In his recently published book Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia, Alexander Cooley offers a penetrating analysis of the geopolitical maneuvering and strategies pursued by the United States, China, and Russia across Central Asia in the decade after the September 11th attacks.
Alexander Cooley, a professor of International Relations at Columbia University, emphasizes that America’s strategic interest in Central Asia has been most closely tied in with the establishment of supply chains and bases for military campaigns in Afghanistan. Negotiations with Central Asian states for basing rights, particularly in Kyrgyzstan, have become scenes of intense power struggle between Washington and Moscow, with local elites playing both sides against each other to win the best deal.
In his analysis of Russian geopolitics, in what was previously an area of exclusive Kremlin hegemony, Cooley stresses the role that state-owned energy enterprises, particularly Gazprom and Rosneft, have come to play in Moscow’s foreign policy under Vladimir Putin. The shared Soviet energy infrastructure that requires much of the region’s hydrocarbons to move through Russia into Europe and other international markets has allowed the Kremlin significant leverage over Central Asia. Nonetheless, Moscow’s ability to exercise power with its energy enterprises has become less salient since the 2008 economic crisis.
In addition to the energy sector, Moscow has moved to reintegrate post-Soviet Central Asia into several regional organizations: the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Customs Union.
The CSTO has become a vector for Moscow’s efforts at coordinating the internal and external security policies of Central Asian states, while the Customs Union, which was founded in 2010, is establishing a common market among former Soviet states. Kazakhstan is currently a member of the Customs Union, with Kyrgyzstan pushing for membership and Tajikistan slowly moving along the path.
The trade bloc has proven increasingly protectionist, buffering the region’s Soviet-era industry from international markets and attempting to curb China’s rapid expansion into the region.
Russia’s moves under Putin to reassert influence in the region have been coterminous with increasing interest in Central Asia on the part of Beijing. China’s interests relate to its own internal security, particularly the stabilization of Xinjiang, which borders with several Central Asian states. Plans by the Politburo to industrialize Western China and settle Han Chinese in Xinjiang necessitate strong economic ties with the region.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, founded in 2001, is China’s attempt to establish a common security framework with the region. It has proven successful at curbing Uighur separatism and enhancing border security. Cooley notes that although the SCO’s attempts at greater economic cooperation have not been as successful, China’s economic activities over the past decade have developed “in remarkable fashion.”
With the exception of Uzbekistan, China’s trade volume with the five post-Soviet Central Asian states surpassed Russia’s trade volume in 2013. Central Asia provides China with a market for manufactured goods as well as a steady supply of raw materials. Despite Kazakhstan’s membership in the Customs Union, China controls up to half of the country’s oil production.
Beijing has also increasingly sought to compete with traditional international lending institutions, such as the IMF, to finance infrastructure projects in the region that benefit long-term Chinese aims. Specifically, this includes establishing transportation networks that facilitate trade with Europe. Loans are doled out, with energy access as a quid pro quo.
Of particular interest is the chapter “The Price of Access: Contracts and Corruption,” which examines the depth of corruption and rent-seeking that characterize the regimes that have emerged in the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Cooley notes that these newly independent states are typically ranked as more corrupt than those in the Middle East, despite the fact that corruption is considered one of the most important factors in the emergence of the Arab Spring. Intense competition between Western companies and governments alongside Chinese and Russian interests has given Central Asian regimes impetus to engage in brazen rent-seeking schemes.
This corruption has fed the connected rise of money laundering in the region, as regional elites have scrambled to establish offshore accounts that receive hundreds of millions of dollars. The chapter presents some shocking statistics, including the fact that in 2010 Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from the British Virgin Islands to Kazakhstan was actually higher than FDI from China.
Cooley also relates several scandals surrounding the use of bribery by Americans and Chinese in the quest to gain access to Kazakh energy reserves, as well how Kyrgyz leaders have manipulated contracts for supplying fuel to America’s base in Kyrgyzstan for rent-seeking purposes.
Nearly a quarter century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the five states of post-Soviet Central Asia lack regional coherence. Throughout his narrative, Cooley emphasizes that the regimes continue to function by their own “local rules” and will confound any attempts by Beijing, Moscow, or Washington to achieve hegemony in the economic or security spheres. This book will be of enormous benefit to anyone with an interest in economics and security in post-Soviet Central Asia.