The scramble for Central Asia

January 26, 2009

Central Asia is much in demand these days, whether as a transit route for U.S. and NATO supplies to Afghanistan as an alternative to Pakistan or for its rich resources, including oil and gas.

So it’s worth noting that India has been hosting Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev as its guest of honour at its Republic Day celebrations while signing a bunch of trade deals in the process. According to reports in the Indian media, including in the Business Standardthe Week and the Times of India,  India is seeking supplies of uranium for its nuclear plants and access to Kazakhstan’s oil and gas and in return would be expected to support Kakazhstan’s bid for membership of the World Trade Organisation. (India’s state-run Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC) said on Saturday it had signed a deal to explore for oil and gas in Kazakhstan.)

Before anyone gets too carried away about India stealing a march in Central Asia, this Indian website adds a note of realism: “India’s strategy towards Central Asian countries has been no different than its strategy towards African nations, and can be only summarized as ‘playing catch-up with the Chinese’,” it says. “In this new “Great Game” of the century, India is consistently assuming the role of “Johnny-come-lately” to China in Central Asia.”

That said, it still struck me as an interesting signpost in the competition between Asia and the U.S-led west for resources and influence, with Central Asia likely to become increasingly important both as a source of energy and as a supply route to Afghanistan.

The significance of this competition is unlikely to be lost on Russia which, according to this article by former Indian diplomat M K Bhadrakumar ,could end up playing off the United States against China.  He writes that while Russia does not want to see the United States and NATO defeated in Afghanistan, nor does it want them to use Central Asian supply routes to Afghanistan as an excuse to win access to the region’s oil and gas. “Russian experts estimate that the proposed Caspian transit route could eventually become an energy transportation route in reverse direction, which would mean a strategic setback for Russia in the decade-long struggle for the region’s hydrocarbon reserves.” So as part of this complex balancing act, he says, it is looking for a bigger role for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation — dominated by Russia and China — in stabilising Afghanistan.

Critics of the Bush administration acknowledged that former vice-president Dick Cheney got the importance of Central Asia even as they condemned his methods. Now India is jumping in on the act.  How is the new administration of President Barack Obama going to approach Central Asia, while juggling relations with Russia, trying to turn the tide in Afghanistan and reducing U.S. dependence on Pakistan?

(Photos: President Nursultan Nazarbayev inspects guard of honour in New Delhi/B. Mathur

Young hunter with his tame golden eagle in central Kazakhstan/Shamil Zumakov)

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