The violent ethnic unrest at the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, which has killed hundreds and displaced more than a quarter of a million people over the past few days, is not simply a political crisis that is turning into a humanitarian tragedy. Instead, it represents the latest drama in the Great Game dominating Central Asia and beyond for more than two centuries. Just as tsarist Russia and imperial Britain carved out spheres of interest in the 19th century, Moscow and Beijing are vying for geopolitical hegemony in the 21st. Paradoxically, at a time when the US and other western countries speak of a "multi-partner world", we are seeing the rise of old eastern empires dressed in new clothes. This disproves the claim that the world will gradually converge towards a universal model of liberal market democracy.
The United Nations has proven far too weak to impose a multilateral solution. The secretary general Ban Ki-moon is liaising with the foreign minister of Kazakhstan, which currently chairs the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). They have agreed to co-ordinate a crisis response with the EU, and send special envoys to the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. In reality, the UN, the OSCE and the EU can do little to stop ethnic violence and bring about a peaceful settlement. None has any significant presence in the region or is capable of mobilising peace-keeping troops.
Kyrgyzstan is firmly in what Moscow considers its backyard. A resurgent Russia won't tolerate any foreign encroachment in its "privileged sphere of influence", to quote the Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. The US is conspicuous by its absence. With Mr Obama's "surge" strategy on the line in Afghanistan, the White House is desperate to hold on to its air base in Manas. The air base is a vital supply line for troops and supplies in the Afghan war.
But Russia is calling the shots, as Kyrgyzstan's current interim government depends on the Kremlin's recognition and support. Ironically, Washington relies on Moscow's tacit approval to keep Manas open. Moscow supported the pro-Russian opposition in its April coup against the deposed Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev. His power base is in the country's south, including the Fergana valley and the city of Osh where some of the worst violence has taken place.
This area is at the nexus of the rival ambitions of both Russia and China. The Chinese leadership fears that unrest in the Fergana valley could spread to the volatile northwestern province of Xinjiang, home to the Muslim ethnic Uighur population. Kyrgyzstan has about a quarter of a million Uighurs, who resent what they view as oppression of their brethren across the Chinese border. Militants could use unstable countries like Kyrgyzstan as a refuge and base from which to launch an insurgency against Beijing.
China is also keen to protect its expanding pipeline network across Central Asia. Last December, the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, opened the world's longest natural gas pipeline linking Turkmenistan to Xinjiang in northwestern China. This marked the end of Russia's monopoly on energy transmission in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan also stands astride key routes to Beijing's trade partners in Central Asia, especially Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, all nominal Russian allies. The Kremlin views China as a far greater threat to its interest than the US, never mind the EU.
Since the late 19th century, the tsarist empire - followed by Soviet Russia - ruled unopposed in Central Asia. But more recently, peaceful co-existence with China has given way to strategic competition. Moscow and Beijing are vying for hegemony over their shared Central Asian "near abroad". Nowhere is this more evident than in the response to the current Kyrgyz crisis. After the failure of US unilateralism, the new global multipolarity was supposed to revive and extend the multilateral diplomacy of the 1990s. As part of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), both China and Russia oppose "terrorism, extremism and separatism", but the SCO is so far totally absent during the conflict in Kyrgyzstan.
Since Beijing has assumed a de facto leadership role in the SCO, the Kremlin is trying to reinforce the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) - a rival, political and military structure of former Soviet republics. Moreover, Moscow is once more warming to the US and Europe, portraying itself as a unique global "balancer" between East and West. As such, the real struggle in Central Asia is between Russia and China, two countries that view themselves essentially as empires. Both operate a tributary system with smaller neighbours. They provide "security" in exchange for market outlets and inexpensive imports.
Russia sells military equipment and buys up Central Asian energy to export it to the West, while also importing cheap labour to compensate for its declining population. China needs primary commodities to sustain its buoyant economic growth and market access for its cheap consumer goods. In the new Great Game, the geo-economics of energy security matters just as much as the geopolitics of territorial control. Instead of national states and liberal market democracy, we are seeing the rise of old empires and new elites who combine bureaucratic capitalism with authoritarian plutocracy.
Adrian Pabst is a lecturer in politics at the University of Kent, Canterbury, UK