Continuation of the New Great Game

The Great Powers cooperate against the Islamist threat, but they disagree over how to defeat Islamism and afterwards there are divergent interests in the region.

The US favors democracy promotion compared to the Russian and Chinese plan to prop up the local authoritarian governments with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). There are also disputes over how to manage the economic resources of the region.

Conflicts Over Means
The United States finds itself at odds with Russia and China over how to best quell Islamist movements. The dispute essentially breaks down into a debate between authoritarianism and democratization. The “Bush Doctrine” argues that democratic governments will gain greater legitimacy and foster economic growth. Multi-factional elections will give people an alternative to radical Islamism. Rhetorically, this is sound, but in practice democratization is a slow gradual process that can easily end in failure in poorer states. Russia and China prefer to continue propping up the current batch of dictators in return for cooperation on anti-terrorism initiatives and economic integration.

Basically, the United States desires to win the hearts and minds of the people in the region while Russians and Chinese will line up political opponents in front of ditches and shoot them in the back.

The American Plan
The 2002 National Security Strategy dealt with this issue in depth, stating that “weak states, like Afghanistan, can pose as great a danger to our national interests as strong states. … Poverty, weak institutions, and corruption make weak states vulnerable to terrorist networks and drug cartels”

The strategy dealing with Central Asia involves several general steps:
1) Use police & military power against the Islamic terrorist organizations for short-term security benefits;
2) Create regional alliances to deny terrorists the use of territory and sanctuaries;
3) Introduce democratic elections, markets and trade, and economic development to poor regions to promote stronger and more stable governments.

One difficulty facing democracy in the region is the highly fragmented ethnic communities in every state and the lack of any unified civil society. Most functional civil societ exist at the tribal level, while no central authority represents the people.

Decades of communism obliterated political alternatives in the region. Authoritarianism is a tempting solution to Islamism because a dictator can promise law and order and violently suppress radical movements. This is certainly the case in Uzbekistan, where Karimov’s authority is in large part based on his ability to keep radical Islamists such as the IMU and HT at bay while maintaining a reasonably good economy.

The Chinese created an alternative to the American led coalition in Afghanistan – the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) (Additional background from CFR and Globalsecurity. Its members consist of China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The SOC is designed to enhance security and economic cooperation.

First, the “SCO security cooperation focuses on the fight against terrorism, separatism and extremism.” These “three evil forces” damage all member states. To meet these ends, the SCO created the Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) in order to coordinate counterterrorist activities in Central Asia. China and Russia contribute military and policing aid to the regional states in order to reduce drug smuggling, increase border controls, share intelligence and hunt down terrorist networks. There are joint patrols by their militaries, and the SCO arbitrates disputes between members. The SCO organized its first multilateral military maneuver training in August 2003y.

Second, SCO economic cooperation is designed to create an integrated economic zone developing the impoverished countries, with a particular focus on multilateral “trade, investment, transportation, energy” policies.

Notably absent from the SCO is any form of political development program. It accepts governments as they exist with no visible pressure for them to reform or change regimes. The SCO implicitly opposes the revolutionary movement that the US favors. The People’s Republic of China rejects human rights as a concept, much less a guiding principle of politics, so it will not criticize similar violations by Uzbekistan and other states.

The security cooperation allowed the Chinese to suppress Uighur movements in foreign countries. And the economic cooperation quadrupled the amount of trade with China, helping integrate the Xinjiang economy with Central Asia. The SCO allows for cooperation on energy supplies and exploitation of natural resources, typically in favor of China and Russia while subtly excluding American corporations and interests.

Central Asian governments accept the Chinese-led SCO as an alternative to Russian neo-imperialism and American democratization. Since the Chinese and Russian favor violent repression of extremist groups, they are more willing to turn a blind eye towards human rights abuses. Exemplifying this is Uzbekistan’s move to expel the United States from its K2 airbase that it temporarily offered during the Afghan war. The termination of airbase rights occurred after the US criticized the authoritarian regime and the State Dept. withheld $8 million in aid because to egregious human rights abuses. The Uzbeks would only reject American aid if they had a reasonable alternative to American financial and military assistance. Since China and Russia are willing to give this aid, the Americans become an annoyance.

Divergence of Interests
Central Asia prevents simple cooperation, and once the great powers think beyond defeating terrorism, their interests quickly diverge. Even the Sino-Russian cooperation in the SCO is plagued with conflicting interests and distrust. One important issue is the development of energy resources. China and Russia squabble over oil and gas trade rights and where to construct pipelines. In many cases, this is a zero-sum game, as pipelines are unidirectional and may only go to Russia, or China, or Pakistan.

American oil companies explored the region and attempted to negotiate deals on their own accord but these did not result in success. The failure of the American Unocal project in the 1990s is similar to most energy development failures. There was no multilateral consensus between all relevant states, the Islamist insurgencies were irritable to foreign economic development, and the Great Powers competed over the direction of the pipelines. One interesting point is that Unocal company found that the pipeline would be too expensive and vulnerable to justify its construction through Afghanistan. Supply lines in the region are threatened by the lack of security.

Creating regional stability by eliminating militants provides the opportunity to finally exploit the region’s natural resources. And of course, the great powers compete over which will benefit the most, while the Central Asian states literally shop around for the best prices.

Russia has been involved in the region the longest. Its “neo-imperialist policies” in the Near Abroad, and through the CIS, attempt to retain economic connections with Central Asia. Initially, the Russians kept the former Soviet Republics within its sphere of influence.

The Russians reacted to the rise of Islamism throughout the 1990s by stabilizing the political institutions of the regional dictatorships, trying to secure economic resources, and repress threatening Islamic movements. Initially, these dictators relied on Russia as the only power willing to sacrifice military and financial resources for their benefit.

China’s growing demand for energy provides an alternate economic outlet for Central Asia. Kazakhstan took advantage of the situation, and opened economic ties to China. Cooperation between the Chinese and Kazaks allowed for oil and gas to flow towards China rather than Russia. The Central Asian states are no longer provinces of a Russian Empire, and demonstrate this point repeatedly. Chinese and Russian policies are also at odds. Today, the Chinese prop up declining Russian influence in the region, but in doing so, it is asserting its own political and economic authority to eventually supplant Russia as the regional hegemony.

The Sino-Russian partnership to promote multilateral economic development is a critical element of the SCO, however, it is not as sound a relationship as it first seems. Russians are uneasy about China’s intentions, fearing losing lightly populated Siberia and oil resources in Central Asia, and might one day become the junior partner in their relationship.

One of the reasons for this uneasy coalition is Russia’s declining status as a major power. Interestingly, the old Commonwealth of Independent States no longer functions well as an economic unit, so Russia will benefit less and less from its involvement with Central Asia. Trade between the Central Asian Republics and other CIS states declined by more than half in many cases, while simultaneously increasing with China. China in contrast, more than doubled it trade with Central Asia between 1993 and 1997, and offers the landlocked nations transportation and sea access to the vibrant East Asian economies.

The Chinese fear anarchy and dissolution of the states into Taliban-style regimes, and moved into the region for security purposes. Current trade with Central Asia is expanding rapidly, but the region is so poor that it does not amount to much compared to trade with East Asia. China is also concerned with America’s recent and rather dramatic entry into Afghanistan.

The US and Indians are cooperating in the lower half of Central Asia and Southern Asia. They are creating a powerful democratic and political bloc in the region. The US dominates Afghanistan and is trying to wrestle Pakistan away from an alliance with China and force the Pakistanis to accept peace with India. Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage admitted that the US threatened to bomb the Pakistanis into the stone age if they refused. The Pakistanis, evidently, got the message and stopped overtly supporting the Taliban and Kashmiri rebels. The Pakistanis maintain some relations with China, particularly for military and nuclear aid.

I see Central Asia being “partitioned” into spheres of influence between the Great Powers. The US will take Afghanistan, the Russians will take Turkmenistan, and the Chinese will take the rest. The Chinese-led SCO will be the major force in the region over the long-term.

The Great Game analogy fits the framework in Central Asia. The great powers will not come into direct conflict with one another, but there will be a low-intensity rivalry where each attempts to sabotage or restrict the others’ capabilities. If the relevant states think in terms of zero-sum economic gain, then the region will be left stagnant as each state prevents development that will benefit another. More equitable and cooperative economic development, possibly through the SCO, will help defuse such conflicts.

More importantly, the volatility of Islamism cultivates multilateral cooperation in the region that is lacking in other areas of the world. In East Asia, there are fewer cases where the three great powers can coordinate their activities to such an extent, or even agree on general principles.

Central Asia will also be a testing ground between any American-Russian-Chinese rivalry in the future.