The Great Game returns to the playgrounds of Central Asia
Central Asia rarely features in headlines, yet it has become the focus of what observers refer to as the 'Great Game' - a strategic powerplay by the world's most influential nations.
Jockeying for position in and around the 'stans' of the former Soviet Union - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - are five of the world's seven declared nuclear powers.
In effect, a small version of the Soviet-era Cold War is in progress, although analysts point out that the circumstances are markedly different. A nuclear war is not imminent, but nations are closely monitoring one another.
At stake are massive oil deposits in Kazakhstan, huge gas reserves in Turkmenistan and small, but expanding, trade potential. Above all is the region's location at the heart of Asia, and on the route of oil and gas pipelines from the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea to the west.
The arrival of American troops in the region to fight the war on terrorism in Afghanistan to the south heightened the attention of China, Russia, Pakistan and India. With Afghanistan's reconstruction as the pretext, all have intensified their presence in Central Asia.
But some experts have suggested that the US presence has also fuelled resentment, especially from China and Russia. Pakistan-based Ahmed Rashid believed both would like the US to move out, although it was being tolerated for now because of continuing insecurity in Afghanistan.
'Everybody is watching to see what the Americans will do,' Mr Rashid, author of the acclaimed book Taleban on Afghanistan's ousted regime, said from Lahore. 'At the moment, there's no question of US troops moving out of Afghanistan or Central Asia. Once there is relative peace and stability ... that's when tensions will rise.'
Thousands of US and allied soldiers began pouring into the region in October 2001, weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Their aim was the overthrow of the Muslim fundamentalist Taleban rulers and destruction of cells of al-Qaeda, the terrorist group behind the US attacks. Tajikistan agreed to allow US troops ro be based on its soil, while Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan permitted the use of air bases.
The Taleban were defeated within a month and thousands of al-Qaeda fighters captured or killed. The US began giving assurances that it would leave the region when stability was restored, but the re-emergence of the Taleban has clouded when that might happen.
Central Asia analyst at the China Institute of International Relations in Beijing, Xu Tao, said yesterday that uncertain US intentions were problematic for the mainland.
'China's government is worried because the American soldiers have been in Central Asia since October 2001 and they show no sign at present of leaving,' Dr Xu said. Russia has expressed more urgent concern. Typical was a statement last July by Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov. 'The US military presence in Central Asia is a ... very serious element in the regional alignment of forces,' he told the Vremya Novostey newspaper.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 forced the end of its occupation of Afghanistan and led to independence for its Asian republics. But Russian troops have since returned to all Central Asian countries except Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Geneva-based analyst Hoonan Peimani believed Russia had an historic and geographic right to be involved in the region.
'Russia sees the region as its back yard and it has every reason to see it that way because of its positive impact in helping the Central Asian countries with security and economically,' Dr Peimani said. 'The US has tried to follow a policy of encircling Russia by penetrating its former territories, which are desperate for political and economic support, to take advantage of the region's resources.'
Those resources are substantial. British Petroleum puts Kazakhstan's oil reserves at nine billion barrels, three times as much as Australia's, while Turkmenistan is thought to have 71 trillion cubic feet of gas, about the same as Malaysia. Consultant Paul McDonald believed Russia and China were eager for fuel from the nations to alleviate rising energy shortages.
'Russia is keen to pre-empt as many Kazakh exports as possible,' Dr McDonald said. 'But a pipeline being built to China has been useful politically for the Kazakhs as a counterweight to what they see as western and Russian pressure to tie up all their exports.'
Many analysts believed concern over the US was driving China and Russia's interest in the region. Former US ambassador to Turkmenistan, Michael Cotter, doubted the end of conflict in Afghanistan would mean an end of an American regional presence. But the possibility of conflict was unlikely, he said.
'Rather than a new Cold War, what is happening in Central Asia is a new Great Game,' Mr Cotter, now retired and living in North Carolina, said.
'The US is a serious player, but not the main player. We're too far away and our interests, apart from our concerns about al-Qaeda, are peripheral. Neighbouring countries have a much greater interest in trade and energy.'
Observers agreed, though, that the continued US presence in the region would boost Central Asia's fortunes. Trade with China, Russia, Pakistan and, to a lesser extent, India, would gradually increase, bringing economic growth.
'Russia and China are trying to make sure that they have influence and that the US and other western countries are not going to dominate the region,' Dr Peimani said. 'But this is not another Cold War.'