Winners and Losers of Strategic Games in Central Asia

Winners and Losers of Strategic Games in Central Asia

by Mamuka Tsereteli
July 15, 2013

This is one of eight essays in the book review roundtable on Alexander Cooley’s
Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia.

Alexander Cooley’s Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia is a significant contribution to the intellectual exploration of great-power dynamics in Central Asia. Cooley skillfully consolidates scattered knowledge about the experience of the great powers and different local actors in Central Asia into a strategic picture of the region that is valuable to both the academic and policymaking communities.

The book’s major argument is that three major powers—China, Russia, and the United States—are not involved in a nineteenth-century-style, zero-sum competition but rather are pursuing different individual strategic purposes in Central Asia that have allowed them to co-exist in the region without major confrontation in the last decade. At the same time, Cooley argues that the Central Asian states and their rulers are important actors in their own right. The book demonstrates local political leaders’ mastery of balancing the great powers in Central Asia, which has helped them maximize political sovereignty while also securing the survival of their regimes.

The book shows that Moscow, Beijing, and Washington all managed to achieve some balance of their strategic interests in post–September 11 Central Asia. The United States obtained basing rights and strategic access to Afghanistan via the region. Starting from 2008, the United States facilitated the development of the Northern Distribution Network, the supply line for U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan that transits and benefits several Central Asian states. Russia has kept its southern borders secure and maintained strong economic and political ties with Central Asia. China has limited the spread of radical Islamic influence in its own Uighur-populated Xinjiang region, which neighbors Central Asia, and established itself as a key trade and investment partner for most of the states in the region.

But Cooley’s analysis demonstrates that there are still winners and losers in this modern game of great powers. The strategic positions of Russia, the United States, and China in Central Asia are different today from what they were in the pre–September 11 era. First, looking at how the role of Russia has changed, Russia is no longer the sole outside military power accepted by the regional states. The presence of U.S. and other Western troops in Central Asia reflects the strategic retreat of Russia. Russia is also no longer the sole provider of the transit of energy riches from the Caspian basin, with China absorbing significant amounts of hydrocarbons from the region. And Russia is no longer the leading trade partner for the region, replaced in this position by China. Russia has thus clearly lost its strategic position as the dominant political and economic force in Central Asia, a position that it had held for almost two hundred years. Cooley still thinks that Russia holds broad and deep soft power that in the long run gives it a unique advantage over China and the United States and supports its “privileged role” in the region. Russia is the most significant provider of public goods for the region. One substantial element of Russia’s soft power is that it is a key source of remittances to Central Asia from labor migrants, mostly from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. The Customs Union is another soft-power instrument that Moscow pushes to advance its interest. Moreover, the book argues that Russia will return to its position as the security guarantor for the region after withdrawal of the majority of the U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2014. Russia will face its own limits, however, including its ability to mobilize financial and human resources for a larger security presence in Central Asia. Although Russian limits are not discussed in the book, Cooley indicates that the Kremlin may not have the political will to play this role in the region. Lack of political will by Russia, which is trying to secure its strategic borders, can only be explained by a lack of financial and human resources. Moscow’s strategic recovery in Central Asia will be determined by a combination of internal and external developments at work in Russia.

Cooley calls China a “winner on points” in the new Central Asian Great Game. The book demonstrates multiple gains made by China in Central Asia, the majority of them economic. Two facts stand out among other developments in the last five years. The first is that China bypassed Russia as the region’s leading trade partner. The second is that three countries in Central Asia (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan) are now connected to China with oil or natural gas pipelines and for the first time in decades have access to a sizable export alternative to the Russian market and transit system. The geopolitical significance of these developments is hard to underestimate.

At the same time, there are factors that the Central Asian states do not welcome in their relationships with China. The two major factors are the inflow of cheap labor accompanying Chinese investments and the trade imbalance, as Central Asia only exports mineral resources, whereas China exports a wide range of manufactured and finished products to the region. While some public opinion surveys demonstrate public discontent with China’s growing economic influence, [1] the Central Asian states and their leaders currently enjoy China’s greater economic presence in the region and skillfully use it as a balancing factor vis-à-vis the United States and Russia.

U.S. interests in Central Asia during the last decade were determined by the war on terrorism and the large-scale U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Washington’s long-term interests in Central Asia beyond the overall stability and security of the frontline region are less clear. The United States will still have a military presence in Afghanistan after 2014, but the depth of U.S. interest in Central Asia is more difficult to predict.

Against this backdrop of external great-power interests in Central Asia, Cooley also discusses the role that local elites and leaders play in Great Game power dynamics. Yet such internal political, social, and economic developments are not a major focus of the book. They are significant, however, from the perspective of internal security dynamics and will affect external choices and directions in the years to come. Three interrelated internal issues, in particular, will contribute to the long-term future of the region and thus deserve greater attention. The first is the upcoming leadership transitions in the two largest and most economically and politically influential Central Asian countries: Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. How these countries manage this process, and whether foreign powers can influence the outcomes, will affect the short- and long-term direction of both domestic and foreign policy in the region. The second issue is demographic trends, such as the growing number of younger citizens with limited educational or employment opportunities, most significantly in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The third is the economic policies, corruption, and poor governance that limit economic growth and the process of job creation. The official statistics grossly underestimate unemployment, and the growing number of unemployed young men will inevitably lead to social and economic conflicts that could easily evolve into security challenges unless addressed by policymakers. The book would gain tremendously by greater reflection on these three issues of internal development and their potential impact on great-power competition in the region.

Overall, in Great Games, Local Rules, Cooley manages to combine theories of international relations with empirical data about the interaction between great powers and local actors in Central Asia. He thus lays the groundwork for a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of strategic development in the region. The book will be a great source of knowledge for students of Central Asia and policymakers alike.


[1] “Central Asia Barometer,” M-Vector, October 24, 2012,

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