[Outlook]Eyes on Central Asia

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[Outlook]Eyes on Central Asia

The British political geographer Sir Halford Mackinder in 1919 formulated his Heartland Theory, originating the concept of geopolitics. Based on this theory, it has been said that whoever rules Central Asia rules the world, stressing the growing importance of this “pivot” region.

Central Asia consists of countries that share the “stan” suffix: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It is a region of strategic importance, connecting Europe and Asia. Known as the “Second Middle East,” it has large energy reserves such as petroleum and gas.

In the early 19th century, the two global behemoths, Russia and Britain, jostled for competitive edge over this region for the first time. “The Great Game” refers to the hostile confrontations in this area between the two powers.

British power developed across India toward Central Asia and Afghanistan, while Imperial Russia concentrated on expansion southward in its direct advance toward the Indian Ocean, leading to an all-out war between the two empires.

The Great Game was a term used by the British author Rudyard Kipling in his novel “Kim,” which is based on the conflict between Britain and Russia for supremacy in Central Asia in the late 19th century.

The strategic rivalry lasted nearly 100 years, ending only as Imperial Russia and its successor, the Soviet Union, occupied the region.

After their contest, Central Asia disappeared from the center stage of history. It came back into the limelight when, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, several Central Asian countries gained independence. Under cover of political turmoil and a power vacuum in Russia, Western countries including the United States crowded in to fish in the troubled waters.

The abundant energy resources of Central Asia, which far exceed the oil fields of the North Sea, were at the center of the dispute. America gained a competitive advantage in the rivalry commonly referred to as the “New Great Game.” The U.S. succeeded in gaining a controlling interest in major oil fields, using economic assistance as bait. It also expanded its scope of influence by building military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Russia was busy dealing with domestic affairs, and had no energy to spare for coping with the growing predominance of the United States in Central Asia.

The landscape has been changed by Russia’s former president and incumbent prime minister, Vladimir Putin, since 2004, when he was re-elected for a second term on the slogan “Building a strong Russia.”

Russia gained more confidence thanks to its stable politics and economy, and has stepped up endeavors to regain its dominant position in the area of the former Soviet Union. Last August, Russia invaded Georgia, following provocation by the former Soviet republic in the Caucasus which had taken a pro-American stance. It was a symbolic move in which the former master showed off its power.

Russia’s recent series of measures in Central Asia are a manifestation of its determination to no longer simply look on as the United States and the West expand their power. The heads of the member states of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, consisting of seven former Soviet states, last Wednesday shared the view that they should launch a new army of 10,000 soldiers in order to be able to provide a swift response.

The move would aim to offset the growing influence of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as it strives to expand into the former Soviet Union, although a collaborative response to terrorism and drug trafficking was upheld as the motivation.

Russia also succeeded in shutting out the U.S. from the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan, which the U.S. had used as a center of operations for the war in Afghanistan since 2001. It can be duly understood that Russia’s promise of more than $2 billion in economic assistance to Kyrgyzstan prompted the country to close the base.

Such moves put to shame the projection that Russia will ease its hard-line stance as it deals with the difficulties of the global financial meltdown. Instead, Russia seems prepared to use the economic crisis as an opportunity to regain its influence over former Soviet states as well as its allies. Under cover of America’s turmoil, Russia is taking an ambitious step to emerge as a front-runner in a multipolar world order.

Whether Russia’s aggressive foreign policy will succeed is as yet unknown. If the U.S. stages a fierce rally in Central Asia as a key area of geo-economic importance, another “New Great Game” between the United States and Russia is likely to spark ever-keener competition.

Against this backdrop, Korea should keep its eye on such moves, as the Central Asian region, as well as Russia, are a top priority in Korea’s policy of “resource diplomacy.”

The writer is an international news reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Yoo Chul-jong
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