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The Great Power Rivalry in Central Asia

The political climate present in Central Asia today is a perfect example of power play dynamics in international relations. At a 1 November 2010 discussion, Stephen Blank, Research Professor of National Security Affairs, Strategic Studies Institute, United States Army War College, extrapolated on the "great game" of geopolitical strategy being played in that region, and the dynamics and interests that exist at the core of relationships between Central Asian states and larger world powers. Specifically, Blank outlined the geopolitical goals that the three major hegemonies—the United States, Russia, and China—have in the region. Additionally, he explained the Central Asian states' core strategies in working with these major powers.

The United States has five major political goals in the Central Asian space according to Blank. The first goal concerns the U.S. war on terror: in order to achieve and maintain stability in the region, America must achieve victory against terrorism, particularly in Afghanistan. In conjunction with the war on terror, Blank argued that a "fundamental geopolitical" ambition of the United States—the nation's second goal in Central Asia—is to prevent the emergence of regional empires, such as the rebirth of the Russian empire and the potential rise of a Chinese empire. If Central Asian states become weakened, neighboring powers such as Russia and China would have an opportunity to exercise power over the region and diminish the United States' presence in geopolitical affairs.

Blank elucidated that the U.S.'s third interest in the region focuses on the prevention of state failure due to a rise in Islamic fundamentalism. Current states with political environments that underscore this particular threat include Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan; these states' population demographics, combined with their unstable political environments, could potentially cause major shifts in leadership toward Islamic fundamentalism if the current infrastructures collapse. If any Central Asian state fails, Blank argued, the only opponent to the current types of governance in the region is Islamic fundamentalism.

The fourth major geopolitical interest that the United States has in the region concerns its economic goals. The U.S., according to Blank, wishes to maintain "unfettered market access" for the West to the energy resources of the region. Particularly, the United States wants to preserve its right to use Central Asian sources of energy while bypassing both Iran and the Russian Federation, thereby retaining leverage over these competitor countries in Central Asia. Finally, Blank explained that although the United States does care about democratization in Central Asia, when that objective comes into conflict with the power's other aims in the region, the U.S. administration seems to "fall quiet" in working toward this goal.

As both a world power and a neighbor to Central Asia, the Russian Federation's geopolitical interests in the region reflect the country's unique position in regional international relations. Blank argued that Russia has three major objectives in playing the political "great game" in Central Asia. Russia and the United States have a shared interest in Russia's first goal in the region, namely the need to maintain state stability through the elimination of terrorism. As a neighboring country of great geographical size, Russia's focus on state stability is directly related to concern for the safety of its own borders.

The Russian Federation's second objective in Central Asia concerns ensuring that the status quo in the region remains intact. The United States and Russia agree that the only feasible alternative form of government in the regional states would be Islamic fundamentalism, which could potentially compromise the authority of the Russian Federation as a regional power. However, the reasoning underlying Russia's second aim in Central Asia differs from that of the United States; while the U.S. would support democratization in the region, Russian geopolitical interests especially rely on maintaining the authoritarian governmental structures that currently exist in Central Asian states.

Russia's third ambition, Blank explained, is to maintain the "neocolonial status quo" in the region—that is, by maintaining the existing authoritarian governmental systems, Central Asian states' infrastructures are a "direct correlate of the nature of the regime" in today's Russia. This power dynamic allows the Russian Federation to exercise notable political leverage over its smaller neighbors, especially in terms of regulating trade and commerce in and out of the region. As Russia has established itself as a major energy supplier to the West and the Far East, the demand for the country's resources currently outpaces the actual supply. By maintaining the neocolonial status quo in Central Asia, Blank concluded, the Russian government retains a dominant position in the regional energy market.

Finally, Blank outlined China's main geopolitical interests in the Central Asian space. Preservation of China's state integrity is the foremost concern, as the Chinese government does not want "crosspollination of influence" between its country and Central Asian states. Second, the Chinese share the desire to ensure regional stability with the U.S. and Russia, as they seek to maintain a "zone of stability and peace" around China. In addition, the Chinese share the aforementioned security concern over the potential introduction of Islamic fundamentalism to Central Asia political infrastructures. At the same time, Blank argued that China wants to increase its political and economic leverage over the region. If China achieves this objective, it would be able to reach its fifth goal: gradually supplanting the Russian Federation as the main commercial presence in Central Asia. Blank concluded that "the great game [in Central Asia] is not going to go away… in fact, I think it's going to intensify."

Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute


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Amy Liedy

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more