No Games At All?

Professor Martha B. Olcott of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

As if to prove my point, soon after publishing my recent rant about the frequent talk of “the New Great Game” and “the New Silk Road” in relation to Central Asian politics and economics, both metaphors were misused in relatively high-profile contexts. Secretary of State Clinton has been whizzing through Central Asia (but noticeably not Kazakhstan) this week and employing the idea of the “New Silk Road” to great effect in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (as reported here). Meanwhile, The Jamestown Foundation began advertising for its upcoming conference “Central Asia, Afghanistan and the New Silk Road: Political, Economic and Security Challenges.”

At the same time all this was happening, I also read the below passage in Steve Levine’s 2007 thriller of a history The Oil and the Glory about control over the Caspian’s hydrocarbon resources: “Some compared the events that would follow [in the late 1990s] with the Great Game between imperial Britain and Russian of the nineteenth century–only with an expanded cast. [Strobe] Talbott believed that the United States could not be successful in a Great Game strategy… yet there was no mistaking that conditions were ripening for a twentieth-century struggle for influence and possessions in traditional Great Game territory. This time, the United States, Britain and Turkey would be pitted against Russia and Iran.”

Frustrated as I am by the use of these phrases, I was gratified when, sitting in on a lecture by the doyen of American Central Asian scholars, Martha B. Olcott of the Carnegie Institute, she discarded out of hand the idea of a contemporary Great Game. Despite recent noise from Putin about a new “Eurasian Union” that would look suspiciously like a reconstituted USSR (more about which in a future post) and despite Hillary’s presence in the region to boost confidence before the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, Olcott argued that if one looks at the percentages of national and military budgets spent on Central Asia (excluding Afghanistan), it is clear that neither Russia nor the US is pursuing any real long-term strategy in this region.

But then she went one step too far and lost me. Olcott went on to discount Chinese strategic interest and investment in the region. Olcott argued in effect that while China was expanding trade in this region and gaining control of what resources it could, China – like the USA and Russia – was not investing (either financially or in terms of manpower) in Central Asia at a level commensurate with a country pursuing a national strategy. She instead pointed to the South China Sea as an example of a region in which China is genuinely expressing state interests and changing the balance of power.

While I don’t dispute that things are heating up in the South China Sea, I do not think this excludes China from simultaneously pursuing its interests in Central Asia, albeit with a different approach. While Russia, the US and even India are competing for rights to extend overt military presences into Central Asia in the form of bases, China’s military has stayed far away. Instead, China’s major businesses (many of them either state-owned or state-supported, and therefore state-directed) have been reaching into eastern Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan). I hear almost daily about how China’s oil and gas concerns now control – either through ownership or as the primary buyer, wielding monopsony-like influence – Kazakhstan’s vast hydrocarbon reserves. Similarly, Kazakhs are very afraid that Chinese companies have been secretly buying up or taking out long-term leases on Kazakh farmland. One oft-repeated line sums it up: “There are so many of them, so few of us, and we have so much land.”

A friend of a friend who works in the Almaty mayor’s office told of another way China’s influence is expanding here. Evidently the mayor’s office receives lists of foreigners coming to Almaty Oblast with all their personal information. My acquaintance said that it used to be that the Chinese coming here were in their 40s and 50s and had wives and families back in China to whom they would return after doing work here. Now, he says, the Chinese who come are all men under the age of 30 and many of them marry here and stay. It is not common for Kazakhs to assert that this is a trend actively pursued and encouraged by the Chinese government as a tool of state policy, as crazy as that sounds.

Map of Qing Dynasty China in 1820. The dashed red line in the west represents China's current borders.

But the conspiracy theorists are not without evidence. Supposedly, although I cannot find it, China’s state think-tank – the NDRC – not long ago published a report claiming that China should regain its borders as of the Qing Dynasty. The Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong (1739-95/99) reigned over one of China’s most rapid periods of expansion: the country in fact shrank in the subsequent century. As the map below shows, China’s Qing Dynasty borders extend through most of present-day Kyrgyzstan and all the way through the Zhetysu region of Kazakhstan – in which one finds Almaty.

This is not to say that I genuinely believe China will militarily invade Kazakhstan, but this is not really what Kazakhs fear either. They are more afraid of being economically and demographically subsumed into a Greater China. And while I am also dubious that this is a foreign policy strategy actively pursued by President Hu and the mainstream of the Chinese government, there is plenty of evidence that there are hardline nationalists throughout the bureaucracy who could provide more passive forms of support to a market- and demographics-driven expansion of a concentration of Chinese people.

Therefore, although I chafe at the use of phrases like “the New Great Game,” I do not go so far as Olcott to assert that countries are not pursuing potentially conflicting state policies in this region, that, to use a Mandarin phraseology, may one day require the contradictions to be resolved. There are certainly games being played out here, I just don’t know yet how “great” they are.

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