The Great Game is famous for being the political, diplomatic and military confrontation that was played for most of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The two actors that played the game were Russian and British empires, and the grand strategy both employed during the Great Game was to seek influence and control in Afghanistan as well as the neighboring territories in Central and South Asia.
Even though the British colonists returned and the Soviet Union disintegrated, the Great Game never completely ended, and in the post-Soviet Union regional environment, its geopolitical focus and the grand strategy shifted from seeking ‘territorial controls’ to seeking control over the oil and gas reserves including the untapped reserves lying in the bed of the Caspian Sea. Contestation also took place over the means of delivering the oil and gas of the area to the energy-starved rest of the world. The Great Game for the last two decades remained localised and thus lost much of its international prominence. But is the Great Game over?
The Great Game is not over. In fact, it is now witnessing the participation of different actors and experiencing a grand geopolitical shift — its area of contestation has now moved to the Indo-Pacific. At present it is primarily economic in nature and focusing on trade, investment and infrastructural development but the strategic and military components of this game are not lagging far behind. What is indicating this game changing shift?
Henry Kissinger is a renowned American diplomat and a geopolitical scholar who has authored many books and has served as US Secretary of State and National Security Advisor. When called upon by US Senate’s Armed Services Committee in 2018 to give his statement on ‘Global Challenges and US National Security’, he made a reference to five very interesting changes that were taking place in the world. These were: systemic failure of the world order; international system’s erosion; negative trends with respect to sovereignty; geo-economic coercion; and territorial acquisition by force. All these changes are great patterns of geo-political rivalry and all of them are on display in the Indo-Pacific region. All rivals in the New Great Game have one uniform objective — ‘to extend individual sphere of influence’. Who are the actors in this New Great Game and what is the contest about?
The current US National Security Strategy describes China and Russia as the revisionist powers and identifies a geo-political competition taking place between the free and repressive visions of the world order in the Indo-pacific region. The immediate contestation and I will call it ‘trinity of contestation’ between these three great powers in the Indo-Pacific is in the areas of global governance, economic rise and energy supply.
In the trinity of contestation, as far as governance is concerned, the US accuses both China and Russia of being repressive powers that execute human rights violations. But just two months back in a joint statement with his Chinese counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov offered an alternative to global governance by saying that “the US led international order does not represent the will of the international community” which means Russia and China continue to contest the method of US global governance. For the world economy, Indian Ocean as a geostrategic space plays its role and links the energy-rich Middle East nations with the economically vibrant Asia and South East Asian counties. The US ‘pivot Asia’ policy is because of the economic rise of Asia. No wonder, 21st century is being termed Asian Century. For all this Asian economic rise, all the existing as well as rising economies need energy security and for this, they need sustained and uninterrupted seaborne energy transportation. The manifestation of this trinity of contestation is taking place in the geographical place we all know by the name of Indian Ocean. Why the Indian Ocean?
The strategic significance of the Indian Ocean is determined by some hardcore facts such as 80% of oil heading to China passes through it and 90% of oil heading to US allies Japan and South Korea also passes through it. Historically and unlike Pacific and the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean has not been a war-fighting waterbody but a commercial waterbody. The Indian Ocean is also famous for its choke points and the two prominent ones are the Strait of Malacca and the Strait of Hormuz. The former is of special strategic significance to China as 80% of all oil heading to China passes through this narrow strait. India, which is the strategic and defence partner of the US, holds the Nicobar and Andaman Islands on the mouth of this strait and in case of hostilities it is most likely that India will block the Chinese access through it. If this be the Chinese vulnerability, what has it done about it? What is its grand strategy?
Simply defined, grand strategy is ‘the use of power to secure the state’. Military power, social stability, good governance, economic prosperity, and technological advancement are the important tools that China is utilising to ensure its security, its development and its sovereignty. The current Chinese grand strategy is of ‘National Rejuvenation ‘which is a follow-up of decades of grand strategies of revolution (190-1970),Mao Zedong’s time, recovery (1978-1989) Deng Xiaoping’s time and building of national power (2004-present) Hu Jintao and President Xi’s time. By 2050 China can either be triumphant (if its grand strategy is successful), ascendant (if it doesn’t meet all national objectives) or stagnant (if all its ambitions remain unfulfilled). China can only grow with a sustained energy supply and part of initiation of BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) must be viewed in this context — minimising its strategic vulnerability in the Indian Ocean. What is the role of US and what is its grand strategy?
After WWII, the US employed the grand strategy of containment against the USSR but that was more ideological in nature and negatively impacted the people and the greater societies of both USSR and USA. Today US grand strategy is to continue to act as a world hegemon and contest with the powers that diverge from its established liberal international order. Two powers that are doing this with impunity are Russia and China and it is for this reason that the US has pivoted towards the Indo-Pacific to prevent the emergence of hegemons that threaten its well-crafted international order.
The US perceives Russian grand strategy as reconstruction of its lost empire. Russian actions in Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine are reflective of this Russian perceived grand strategy. But what the US is more worried about is the Sino-Russian partnership and the world view of these two powers which reject a single global hegemon leading the world order and instead projects the creation of a multipolar system in which not just the Americans but all great powers should manage the rest of the world.
Both Russia and China will not compromise on their national interests and both are most likely to continue to make effective use of diplomacy, information, military and economics as instruments that will lead their grand strategy in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Great Game is back and Indian Ocean may continue to remain the geographical space where it will be contested, the ocean may continue to remain a commercial waterbody but more and more military machines and military platforms will be deployed in this geographical space by the powers not only to guard their individual spheres of influence but also to guard the commerce and trade for which this New Great Game will be played.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 9th, 2021.