In the last decade, the world has started taking more notice of Central Asia. For the United States and its allies, the region is a valuable supply hub for the Afghanistan war effort. For Russia, it is an arena in which to exert political influence. For China, it is a source of energy and a critical partner for stabilizing and developing the restive Xinjiang province in the Middle Kingdom's west. Some commentators have referred to Washington, Moscow, and Beijing's renewed activity in the region as a modern iteration of the Great Game. But unlike the British and Russian empires in their era of competition and conquest, the Central Asian governments are working to use renewed external involvement to their sovereign advantage, fending off disruptive demands and reinforcing their political control at home. Accordingly, the Central Asian case today is not a throwback to the past but a guide to what is to come: the rise of new players and the decline of Western influence in a multipolar world.

The first lesson to take from China, Russia, and the United States' involvement in Central Asia is that it has strengthened the hand of rulers, who have been able to play the suitors off one another to extract economic benefits and political support where possible. Most dramatically, in 2009, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev of Kyrgyzstan, host to the Manas Transit Center, initiated a bidding war between the United States and Russia by threatening to close the base. He extracted hundreds of millions of dollars from both sides, in the form of a Russian assistance package and a renewed lease at a higher rent with the United States. Since 2008, the United States also has paid transit fees, about $500 million annually, to the Uzbek and other Central Asian governments to ship equipment bound for Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network.

The same dynamic is playing out elsewhere. The availability of alternative patrons has made U.S. strategic engagement more expensive everywhere, both in terms of dollars and politics. In 2008, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa refused to extend a ten-year lease of the U.S. base at Manta, after having been offered $500 million to upgrade the facility by a Hong Kong port operator. Steven Cook, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has observed that in post-revolutionary Egypt the United States has continued to provide assistance in return for overflight rights and access to the Suez Canal, even as U.S. leverage over the country diminishes. And during Pakistan's seven-month fallout with Washington, in which it closed Afghanistan-bound supply lanes, Islamabad publicly demanded an increase in transit fees and courted China. Eventually, U.S. officials reportedly agreed to release $1.1 billion for the Pakistani military from the Coalition Support Fund to get the route back open.

The second lesson is that regional multipolarity has eroded Western economic influence. Over the last decade, China has emerged as the leading economic power in Central Asia. Chinese assistance there, as in Africa and other developing regions, is not easy to categorize; it is usually a hybrid of foreign aid, investment, and emergency standby loans. Beijing has skillfully relied on a unique mix of these economic instruments with each of its Central Asian neighbors. In 2009, it signed loans-for-energy packages with energy-rich Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. These loans secured supplies of oil and gas or equity in local producers. Meanwhile, Beijing has undertaken major new oil and gas pipelines to take the Central Asian energy eastward. These packages mirror similar loans-for-energy deals with Angola, Brazil, Ecuador, Russia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Venezuela.

In the poorer countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Beijing has become a major investor and development assistance provider, focusing on power generation, transmission, and transport, including roads and railways. Prior to the 2012 SCO Summit in Beijing, the Export-Import Bank of China was already Tajikistan's leading single creditor. Its holdings of the country's overall foreign debt are now projected to reach 70 percent. Most Western commentaries have welcomed Beijing's regional assistance and investment, since Central Asian infrastructure remains in a state of chronic disrepair and Chinese upgrades should improve cross-border regional links and spur regional development.

But China's donor role also poses a number of challenges that Western officials seem reluctant to publicly acknowledge. China's lack of monitoring standards, its unconditional aid, and its direct dealings with regimes reduce the transparency of its projects. In Tajikistan, for example, a new private offshore-registered company now charges tolls on the highway linking Dushanbe and Chanak, which was built mostly with Chinese funds, making it practically unaffordable for lower-income Tajiks. Meanwhile, China does not coordinate with other internationals in Bishkek or Dushanbe and its lending and assistance in Central Asia simply dwarfs existing commitments from other international sources. This summer, China announced that it would provide $10 billion worth of financing for infrastructure projects in the region. If enacted, the program will make China the region's leading foreign investor by a wide margin. At the same time, the conditions of U.S. aid, which is now a small and declining source of regional funds, will become less meaningful.

New economic patrons are playing similar roles in Africa and the Middle East. In mid-July, at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, in Beijing, Chinese President Hu Jintao pledged an additional $20 billion in loans to Africa over the next three years, seeking to secure new energy supplies. He also pledged to refrain from insisting on conditionality, as Western countries often impose -- something he referred to as "the big bullying the small." As with Central Asia, social and political programs -- training for tens of thousands of African officials; 18,000 new scholarships for African students -- will accompany these economic packages.

In the Middle East, traditional international lenders, such as the United States and the European Union, now face competition from Gulf funders, especially from wealthy Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. Doubts remain about these countries' commitment to follow through on their multi-billion-dollar pledges of assistance. Even so, just as Angola and Tajikistan have leveraged Chinese loans to eschew Western lenders' demands for reforms, so, too, have authorities in post-revolutionary Egypt used the prospect of securing funds from the Gulf as leverage against the IMF. Such new forms of assistance are reorienting the region's economic development away from the West, and the United States now lacks the soft power to check the growing power of these new rival patrons.

The third lesson is that Central Asian elites have grown increasingly hostile to the West's values agenda -- promoting democracy and human rights -- and are now able to push back against criticism. The war on terrorism gave these regimes cover to build up their security services and clamp down on opposition. China, Russia, and the United States colluded with Central Asian security services to render terrorist suspects, without due process hearings, to and from the region. The United States claimed that the war on terrorism could not be constrained by international law. Russia and China embedded their extraterritorial actions in new regional legal frameworks such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization's Anti-Terrorism Treaty.

Central Asian elites regularly malign the West for practicing double standards on human rights, insisting that Western violations of human rights be as much a part of a dialogue as their own infractions. New regional media outlets spotlight the seeming contradictions of U.S. policy in different countries, further diminishing U.S. credibility and magnifying the costs of a hypocritical policy. Meanwhile, Central Asian nations have hidden their political shortcomings by hiring Western public relations firms and by restricting the activities of foreign-funded NGOs. In response to the wave of color revolutions in the mid-2000s that swept entrenched leaders with ties to the Kremlin out of power, Central Asian new and entrenched leaders alike enacted restrictive registration and funding laws to curtail the activities of Western-sponsored NGOs. In these efforts, they had strong support from Moscow and Beijing.

Similarly, Egypt's recent clampdown on groups such as Freedom House and the National Democratic Institute has made for a tricky political environment for Western NGOs in Egypt. And in countries as diverse as Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Ecuador, Panama, Russia, Uganda, and Vietnam, governments have recently stoked the fear of foreign interference to justify new legal crackdowns on civil society organizations.

Meanwhile, the Central Asian states have created organizations that mimic the form, but not the function, of democratic election monitors. Since 2005, for example, both the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States and the SCO have sent election monitoring teams to the region; their observers have delivered glowing assessments of obviously flawed Central Asian elections. Tellingly, these new election monitors do not publish mission guides, nor have they signed onto the United Nations' 2005 Code of Conduct for International Election Observers. By so doing, such groups have undermined Western-backed monitors and the substance of their work.

Some commentators have called on U.S. and European policymakers to jettison their criticism and engagement on values issues to remain relevant as international partners in this emerging multipolar world. Yet, along with U.S. military and economic might, engagement on values is the very thing that has distinguished the Western-led international order -- despite all of its well-documented inconsistencies and shortcomings. Moreover, it is the prospect of Western engagement that confers developing countries leverage in their own uneasy dealings with emerging powers such as Russia and China. Downgrading or dropping normative commitments to Central Asia, as in other areas, in the interests of geopolitical pragmatism would signal Brussels and Washington's taming by the post-Western world, not its successful engagement with it.

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  • ALEXANDER COOLEY is the Tow Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department of Barnard College, Columbia University, and the author of Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia.
  • More By Alexander Cooley