The Not-So-Great Game

In case you think it’s only the American right-wing whose foreign policy thinking is dominated by paranoid fantasies, Robert Farley offers this account of Russian thinking about Chinese plans to conquer Central Asia:

This brings [Aleksandr] Khramchikhin back to China. He has previously written some fairly alarmist pieces about the potential Chinese threat to Russia, so this time he focuses on the possibility that China would attack Kazakhstan. This seems to be a sufficiently fantastic scenario that it could be dismissed out of hand, but instead he argues that China would easily win such a conflict while absorbing Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan with minimal effort. This means that Russia would have to come to Kazakhstan’s assistance or face the prospect of a 12,000km border with China stretching from Astrakhan to Vladivostok. (I’m not sure what happens to Mongolia in this scenario, but I assume it’s nothing good.) And at this point, Khramchikhin argues that Russia might as well capitulate on the spot.

I suppose this is like how if Communists take over South Vietnam next thing you know they’ll be running Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and probably Australia and Japan to boot.

I would say that one of the major lessons of the past fifty years has to be that it’s extremely difficult to coercively dominate foreign populations who have nationalist objections to your rule. It’s not impossible, but it’s damn hard and the government of China would need to be pretty crazy to want to try to govern Kazakhstan. Crazy things do happen—look at Iraq—so I don’t think it’s totally safe to assume that the Chinese won’t ever do anything crazy. But part of the craziness of any course of action along these lines is that Russia would have any number of low-cost ways to make things difficult for China by sending supplies and weapons across the very long and hard to police Kazakh-Russian border.

Much like with the idea that the Taliban somehow poses a threat to Russia, there just seem to be a group of people in the Russian security establishment who really want to be involved in the former Soviet Republics. This desire is leading them to hallucinate a whole host of possible threats.

I really enjoyed Peter Hopkirk’s book, The Great Game, about Anglo-Russian imperial conflict in 19th Century Central Asia. But the bottom line is that this is a part of the world that contains very little of value. The ultimate fates of the British and Romanoff Empires were ultimately determined by factors that had nothing to do with Central Asia, and the bad habit a whole series of great powers fall into in this region is simply wasting resources.