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Old Games, New Rules?: Great Powers in the New Central Asia

From: Asia Policy
Number 16, July 2013
pp. 171-174 | 10.1353/asp.2013.0027

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In the nineteenth century, the British and Russian empires squared off in Central Asia. Britain was fixated on protecting its colony in India, and worried about political decay and Russian assertiveness in the Islamic areas to the north, particularly Afghanistan and what are now, more or less, the five Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. For its part, Russia was primarily interested in keeping the peace and gradually expanding its empire among the restive khanates to the south, if not actually going all the way to India. In the end, a war never took place between these two great powers of the day, but an ongoing set of strategic games transpired as Russia and Britain tried to capture enhanced trade opportunities that ran through the Silk Road regions.

Although the players now are a significantly weakened Russia, the United States, and China, the competition between great powers in the nineteenth century parallels the Great Games being played in Central Asia today that are so well documented in Alexander Cooley's new book Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia. One of the great strengths of Cooley's book is to explain how the interests of contemporary great powers are often thwarted or manipulated by corrupt Central Asian leaders bent on self-preservation. Still, cooperation between Central Asian states and the United States, China, and Russia has been more the norm than the exception, even if the great powers have been unable to dictate outcomes to local authorities.

With the partial exception of Russia, the interests of contemporary players of the Great Game in Central Asia are rather different than those of their nineteenth-century predecessors. The United States has become involved in Central Asia as part of the war on terrorism and U.S. efforts to wipe out the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Russia, the natural successor state to the Soviet Union, has a traditional geostrategic interest in Central Asia and views the region as part of its natural sphere of interest and security. Russia is also concerned with the protection of significant ethnic Russian populations, particularly in Kazakhstan, and perhaps most centrally, control over the region's lucrative gas and oil markets. China is a relative newcomer to political engagement in Central Asia. Like the United States, its interests are far narrower than Russia's and are primarily a result of Beijing's need to stabilize and prevent separation of the ethnically Uighur Xinjiang Province. To be sure, however, all three contemporary great powers are interested in Central Asia to further their own security, as were Britain and Russia in the nineteenth century.

Cooley's study of the current Great Games played by local rules is comprehensive, well-researched, and accessible. Distinct from other recent scholarship on the region, the book's focus is not domestic politics alone or the resource riches of some Central Asian governments but the interaction between domestic politics and international relations in a complex and increasingly important part of the world. For students of international relations, great-power interactions in Central Asia have "become a natural experiment for observing the dynamics of a multipolar world, including the decline of U.S. authority, the pushback against Western attempts to promote democratization and human rights, and the rise of China as an external donor and regional leader" (p. xiv). As a result, Cooley's book is a welcome addition to the literature on post-communist countries, international relations, and Central Asian politics.

Despite its considerable strengths, there are a few areas where one might quibble with the book's analysis. First, although Cooley starts out emphasizing that the regimes in Central Asia play their weak geopolitical hands strongly against great-power interests, he overlooks the fact that there is frequently an interactive effect between local and great-power interests. We learn a great deal in chapter 7, for example, about the double-dealing that went on between Russia and Kyrgyzstan in the threatened 2009 eviction of U.S. forces from the Manas airbase, a key staging and supply post for the U.S. military's efforts in Afghanistan. But this sort of manipulation by Kyrgyzstan...



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