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CHUNG Sangho

China's "Great Game" Plan in Central Asia

CHUNG Sangho

July 19, 2006

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The Great Game in quest for hegemony in Central Asia is replayed all over again after 100 years of hiatus. This time around, the newest player in the game is, as you might have guessed, none other than China .

Last July 1, a 710-mile railway connecting mountainous regions from Tibetan capital Lhasa to Qinghai Province was opened with a fanfare. China's state news media took advantage of this occasion to stoke up national pride in such massive construction works as this railway and the Three Gorges Dam completed just months ago.

Although the Chinese government's official explanation for the $4.1 billion railway project was to facilitate economic development in Tibet and surrounding provinces, the more important reason is to increase its clout in the strategically critical areas of Central Asia, as far away to the oil-rich Caspian basin and the Caucasus .

The best evidence in favor of that interpretation is that there is not much to gain from the railroad link in economic terms. Even after taking into account the expected rise in tourism income, the $3.1 billion Tibetan economy is too small to justify the enormous sum of investment the central government had put in for five years. That means political considerations figured in more than anything else.

Only two weeks before that, China had hosted a regional security summit called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization encompassing four Central Asian nations, Russia, and itself. The six-member organization was founded in 2001, with a modest goal of managing the region's ethnic tensions and border disputes. Now, the SCO has become a potential - if not actual - counterweight to United States' influence in Central Asia, as it is forming an anti-US bloc while devising ways to create a regional "energy club" effectively keeping the US out of the loop.

For the past several years since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the vast swath of landmass stretching 2,000 miles from the east coast of the Black Sea to Western China has been largely under US influence. The US has established military bases in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan with the pretext to respond to global terrorism.

Directly or indirectly, Washington supported a series of pro-American revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan that posed threat to Russia and China . Washington was also instrumental to the May 2005 opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that bypassed Russia and Iran to deliver Caspian Sea oil to the West.

Such an overassertive position of the US in Central Asia is no longer guaranteed, given that China is making sure, in partnership with Russia, their interests are protected in the region. Early this year, China received the first delivery of oil from Kazakhstan through a newly built 600-mile pipeline.

Last July, in its annual summit meeting, the SCO formally asked the US to withdraw its troops from member states. Since then Uzbekistan has told the US to vacate the Khanabad Airbase, to which the US complied in November. The US may lose another airbase in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, unless it agrees to make the 74-fold increase in lease payment. It's not hard to imagine behind all of these moves there were constant prodding and pushing from China and, to no lesser degree, Russia .

Then, one may ask, what makes these countries - the US, Russia, and China - lock horns for seemingly worthless pieces of the landlocked region. According to global security expert Michael Klare, most of the world's conflicts for the past two centuries have been caused by competition to take possession of the coveted resources of the time, from coal and rubber to oil today, and to water in the future.

The most likely place for such resource war is the central part of Eurasia where the US and two emerging superpowers of China and Russia (plus second-tier regional powers like India, Iran, and Turkey ) collide head-on. This region is also what political writer Robert Kaplan called in his prescient book The Coming Anarchy the most dangerous flashpoint in the 21st century after the cold war's end.

On the back of stellar economic performance, China is flexing its military and political muscle to expand the sphere of influence westward. Korea, traditionally focused on relationships with countries in the east, including Japan and the US, should pay more attention to what is going on in farther west and what Beijing is up to in this important region.

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