Central Asia’s (Phony?) Great Game

by Nathan Hamm on 9/23/2003

Central Asia’s (Phony?) Great Game
It’s not as dramatic as the first Great Game, but this interesting article
explains the cloudy struggle for influence between China, Russia, the
U.S. and how this affords independence to the states of Central Asia.
Bhadrakumar notes that because the US and the other great powers were
primarily concerned with security, Central Asian governments had
newfound time and space to consolidate their regimes. These governments
could play the terrorism trumpet to crack down on internal opposition.
(It should be noted that China and Russia are doing this as well).
Further, the presence of three great powers makes is immensely easy for
these governments to play the great powers off one another. For
example, Kyrgyzstan now hosts a Russian airbase
in addition to the US one at Manas. Both Russia and the US have
incentive to court the Kyrgyz government to keep from entirely losing
their military presence to the other. The most fascinating security
development is this:

Under the auspices of great powers, three security
alliances have cast their net on the region – NATO, the Collective
Security Treaty and SCO. Central Asian states (except Turkmenistan)
allowed themselves with these multilateral trappings to look for any
tangential advantages of the “militarization” of the region for their
national armies, but without committing to larger obligations. The
interplay of the three security alliances will be keenly watched. None
of them has been tested on the ground.

Uzbekistan is host to both the most significant number of NATO forces
(US and German bases) as well as the SCO counter-terrorism operations
center. If they weren’t so Russo-phobic, they’d probably go for the
trifecta and be the major regional player in the Collective Security
Treaty (I honestly don’t even know if they are members, I’d doubt it).
Further, despite what are for all intents and purposes, limited
military and political alliances:

None of the alliances has aspired to gain exclusivity in
Central Asia. This left the Central Asian states from having to make
hard choices. Even when push came to the shove on Iraq and
international support was lacking, the US refrained from pressuring
Central Asian capitals, mindful that after two years of military
presence in the region it still has to compete for influence.

It should be noted that Uzbekistan quietly, but publicly did
voice support of the United States and was harshly critical of the
argument that Bush was making an oil grab. Even if this was a way of
taking an indirect swipe at Russia, it was public support. Further,
both Uzbekistan and Russia’s good friend Kazakhstan have sent token
groups of soldiers to Iraq (fewer than 50 in each case).
Bhadrakumar seems to treat Russia, China, and the US like countries
with similar sets of goals and interests in the region that, though
important, are strongly tempered by their roles in the rest of the
world. I would strongly disagree. The United States’ primary motivation
for involvement in the region is security, the economics are
peripheral, despite the author’s protestations,

The US justifies inaction by blaming political corruption,
command economy structures and conditions hampering investor
confidence. Yet it eagerly invests in the region’s natural resources.
It fights pitched battles (as in Turkmenistan) for gaining control over
oil and gas. It meanly negotiates trade concessions for marketing gold
or cotton.

On the first counts, the US is justified in inaction. Doing business is
a nightmare in Central Asia, and honestly, I don’t think my countrymen
have what it takes to become the cronies benefiting in these
selectively capitalist economies. The Chinese and the Koreans seem to
do fine, and the Russians built the economies and have personal ties to
the region. Further, the only case of US success in natural resources
is in Uzbek gold mining because it is still profitable to reprocess
Uzbek ore for more gold, give more than half the money to the
government, and run off with what you have left. Everyone benefits. US
interest in natural resources comes from the fact that it’s the only thing to make money on
in the region. This interest existed before we even cared about basing
soldiers in the region.
China and Russia, on the other hand, have reacted strongly to US
presence in the region. China has greatly expanded its interest in
joint-security and strengthening the SCO while it has also moved to tie
up it’s border disputes with neighbors. Russia sees loss of influence
and understandably doesn’t want to lose its influence to its former
strategic competitors. The stakes are much higher for the Chinese and
the Russians, and their fervor to gain ever-increasing cooperation with
their Central Asian neighbors speaks to that. The US more or less got
all that it really wanted in September of 2001. If the region was
important enough to the US, much bigger carrots and sticks would be
offered for reforms. No, for now, the region is only important enough
for the US to enter into an unintended cooperation with the other
powers. None of them have enough strength (or interest in the US case
perhaps) to act as the arbiter of regional problems or the provider to
prop up regional economies.
A Great Game this competition is not, rather, the story is in the
competition between the Central Asian states for the attention, money,
and security guarantees that the powers, eager to pony them up in a
limited fashion, can offer. If a Great Game develops, it will most
likely come only if these governments get more firmly in certain camps
and draw their patrons into their regional disputes.

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This post was written by...

– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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