View Full Version : Don't play this Great Game

10-12-05, 00:03
Don't play this Great Game

Stanley A. Weiss International Herald Tribune


LONDON To listen to Western commentators, Washington, Moscow and Beijing are in the early rounds of a new Great Game, akin to the 19th-century struggle between Czarist Russia and the British Empire for primacy in Central Asia. Unable to resist the analogy, analysts sound more like sports announcers, calling every play as a gain or loss for the players on the field.

This month's re-election of Kazakhstan's strongman president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in a vote that was neither free nor fair, will surely be cited as the latest example of Soviet-style authoritarianism resisting the onslaught of Western-style democracy.

The July summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization - made up of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan - was billed as a "NATO of the East," a new team to counter American global dominance. The SCO's call for a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces from bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan was seen as the opening play. Uzbekistan's subsequent decision to evict American forces and to forge a new defense pact with Russia last month was called a strategic loss for Washington and a win for Moscow.

Likewise, China's recent purchase of the second-largest oil company in Kazakhstan and a new oil pipeline and railroad between the two countries have been portrayed as proof of Beijing's unmatched economic prowess in the region.

While colorful, such commentary fails to capture the real situation on the ground. First, the grand prize itself - political, economic and military influence over these oil-rich republics - may not be the trophy some imagine. Though the Bush administration seeks to turn the region into a "corridor of reform," with Kazakhstan as a "regional leader" (in free markets, if not free elections), Central Asia largely remains a corridor or criminality, oppression and corruption.

So in fact, Uzbekistan's eviction of the Americans and its new bear hug with Russia may turn out to be a blessing for Washington and a curse for Moscow. After Tashkent's brutal suppression of protests last spring, Washington is now in bed with one less despotic regime that oppresses its Muslim population.

Second, despite old ethnic ties to Russia and new economic links with China, the region increasingly looks West. Kazakhstan, among the world's largest remaining oil and natural gas reserves, plans to tap into the new Caspian pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey, thereby reducing its dependence on oil export routes through Russia. Meanwhile, the United States has become Kazakhstan's largest foreign investor.

Third, Russia, with its declining population, exodus of capital and demoralized military, is too weak and China, with its voracious appetite for energy and exploding population is too feared to dominate the region.

Rumors about a new Russian-Chinese alliance are also greatly exaggerated. Russian and Chinese troops did indeed this summer conduct their first military exercise ever. But historic mistrust and potentially explosive border disputes between the two powers suggest that closer ties are more a tactical, temporary partnership rather than a long-term strategic alliance. Indeed, the SCO will more likely be a way for Moscow and Beijing to keep a check on each other in Central Asia rather than for keeping the Americans out.

Finally, economic and political jockeying is unlikely to escalate into military conflict. As General Charles Wald, deputy commander of U.S. forces in Europe, tells me, "although progress is often interrupted by political concerns, our military-to-military relations with the Russians improve every year."

Rather than be lured into a zero-sum Great Game of inevitable confrontation, Washington, Moscow and Beijing should recognize Central Asia as an opportunity for cooperation against the one danger that threatens all three - Islamic terrorism. Russia is worried about Islamic militants to the south, from Chechnya and across its southern republics. China is facing increasingly vocal demands from the Uighur, Kazakh and Tajik Muslims in its western province of Xinjiang, which separatists call "East Turkestan."

The United States, Russia and China could also counter the appeal of Islamic extremism by working to reduce the region's economic misery. Recent progress in negotiations to expand the Caspian Pipeline Consortium from Kazakhstan to the Black Sea via Russia proves that cooperation is possible in the name of economic development.

Washington's goal of promoting regional cooperation would benefit from the involvement of two other powers: Rather than its self-defeating policy of trying to isolate Iran, the United States should recognize it as a potential partner in stabilizing and developing the region, as Tehran has done in Afghanistan. And rather than a futile attempt to diminish the SCO, Washington should encourage Indian membership so that New Delhi can offer a democratic voice for reform and stability.

Dropping the alarmist rhetoric about Great Games and recognizing the reality of the world's common interests in this vital region would be a strategy worth trying. It also might be the a game where everyone wins.

(Stanley A. Weiss is chairman of Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington.)