The Dragon, Eagle, and Bear play the Great Game. Photo Credit: Global Village Space.
Central Asia has always been an important crossroads of great powers. Just to name a few, the Persians, Russians, British, and Chinese have all struggled for influence. The United States is now an important stakeholder in the region—at least since its support for the Mujahideen against the Soviets. In a renewed era of great power competition, what will competition look like in Central Asia this time? The ‘New Great Game’ in Central Asia between China, Russia, and the United States will be one of economics, politics, and diplomacy. These powers have their own regional interests, and they all have their own competitive advantages. China will continue to grow its economic power in the region to further its own economic interests, Russia will continue to exert itself politically to maintain its historical influence in the region, and the U.S. must exert diplomatic pressure to be an effective spoiler to both.
China is the dominant economic actor in Central Asia and will use this leverage to advance its national interests. China’s economic power is self-evident. Trade between China and Central Asia reached almost $40 billion in 2018, and China is the most important foreign investor in sectors such as energy, industry, and infrastructure. China has plenty of capital to invest in the funds-starved region, and its loans come without reform conditions like those from the U.S. or E.U. Chinese investment is not only commercially driven, of course. Central Asia is key to the Belt and Road Initiative, a Chinese development strategy for Eurasia, because successful investment will reduce China’s dependence on sea routes vulnerable to U.S. maritime supremacy. Further, hydrocarbons and other natural resources in the region are key to China’s economic growth. China uses its economic dominance to further its geopolitical goals in Central Asia, just as in any other part of the world.
Russia, once the regional hegemon, is now largely confined to political and cultural influence. Russia uses institutions such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) to maintain its integration with the region, but Central Asian states are pulled away from the Russian orbit by Chinese institutions. Ethnic Russians stranded from Imperial and Soviet times are a sizable minority in Kazakhstan and can exert important political influence, but Russian minorities elsewhere are much smaller. As these populations diminish, the Russian language correspondingly loses importance, and Russia loses a source of soft power influence. Younger generations, for example, are more interested in English. In energy, too, Russia enjoyed historical dominance but now must compete with China in supplying and extracting oil and gas. Russia is still the regional hegemon, but its grasp is rapidly losing strength.
While Russia’s political and cultural influence continues to lose ground, it still enjoys certain benefits. Public opinion, for example, is still highly favorable of Russia as a friendly great power, as a place to study, and as a center of culture. China, by contrast, has a hard time cultivating a positive public image among the peoples of Central Asia. Further, its efforts to target younger generations are impeded by the dominance of Russian-language and media infiltration, not to mention competition with English. Russia’s regional influence is generally decreasing, but it enjoys more advantages than the regional newcomer, the United States.
The United States is by far the least powerful major actor in the region and must use diplomatic engagement with Central Asian states to further its interests. The U.S Strategy for Central Asia defined its interests as supporting state sovereignty and independence, combating terrorist threats, a continued interest in Afghanistan, rule of law reform and human rights protections, and U.S. economic investment. While most of these are not necessarily instruments of competition, others are. The first priority of preserving state sovereignty and independence, in particular, is meant to counter Russian and Chinese attempts to integrate Central Asian states. By emphasizing state sovereignty, the U.S. gives Central Asian states greater bargaining power when dealing with America’s regional competitors. As a spoiler to the great powers and as an empowering force for the locals, the United States can exert subtle influence in Central Asia without significant commitments.
Considering this context, what will competition look like? China, of course, will primarily exert economic influence. Vast capital flows will continue, in part for commercial reasons, but also to further geopolitical interests. China’s ultimate goal is a reliable land route to the Middle East, and Central Asia is key to this initiative. So long as the U.S. maintains maritime dominance, China will continue to desire this backchannel to the Gulf and to Europe. China will continue to promote its soft power in the region but will probably be unsuccessful in establishing the same level of dominance as in the economic sphere.
Whereas China dominates economically, Russia still has a comparative advantage in regional political power. Publics approve of Russia more than China and much more than the United States. Kazakhstan’s large Russian minority will continue to be important, but other countries will be less affected. Russian language will continue to be the regional lingua franca. Even as English becomes more popular, Russia’s proximity and historic ties will maintain its status. Additionally, Russian economic power is diminishing, but Russia will continue competing for contracts—especially in the energy sector. Despite all this, Russian competition with China will remain cordial because of Russia’s tacit alliance with China against U.S. global influence. President Vladimir Putin has already praised the Belt and Road Initiative and has said it does not conflict with the EEU, but this will be a tightrope that Beijing must walk very carefully. If Chinese influence becomes too much for Russia to swallow, this competition will likely lose its friendly demeanor. Further, if the U.S. establishes détente with either country in the future, then Russia and China’s unspoken alliance will crumble soon thereafter. Considering the open hostility at the U.S.-China Summit in Alaska, this is an unlikely scenario, although not impossible.
The United States, which lacks regional economic and political power, must rely on diplomatic initiatives to further its interests. Because the U.S. is a relative newcomer and does not enjoy benefits of geographic proximity, it must steer away from explicit geopolitical competition and raw power. Instead, diplomacy will be more effective in attracting regional partners. Engaging political leaders will be a necessary element of this diplomatic approach, and embassies should focus more on development, commerce, and transnational issues rather than geopolitics. Technical assistance, professional and educational exchanges, and similar initiatives will also be critical to cultivating these ties. While it is unlikely that the U.S. can establish dominance in the region because of geography, it can prevent any one state from gaining dominance.
The ‘New Great Game’ will be an arena of economic, political, and diplomatic competition as Central Asia becomes an increasingly important area for China, Russia, and the United States. As China tries to establish land routes to the Middle East and Europe, it will run into the traditional hegemon of Russia. The United States, as a newcomer, should use its diplomatic strength to balance against both.
 Li-Chen Sim and Farkhod Aminjonov, “Potholes and Bumps Along the Silk Road Economic Belt in Central Asia,” The Diplomat, February 1, 2020, thediplomat.com/2020/02/potholes-and-bumps-along-the-silk-road-economic-belt-in-central-asia/.
 James Nixey, “The Long Goodbye: Waning Russian Influence in the South Caucasus and Central Asia,” Chatham House, June 2012, chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/public/Research/Russia%20and%20Eurasia/0612bp_nixey.pdf.
 Marlène Laruelle and Dylan Royce, “Kennan Cable No. 56: No Great Game: Central Asia’s Public Opinions on Russia, China, and the U.S.,” The Wilson Center, August 2020. wilsoncenter.org/publication/kennan-cable-no-56-no-great-game-central-asias-public-opinions-russia-china-and-us.
 Susan A. Thornton, “CHINA IN CENTRAL ASIA: IS CHINA WINNING THE ‘NEW GREAT GAME’?” The Brookings Institution, June 2020, brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/FP_20200615_china_central_asia_thornton.pdf, 4-5.
 “United States Strategy for Central Asia 2019-2025: Advancing Sovereignty and Economic Prosperity (Overview),” U.S. Department of State, February 5, 2020, state.gov/united-states-strategy-for-central-asia-2019-2025-advancing-sovereignty-and-economic-prosperity/.
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 Katie Stallard-Blanchette, “The Coming US-China Competition in Central Asia,” The Diplomat, February 6, 2020, thediplomat.com/2020/02/the-coming-us-china-competition-in-central-asia/.
 Thornton, 7.