Some 2,300 years ago, a dignitary from the Western world came to the foothills of the Pamir Mountains, and he wondered how he and his army would cross the mighty Oxus River to reach the Hindu Kush. That was when Alexander the Great paused in Bactria to rest his exhausted army and allow the winter to pass, before heading toward the Indo-Gangetic plains in the summer of 326 BC to invade India. The great warrior finally decided to sew up the leather tents and use them as floats to cross over to Afghanistan.
Last month, the US Army Corps of Engineers plugged the gap in Alexander's logistics by building a bridge across the Pyanj River to connect Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The poignancy of the occasion was obvious. US President George W Bush made it a point amid the distractions over Iraq to send a cabinet-level official to be present at the bridge opening ceremony on August 26 in Tajikistan.
What is the significance of a 670-meter bridge? Previously, a sporadic ferry service connected the Tajik town of Nizhny Pyanj with the Afghan town of Shir Khan Bandar. The torrential river currents didn't allow the ferry to operate for months at a stretch when the ice and snow melted in the Pamirs and flooded the tributaries. But the new bridge can easily handle as many as 1,000 trucks per day.
Strictly speaking, US Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez didn't have to come all the way to witness the commissioning of the US$37 million project. But the US administration evidently regarded this as a showcase project. Gutierrez said the bridge would become "the widest connection between Afghanistan and the rest of the world". That was an interesting enough diplomatic statement - relating Afghanistan to its northern neighbors.
But more important, he went on to describe the bridge as a "physical and symbolic link between Central Asia and South Asia". Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was present, took a step further ahead and called it a link that "unites Central Asia with Southern and East Asia". China enters the podium.
Great game accelerating
It is extremely rare that the geopolitics of an entire region comes to be encapsulated within a single occasion. To be sure, the ceremony on the banks of the Pyanj River provided a movable feast for politicians, diplomats, the media and strategic thinkers alike. Anyone even remotely interested in the Great Game took note.
It was a microcosm of the highly complex calculus of the politics of Central Asia. Three things became clear:
First, the Great Game in Central Asia not only shows no signs of abating, but it is actually accelerating. Second, Washington is pressing ahead with its "Great Central Asia" strategy, no matter the fluidity of the Afghan (and Pakistani) security situation. Third, Washington has knowingly facilitated an efficient access route for China that leads to the markets in South Asia and the Persian Gulf. Here, the conventional wisdom among the strategic thinkers concerning Sino-US rivalries in Central Asia takes a beating.
The United States has not cared to hide the fact that the primary objective of the bridge over the Pyanj was to provide Tajikistan with a transportation route to the outside world that bypasses Russian territory. But Tajikistan's trade with Afghanistan amounted to a paltry US$25 million last year. Tajikistan is not a great manufacturing center and is unlikely to be one in the near future, though it is rich in precious metals and minerals. It has a subsistence economy. With mountains accounting for 93% of its territory, one potential export item would be electricity and water resources, but Tajikistan doesn't need a bridge across the Pyanj to export those.
Of late, the Great Game, which has been keenly pursued in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, has spilled over into Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. The transfer of power to a new leadership in Turkmenistan after the death of Saparmurat Niazov last December opened a window of opportunity for the US to contest the lead role established by Russia and China in accessing the country's vast resources of natural gas.
That is the new great-power rivalry brewing in Turkmenistan. Simply put, the US wants the new Turkmen leadership to take a serious second look at the 10-year-old idea regarding a trans-Caspian gas pipeline for the European market via Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey, which would cut down Europe's growing dependency on Russian energy supplies.
But what is unfolding over Tajikistan is indeed 19th-century Great Gamesmanship - "foreign devils on the Silk Road". Briefly, in October 2002, then-US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld made a tactical error of judgment in choosing to set up military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. During a memorable visit by Rumsfeld to Dushanbe, Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon ostentatiously spread a Soviet army map in front of him and made an open offer that Washington could pick and choose any of the military bases that the Soviet army had built. Rumsfeld was not interested.
But hardly five years has passed and the geopolitics of Central Asia had changed so dramatically that Rumsfeld, now a pensioner, must be ruing his error of judgment. With the rupture of US relations with Uzbekistan after the uprising in Andizhan in 2005 and the descending anarchy in Kyrgyzstan after the "Tulip Revolution", Tajikistan's importance has increased as a gateway to Central Asia for the US influence entrenched in Afghanistan.
Tajikistan's strategic importance needs no repetition - it is a corridor leading to the turbulent Ferghana Valley; it borders China's Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region; it is a hotbed of militant Islam; it is an oasis of Iranian (Persian) culture; it controls the region's watersheds; it is a principal route for the drug traffickers from Afghanistan; and it is the furthest post-Soviet military outpost for the Russian armed forces on the territory of the former Soviet Union.
Over and above, of course, Tajikistan is integral to the stabilization of Afghan politics. There are more ethnic Tajiks living in Afghanistan than in Tajikistan itself. Tajik nationalism can also be a potent weapon in the hands of Uzbekistan's adversaries.
America's 'Great Central Asia' strategy
Thus, for any number of good reasons, prying Tajikistan from the orbit of traditional Russian influence has become a key objective of US diplomacy. Washington is pressing Japan and the European Union to take interest. EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana visited Dushanbe last week.
The thrust of the United States' so-called "Great Central Asia" strategy is to pull Tajikistan toward Afghanistan by the scruff of its neck, as it were, in an effort to draw the Central Asian region itself incrementally toward the South Asian countries - with Afghanistan acting as a hub, or a revolving door. With the consolidation of US strategic influence in the recent years in the South Asian region, Washington estimates that its skillful midwifery in Central Asia has a fair chance of success.
The US has brought in financial institutions such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to explore the possibility of funding trans-regional projects aimed at strengthening the infrastructure and communication links among the countries of the Central/South Asian region.
Russia has taken serious note of the United States' Great Central Asia strategy, and signaled that it will resist the alleged US policy to "detach" the Central Asian countries from Russia's sphere of influence. Equally, Chinese commentators have taken exception to Washington's strategy, which in essence aims at stimulating rivalries among the South Asian countries on the one hand and China and Russia on the other at no direct cost to US regional interests.
But in the US understanding, a strategic alliance between Russia and China in Central Asia within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is a long way from materializing. More important, the US estimates that it can avoid a strategic alliance by balancing Russia and China individually or off each other. There is a wide range of possibilities for US diplomacy to exploit the differing priorities of Russia and China within the SCO.
Alexander Khramchikhin, chief analyst of Russia's Political and Military Analysis Institute, wrote in Izvestia newspaper recently:
Russia is clearly inclined to turn the SCO into a military-political bloc to confront and counter NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization]. Moscow would like a merger of the SCO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, but our partners are still resisting the idea. Beijing may not be entirely opposed to a military alliance, but its policy is entirely rational and pragmatic ...
Beijing is more inclined to see the SCO's economic component as dominant. China's priority is oil and gas supplies, of course ... SCO is perfect for China's purposes. All SCO countries except Uzbekistan share borders with China, so energy resources can be delivered via safe land routes ... Another advantage [is] an energy market in the SCO framework so that several oil and gas suppliers [Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and perhaps Iran and Turkmenistan] would be competing for one buyer, China ... The economic format of the SCO is advantageous for China because of its powerful economy ... From China's perspective, SCO countries are an important transit corridor for contacts [with the world market].
Not surprisingly, the core agenda of the US policy is to create a wedge between Russia and China. The point is, over the near to medium term at least, Washington doesn't perceive China's growing presence in Central Asia as a pressing challenge to its interests.
Washington's comfort level is due to several factors. First, much as China has made impressive gains in Central Asia, it faces many challenges and competitors while furthering its political, diplomatic and economic presence in the region. Even assuming that Russian influence in the region is waning (which is not the case), the hard reality is that at the end of the day, the Central Asian elites feel far more at home in harboring close ties with Russia than with China. Again, despite recent setbacks, the US remains a major contender in the region. So is Japan, which is fixated with the idea of countering Chinese influence in Central Asia.
Second, in the US perception, Chinese diplomatic strategy in Central Asia is mainly driven by China's domestic imperative of developing and sustaining stable and productive relations around the country's periphery so as to create a beneficial external environment within which Beijing can meaningfully address the enormous sociopolitical and developmental challenges within. Of course, China cannot be faulted if it strives to legitimize its image as a benign regional leader. In other words, the US has no reason to feel "threat perceptions" over the proactive Chinese diplomacy in Central Asia.
Third, Washington appreciates that China has several legitimate national-security interests at stake in Central Asia. The huge territorial concessions that China made in settling its border dispute with the Central Asian states, and the key agreements of 1996 and 1997, showed that China regarded that the region's goodwill needed to be cultivated, and therefore making compromises was every bit worthwhile in China's medium- and long-term interests. China's obsession with the "three evils" manifest in the region (terrorism, separatism and religious extremism) is palpable.
Again, the US would have no reason to quarrel with China for exploring trade and economic cooperation with Central Asia. In fact, it suits the US regional strategy that China is increasingly competing with Russia both in the energy and non-energy sectors. For instance, there is a good possibility that China will replace Russia's UC Rusal in the US$1.3 billion aluminum-cum-hydroelectric project in Tajikistan.
A degree of rivalry already exists between China and Russia in gaining access to Turkmenistan's gas reserves. The fact is, as China moves up the economic ladder, it is better placed than Russia in providing much-needed capital, technology, expertise and the range of consumer goods that the Central Asian countries need. Furthermore, it is possible for the US to harmonize its Central Asia strategy with China's focus on building transportation infrastructure, especially a multilateral highway system, which would only weaken Russia's Soviet-era stranglehold on the region's communication links.
Finally, Washington estimates that since China's relations remain at a relatively early stage in the region, it is only through a strategic partnership with Russia that Beijing can venture into any balance-of-power games. Of course, looking further ahead, Washington and Beijing could find themselves competing for influence in Central Asia as their regional priorities continue to expand beyond immediate security concerns and touch on great-power influence and diplomatic strategy.
In other words, in the short term at least, the US is pursuing a careful policy to engage China in the region and assuring that China's emergence is consistent with US interests. This indeed helps Washington to focus on the immediate task at hand, to roll back Russia's traditional standing in the region.
The bridge on the Pyanj brings out these various templates of the United States' regional policy in Central Asia. It is extraordinary that the US is prepared to go to any extent to undercut the SCO and isolating Russia in Central Asia. There is no denying the fact that China will be the single biggest beneficiary of the bridge that connects Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
Curiously, China seems to have anticipated that Tajikistan will eventually prove to be as crucial as Pakistan as a transportation route. Beijing has been paying enormous attention to Tajikistan by earmarking the bulk of its US$900 million export loan for the SCO for its projects in Tajikistan. China's assistance to Tajikistan in the past five years exceeds US$600 million. Trade touched US$157 million in 2005. But the first half of 2006 alone saw a quantum jump to US$114 million. China is generously investing in Tajikistan's light industry.
The US-funded bridge across the Pyanj River leads in the north to China's newly developed road links with Tajikistan. It provides China's Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region with yet another all-weather communication link with Karachi port, which the Karakorum Highway cannot.
The bridge underscores that China doesn't necessarily have to depend on the SCO for developing its transportation routes to the South Asia/Persian Gulf region.
In fact, a US State Department handout in Washington last week highlights this by pointing out, "On the Tajik side, the bridge will connect to routes leading north, west and east through roads that Japan plans to build or modernize; on the Afghan side, it will connect to Afghanistan's nearly completed ring road and Pakistan's port of Karachi through roads constructed with ADB financing."
There is enough food for thought here for strategic analysts rooted in their belief that China's access to the warm waters of the South Asian/Persian Gulf region would be completely antithetical to US strategic interests.
-M.K. Bhadrakumar at UzReport
Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).