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The new Great Game that is not

The idea that Central Asia is the nexus of a Great Game between the world’s superpowers is, in the 21st century, largely exaggerated. Undoubtedly, the Central Asian republics are actively engaging with the great powers by relying on their sovereign prerogatives and pursuing their own strategic goals. But this should be seen rather as a strategy of the local players than a competitive game orchestrated from Washington, Moscow or Beijing.

It is not uncommon to hear from academics and pundits alike that Central Asia is now at the centre of a new Great Game between the great powers (namely, the United States, Russia and China), as it was two centuries ago. The term, popularised by Rudyard Kipling’s 1901 novel Kim and first used by Captain Arthur Conolly of the East India Company’s Bengal Army in 1840, directly refers to the 19th-century competition between the Russian and British empires for control over Central Asia. An example of the pre-eminence of the metaphor in today’s intellectual circles is one of the latest books published on international politics in Eurasia, edited by Mehran Kamrava, titled The Great Game in West Asia, which claims that there indeed is a new great game afoot in the region.

Though vigorously denied by those policy-makers actually involved in the politics of the region, and often criticised by more nuanced and context-aware regional observers, the Great Game is still a widely adopted and popular metaphor, rooted in geopolitical thinking and aimed at simplifying the reality. It refers to the competition between the abovementioned states to vie for influence over and in the region, as well as to the conflicts that their different strategies may elicit in the near future. In the Great Game narrative, the five Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are the board on which the game is played.
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October 31, 2017 - Filippo Costa Buranelli - AnalysisIssue 6 2017Magazine

Illustration by Andrzej Zaręba

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