malacca Straits – the former being vulnerable to political instability in the Middle East and the latter imperiled by the hovering threat of US and Indian naval embargoes. Also, given that Middle Eastern oil comes with a premium of US $2 per barrel, opening up supplies from the CAS not only allows for cheaper imports, but also a drop in premium due to an increase in competition. “A stake in oil and gas fields in Kazakhstan, Iran, and potentially Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and the Caspian is extremely valuable to the Chinese government, which has put much effort into realizing this. Both state-owned and private companies have purchased equity shares in Kazakhstan, Iran and lately Russia to diversify China’s strategic energy base” (Demitras 2010). Another possible route is through Tajikistan through Xingjiang province down to the Gwadar port in Balochistan, Pakistan which decreases drastically, the distance to be travelled for oil supplies from the Middle East.

The third most important facet of this defensive geostrategic approach to the CAS is aggressive partnerships with the region in the context of trade and infrastructure development. “Trade between China and the five Central Asian countries totaled $25.9 billion in 2009, up from $527 million in 1992, according to Commerce Ministry statistics” (Wong 2011). However, certain points hold relevance here. Firstly, Russia’s trade volume with the region is almost twice as much as China’s. Furthermore, even the existing trade volume is merely 1% of China’s overall trade with the world, 80% of this 1% is conducted through Xingjiang and 80% of it occurs with Kazakhstan. Thus, not only is this percentage much below China’s potential trade volume, it is also focused on two neighboring regions (Demitras 2010). However, the broader focus of the Chinese approach is on the development of communication and transportation infrastructure, as broader strategy imperatives require it to exploit the CAS as the ideal transit route and a bridge between the country and Europe, thereby slashing transaction costs, reducing transit time and providing greater efficiency to trade between Europe and China. With regards to China’s aggressive role in creating credit in the CAS, the country has undermined the role of International Financial Institutions such as the World Bank by offering large loans with lesser conditions. “Chinese loans of $10 billion for Kazakhstan, $4 billion for Turkmenistan, and more than $630 million for Tajikistan have come without World Bank-style conditionality” (Feigenbaum 2010). This has shifted the focus of the CAS to China as an important source of funding, providing China with important chips in a high stakes game of dominance in the region.

China’s involvement in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has from the start been based on its shared interest with Russia to keep competition in the form of the US and NATO out of the region, as well as to maintain political stability in the CAS to prevent the fostering of extremism and resultant terrorism. China’s growing strength flies in the face of absolute dominance of the region by Russia. However, given that the latter has accepted the presence of competition in the Central Asian dynamic, the two countries have attempted to inflate areas of common interest and downplay a conflict of strategic interests. However, recent trends reveal the potential for future conflagrations: Russia’s perpetual suspicion of China’s designs in the region is further compounded by Chinese reluctance to utilize existing Russian oil transit facilities in the region. The Chinese have continued its policy of a ‘lighter’ foray into the CAS over the best part of the last decade. It remains to be seen if and when the Chinese begin to take a more dominant approach to the CAS; an epiphenomenon would doubtless be Russian counterbalancing activity and opposition, active and/or passive.


This new “great game” in the heart of Asia is unfolding not so much among the old colonial powers as among their former minions, many of whom are themselves just emerging from colonial domination and seeking to define their roles in their regions and the world (Rumer 1993, 89).

Pakistan’s immense interest in the Central Asia Republics stemmed from the economic, geo-strategic, and political benefits these countries could provide to this struggling nation. Trade relations with these landlocked countries had the potential to be the sole solution for Pakistan’s economic problems. With the CARS having an annual potential market of $80 billion, Pakistan could exploit this untapped market to its advantage and improve its balance of payments (Yasmeen 1994). Along with cheaper imports, Pakistan could also benefit from transit income, by providing access through the Karakoram Highway, to its neighboring industrial giants: India and China. Similarly, keeping in mind the historical importance of this resource rich region, Pakistan could foresee the centre stage it could acquire in the energy war of the New Great Game by providing the shortest route for the Central Asian counties via Gwadar to the Arabian Sea. This would help Pakistan fulfill its long term energy needs, through projects such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) oil and gas pipeline (Shah 2003). Furthermore, Pakistan’s electricity needs that are huge burden on its economic life could easily be lifted by access to abundant Kyrgyz hydroelectric power. Thus, favorable trade relations with the region could result in a significant uplift of Pakistan’s strained economy.

Though the Central Asian Republics could ensure enormous financial advantages, the stronger driving force behind Pakistan’s efforts to establish enhanced relations were the political and strategic benefits it could enjoy from a stable relationship. ‘Pakistan saw them as a precious source of garnering support against India and also as a means of creating an Islamic corridor, stretching from Turkey to Pakistan’ (Smith 1996). The foreign office was well aware that this was Pakistan’s chance to improve its regional standing, form collective military partners, establish religious allies and most importantly, gain leverage vis-à-vis India, especially on the Kashmir issue. If Pakistan became the economic gateway for and gained support of the Central Asian republics, it would be of vital importance to the world hegemony and would become a key regional player, easily escalating its regional position.

Simultaneously, close association with Central Asia would enable Pakistan to enjoy other strategic benefits such as an alternate trade route and arms exchange. With Indian opposition being the overarching objective of Pakistan’s foreign policy, we can see under close scrutiny that the Central Asian states could provide an alternative source of land route, away from India, in instances of war, since all of Pakistan’s road links lie extremely close to its neighboring enemy, while it’s only functional port can be easily blocked by Indian Navy. Another area of strategic interest for Pakistan was the aim of diversifying its weapon supply, which it could achieve by enjoying arms trade with Central Asia. Some of the Central Asian states have large amounts of Soviet-era military equipment, which they are contemplating disposing of, to earn much-needed foreign exchange (Khwaja 2003).

Thus, it was imperative to devise an effective foreign policy that would steer Central Asian support in its favor. Initial contacts were established even earlier than formal diplomatic ties ‘by sending a delegation comprising of eminent scholars, businessmen, journalists and officials led by the Minister of State for Economic Affairs’ (Haq and Khwaja 2006, 16). As soon as it could, Pakistan made the quick jump by being the second country, after Turkey, to extend diplomatic recognition to the Central Asian States. With its diplomatic hand extended, Pakistan needed to decide on the direction of its foreign policy initiatives. According to Ahmed Rashid, ‘the Pakistani foreign policy makers had two diverging views about how to approach Central Asia. The “moderate cabinet” consisting of Sardar Asif Ali promoted the banner of economic ties whereas the Jamaat leader Qazi Hussain propagated the idea of “Islamic guidance” for the newly liberated’ (Rashid 1994, 215). Most Pakistani policy makers saw this as ‘an opportunity to form a large regional grouping stretching from the Arabian Sea in the south to the Black Sea in the west based on the common religious identity of Islam’ (Roy 2006).

Being a nation that had gained its right to self determination based on religion, Pakistan was quick to play the Pan Islamic card. As Pakistan welcomed these states with slogans of Muslim brotherhood, it failed to give appropriate credit to their socialist past. With the communist leadership past of these newly independent states, under those such as Stalin and Yeltsin, the Central Asian Republic weren’t keen on basing their central identity on Islam and neither did they want to closely associate themselves with those who imposed this upon them. With communist elite ruling the country and existing Islamic uprising troubles within their territories, the Central Asian countries did not share the same enthusiasm of ‘Islamization’ as Pakistan did. Keeping the historical context in mind, Pakistan’s anti-USSR stance meant that these nations would have little affection for Pakistan. Since Pakistan was one of the major players that in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, it had a major role in driving out the Russian army that consisted of various ethnicities from Central Asia, including Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Turkmen (Khwaja 2003). This had led to animosity among the Central Asian public for Pakistanis. Due to past close Indo-USSR relations, the recently established governments felt more comfortable in dealing with India, rather than Pakistan. It soon became apparent that Pakistan’s foreign policy may not be fruitful, especially when Pakistan’s objectives to form a multilateral defense agreement were abandoned once the CARs signed the CIS collective security agreement in May 1992 (Smith 1996). Thus, Pakistan eventually realized it needed a policy shift, since the religious common identity it shared with the Central Asian republics was not materializing in its favor.

With failure in its first foreign policy approach, Pakistan turned towards building cultural and economic ties. In late 1991, Pakistan offered $30 million in credit to Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, while simultaneously proposing joint ventures in cotton, textiles, pharmaceuticals, engineering goods, surgical instruments, telecommunication and agro-industry (Khwaja 2003). Pakistan also took multilateral initiatives, such as including the Central Asian Republics to the ECO in the fall of 1992, with diplomats pouring in from all five nations to formulate the viability of ‘The Quetta Plan of Action.’ To improve bilateral relations, Pakistan signed respective trade, technology and training agreements with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (Smith 1996). Furthermore, it also transformed its approach of religious similarity intro shared religious identity, with its focus on cultural exchange. Donation of a printing press to publish the Quran, sponsoring attendees for the World Islamic Conference and sponsoring various student exchange programs were among its strategies to promote a sense of cultural similarity. In this phase, Pakistan’s future with the Central Asian region looked bright, when Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Shaharyar Khan came on record and stated, ‘We are at the starting post of a new era in this region’ (Rashid 1994, 217). However, before these early efforts could be transformed into an enduring bond, civil wars in neighboring Afghanistan and Tajikistan and Pakistan’s internal lack of resources rendered all initiatives useless. In following years to come, Pakistan’s relationship with the Central Asian region reached a deadlock, if not deteriorated.

Reasons for divorce between Pakistan and CARs

The past restrictions on Pakistan’s effective entry into the New Great Game and a deadlock in its relationship with the CARs can be credited to three factors. The turmoil in neighboring Afghanistan and Tajikistan, Pakistan’s unswerving support for the Taliban government in Afghanistan coupled with internal unrest in the country, have all led to a political void between Pakistan and the five Central Asian republics.

Pakistan’s had aimed for a friendly government in Afghanistan, ensuring a safe route to CARs and regional leverage in its eastern backyard. However, Pakistan’s support of the religiously fundamentalist Taliban government disturbed these secular nations but matters became worse when the effects of this support penetrated Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, in the form of jihad movements and various Islamic uprisings. Pakistan, that was previously only viewed with suspicious, was now being blamed for proposed infiltration. Gen Liaskhovskii accused the Jammat-e-Islami for supporting the United Tajikistan Opposition when he stated that, ‘one attempt to intervene in the civil war in Tajikistan was undertaken at the end of January 1993’ (Roy 2006). The influence of the Taliban expanded to Uzbekistan, with the formation of the “Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan”. The 1999 and 2000, armed IMU insurgencies for a united Fergana

Valley Caliphate caused serious problems for the Tajik, Kyrgyz and Uzbek governments. Rashid points out that Pakistan was quick to give recognition to Tajik and Uzbek allegations when Director General ISI General Hameed Gul issued a statement favoring the Tajik opposition leader Himatzadeh in 1993, on his visit to Pakistan (Rashid 1994).

Following such developments, the CARs aimed to distance themselves from Pakistan and its Taliban friendly foreign policy, in order to safeguard their internal state of affairs and detach themselves from the radical identity that was now attached to Pakistan. The intention of the CARs surfaced in early in 2001, ‘when Pakistan applied for observer status in Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) but the Central Asian members of the organization blocked its entry’ (Roy 2006). It was now apparent that the Central Asian Countries wanted to steer away from any association with Pakistan.

The civil wars in Tajikistan and Afghanistan have led to economic repercussions for Pakistan. ‘Due to the terrain and geographical location, it is inevitable that any pipeline destined for Pakistan must pass through southern and eastern Afghanistan’ (Dhaka 2004). The political strife in Afghanistan had not only hampered any prospects of Trans-Afghan pipeline but also slowed trade prospects via road as the Wakhan corridor, which connects the Chinese province of Xinjiang to the north-western town of Almaly in Tajikistan, lies in Afghanistan. ‘Withdrawal of the US oil company, Unocal, from the Central Asia Gas Pipeline Limited (a six-company consortium formed for the construction of the TAP pipeline) in December 1998’, was also due to the political unrest in the region, making it extremely risky for investment (Shah 2003).

Regardless of the external factors that surround the Pak-CARs relationship dynamic, Pakistan’s internally insecure environment has been a cause of major setbacks to any progress with these countries. Firstly, Pakistan has become a victim of frequent terrorist attacks by Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, such as the much recent attack on Karachi’s naval base where Chinese and Turkish military personnel were hostages are claimed to be held hostage (Sanger 2011). In 2008, the TTP also carried out an attack on a convoy of Chinese engineers, killing around 30 people (Hussain and Macartney 2007). Such attacks have been extremely detrimental for Pakistan’s image while also increasing the investment risk in the region. Foreign governments and companies have been reluctant in sending their personnel for training and joint ventures in the country.

Furthermore, another domestic issue that directly affects CARs involvement in Pakistan is the situation in Baluchistan.  Since the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline passes through Baluchistan, the civil unrest in this south-western province has become a major disruption of progress on the pipeline. By 13 February 2011 alone, as many as eight pipelines were blown up in Baluchistan in the last week, due to the difference between the local ruling elite of the region and the government (Express Tribune 2011). ‘Until there is a positive breakthrough in Balochistan, the ambitious IPI gas pipeline venture will remain a pipe dream’ (Baloch 2010). Thus, in order to guarantee results to the IPI dream that Pakistan has been pursuing since 1993, it is important that Pakistani government reaches a solution with the Balochi authorities, which could prove to be extremely beneficial to the province in particular and Pakistan in general.

However, with Pakistan’s harsh anti-terrorism efforts following 9/11, prospects of better relations with the CARs look brighter. In 2005, President Musharraf attended a gas pipeline feasibility meeting between the head of states of Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, in order to revisit the possibility of the Tran-Afghan Gas Pipeline project that was previously abandoned. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz’s optimistic for closer ties with the CARS was depicted in his statement regarding the project, where he stated, ‘The project will create linkages, interdependence and promote people to people contact which would help improve ties and strengthen regional cooperation”(Haq and Khwaja 2006). The much recent 2011 Central Asia South Asia Regional Energy & Trade (CASA-1000) Project to boost Pak-Tajikistan trade ties and transmit electricity from Kyrgyzstan via Tajikistan to Pakistan, is made headways in progress. Other initiatives such as the simplification of Uzbek-Pakistan visa process and the proposed road link between Chitral and Ishkashim from the Wakhan border, show that Pakistan still has prospects of entering the New Great Game, if it devises a careful foreign policy that maneuvers these countries into preferring a pro-Pakistan approach and letting go of past grievances.

Policy recommendations for Pakistan

With Pakistan moving away from its pro-Taliban policy of the last decade and a much more stable neighboring environment, it is vital that Pakistan carefully formulate the measures it can take to effectively re-enter and sustain itself in the New Great Game. Pakistan should strategize on four fronts: it needs to carefully assess its situation and involvement in Afghanistan, improve its internal stability and infrastructure while carefully maneuvering the diplomatic field to garner support from important external players, such as the United States of America, Russia and China and finally, it should take a stronger stance on developing closer bilateral relations with each individual Central Asian Republic.

First, since Pakistan now opposes Taliban and supports the war on terror, it needs to support the concerned countries and the international community for a peaceful government in Pakistan. Pakistan needs to improve its international image regarding its interference in the Afghan internal affairs and support a broad based ethnic community that favors the previously decided Durand Line. The main purpose of this would be to reduce the apprehensiveness of the Central Asian region regarding Pakistan’s support of the Taliban and other extremist segments, which is necessary if Pakistan aims to improve bilateral relations with the CARs. Simultaneously, Pakistan needs to further build confidence of other countries regarding its anti terrorism efforts. With the recent discovery of Osama bin Ladin from Pakistani soil, Pakistan has yet again come to the attention of the international community as a terrorist harboring nation and may have to rebuild its anti terrorist efforts from scratch. Thus, to improve its standing in contrast to the other important regional players of the New Great Game, Pakistan needs to erase the violent and radical connotations attached to it.

Moving forward, Pakistan also needs to target internal issues that may lead to instability. Not only should the government enhance the faith of the international community regarding a less radical Pakistan, it also needs to enhance efforts to curtail any attempts that can be claimed to be done by the TTP on Pakistani soil. Pakistan can no longer afford attacks on foreign engineers or trainers and neither can it allow the unrest in Baluchistan to escalate. Since the roads to Gwadar and the prospective pipeline plans pass through Baluchistan, Pakistan needs to ensure dialogue with the respective Baloch leaders while guaranteeing the provinces’ locals that the benefits of a gas pipeline through their region and those of the port of Gwadar will be credited to them and not solely to the central government, in order to remove the idea of injustice that prevails within the Balochi people.

While improving the security situation in Pakistan, it is also essential that Pakistan aims to improve and rebuilt its existing infrastructure, especially to improve the trade routes that connect to other countries and the links that lead to the sea port. Though Gwadar is the shortest route to warm water for any Central Asian country, its benefits get overlooked by the lack of infrastructure and slow progress in the country. Since India is helping Iran built the Chahbahar port as well as developing road links to Afghanistan sidestepping Pakistan, it is very important that Pakistan improve its facilities at the Gwadar port while also improving surrounding road links. Furthermore, Pakistan may also need to reassess other land routes that are away from Afghanistan yet a feasible and attractive option for the Central Asian republics. With the Tajik-China border conflict resolved earlier this year in January, maybe Pakistan could explore the possibility of using the historic Pamir highway to provide access to the Central Asian region with the help of its long standing ally China.  Thus, only improving the external environment alone may not be the solution to the challenges Pakistan faces in the region; it is also essential for it revamp its own existing situation, both politically and physically.

Another policy change that could work in favor of Pakistan would be to aggressively pursue bilateral relations with the five Central Asian states, in comparison to focusing on a multilateral approach. As Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were less affected by the spillover effects of Pakistan’s support of the Taliban government and other militant groups, the country should focus more on developing better ties with these nations. Tax exemptions coupled with reduced tariff and accompanying exchange of technical knowhow in fields of engineering, agriculture and training efforts, need to be initiated by Pakistan. With Tajikistan and Uzbekistan relations on a high compared to the past, right now may be Pakistan’s time to make its strategic move. It may adapt various strategies similar to the cultural exchange programs mentioned above to improve its bilateral ties with the CARs.

Lastly, it is critical that Pakistan garner support of major stakeholders such as China, USA and Russia, in order to achieve its goals on the playfield of the New Great Game.  Pakistan could especially focus on developing better ties with Moscow. With the emerging relationship between India and USA, the loyalties of the Old Great Game do not hold and this may be the perfect time for Pakistan to advance in its relations with Russia. Musharraf’s visit to Putin in 2003 and the recent MoU signed between both countries show a shift from the earlier negative relations that prevailed between the two countries for a decade. Since Russia remains to be of immense influence to the Central Asian states, due to its history as their mother nation and its geographical proximity, it may be extremely beneficial for Pakistan to boost its diplomatic efforts towards Moscow while also increasing trade and exchange volumes.

To further counter competitor regional countries such as Turkey, Iran and China, Pakistan should also aim to take support from the United States. As the US is in favor of the trans-Afghan pipeline and aims to hamper the development of the IPI pipeline due to its rivalry with Iran, Pakistan could garner support from the US and ask them to unlock the trade channels closed due to war that it had promised to previously open. Since the US plans to leave Afghanistan in mid 2012, this may be the perfect time for Pakistan to act as the US may make increased efforts to provide results for its interest in the region and thus, concurrently benefit Pakistan.

Though Pakistan may face a number of constraints and obstacles in fulfilling its dreams of being a prominent player in the New Great Game, it can devise a policy that may ensure better results for Pakistan, if not the best. Although it is next to impossible for Pakistan to influence its external surrounding and the spillover effects, Pakistan does need to be careful in maneuvering itself accordingly while also improving the internal condition of the country.


The 21st Century is yet to see the unfolding of The New Great Game. With every country in this surge for power taking its own route, it shall be interesting to see the unfolding of the events. Russia continues to exert its importance in the region in political and economic domains while planning to maintain its stronghold in its backyard. Iran is making waves through its trade routes and with Iran; Central Asia can see many lucrative trading and pipeline options available through them. On the other hand, it may difficult for Central Asia to tilt towards Iran without displeasing the world hegemon, US that maintains its military presence in the region. Furthermore, both Turkey and India are also vying for influence in the region.

With all players making a move forward, the last decade has witnessed a stagnant, if not worsening relationship between the Central Asia Republic and Pakistan. With the progress in the war on terror and improved security conditions in its neighboring countries, it is important that Pakistan makes strategic moves, which this paper outlines, to regain its strength in the area. Pakistan can still strive to improve its position in the New Great Game; a move that it desperately needs to maintain in order to fulfill its energy and trade requirements, while also maintaining its political and regional importance, especially against rivaling India.


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  • January 31, 2021