A new era of the Great Game is afoot in Central Asia, only this time the adversaries competing for power and influence in the region are not Western nations such as Britain and the US, but Russia and China.
Back in the 19th century, when the term was first coined to describe the bitter rivalry between the world’s major powers for control, it was Britain and its allies who were the main protagonists, as they sought to fight off rival forces, whether they be Imperial Russia or Islamists.
Today, however, any remaining hopes that Britain and allies like the United States might have entertained of maintaining a vestige of influence in the region disappeared with the Joe Biden administration’s bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan. At a stroke, the US president brought decades of Western involvement in Central Asia to an ignoble end.
In Afghanistan as well as other strategically important countries such as Kazakhstan, the decline in the West’s standing has resulted in new powers, seeking to fill the vacuum.
The deepening rivalry, moreover, between Moscow and Beijing for mastery of this vital geographical region raises serious questions about the viability of the alliance which Russia and China claim to have formed as they seek to usurp the established global order created by the world’s democracies.
Only last summer, Chinese and Russian forces participated in joint military drills in north-central China, involving around 10,000 ground troops and fighter aircraft. These prompted speculation that the two states were aiming to pool their resources in a bid to counter Western alliances such as the new Aukus pact between the US, UK and Australia.
The feasibility of China and Russia forming an effective partnership always, in my view, needed to be treated with a healthy dose of scepticism, not least because of the long-standing rivalry between Moscow and Beijing dating back to the period when they espoused different brands of communist doctrine.
The enduring tensions between the two countries were reflected in the complaints made by some of the Russian participants in last year’s Sibu/Cooperation-2021 exercises in China’s Ningxia region, who claimed they were mocked and bullied by their Chinese partners.
Now, judging by the scale of Russia’s so-called “peacekeeping” mission in Kazakhstan, Moscow’s rivalry with Beijing for influence in the region of Central Asia has become a key factor in the Kazakh disturbances.
While there is evidence that the initial clashes were the result of an internal power struggle between Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s so-called “Father of the Nation” and former long-serving president, and the incumbent, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, China’s growing influence in the country’s affairs helps to explain why Moscow found it necessary to deploy a detachment of elite Spetsnaz paratroopers to help end the violence.
The sheer scale of the Russian response, involving an estimated 5,000 troops and an airlift carried out by some 70 planes, suggests that the Kremlin is more concerned about asserting its own authority over a country it regards as part of its “near abroad” of former Soviet-era states than in saving Mr Tokayev’s political skin.
Moscow certainly has good reason to fret over the ties between Kazakhstan and China, which date back to the Nazarbayev era and were part of his regime’s attempts to distance itself from Moscow. This has resulted in Kazakhstan supplying China with one fifth of its gas imports, as well as supporting the Chinese economy with supplies of oil and copper.
More recently, Beijing has identified Kazakhstan, which provides 40 per cent of global uranium supplies, as a key component of its controversial Belt and Road infrastructure initiative which aims to secure Beijing’s domination of global trade. Nor has Mr Tokayev helped matters by forging closer ties with Beijing and moving away from Kazakhstan’s signature “multi-vector” approach of balancing relations between Russia, China and the West.
Clearly, so far as Moscow is concerned, the Kazakh leader’s flirtation with Beijing was a provocation it was not prepared to tolerate, with the result that Russian special forces have been deployed to key locations throughout Kazakhstan in a bid to restore Russian influence. While Mr Tokayev continues to express his gratitude to the Kremlin for its help in putting down what he calls a “coup”, it is clear Vladimir Putin will be the main beneficiary of the Russian intervention.
By deploying his so-called “peace-keeping” force, Mr Putin has re-asserted the Kremlin’s ability to interfere in the affairs of ex-Soviet states when it is deemed to be in Moscow’s best interests to do so. He has also sent Beijing an unequivocal message that, while Russia is no match for China economically, it still has the military strength and resolve to defend its interests – especially when it concerns countries that Moscow firmly believes should fall within its own sphere of influence.