Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.12.17

Another Great Game in Central Asia

JBpress on December 12, 2014

While Japan, the EU and the United States focus on their respective domestic agendas, Kyrgyzstan seems to have become a main battlefield in a new Great Game in Central Asia. The original "Great Game" was a strategic rivalry and conflict between the British and Russian Empires in the region in the 19th century. Now, in 2014, the game is being played by born-again empires such as Russia, China and Turkey.

The name "Kyrgyz" is derived from the Turkic words for "forty tribes" or "the forty clans of Manas," a legendary hero who is believed to have united forty regional nomadic clans against the Uyghurs. Historically, the early Kyrgyz tribes lived in the upper Yenisey River valley of central Siberia. They are believed to have moved to Central Asia, including West Turkistan, by the 16th century.

If you fly directly from Urumqi to Bishkek, you will be amazed by the contrast between the two Turkic cities. If Urumqi is still in the process of "Hanization," then Bishkek is already "Russianized." The population of the capital of Kyrgyz was once 100% Russian. By the mid 18th century, historical Greater Turkistan had, in fact, been divided by the Russian and Chinese Empires.

The new Great Game started in the 1990s after the demise of the Soviet Union. The power vacuum was not filled by the major powers at that time and, therefore, the existing Russian-speaking regional elite regimes remained almost intact. The good news was that the transformation was peaceful. The bad news was that the authoritarian and highly corrupt leaders all survived.

The first major power which challenged the Russian domination of Kyrgyzstan was the United States. Washington managed to obtain a military base in 2001 to support operations in Afghanistan. However, Kyrgyzstan decided to cease providing the facility and the United States formally withdrew its military units from the country in July 2014.

Turkey, which shares Turkic and Islamic traditions with Central Asia, has recently been very active in Kyrgyzstan. In fact, Ankara was the first to support the country's independence and also the first country to open an embassy in Bishkek. Turkey provides Kyrgyzstan with a raft of economic and educational support. Ankara seems to be determined to enhance its influence in areas of Turkic heritage.

China, on the other hand, is the latest participant in the new Great Game. President Xi Jinping elaborated on Beijing's plans in Central Asia, dubbed the "Silk Road Economic Belt initiative," prior to this year's Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit meeting in Beijing. The Chinese plan to provide Central Asia with tens of billions of dollars in investment.

According to Chinese official media, the aim of this project is to open up regional trade with the creation of a 40 billion dollar fund to develop the area beyond China's far-western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region. The real objective, however, seems to be more political and strategic with the desire to stabilize, if not control, the religious activities in its Central Asian neighbors.

If you look at a 3-D map of mountainous Kyrgyzstan and its neighbors, you will find that the city of Kashgar in Chinese Uyghur is located at the eastern foot of the mountains dividing Kyrgyzstan and China. On the western side of the mountains lies the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh in the Fergana valley, where radical Islamic movements are believed to be most active in Central Asia.

There is another group of newcomers to the Great Game: the rich Arab countries of the Gulf. Kuwait, for example, established a university in Bishkek to educate Muslims in Kyrgyz with more authentic teachings about Islam as in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also believed to be engaged in similar activities in Central Asia including the Kyrgyz Republic.

This new Great Game only started recently and no one yet knows the endgame. Many Kyrgyz don't seem to trust the Americans, but are also skeptical about Turkish intentions. Senior Kyrgyz still trust the Russians, almost as through Kyrgyzstan is still part of the Soviet Union. However, one thing is for sure. If there were a loser in Bishkek, it could be China for the following reasons:
1) Many Kyrgyz believe that their legendary hero "Manas" was killed by the Khitans (Chinese).
2) They are concerned about the recent Chinese presence in the mountainous areas of Kyrgyzstan.
3) Their Turkic Islamic traditions with a Russian influence do not embrace the Chinese culture.

Indeed, no Kyrgyz that I met last week called China a friend of Bishkek while many do consider Turks or Russians to be so. Kyrgyz mistrust for China seems irreversible. Despite Xi Jinping's grandiose announcement of China's new project in Central Asia, what China can actually do there remains to be seen.