The Great Game for Influence Over Central Asia

Email a Friend
From and


For centuries, world powers have fought for influence over the geographic area that is today formed by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Central Asia has long been a contested region for exterior powers, and the 19th century power struggle between the British and Russia that manifested itself there became known as the "Great Game." In the last decade, America has become increasingly interested in the region.

A new book by Barnard Political Science Professor Alexander Cooley titled "Great Game, Local Rules" explores the changing power dynamic and the pendulum of successes and failures with each new wave of interest in the region. It also takes a look at how Central Asian rulers learned to use global interest in the region strategically, for their own benefit.

"In the new Great Game, the actors want different things," Cooley says. For the United States, Central Asia is a vital staging area for its operations in Afghanistan. Russia sees an opportunity to expand its prestige, and China's primary interest is security for Xinjang, its westernmost region. 

"Sometimes these interests coincide," Cooley says. "Sometimes there's begrudging enabling of each other, and sometimes there's outright competition." 

The interests of these three major powers significantly affect regional politics. However, local governments are trying to fend off foreign interference and are looking to reinforce their own authority. 

"The countries themselves understand that they're objects of competition. Even in cases where there isn't actually much competition, they like to invoke it," Cooley says. "They like to invoke the interest of Russian oil companies when dealing with the Chinese, they like to invoke the interest of Russian security services whey they deal with the Americans." 

The author says that this gamesmanship is an example of the post-Western, post-American, multipolar world. The American military presence is seen by regional inhabitants as a manifestation of invasive foreign presence. 

"The bases themselves have become symbols of the corrupting influence of the U.S.," Cooley says. 

"You see what China is doing is tailoring their economic engagements in ways that cut across traditional western categories," he says. The Chinese have given Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan large loans in exchange for equity in local power companies, and have built large infrastructure networks in the poorer countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Cooley says that this blending of assistance and investment has given the Chinese a favorable position in the region. 

"They really see this as an investment in the future of these places," Cooley says. The professor believes that American interests are perceived as more selfish and focused solely on maintaining connections with operations in Afghanistan. 

"I think China's already winning, much to the lament of Russia," Cooley says. "This used to be Russia's backyard, and now what you've seen is China redraw the fences." Decisive economic power is what has given the Chinese a favorable advantage in the region.