There is a wonderful book, written in 1980 by Peter Hopkirk, which describes the fierce competition among international archeologists in the early 20th century, to find and claim credit for discovering the ancient cities of the historic “Silk Road” in the deserts of Xinkiang, China's vast and remote Western domain.1 The effort brought distinguished academic figures into an energetic and creative race, in which some participants won big by hauling away caravan-loads of artifacts and were inscribed in archeological history, while others came home emptyhanded and were forgotten. Their stories, and the artifacts they took home, are exhibited in some of the world's most distinguished museums, far from the Central Asian sand-dunes where they were found. Some of those long-abandoned desert cities have become tantalizing, barely-accessible attractions for the rare visitors to the remote regions where they are located.

With the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, vast areas of the ancient Silk Road region were once again open to “foreign devils” and their competition. But this time the exploration efforts have been in other domains — for political influence, trade opportunities, investments in potentially rich energy and mineral deposits, tourism, and the authorizations needed to develop the oil and gas resources which abound here, and to deliver them to world markets. The region has gradually become one of competition among outside players, with substantial prizes for the winners, in a new "Great Game" with unknown rules.

In 1991 I was asked by then-Secretary of State James Baker to visit each of the capitals of the newly-independent states from the former Soviet Union, with the mission of explaining to the leadership in each country how the United States would see its relationship with them as sovereign countries. The exceptions to this general mission were the three Baltic States — Washington never recognized their forced incorporation into the USSR, so these were not “new” relationships for the US. But Central Asia was indeed a new region for America; in one Central Asian capital the Prime Minister noted that I was the first American he had ever seen. The region had effectively been closed to foreigners, certainly to foreign investors, for about 70 years, and before that its general remoteness discouraged all but the most intrepid visitors. In 1991 the countries of this area were under-populated and underdeveloped - even tourism was unknown. In the languid squares of the historic cities there were timeless scenes of older men lounging in shady tea stations, playing backgammon.

But now, just twenty-three years later, these areas have changed. A sort of race is on, between American, Russian, European, Chinese and other Asian investors, as more and more business people, and governmental leaders, realize the enormous potential of the region. There are a number of factors which have brought about this dramatic change of status for Central Asia, from Soviet backwater to potential bonanza:

The first is simply the gradual awakening of outsiders to this region, its history, its peoples, its varied landscapes, access routes, languages, and cultures. A new book by Professor Fred Starr of Johns Hopkins University2 positions Central Asia as the most advanced region of the world, more than a thousand years ago. At the same time there has been a learning process, about the resources which lie under the soil, and the fact that these newly independent peoples have their own identities, cultural attractions, and issues. One key milestone was the decision by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which includes the US and Canada, to offer these new states membership, on the grounds that they had already been OSCE members as part of the USSR. This brought OSCE missions of various kinds to the region, as well as contacts, assistance programs, and possibilities for involvement in regional undertakings. Mongolia has also now joined the OSCE. Tourism has grown dramatically, especially to historical sites like Samarkand and Bukhara. And the war in Afghanistan opened a whole new episode for the region, as the US scrambled to supply its army in what is perhaps the
remotest region in the inhabited world.

There was also a rush to exploit the oil and gas resources in the area, particularly in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The oil industry is particularly accustomed to risk, and so was immediately prepared to consider new resource prospects in these regions, even if they were remote. Companies of all nationalities entered the competition, from the US, Europe, China, Japan, and even Argentina. The so-called “Contract of the Century,” signed in Baku, in the Caucasus, in 1994 between a consortium of Western and other companies and the government of Azerbaijan, showed what was going on: basically, major companies were buying or leasing the rights to exploit energy resources in these new areas, and the governments were planning to use the new wealth from commercial development to improve their own national situations. China also bought unilateral rights to oil and gas resources - in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan - to supply its rapidly growing economy through pipelines so lengthy that they might be considered uneconomical by Western companies. The recent announcement of a huge deal to supply natural gas from Russia to China over the next several decades shows the dimensions of what is at stake.

The gas will likely come from Russia's vast arctic resources, and can only be developed in partnership with western companies such as Exxon Mobil, which have the required technologies and know-how to exploit them.

At the same time there were political and strategic factors at work. Russia, through its giant gas monopolyGasprom, which still controls about ninety percent of all gas pipelines in the former Soviet space, kept all local gas producers in line through their control of gas exports from their countries. Without the use of Russian pipelines, gas could not be exported, at least not in major quantities. By entering into a number of local conflicts, in various roles, Russia gained leverage on some other former Soviet republics, with the overall objective of retaining control throughout the “near abroad,” the Russian term for its former adjacent colonies. Control of the “near abroad” space is an on-going general priority for Russia. Al Qaeda appeared in Afghanistan, sheltered by the hierarchy of the Taliban movement, making it impossible for foreign companies to work there. China began a two-pronged effort to assert its presence in the Eastern part of Central Asia by maintaining stability in the minority Uighur autonomous region in its West, while encouraging migration from Eastern to Western China. It is worth noting that Iran's 1979 revolution effectively took that country, an essential regional player, out of the Central Asian game, at least until things change and normal international relations are restored.

And then, suddenly, the overall Central Asian equation changed, as the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Towers in Manhattan in 2001 obliged the United States to go to war in Afghanistan, in pursuit of the leaders of Al Qaeda who had organized the attack. This was about as remote from the US as it is possible to be, both culturally and physically, and also in terms of supplying an army in full combat in the field. An American army is very heavy, logistically speaking; it needs everything from flack jackets, night-vision glasses and ammunition to TV sets and beer. Very early it became clear that transiting Pakistan was not the ideal route for supplying the troops in Afghanistan, so the US Army developed another route, called the “Northern Route,” through Russia, Khazakhstan and Uzbekistan to northern Afghanistan. Bases were developed across Central Asia to support this new supply route. It was an up-dated version of the Silk Road, although it was largely one-way — there may now be a million or so empty cargo containers lying about in the vacant spaces of Afghanistan.

In the aftermath of the Afghan war, many new opportunities emerged, such as the “TAPI” (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas pipeline project now being advanced by the Asian Development Bank. This project, previously canceled when Al Qaeda bombed two American Embassies in East Africa, is now being developed again, reflecting the growing need for energy of the rapidly expanding economies of South Asia. The prospect that India and Pakistan will cooperate to construct this pipeline reflects its importance for both countries. The message here is that Central Asian resources are being sought not only by players to the East and West,but also by the dynamic economies to the South.

Iran, which is currently edging cautiously back into the commercial world, will, at some point, be an additional - and very big - player in this vast new game, both as a supplier and as a consumer of resources and products, as an investor and as a target for investments, and as a regional leader with political and cultural influence throughout the region.

These and other factors have called the attention of many Western business and national interests to the potential of the ancient Silk Road trade route. The growing map of pipelines for gas and oil, which currently extend from Azerbaijan to the Turkish Mediterranean coast, as well as from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to China, and are now planned to reach across the Adriatic Sea to Italy, has inspired conventional traders and transporters to think in terms of road and rail transport from Europe through Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan, transiting across the Caspian Sea, and on through Turkmenistan and/or Kazakhstan to China's Central Asian border. A modern rail line is, in fact, being built which will cross Turkey and Georgia to Azerbaijan. Baku is preparing itself to be a dynamic hub for air, land and cross-Caspian Sea transportation - from Europe to Asia and vice versa. After all, would it not be cheaper, and more reliable, to ship Chinese manufactured goods across such a mythical rail line to Europe than it would be to transport them by sea around Vietnam, Myanmar, and India, to transit the Suez Canal? In addition, Central Asia is rapidly becoming a market itself, a destination for consumer goods and heavy equipment, in states with rapidly increasing buying power.

There are potential future issues which pose difficult questions. China and Russia are thought to have the largest potential shale oil and gas deposits in the world, so the development of those resources could affect the region in new ways which deserve careful study. And the way long-distance pipelines are becoming routine suggests that, at some point, fresh water pipelines may become economically viable in this region, as a way to convert desert areas to agricultural production. And what about the instabilities emerging from Syria, Iraq, and the growth of Islamic fundamentalism; will that affect the current fragile stability of Central Asia?

In this situation China has been looking over its shoulder toward the vast regions to its West. An article by influential Professor Jisi Wang, former Dean of the School of Foreign Studies at prestigious Peking University, citing a quote from Mao, suggested that, rather than pushing and shoving with Koreans, Japanese and Americans to its crowded East, China should “March West.” The phrase and the concept resonated. Statistics now show that the Chinese are, in fact, marching west in huge numbers. They are leaving the overcrowded Eastern coastal regions and re-locating in the relatively under-populated areas of Xinjiang, China's Central Asian far west.

Statistics on growth in the Central Asian region are not easy to find, partly because there are a number of different countries, and also because none of them has strong traditions in statistical disciplines. Some, in fact, are only now emerging, or have not yet emerged, from the status of developing countries. But regardless of the situation on the ground, a race is beginning, or has already begun. It is a race for access to resources and the rights to develop them, for new markets trading new goods such as super TV sets, computers, phones, and air conditioners, for the development of transit routes, and for the maintenance of the sort of stability which will make development of all this possible. The Foreign Devils are back, in force, and the competition is just as fierce for business now as it was for antiquities a hundred years ago.