For over a year now, the news has been dominated by coverage of major geopolitical conflicts. With both the Russo-Ukrainian War and the outbreak of open conflict in Gaza grabbing headlines, the new expansion of the hegemonic struggle between the U.S. and China has broadly flown under the radar. Both Washington and Beijing have been stepping up maneuvers to exploit newly vulnerable regions in Russia’s sphere of influence. The main target for both sides is the nations of Central Asia, a region with great economic and strategic potential that needs a new guarantor of stability. Thus, a new Great Game is born, with two new powers competing for dominance over the same region.

What was the “Great Game”?

The Great Game in history is a term that describes the 19th-century competition between the United Kingdom and the Russian Empire for dominance in Central Asia. Both nations used their resources to consolidate control over regional powers, in an attempt to force the other out of the region. While the original Great Game ended in 1907, the term has colloquially been used to describe global competition between superpowers, particularly the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Presently, the term has begun to see use in describing the competition between the United States and China for economic dominance. These two powers have now returned to the location of the original Great Game, over a century later. But why is Central Asia becoming important now?

Central Asia Under Russian Influence Until Now

Since the end of the first Great Game, Central Asia, a region containing the nations of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, has seen constant paternalistic dominance by Moscow, remaining under Russia through its revolution, the entire lifespan of the Soviet Union, and still being part of its sphere even after independence in the 1990s. With clear reasons to remain friendly with Russia, and no reason to go looking for other major partners, Central Asia normally remains out of the geopolitical news cycle. However, the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian War in February 2022 has had a substantial impact on Russia’s foreign policy focus.

As the invasion has dragged on, Moscow’s focus has shifted towards its western border, leaving Central Asia ignored by its paternal figure. As a result, regional disputes have begun to rise, such as a border dispute between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan escalating into border skirmishes earlier this year. Without Russia exerting its influence, the balance in the region has shifted, and the five main nations of the region have begun to search for a new security partner and guarantor for their stability. Enter the two premier superpowers: China and the United States. With new strategic possibilities in Central Asia, Washington and Beijing have begun to work towards new levels of cooperation with regional leaders.

Why is the Region so Desirable? 

Why work so hard for Central Asia? The answer is simple: economic potential. The region holds an immense level of natural wealth, with Kazakhstan alone hosting some of the world’s largest concentrations of uranium, copper, and zinc. Partnering with nations in the region could be crucial for a steady supply of various increasingly demanded raw materials. Furthermore, these developments will require investment in underdeveloped infrastructure within the region, opening a possibility for even higher profit margins. Furthermore, Central Asia’s strategically important location allows it to act as a literal bridge between Europe, East Asia, Russia, and the Middle East. Proposals for pipeline construction have already been discussed, as either Washington or Beijing could benefit immensely from connecting oil or LNG production from a plethora of regional suppliers to themselves or their allies. Control over such an energy flow would be extremely valuable, removing dependence on unstable relationships with rentier states. Having a stable energy supply is a necessary prerequisite for a stronger projection of power, and thus both Washington and Beijing have begun attempts to sway the region’s leaders to their side.

Partnership with China — A Natural Replacement?

As a strategic ally of Russia, China has been able to wield slight influence in Central Asia in the past. However, Moscow’s silent retreat from the region has opened up greater opportunities for Beijing. The primary benefit for China is expanding Central Asia’s role in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI is a program by China to invest in infrastructure and strategic ports along trade routes heading West to Europe. It has thus far allowed China to project its economic influence far beyond its borders, and to consolidate its control over trade routes to Europe. By land, the “belt” part of the BRI, Central Asia has been eyed by China as a possible pipeline of resources into its industrial core, which can then produce finished goods, sending them to European markets using Central Asian infrastructure. With all Central Asian nations except for Turkmenistan already formally part of the BRI, China has a clear path to expanding its ties with the region through investment. Earlier this year, Beijing revealed a large increase in investment for the region at a China-Central Asia summit in Xi’an. Through this, China is developing a decisive advantage, posing itself as a new paternal figure to replace Russia.

Partnership with the U.S. and Europe – A New Market to Grow With?

Despite Beijing’s initial advantage, the United States has recently begun to step up its diplomatic overtures in Central Asia as well. This past September, President Biden himself met leaders of all five Central Asian nations at the C5+1 Summit in New York City. The leaders agreed on economic cooperation, particularly in the heavy industry sector, through the encouragement of private investment. Biden also noted the importance of a strategic partnership with the region’s leaders, citing counterterrorism operations and the security threat presented by the Taliban in nearby Afghanistan. For Washington, the main benefit of Central Asia is its strategic location, placed in close proximity to a plethora of U.S. adversaries. Thus, the right mix of economic investment and security cooperation could land Washington a substantial advantage in its competition with China.

However, it’s not just the U.S. who stands to benefit, but Washington’s allies in Europe as well. With increasing hostility towards the West in some of Europe’s main resource-supplying nations, Central Asia’s deposits may become key to continue supplying Europe’s energy demands. Russia’s invasion alone showed Europe’s energy dependence, a flaw also observable in Europe’s imports of other resources. In particular, France’s imports of uranium are dependent on only a few countries, and took a major hit after the coup in Niger earlier this year. A strong partnership with Central Asia, especially Kazakhstan, is needed to keep uranium imports steady, resulting in new visits to Astana by President Macron. These relationships will be instrumental in maintaining economic stability for Europe as raw materials continue to see increased demand, with fewer and fewer cooperative suppliers.

A Piece In a Wider Conflict

With an ever expanding list of flashpoints, the struggle for Central Asia is the latest region caught up in the struggle between Washington and Beijing. While the region stands to benefit from either side’s proposals, the choices made by its leaders will have lasting effects, as the first moves are made without Moscow’s influence. Despite lack of coverage in recent news, events involving Central Asia will become important issues to follow in the coming years, not just for the region itself, but for the U.S, Europe, China, and the global resource economy.

Other posts that may interest you: