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March 31, 2023

The ‘big game’ of Central Asia

It is a truism to state today what no more that three years ago was sheer heresy, namely that the international system of states is in a state of uncertainty/insecurity. It is not only about the changes of systemic paradigm – moving from the ‘win-win’ philosophy to the ‘zero sum game’ – but also the positioning on distinct coordinated of the big systemic powers and, consequently, new configurations in progress, not yet definitely established not to mention fine-tuned. But we know for sure that the US, for instance, are in systemic remission, a reflex of the 2008 financial crisis but also of its own free will to get a position that would allow it to continue the exercise of its global leadership – that big emergent powers – BRIC or other ones occupy a more end more prominent place, that Europe struggles with a negative economic dynamic. If these are a few already established ‘fixed’ points, the question that remains is where the attention of the big players is focussed – by that I mean the major powers from the system’s point of view – so that we can identify the ‘big games’ of the future in that way. From this stand point we notice that experts do not all agree in their evaluations of these hotspots of the future. For example, geopoliticians are concerned about what appears to be the big dispute over the energy supply routes from the Middle East to Eastern Asia, currently the most economically vibrant region on planet. On this route – from the Red Sea to Shanghai – experts are already speaking of an axis of confrontation in the 21st century, with ‘knots’ represented by the compulsory crossing points such as the Suez Canal, the Hormuz Strait, the Mallaca Strait and, naturally, the extended coastline of this planetary maritime route. Some big powers already setting themselves up in position from a military and political point of view along this new axis, in order to be ready for the ‘game’, opening or expanding army bases, going on ‘charm offensives’ with states that have a favourable geographical position along the route or already engaging in local competition with other major players (South China Sea). From a different stand point, yet equally important for the 21st century developments, is also the dossier of North-Eastern Asia, a security complex where North Korea’s chaotic international conduct is not the only reason behind the interest shown by the planet’s big players. This is where the convergent or divergent interests of senior league players such as the US, China, Japan, Russia is concentrated, alongside which the two Koreas or EU and even India are trying to gain enough room for manoeuvre to cater for their own interests. Of course, one of the planetary arrays of major interest in the future is the Middle East. In the dynamics of some of the major powers’ international policy, the area in included in the ‘Greater Middle East’ spanning from the North-Eastern coasts of Africa to the border between Afghanistan and China (USA) or who believe it to be the ‘Broader Middle East’, inseparably tied to Northern Africa (EU) or simply just the Middle East, however directly connected to the Gulf area and Eastern Mediterranean (Russia, China, India, Turkey).The recital could go on with ‘hotspots’ from other arrays of the planet, from the Pacific to the Southern hemisphere, already challenged by ‘locals’ by the Argentinean claim on Falkland Islands or in Africa. I have chosen the focus on Eurasia first of all because there are the most dynamic developments of the international stage, where the big powers are seeking to get in position for the future in order to be in the optimal competitive situation. Of particular interest in this Eurasian perimeter is undoubtedly the fact that the US have actuated its ‘pivoting’ towards Asia, being closely followed by the other big powers. Russia is one of those, but also the other ones such as the EU or, within the organisation, Germany, France, the UK or, naturally, for entirely different reasons, China and Japan. In this context, the withdrawal of the NATO-USA international coalition from Afghanistan in 2014 has already started the ‘game’ meant to compensate for the void of power. Naturally, authorised voices in the US or NATO note that the planned withdrawal is not going to be a desertion of the area as a presence of power. The US are especially interested – it s claimed – to be present in the neighbourhood of Central Asia, India and China, and as part of the strategy for the embankment of Iran. However, against the background of the perception that a pullout means defeat, therefore a remission of the American power, the big neighbouring powers are not wasting time in trying to make the most of the dynamics of unfolding events.  In the last ten days of May 2012, Pakistan was visited by Chinese FM Yang Jiechi and by the special envoy for Afghanistan of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Zamir Kabulov. The meaning of these visits cannot be missed by international relations observers if for no other reasons than at least for the fact that Pakistan, a country with which the US have increasingly complicated relations, is in China and Russia’s focus at notable political level. It is a known fact that, following Pakistan’s double-faced position on the global antiterrorist effort, primarily in Afghanistan, the American-Pakistani relations have experienced some major derailments lately (even the temporary closing by Islamabad, of course, of the NATO/US logistic route to Afghanistan). China, through the voice of its foreign minister, on the occasion of his visit pointed out that Islamabad played a major role in the antiterrorist fight and that Beijing would strengthen its strategic partnership of the two states. China equally called upon the international community to acknowledge Pakistan’s important role and the importance of Chinese-Pakistani relations for international stability and security. On the other hand, the Russian envoy whose main mission was to prepare Vladimir Putin’s visit to Israel signalled Russia’s direct interest in a strategic partnership with Pakistan including in the military field. The situation in Afghanistan was also discussed, as it is a concern for both parties given the upcoming ending of the mission of the international coalition in the country. As a matter of fact, Pakistan was selected as the first state to be visited by Vladimir Putin in his new term, which only shows Russia’s major interest in the developments in the region, in the context where Kremlin has mentioned the setting up of the Eurasian Union as a priority. On the other hand, this Russian interest is congruent with Russia’s assertive position on key-dossiers in the regional situation such as the Iranian or Syrian ones. Moscow’s preoccupation with the situation in Central Asia where the US interest has not weakened either and the Chinese one keeps growing is another coordinate of Putin’s political interest in his strategic partnership with Islamabad. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation will meet in Beijing soon and the Pakistani president has already been invited. It wouldn’t be a surprise that Pakistan becomes a fully-fledged member of SCO on this occasion. As a matter of fact, in early May, speaking on the matter, Russian FM Sergey Lavrov was saying that delaying the admission of India and Pakistan as full members of the SCO would be ‘counter-productive’.  As far as Afghanistan is concerned, the position of Russian experts who say that, once NATO completes its mission in that country, SCO should put the Afghan dossier on its agenda and even give Kabul, in the first phase, an observer’s status on the organisation, is known. So the ‘game’ regarding Central Asia is intensifying and initiatives in its framework, amidst the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, belong to the Eurasian alliance SCO.

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