06 Jul Keeping Score in the Great Game
There are increasing reports about rising anti-Americanism in the Central Asian Republics and pressure by these republics for the U.S. to have an exit timetable for the troops stationed there. Contrast this with the argument of some strategists that the U.S. needs to establish a long term presence in these republics to (a) prevent terrorist training camps from taking root once again and (b) deter China from using long-range missile sites in Western China against Asian shipping or other potential targets. This latter point was made most effectively by Robert Kaplan in his Atlantic Monthly cover story, in which he argued the U.S. will need to be in the Central Asian Republics for the long haul. (But see also this critique of Kaplan’s argument by Praktike.) With the echoes of the 19th century intrigue in the region between the United Kingdom and Russia, this has inevitaby been termed the “New Great Game.”
It seems like the game just got a little tighter. The new Shanghai Cooperation Organization, anchored by Russia and China, brings together Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, in a loose regional grouping that is partially motivated by off-setting U.S. influence in the region. Russia, which had been the regional bad-guy, is now regaining favor in part because the leaders of the Central Asian Republics are upset over what was viewed as U.S. support for the popular uprising that overthrew the leader of Kyrgyzstan. And now the U.S. is critical of Uzbekistan’s government in the wake of the massacre there. And so the “wave of democracy” that people were recently cheering on may have a nasty geostrategic riptide.
Such an alliance is textbook balance-of-power behavior. The Central Asian Republics embraced the U.S.—and offered basing rights for the war in Afghanistan and for other operations—when they thought the U.S. could break Moscow’s bear hug on the region. But while U.S. money (and protection) is good, this democracy stuff may be more than they bargained for. So perhaps Russia and rising regional hegemon China should be invited back into the game to even up the odds.
Thus Russia and China have just firmed up each of their hands because the other players have tipped their cards.
The Central Asian Republics, for their part, are likely to keep using the major powers to balance each other.
But what will the U.S. do? Will the U.S. continue using the “spread of liberty” rhetoric or will it hush its criticisms in the face of retaining basing rights? Will there be other concessions in order to stay in the game? The U.S. also knows that while the Central Asian Republics don’t want the democracy rhetoric, nor do they want the U.S. completely out of the game. So George Bush gets to play the wild card, the Joker.