Great Gains or Great Game?: Global Engagement across Central Asia Political and military events

Alexander Cooley in his book, Great Games Local Rules, describes a new great game where the post-soviet states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan take orders from Moscow, Washington, and Beijing. He describes this geopolitical concept as a race in which the winner vies to take all in a battle to secure vital strategic interests.

This great game metaphor is appealing because it suggests that great powers still attempt to sway, coerce, persuade, and buy the loyalties of strategically vital governments. However, the new great game remains deeply blinding. Cooley mentions that as times have changed, so have the rules. Instead of dealing with local rulers, warlords, and chieftains, outside powers must now deal with nation-states and Presidents. These nation-states have inherited certain international privileges and opportunities that their earlier counterparts lacked. Cooley is correct to use the great games local rules metaphor in describing the current situation in Central Asia. However, a better metaphor, great GAINS local rules, given the current situation and differing perspectives in Central Asia, is even more accurate.

The great powers involved in Central Asia have different security, economic, and political goals. The great game of long ago was for power and control. Much of the contemporary battle viewed today is in securing the Central Asian region and adjacent regions to enable national economic interests and certain natural resources. These national economic interests often lead to conflict. According to Cooley, the Central Asian states have learned to play the great powers off one another for their local benefit. However, their exact tactics and demands depend on the institutional structures, capacity, and natural resource endowments bequeathed to them as independent states. Halvor Haggenes, in his thesis on Central Asia’s missing war, states that natural resources can act as both a mechanism for peace and armed conflict and thus it is never certain whether these new states will erupt into violence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, even though many experts have predicted this for a generation. In fact, Central Asia has not seen any more violent conflict than other areas of the former soviet union (FSU) and some would argue that it has been remarkably stable, at least compared to the Caucasus and Southern Russia. However, unequal distribution of natural resources in the region is still a troubling source of potential conflict. Haggenes rightly pointed out that resource scarcity may just as well lead to conflict, especially if combined with other more justifiable security-oriented factors that can easily piggy-back on top of economic motivations and stimuli.

Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are both rich in oil and natural gas. Their engagement with outside powers has been mostly focused in developing their respective energy sectors. (Cooley) However, the countries are starkly different in how they pursue relationships and cooperation. Kazakhstan is more willing to build an international reputation and secure international approval for its policies. Turkmenistan, on the other hand, decided during Niyazov’s rule to completely isolate itself from unwanted sovereign interference and meddling. (Cooley)

Uzbekistan with some natural resources and having the largest population of the region competes with Kazakhstan for the mantle of most important Central Asian state. Uzbekistan has a slight transportation/transnational engagement advantage to the above-mentioned countries in the fact that it borders Afghanistan and every other central Asian state combined. However, the country has also at times clashed with the West on certain economic, military and political issues.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are resource-poor and increasingly weaker than the other Central Asian states and have failed to attract the interest of major international investors to a large degree. However, the attempted engagement of these states with foreign powers has led to increasing military-to-military cooperation by providing access to local military bases. In this sense both the Kyrgyz and Tajik governments have commodified their very territory to extract economic and political benefits. (Cooley) The fact that these countries are hosting military facilities for countries like Russia, France, India, and the US can arguably lead to tension if not outright conflict for the local and major players involved.

Foreign powers are seeking to improve the region’s security and hope to stabilize adjacent regions. This is their most important strategy. Simultaneously, the big three are also looking to secure certain resources for themselves, in particular oil and gas. Out of the three, China may be the only foreign power to secure major access to oil and gas in Central Asia, especially in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and has rapidly completed the construction of new regional pipelines to transport this energy supply eastward. (Cooley) This success, however, could lead to conflict with neighboring countries that are resource-scarce and looking at ways to capitalize on what is becoming a truly global, transnational new Silk Road economic path to prosperity.

The entry of the United States and China, both as strategic partners and competitors simultaneously, has complicated Moscow’s efforts as it is looking to resume its “privileged role” in Central Asia. Since these states were a part of the FSU, there is at least a tactical if not strategic reaction from Russia to other foreign powers openly and freely engaging and wielding influence in its so-called ‘Near Abroad.’ While many in the academic and diplomatic communities have thought it safe to assume that conflict will stem from resource scarcity within Central Asia or from a larger geopolitical conflict involving the greater powers jockeying in the region, for the most part the countries of Central Asia have coexisted without nearly the level of conflict that the ‘New Great Gamers’ expected. (Cooley)

It seems like it should be possible for the great powers to coexist peacefully while conducting strategic interests in the Central Asian region. China has security ties with Central Asian states through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and conducts energy trade bilaterally. Turkey has an oil pipeline that connects their country with Central Asia. Iran is looking at ways to construct an oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf. Finally, Pakistan seeks natural gas from central Asia and supports the development of pipelines from its countries. All of these projects have the potential to be great producers of peace and stability. Unfortunately, these same projects have equal potential to be intensifiers of already existing tension and hatred, and ultimately becoming enflamed into real world conflict and war. Let us all hope that it will be the former and not the latter that rules the New Great Game.

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