It is often said that China, Russia, and the United States are playing a “great game” in Central Asia. To the extent that these three states are playing games in Central Asia, they are in fact decidedly different ones. China is playing Monopoly. Russia is playing Risk. The United States is playing Solitaire. For policymakers in Beijing, the game is business. For policymakers in Moscow, the game is existential. For policymakers in Washington, the game is an afterthought. Central Asia is material for Beijing; China can easily walk away if its natural resources and infrastructure investments sour. Central Asia is imperial for Moscow; Russia will not walk away if its influence is questioned. Central Asia is inconsequential for Washington; the United States has all but forgotten the region now that attention has shifted away from Afghanistan.
As a result, Central Asian political elites are in the curious position of needing to woo a comparatively disinterested Chinese suitor, acknowledge the desires of its decidedly interested northern neighbor, and decide whether it is worth attempting to reengage a distracted United States. Though an awkward dance, it is not an impossible one. Neither Beijing, nor Moscow, nor the United States cares it is being two-timed. As such, Central Asian leaders are limited in their ability to leverage relations with one great power to extract concessions from another. At the same time, because the great powers are content playing their separate games, Central Asian elites need not fear that negotiations with one might jeopardize relations with the others. This frees Central Asian leaders to devote a minimum of energy to geopolitics and maximum attention to domestic politics.