The Rules of Central Asia’s Games Are Changing

The Rules of Central Asia's Games Are Changing

by S. Enders Wimbush
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 concise and well-written analysis of the evolving contest among Russia, China, and the United States for position and influence in Central Asia is indeed welcome. Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia is likely to be the starting point for future assessments of this region. These should multiply as the complexity of the regional and global dynamics that affect Central Asia deepens.

New actors are already entering the region with their own unique objectives and strategies. Some traditional actors will be eclipsed as their capabilities wane or as they seek respite from distant entanglements there. New generations of Central Asian elites will soon compete for power, and some will harbor very different visions for how their countries should be governed, strategically aligned, and integrated into a global economy. Conflicts spawned by the region’s failed and failing states and aggressive ideologies from abroad will produce security challenges that cascade across borders. Stability will prove elusive and outright peace probably unobtainable. Not surprisingly, today’s “rules of the game,” appropriately described by Cooley, will change.

I would argue that by 2012, when Great Games, Local Rules appeared, the rules were already evolving in several Central Asian countries, not changing so much as adding new layers. Cooley is correct to emphasize the Soviet-era mindset of today’s generation of Central Asian leaders. For them, ensuring the survival of their patrimonial regimes, gaming their economies for maximum personal gain, and guarding the gate lest outside influences disrupt these comfy arrangements is instinctive.

But it is increasingly evident that this is not the limit of their strategic visions, at least not all of them. Uzbekistan’s president Islam Karimov is notable for his grasp of Central Asia’s larger strategic dynamics. For example, his efforts to encourage tighter economic integration with Afghanistan through energy and transport demonstrate his understanding of how that country’s vulnerabilities could spike after the U.S. withdrawal in 2014 and affect Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev has substantially redesigned his country’s foreign-policy objectives and practices, which recently featured hosting 5+2 talks on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. [1] Even hermetically sealed Turkmenistan shows an inclination in this direction with its recent energy diplomacy.

Great Games, Local Rules masterfully describes how the Central Asian leaders successfully play the great powers off against each other, often resulting in the latter acquiescing to the local rules of the game. But more is at work here, at least in some places—something we might think of as strategic intent that transcends purely local interests. Another way to describe this distinction is to note the sharp contrast of these states’ former status as the objects of other states’ foreign policy with their current status as strategic actors in their own right. One might interpret these countries’ design of larger strategies as efforts to double-down on the patrimonial rules Cooley describes, and that might be right. But I doubt that doubling-down is the sole or even the most powerful incentive. The emerging Central Asian landscape described by Marlene Laruelle and Sebastien Peyrouse in their groundbreaking book Globalizing Central Asia will become increasingly inhospitable terrain for the old rules, though they will certainly linger for at least a generation or more. We should anticipate several Central Asian states becoming more assertive actors in a larger strategic universe, which is where their interests will increasingly be located. This will add additional complexity and uncertainty to the new great-power contest in the region.

Every great contest needs some great contestants. Yet the triangular contest for power in Central Asia among Russia, China, and the United States is very unequal, more scalene than equilateral. Of these, Russia strikes me as the least able to compete effectively for the long haul. Spiraling down across virtually all measures of power, authority, and influence, Russia is a dying state tempting debilitating crises at multiple levels. Cooley’s discussion of Russia’s seeming indifference to the fate of Central Asia after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 is spot on, as is his assessment that “the main challenge in analyzing Russian policy toward Central Asia is that it lacks a single overriding strategic goal” (p. 51). This begs the question: how can a state compete effectively if its objectives are unclear and its competitive resources are being quickly depleted? Nearly all Russian initiatives to regain prestige and stature in the region have failed to impress the Central Asians, much less the Chinese. Writing in 2011, I concluded that “Russia is not one of Asia’s rising powers but the opposite.” [2] I see nothing today suggesting otherwise.

Can we say that the United States also lacks an overriding strategic goal in Central Asia? When Central Asia was suddenly released from Soviet control in 1991, Americans were even more indifferent to the region than the Russians because few of them knew anything about it. I am unaware of Central Asia ever figuring in U.S. strategy at more than a transactional level. Cooley’s account strengthens this conclusion.

President Obama underlined the transactional basis of U.S. involvement by fixing the date for the transaction to end in 2014. This decision was apparently made without regard for the longer-term strategic implications of the United States’ virtual disappearance from this contest—not just for China and Russia but for all of Eurasia’s key actors. Consider that Central Asia today is arguably the world’s most contested geography. Powerful regional states—Russia, China, India, Iran, and Turkey—all seek a competitive advantage in the Central Asian space. This list includes four nuclear powers, with a fifth (Iran) close at hand and possibly a sixth (Turkey) further over the horizon. Outside contestants—for example, the United States, Europe, Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia—increase the density of this strategic soup. Is this an arena where the United States can afford strategic fatigue?

Meanwhile, China’s quiet incremental penetration of Central Asia gathers momentum. It is not without issue, and occasionally the Chinese encounter pushback on the ground, usually when they are insensitive to cultural norms, customs, or preferences. But Beijing’s use of economic incentives, a comparatively efficient labor force, and engaged regional organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, through which China can identify opportunities and leverage corporate diplomacy, far outstrips Russia’s ability to compete or counter. To the extent that Central Asia is a great-power contest, it is now China’s to lose.

With the United States heading for Central Asia’s exits, the contest loses a strong stabilizing player. One wonders if the White House ever considered how a continued U.S. presence in the region, perhaps no more than a few hundred soldiers in training missions and other activities, might affect the blossoming uncertainties that a U.S. absence will undoubtedly produce. As I speculated last year in testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, such a residual presence—in Uzbekistan, for example—could exert a calming influence on what could rapidly become an unruly and possibly violent competition among Central Asia’s other contestants. [3]

Cooley’s analysis and logical exposition alert readers to the possibility of alternative futures in Central Asia about which the United States has thought little and for which it is ill prepared. Great Games, Local Rules is in that respect an excellent starting point. I hope Cooley will accept his own challenge.


[1] The 5+2 talks include Transnistria, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, plus the United States and the European Union.

[2] S. Enders Wimbush, “Great Games in Central Asia,” in Strategic Asia 2011–12: Asia Responds to Its Rising Powers—China and India, ed. Ashley J. Tellis, Travis Tanner, and Jessica Keough (Seattle: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2011), 279..

[3] S. Enders Wimbush, “The United States and Central Asia,” testimony before the House Subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia, Washington, D.C., July 24, 2012,

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