New ‘Great Game’ in Central Asia:?China 1, U.S./Russia, 0

A century ago, Sir Halford John Mackinder, British geographer and the architect of geopolitics theory, proposed, “He who rules Central Asia rules the world.”

According to Mackinder’s Heartland Theory, a land-based power, not a sea power, would ultimately rule the world. At the heart or Eurasia, lay an “impregnable, resource-rich Pivot Area” – who rules this geographical “Pivot Area” commands the Heartland (Eurasia), who rules the Heartland commands the World Island (the great world island comprised of Europe, Asia, and Africa), and who rules the World Island commands the World.

Economically, Central Asia is vital in fueling the global economy in the 21st century.

Today, Central Asia contains the world’s largest amount of untapped oil and gas resources. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan alone could sit on more than 110 billion barrels of crude oil – more than three times the entire U.S. reserves. The huge oil reserves under the Caspian Sea and in the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan are estimated ranging from 185 to 219 billion barrels, worth more than $4 trillion.

As the struggle to control the world’s remaining energy reserves increasingly culminates in military conflicts and power clashes, control over the energy resources and export routes in Central Asia is becoming one of the central issues in world politics.

Strategically, Central Asia today is crowded with major power competitors, including the United States, Russia and China.

In this new Great Game, Beijing, writes Martha Olcott at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, D.C., “is emerging as the big winner in Central Asia, displacing both the United States and Russia as the great power with the most influence in Central Asia.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping, reports Olcott, “just ran a 10-day victory lap through the region. Rarely has a leader of a major power accomplished so much in such a short time. China’s leaders seek to win over their Central Asian counterparts by demonstrating respect, offering generous trade and loan terms, and taking a hands-off approach to domestic issues. What Central Asian leaders find most appealing about this approach is that in contrast to Russia, China does not bind them into restrictive trade policies or seek to influence political outcomes from behind the scenes.”

“Less than a decade ago,” an Economist article titled “Rising China, Sinking Russia” described, “little doubt hung over where the newly independent states of Central Asia had to pump their huge supplies of oil and gas: Russia, their former imperial overlord, dominated their energy infrastructure and markets. Yet today, when a new field comes on stream, the pipelines head east, to China. As if to underline the point, in early September China’s president, Xi Jinping, swept through Central Asia, gobbling up energy deals and promising billions in investment. His tour left no doubts as to the region’s new economic superpower.”

China’s Central Asia approach stands out from that of the United States as well. According to Professor Olcott, “Unlike Washington, Beijing doesn’t press Central Asian leaders to agree to a timetable and agenda for internal reforms. The differences in approach are clear on the ground. No U.S. president has ever traveled to Central Asia. The last U.S. vice president to visit the region was Al Gore, who went to Kazakhstan in 1993, during the administration of Bill Clinton. Trips to the region by U.S. secretaries of state have been few and far between.”

Chinese foreign policy is designed to serve China’s domestic economic growth and its urgent quest for energy. Nowhere is this clearer than in Mackinder’s most pivotal geographic area on the planet: Central Asia. “China may not be seeking an empire in the region,” says Alexandros Petersen, author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West, “but it is the only power active in a comprehensive, long-term manner. If other outside powers do not also engage, China’s lock on Central Asia, to the exclusion of the United States and Russia, will be inevitable.” In the vast landmass of Central Asia, China is building a new Silk Road and advancing its position into what Dr. Petersen described as an “Inadvertent Empire.”

Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College’s China Program.