Even in these extremely uncertain coronavirus times, there is one thing that can be asserted with some measure of certainty: a new war, a new Great Game, a new world order, is afoot. And in the coming months and years, South Asia, along with the Pacific, will most likely be the arena in which this next Great Game is contested.
Let us put this in perspective.
Modern history, its alliances, and its flashpoints, stretch only as far back as a hundred years. At the turn of the twentieth century, the world was an unrecognisably different place. Europe and the Middle East was predominantly split between the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the British Empire, The Ottoman Caliphate, and French pockets of power. Russia, China, and even the United States, were involved only at the fringes, through fragmented alliances of fleeting importance. The First World War changed all that, completely obliterating the old-world order.
But the ‘agenda’ was still incomplete. Germany retained parts of its military might; Japan had not been cut to size; and American dominance in the Western hemisphere was still in its nascent stages.
This unfinished agenda led the world to war again, which culminated in the Second World War. This was far more decisive. Germany and Japan’s defeat was “unconditional” this time. The consequent division of the spoils of war gave rise to the modern-day Middle East. It also established the United States as the dominant force in the West, resulting in the creation of institutions such as the United Nations.
However, even as the West celebrated its victory, recreating international boundaries at its whim, an Iron Curtain fell across half of Europe, under the banner of the Soviet Union. This time, with atomic power in all major military arsenals, an all-out was in no one’s interest. Instead, a ‘Cold War’, was fought through economic instruments, international trade blocs and proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan.
Defeat of the Soviet forces in Afghanistan during the 1980s, followed by fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1991, ended the Cold War and ushered in the age of a unipolar world. For the first time, since the collapse of the Roman Empire, all of the world was ‘dominated’ by a single country: in this case the United States. This extraordinary turn of events ushered in a decade of uninterrupted prosperity for the United States, during the 1990s. Its military power was unchallenged. Its economic reach was unimpeded. And its political capital seemed inexhaustible.
Many of the countries that had earlier sided with the Soviet bloc, started to shift their loyalty. And the first among them was India.
Throughout the 1990s, India worked on realigning its international stance to side with the United States. And, in the wake of 9/11, as the United States decided to flex its unipolar muscle in Afghanistan, India jumped on the bandwagon to rebrand itself as America’s strategic partner in South-Asia and beyond. India, through American sponsorship, started to see itself as a counterweight to China in the region. And in the process, it sought to isolate Pakistan, painting it as Global Enemy No. 1. In fact, some years back, this strategy formally re-shaped American foreign policy—declaring ‘Af-Pak’ as one region, while including its strategic partner India in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ policy, focused at countering China.
This strategy worked exceptionally well for India, for almost two decades. As United States’ strategic partner, India soon found favour amidst a pliable Middle East royalty, which depends on American military and financial presence for its survival. Pakistan, it seemed, was finally being isolated; helped, of course, by decades of bad governance, under Nawaz Sharif, Asif Zardari and Pervez Musharraf.
Drunk on its strategic partnership with the United States, and emboldened by feckless leadership of the Muslim world (including decades of isolation for Pakistan), India started to exert its nuisance by sponsoring terrorism in Pakistan, infiltrating Afghanistan’s NDS, and revoking Kashmir’s special constitutional status.
Recently, however, something extraordinary has started to happen. The United States’ myth of a unipolar world has started to crumble, as China grows out from the shadows, and a resurgent Russia gathers strength under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. Friends and foes, living under the erstwhile unipolar world, now have other international options to look towards—as a result of which, the regime changes, desired by the US, could not be properly effectuated in Syria, Lebanon, and large parts of the gulf empires. Most decisively, perhaps, Afghanistan has now turned out to be a military and strategic for America and her allies (read: India).
But even as the edifice of the United States’ unipolar political power started to dwindle, the myth of its military might remained unchallenged. Based on this idea of “biggest and by far the BEST in the World” military empire (quoting President Trump), the United States decided to tempt Iran into a military battle. How? First it stirred the possibility of military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, following the attack at the AramCo facility in Dhahran. And when that did not work, the United States decided to directly attack Iran, through the unprovoked martyrdom of General Qasem Soleimani.
But the policy thinkers, within the deep State establishment at Pentagon and Langley, didn’t expect what happened next. Iran did not cower down. And instead of consolidating American power in the region, this move weakened American interests in the Middle East, forcing countries to seek alternative alliances (e.g. China and Russia).
Enter Covid-19. Amidst these winds of change, as the world was still grappling with shifting power balance, the coronavirus epidemic swept across the world. Americans had hoped that this disease would be limited to China, or its neighbouring countries. However, exactly the opposite happened. China, where the virus started, quickly gained control over its spread. And the ‘free world’, led by the United States and its strategic allies (including the United Kingdom, Brazil and India), have suffered the most.
Not knowing how to come to terms with this reality, the hubris of America and its allies turned to blaming China. Following the American lead, India and its media continue to refer to the pandemic as the ‘Wuhan Virus’. Ticking China further, the US and its allies continue to issue feeble statements of support of Taiwan, and against the ‘One-China’ policy. The Pacific has seen increased military activities. And Secretary Blinken is rooting for what he calls the international ‘rules-based order’ (whatever that means). This, for all intents and purposes, is the stage of the new Cold War. Unlike the last Cold War, this (economic and military) stand-off will be focused on the Pacific. Or should we say, the Indo-Pacific.
China, which is gaining power and influence, even as America and her allies struggle to recover from the epidemic, is the new power centre in this region. Amidst the very first initiatives that China seems to be eyeing for its regional dominance, is the One-Belt-One-Road project. And an important component of that is CPEC.
Almost overnight, the stakes of South Asia have changed. Within the span of a few months, India has gone from being the next big thing, to being on the back-foot, desperately trying to avoid conflict with an ever-stronger China in its backyard. Steps by India to backtrack from its “Howdi Modi” stance to a more “Non-Aligned Movement” stage, seem (for now) to be too little too late.
This region, along with the Pacific, is now going to be centre-stage in world politics for the foreseeable future. China’s economic interests are aligned with a prosperous Pakistan, and a functional CPEC route. Even as America exits Afghanistan, it’s regional interests, acting through its proxy India, are to destabilise Pakistan and disrupt CPEC. And this important tussle, enacted by Pakistan and India, at the behest of China and the United States respectively, will not only determine the complexion of Pakistan’s domestic polity in the years to come, but also that of the new Great Game in South Asia.