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Great Game

July 15, 2011

Afghanistan and Central Asia are abundant with natural resources worth billions. So far, they are largely untapped but the battle is raging for who will be able to exploit them in the 21st century.

Natural resources worth billions lie underground in Afghanistan
Natural resources worth billions lie underground in AfghanistanImage: picture alliance/dpa

In the 19th century, it was the Russians and the British who wrestled for influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia in a highly-explosive endeavor known as the Great Game.

Today, Afghanistan's natural resources are estimated to be worth billions of dollars. The resources in the neighboring Central Asian states are thought to be worth even more - the cake is huge and as yet largely untouched.

A Chinese state firm has won the rights to exploit a copper mine in eastern Afghanistan
A Chinese state firm has won the rights to exploit a copper mine in eastern AfghanistanImage: AP

While the US and China want an especially large slice of it, neighboring states Iran, Pakistan, India and Russia all have their eyes on it as well. Most experts agree that a battle for natural resources is underway, alongside the war against terrorism.

Not enough has been done to define who has access to the natural resources, says Thomas Greven, a political scientist who teaches at Berlin's Free University.

"If conflict arises, in the worst-case scenario, it will not be sufficient to have contracts on exploiting natural resources. The access has to be secured via military bases, as well as political and security cooperation," says Greven.

Setting the tone

New roads built by the US and used by China
New roads built by the US and used by ChinaImage: DW

The US and China have been competing for the world's natural resources for at least a decade now. Both countries know that direct access to energy resources will determine who can maintain their wealth. Greven points out that the new Great Game in Central Asia will thus decide whether the 21st century ends up being Chinese or American.

"The US is not indifferent to the fact that there are natural deposits in Afghanistan," says Greven, adding that Washington would not be thrilled to see China take control of the war-torn state's natural resources without taking part in the fight against international terrorism.

The Chinese government has been conducting an offensive "shopping spree" in Afghanistan and other Central Asian states for some time now. To Washington's displeasure, Beijing was able to secure the exploitation rights for the region's biggest copper mine, by shelling out three billion dollars. Now, fully-laden trucks head from the mine in eastern Afghanistan to China on roads built by the Americans.

Officially, Beijing insists it does not have any great ambitions in Afghanistan and the region. But many observers think China at least wants to set the tone.

For Jürgen Stetten, the head of Asia at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the truth lies "somewhere in the middle."

"Even if it wanted to, China could not afford not to be a player in the geo-strategic game, including in Afghanistan," he says.

Avoiding direct confrontation

The Chinese are not too keen on the US presence in Afghanistan
The Chinese are not too keen on the US presence in AfghanistanImage: AP

Until now, China has deliberately avoided direct confrontation with the US. The emerging superpower feels threatened by the 100,000 US soldiers in its direct vicinity. Stetten says Beijing is also concerned about the US' plans to maintain a presence in Afghanistan after 2014.

"Obviously China has no interest in being surrounded by US military bases," he says, adding however, that the situation does not look likely to change in the immediate future. This is why he thinks China is looking more at cooperating closely with Pakistan.

Beijing sees in Islamabad a loyal ally against India - its biggest rival in the region - and also thinks that with Pakistan's help it will better be able to consolidate its interests in Afghanistan, particularly after the US withdraws.

Stetten says that it is difficult to predict the outcome of the new Great Game in Afghanistan, but he believes it could very likely be catastrophic for Afghanistan. "A return of the Taliban, or proxy wars between the region's big rivals, China or India, or the US, could land the country in a conflict that it will not get out of for some time."

Author: Ratbil Shamel (act)
Editor: Sarah Berning