The Contest For Central Asia

AUTHOR:  Alexander Cooley

PUBLISHED BY:  Oxford University Press, USA

REVIEWED BY:  Patrick Swan, per Concordiam contributor

In the 1800s, Russia and Great Britain played a geopolitical “great game” to control trade routes from Central Asia through Afghanistan and into Imperial British India. Today, the epicenter for a new great game resides in Central Asia as well, but north of Afghanistan. This time there are three great power players: Russia as before, the United States rather than Great Britain, and China to the east. On the agenda for this “strategic triangle,” are five former republics of the Soviet Union, the “Stans,” which is the Persian word for “place of” or “land.” Hence, Turkmenistan — place of the Turkmen.

At first blush, one may question the value of controlling Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Some have great natural resources in gas and oil; some have valuable minerals locked in their mountainous terrain; others enjoy large quantities of that most basic commodity, water. While these are all important to the region, they are far from globally unique goods.

To understand why three great powers today play suiter to the Stans, one must look back a century to the hypothesis of the English geographer Sir Halford Mackinder. He posited in 1904 the existence of a “world island” encompassing Asia, Africa and Europe and later summarized: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world.” This was an important geopolitical observation since the World-Island contained well over 50% of then-known global resources. The Heartland, as Mackinder dubbed what we today refer to as the Stans, presented an enormous central controlling position for whichever country dominated it.

After the Soviet Union subsumed the Heartland for its own devices and inside a communist iron curtain, the Heartland theory of control fell into disfavor as Soviet control did not equal global domination. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in late 1991 freed the Stans from Moscow-based supremacy. Alexander Cooley’s compelling book, Great Games, Local Rules, The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia, examines the great powers’ influence on the region, explores their different strategic interests and their tools of influence, and assesses their impact on political institutions and practices in the Stans.

The U.S. has used the region for military bases and for transportation routes in support of its long Afghanistan campaign. It also exerts diplomatic pressure on the nations to democratize because it views such political systems as more prone to extend the benefits of friendly relations with the U.S.

China’s interest derives from a desire to ensure its western territorial integrity. It has ruthlessly suppressed unrest among a largely Muslim Uighur population in its western Xinjiang province. China does not desire politically unstable neighbors who might give aid and comfort to the Uighurs and has offered incentives for economic development to purchase political stability in the Stans.

Russia, still reeling from losing the Cold War and its reputation as a great power, seeks to restore its geopolitical influence in Central Asia, albeit in a soft rather than hard way. It attempts to cajole these independent nations with an outstretched velvet glove of comity. The people of the Stans have rebuffed Russian attempts at a closer political association, however, remembering the hand inside that glove as a tightly clenched fist.

Despite the intimidating influence of these three nuclear great powers, Cooley argues that the Central Asian states, even the weaker ones, are not passive pawns in their strategic maneuverings, but instead are important actors in their own right. Despite linguistic ties — the Stans all retain the Russian tongue, a legacy from decades of Soviet rule — Russia has struggled to cement a closer political association because memories remain fresh from its heavy-handed rule. The U.S. offers Western prestige via its popular culture and its lingua franca, English, and from financial aid. But U.S. demands for immediate democratic reforms have alienated the authoritative governments run by strongman leaders. While China makes no such reformist demands, its invasive infrastructure investments threaten to weaken Central Asian states’ political independence. Closer relations with each power offer different benefits and perils and none of the Stans seeks to embrace any of the three at the long-term expense of the other two.

Turkmenistan’s firm policy of neutrality and independence is prevalent in varying degrees among all the Stans. Cooley explains that this construct has permitted Central Asian elites to directly play each external power against the others. If the U.S. presses too hard for democracy, economic reforms and better governance, political, economic and security alternatives can be found in Russia or China. In turn, the Stans can manage pressures inherent in their close geographic proximity to Russia or China by turning to the extra-geographical influence the U.S. exerts.

Still, geography and historical ties preclude the Stans from completely rebuffing Russia or China. For instance, Kazakhstan cannot ignore persistent Russian influence on its long border and still hosts landing zones for returning Russian cosmonauts. Ironically, the one Stan — Turkmenistan — farthest from the authoritarian stresses of Russia and China is also the most authoritarian. Nevertheless, while the other Stans conduct bilateral military exercises and security assistance training and operations with Russia on one day, with the U.S. on another, and with China on a third, none seeks a formal, binding and sustained military alliance with any of the great powers.

Cooley considers the temptation for great power policymakers and strategists to adopt zero-sum views to be the trickiest aspect of the emerging multipolar order in Central Asia, and instead encourages them to frame their goals in more pragmatic and expedient terms. A regional gain for China, such as the opening of a new pipeline that will transport Central Asian gas eastward, is not necessarily a loss for the U.S. and Russia, especially if it alleviates regional supply pressures and energy competition elsewhere. Nor should the opening of a new Russian military base in Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan constitute a loss for the U.S. if it allows Moscow the prestige and political space to accept U.S. security cooperation with the Central Asian states.

Even as he acknowledges win-win-win scenarios among the great powers, Cooley still decided to assess their overall success in the 2000s, given what drives the politics in the various Stans — regime survival and private enrichment for its elites from national resources and foreign economic aid “commissions.” The U.S. has had to curb its early enthusiasm for immediate democratization — and therefore instant democratic partners — among the Central Asia states.

For Russia, Cooley noted that no Central Asian state wants to be exclusively under Russian tutelage. “If the Kremlin can accept such an elevated, but nonexclusive, regional role,” Cooley stated, “then Russia’s privileged status in the region can endure for another generation.”

Cooley declared China the near-term “winner” in the contest, seeing it as “ahead on points, especially when we consider its initial starting position.” China’s “effective diplomacy in Central Asia has been rooted in its nimble ability to pivot back and forth along the legs of the strategic triangle, forging partnerships with both Washington and Moscow when it was expeditious to do so, while remaining closely focused on its security priorities.” It is a prosperous power that is providing short-term crisis lending, development assistance and concessionary infrastructure financing, he states.

Cooley has penned an excellent primer for understanding this great power strategic triangle and its nuances. History and geography will always exert a large presence in the Heartland of Central Asian states, but such pressures are not determinative. The Stans that strive to be neutral and independent — and do not threaten their neighbors — can be engaged successfully to achieve mutual economic, political and security benefits to any of the great powers. This is true even if they remain autocratic in political nature. As the U.S. and Western Europe harbor no geographic designs nor historic political or military hostility toward Central Asia, they enjoy a privileged place in this new great game, which neither Russia nor China can match easily. The Heartland is open to all three but bowed to none. For the U.S. and its allies, this outcome that prevents Russian or Chinese domination may just suffice.  

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