Why, and What, You Should Know About Central Asia


Ahmed Rashid reviews a number of new books on the region including 3QD friend and occasional contributor Alex Cooley's Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia, in the NYRB:

Central Asia has reached a turning point and what comes next really worries it. Will the Taliban return to conquer Afghanistan and open the way for the Central Asian Islamist groups that are closely linked to al-Qaeda and have increased their forces while based in Pakistan? Will populist riots reminiscent of the Arab Spring sweep through the region? They have already done so twice in Kyrgyzstan, in March 2005 and April 2010, bringing down two presidents.

Will the weaker states, lacking economic resources, become hostage to China or Russia? Will the most important regional organization they all belong to—the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)—help them overcome instability or will it continue to help them avoid making serious reforms?

None of the works under review provides the full answers to these questions, although Alexander Cooley’s book, Great Games, Local Rules, comes closest. They all agree on the unprecedented rise of China’s influence in Central Asia. Marlène Laruelle and Sébastien Peyrouse, scholars at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., demonstrate in The Chinese Question in Central Asia that China is already the dominant economic power in the region.

China has also taken care of one vital strategic interest since 1991: making sure that the Uighurs, China’s largest Muslim ethnic group who live in the western province of Xinjiang, do not seriously threaten to become independent and that the hundreds of thousands of Uighurs who live in Central Asia do not help them do so. During the 1950s large numbers of Uighurs fled the Maoist regime to seek shelter in Soviet Central Asia where they were relatively well treated.