border review | 26 July 2011

Hannah Beech: The New Great Game

Hannah Beech for Time Magazin:

This year, Kazakhstan’s trade with China will likely surpass its trade with Russia; Hu has predicted trade levels will double within four years to $40 billion. “The whole of Kazakhstan has a population that’s smaller than one of our big cities,” says Liu Wei, a Sinopec employee in Atyrau, referring to the Central Asian nation’s 16 million people. “But it has so many natural resources. What’s the problem if we want to buy them and help make Kazakhstan rich?” But money is just part of the equation. China is leveraging its growing clout in neighboring Kazakhstan to put pressure on the tens of thousands of ethnic Uighurs who over the decades have fled across the border from Xinjiang to escape persecution by the Chinese. Central Asia’s latest Great Game thus has it all: intense competition among three big powers, high stakes for natural resources and communal strife. But there is little question about who is now ahead in the game. Says Nurlan Keikin, the managing director for capital construction and reconstruction at the Atyrau refinery: “We all know the future is China’s.”

It’s a good read but I am sceptical about the new Great Game thesis. The 19th century Great Game was one between two empires – the British and the Russian. Today, there are more powers involved and Central Asian polititians take a much more active part in playing the different interests against each other. Kazakhstan, for example, is also part of the Customs Union with Russia and has its own agenda in therecent energy row between Russia and Kyrgyzstan. There is nothing to win for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan in taking sides with either Russia or China. There is nothing to loose enganging with both.