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new great game

Written by Lt Gen (R) Tariq Khan 9:09 pm Published Content, Research Papers

The New Great Game: A Pakistani Perspective

Lt Gen Tariq Khan provides an in-depth account of the historical rivalry known as the “Great Game” that took place between the British and Russian empires in the subcontinent during the 19th century. In his paper, he explains that the withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan created a power vacuum, which set the stage for a “New Great Game” in the South Asian region. This region is of immense importance due to its geo-strategic location which is central to China, Central Asian republics, Iran, and Pakistan.
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About the Author(s)
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Lt Gen (Rtd) Tariq Khan is a retired army officer who has served as the head of Pakistan’s Central Command.

“We are not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken 13th century country. We are there so the people of Britain and our global interests are not threatened.”

Liam Fox

The History

The term “Great Game”1 now a common cliché, was borne of the famous competition for regional control played out in the subcontinent in the 19th century between the British and Russian Empires.

The Russian search for warm water ports extended their interests towards the Indian Ocean, bringing them into direct conflict with British interests. The British were involved in three Anglo-Afghan wars, primarily undertaken to contain Russian expansion towards the East. It ultimately resulted in Afghanistan being mutually accepted as a buffer state between the two belligerents. A century later, in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan2 with an eye on its mineral resources3 and access to the Indian Ocean through Iran or Pakistan. However, not only did they fail, but instead they led to the unraveling of the Soviet Union in 1914.4 Subsequently, years of wars, chaos, and anarchy made Afghanistan a haven for terrorist organizations, which resulted in 9/11 being undertaken by Al Qaeda, whose main cells were located in Afghanistan.5

It resulted in a coalition of the US, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, from which the international coalition and the US finally withdrew. After a 20-year experiment in nation-building, constitutional structural development, and setting up a security apparatus and failing, the withdrawal left a huge power vacuum in its wake, setting the stage for a “New Great Game” in South Asia.

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Afghanistan’s geo-strategic location is central to China, Central Asian republics, Iran, and Pakistan. It is thus a fulcrum in the region, whose political and administrative status can impact the region as a whole.6 It is also the gateway to South Asia. South Asia comprises 11 countries with India assuming the role of a regional power and Pakistan a close rival to it.7 With a history of bilateral issues, India and Pakistan have deep animosities and treat each other as enemy states.8 This puts other South Asian regional nations into one or the other rival camp.

China is close to assuming global leadership in the economic domain, and the US, in its bid to contest such a possibility, has set up a strategic alliance with India as a matter of choice.9 This has resulted in Pakistan being ignored by the US and leaving it little choice but to get closer to China. The Indo-US partnership vis-à-vis the Pak-China collaboration thus becomes a naturally opposing counter-balance to one another in the affairs of a regional strategic paradigm.

The region is once again confronted by a potential conflict; a new great game is on the horizon. The games may be new and the players different, but the region is old, with a history of such conflict. It would be pertinent to mention that regions are not stand-alone entities, and neither is South Asia. This region has evolved and experienced the trials and tribulations of political realities and influences exercised by external powers—the pushes and pulls that form existing alliances and animosities.

Though South Asia comprises 11 countries, on account of the prevailing circumstances, the subcontinent, consisting of India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, takes a central stage. At the same time, political affiliations absorb smaller nations into them.

The Background 

To understand the impact of an evolving world on South Asia in general, and the subcontinent in particular, especially in the shadow of the Russo-Ukraine conflict10 and in the wake of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan,11 one must be mindful of the many influences.

How the world has evolved is a matter of global history but more about who wrote the narrative and who is currently reading it. Are we now a product of Francis Fukuyama’s, “The American Century” or Huntington’s “Clash of Civilisations?” Were these the only ideas situating what the world should be or did these describe how the world would become? Other great scholarly works, like the one produced by Robert D. Kaplan, “The Coming Anarchy” and “Was Democracy Just a Moment?” remain an enigma and an analysis of the future.

So, we have learned to live in a world of narratives, where people are subjected to notions and values that are debated, argued, and fought over. The strongest voice always wins the day, while the truth remains buried under the debris of diplomacy and political propriety. And here, when the world was being called a village, where integration meant new world orders such as the United Nations (UN), economic regulation such as the WTO (World Trade Organization), political alliances such as the EU (European Union), and the OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation), etc., where communication and travel meant reduced distances to hours rather than days, it would be natural to expect the world to shrink to a village. But it did not, and the world is as divided as ever before. These divisions have a natural fallout, which will definitively impact South Asia as the powers that influence the region play out their agendas in search of their respective objectives.

The days of a unipolar globe, led by the powerful US, are fast coming to a close as we find the US authority waning in every dimension, i.e., military clout, economic strength, moral standing, and ethical conduct, all of which are being challenged and questioned.

China, the fastest-growing economy,12 is taking on a superpower status just as Russia flexes its military muscle.13 With a global population peaking at 8.5 billion by 2030,14 the world is looking at food and water security in a very different light. Reduced resources will lead to global conflict to acquire more, protect what one has, and preserve what is available.

Carbon emissions and zero tolerance for nitrogen emission will lead to other restrictive regulations and regimes as we gradually move into a world of “selective” sanctions, prohibitions, and endorsements. One could be in the right camp for now and hold the world at arm’s length while occupying a territory that was never theirs but justified by as intangible a context as a biblical one.15 Yet one could also be in the wrong camp and be accused of terrorism while fighting occupation forces in one’s country.16 So, the world has evolved where being morally and politically correct is not the right political argument, but being an economic or military power is.

So, as we see the United States as a fading power, we see it challenged by China in the economic field and by Russia in the military field. The rest of the globe is driven by these ambitions or crushed between them. Therefore, the world shall live in conflict governed by the adage that the “best man wins”—almost akin to the “might is right” laws of the jungle.

The Region 

The Indian subcontinent has a history that goes back in time but essentially evolves around access to trade through the sea. From the time of Alexander’s famous march and the discovery of the Silk Route, right up to the 19th century’s “Great Game,” the game was played. The region is essentially an island blocked by high mountains in the north and surrounded by the ocean everywhere else. It is a natural conduit to all of Central Asia and the eastern continents of China. It will give Russia access to all year-round ports because of the warm waters, if Russia is ever able to establish itself there.

With 25% of the world’s population,17 it is a lucrative market and a huge consumer of food and energy. So it is no wonder that all three superpowers, the US, China, Russia, and the EU, either already have stakes in the subcontinent or are searching for them for the future. This has led to competing interests. Take China, for instance: its trade is through the Malacca Straits, now commonly addressed as the “Malacca Dilemma.” It amounts to 16 billion barrels of oil18 passing through daily and 100,000 ships carrying cargo annually.19

Control for the Malacca Straits is now being contested. The US is asserting itself and has aligned other countries against China20 and its trade interests. China has had to seek an alternative to the Malacca Straits and has found it in the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative), of which the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) is the flag ship.21 So why is CPEC so important?

Strait of Malacca

The distance from western China to the sea is less than the distance it takes to transport goods from within China to the Chinese seaports; currently, the distance traveled is 16,000 km, taking 2 to 3 months, which would be reduced to 5,000 km and 1 month at the most.22

The ports at Gwadar can accommodate 200,000-ton tankers, oil pipelines, and fiber optics. CPEC has caused China to begin the industrialization of its southwestern regions. On the other hand, the Gwadar Port has the potential to be one of the world’s largest ports.23 It outdoes the Long Beach Port at Miami and has greater capacity than all the Indian ports put together.24 This makes it a potential transshipment port where, even today, the Saudi Government is contemplating investing in one of the world’s largest refineries.25 If managed correctly, the future of such a port allows for massive development and international connectivity.

CPEC establishes Pakistan’s relevance in the region and the world as a trade corridor, connecting the East to the West, a key component in global trade as well as a supplier of oil and gas. If manufacturing industries develop within these corridors, the potential for economic growth is huge. This, however, is not commensurate with the US sentiment of containing China, and as such, a new strategic partnership is developing between India and the US.

External Influences

The United States has lost the war in Afghanistan and is now a stranger in the region. Once a trusted ally, Pakistan finds itself to be a scapegoat in all or every US policy reversal in the region.26 American attempts to contain China through a proxy India do not hold a realistic proposition and only put Pakistan on the firing line by default en route to China.

India’s quest for global glory and regional domination is challenged by Pakistan’s resistance to acquiesce to Indian hegemony; this has a potential for conflict within the region. With Kashmir boiling over and with both India and Pakistan being nuclear-capable, the conflict has the potential to have global ramifications.27

Afghanistan, still in search of its identity, remains locked in conflict with no real end in sight. Thus, we see a region with huge potential but mired in conflict, competing interests, and chaos, so much so that this potential may not be realized in the near or even in the distant future. With the United States searching for relevance in the region, a growing Chinese economic influence, an ambitious India, a fractured Afghanistan, a suspect Pakistan, and Iranian influence competing with growing Saudi influence, the region will remain in hot water.

This becomes the new great game, and as it plays itself out, regional and global powers jostle for influence, control, and leadership roles. It is important to determine the defining parameters of this game and what the possible outcome is in the future.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has greatly diminished the US capacity to influence the region, but it shall, instead, endeavor to do so, using India as a proxy. To unsettle China, the CPEC and BRI will come under more and more pressure from the United States as it tries to contain China and maintain a regional presence.28 India will assert itself, creating instability in Pakistan so that CPEC is scuttled, affecting China, in line with the US strategic thought. Pakistan will be under pressure by default, and demands will be made for Pakistan to find ways to help the US reassert itself in Afghanistan.29

With the Russo-Ukraine conflict grinding itself to an open-ended conclusion, Ukraine may emerge as the winner, while Russia may successfully sustain the pressures of international sanctions.30 The global community will suffer from a self-inflicted wound through its sanctions imposed on Russia, causing a collapse in global supply chains, the diminishing dollar reserves regime, food shortages, high prices for energy and transportation, and corporate businesses that will suffer.31

The world will now be divided into the Indo-US-Israeli camp and a Russo-China-Turkey-Iran and Pakistan camp, i.e., the West versus the East. India is pretending to be a part of the Western alliance.32 This conflict will likely discover a well-defined line running through South Asia.33 Its objectives are to remain economic and acquire leadership in international financial synergy with multi-national cooperation in development, opportunity building, food security, and wealth. However, the practical manifestation would be through low-intensity conflict, political instability, regime change, and military application.

Pakistani Perspective 

For Pakistan, the new great game would imply a society polarized by sectarianism, separatism, provincial animosity, nepotism, corruption, terrorism, political instability, serious financial problems, and even a limited or all-out military conflict. This environment will be developed, organized, and resourced by external hostile elements, as Pakistan’s dissident groups fall prey to exploitation and manipulation and are ready to cooperate with such outside interference.

Pakistan will be asked to tone down CPEC, downgrade its cooperation with China, soften its stance on Kashmir, accommodate India’s quest for regional leadership, cap or give up its nuclear assets, and allow international access to fight terrorism within Pakistan or Afghanistan from Pakistan’s territory or airspace. This would be the price for a stable Pakistan that the West would be willing to engage with.

For Pakistan to survive this moment and come out of this new great game intact, it must form a plan of action whereby it remains as autonomous as possible, sovereign as practical, and independent as feasible. Some actions that need to be considered are as follows:

  • Try and bring about a rapprochement between the US and China and, if possible, Russia. This could mean a shared influence by these powers in South Asia with defined zones and roles to ensure conflict avoidance in South Asia.
  • The possibility of arranging for, under the auspices of the Afghan Government, a multi-national force to provide regional connectivity, national stability, development, and opportunity-building.
  • To encourage the United States to develop a CPEC-style operation, parallel to the Chinese initiative, using Afghanistan as a conduit and the Central Asian states as a destination.
  • Pursuing Kashmir as the longest outstanding UN issue that needs a resolution and having gotten to that resolution, working out a permanent conflict resolution regime with India with the intent to contain the possibility of military conflict.
  • To engage India in disarmament talks based on mutually respected principles.
  • Pakistan to take up the initiative to set up a “regional anti-terrorism regime and center.” The center is to share information and intelligence and supervise action to dismantle terrorist organizations.
  • Developing new regional trade alliances and developing a policy to attract DFIs (development finance institutions) makes it easy to do business. Therefore focusing on global stakeholder interests in Pakistan.
  • Encouraging the export of skilled and trained manpower to Europe and the US by setting up internationally recognized polytechnic institutes affiliated with international traders and craftsmen’s guilds and subject to external evaluation and certification.
  • To develop its own administrative and governance reforms to provide unity and cohesion within the country by the following:
  1. Creating more provinces.
  2. Considering a presidential system of governance.
  3. Depoliticizing the police.
  4. Judicial reforms for timely and equal justice for all—based on a homegrown system.
  5. Containing religious elements from interfering with foreign policy and administrative functioning.
  6. Separating the state from religion.
  7. Educational standards based on international values, norms, and levels.

Conclusion

South Asia appears to be the next battleground where world powers will compete to seize the moment to lead the world. The environment was created by the growing Chinese influence challenging the US position it had enjoyed; it was further aggravated by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and its diminishing role in the region and got even worse due to the Russo-Ukraine conflict.

As the United States finds its global ascendency challenged all over, South Asia lends itself to the showdown. This must not come to pass. Physical conflicts devastate whole regions, their people, and generations to come. Pakistan is central to this conflict and must assert itself sensibly to resolve it.

Global powers will and must compete, but it is not always a must that the practical manifestations be war and military conflict. Influence can also be extended through goodwill, economic cohesion, and mutual benefits. China has shown the way; the world must also learn these ways.


Endnotes

1 Edward Ingram, “Great Britain’s Great Game: An Introduction.” Taylor & Francis Online, December 1, 2010
2 “Afghan War 1978–1992.” Encyclopedia Britannica
3 Mohammed Hussein and Mohammed Haddad, “Mapping Afghanistan’s Untapped Natural Resources,” Al Jazeera, September 24, 2021,
4 Dr. Naazir Mahmood, “A Peek Into The Collapse Of USSR,” The News, December 18, 2016
5Background Al Qaeda,” PBS, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/network/alqaeda/indictment.html
6 Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, “Why Afghanistan Will Be A New Geopolitical Pivot,” Observer Research Foundation, September 16, 2021
7 ASEAN Main Portal, “Member States,” October 19, 2021
8 Barbara D. Metcalf and Thomas R. Metcalf, A Concise History of Modern India, 2nd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 221-222
9The United States and India: Deepening our Strategic Partnership,” US Department of State, July 27, 2021
10 Roger N. McDermott, “Brothers Disunited: Russia’s Use of Military Power in Ukraine,” in The Return of the Cold War, 1st ed, (2016)
11 “Resolute Support Mission, Key Facts and Figures,” February 2021
12 IMF. “World Economic Outlook Database, October 2019,” October 11, 2019.
13 “Russia’s Armed Forces: More Capable By Far, But For How Long?,” Military Balance Blog (blog), October 9, 2020
14 “Population,” United Nations, https://www.un.org/en/global-issues/population
15 Rachel Havelock, River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line, (University of Chicago Press, 2011), 210
16 Goldie Osuri, “Kashmir and Palestine: The Story Of Two Occupations,” Al Jazeera, August 24, 2016
17 “Southern Asia Population,” Worldometer (1950-2023)
18 Paweł Paszak, China and the “Malacca Dilemma,” Warsaw Institute, February 28, 2021
19 Krishnadev Calamur, “High Traffic, High Risk in the Strait of Malacca,” The Atlantic, August 21, 2017
20 Michael D. Swaine, “America’s Security Role in the South China Sea,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 23, 2015,
21 Overview Belt and Road Initiative Forum, 2019
22 Fakhar Hussain, “Geostrategic Imperatives of Gwadar Port for China,” The Korean Journal of International Studies 18, no. 2 (August 2020), 145-167, doi: 10.14731/kjis.2020.08.18.2.145
23 Mir Sherbaz Khetran, “The Potential and Prospects of Gwadar Port,” ISSI Publications, (January 28, 2016)
24 Gwadar Port Authority, January 20, 2018,
25Saudi Arabia To Set Up $10 Billion Oil Refinery in Pakistan,” CNBC, January 13, 2019
26India and US Ask Pakistan To Take Immediate, Sustained and Irreversible Action Against Terrorism,” The Economic Times, last updated: April 12, 2022,
27 Alan Robock, Owen B. Toon, Charles G. Bardeen, Lili Xia, Hans M. Kristensen, Matthew McKinzie, R. J. Peterson, Cheryl S. Harrison, Nicole S. Lovenduski, and Richard P. Turco, “How an India-Pakistan Nuclear War Could Start—And Have Global Consequences,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 75, no. 6, (2019): 273–279, doi: 10.1080/00963402.2019.1680049
28 Tom Hussain, “Pakistan Fears US Is Targeting Its China Links as It Seeks to Settle Score,” South China Morning Post, October 2, 2021
29 Syed Ali Zia Jaffery, “Navigating Pakistan’s Afghanistan Conundrum,” Atlantic Council, February 3, 2022.
30 Murat Sofuoglu, “Could China Benefit from the Ukraine Crisis?” Trtworld, March 11, 2022, 31 Oliver Gordon, “What Will Be the Impact of Western Sanctions on Russia?” Energy Monitor, March 9, 2022
32 Julian Borger, “Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Crystallises Divide between US Allies and Rest.” The Guardian, March 26, 2022
33 Fizza Batool, “The Ukraine Crisis: Can Pakistan Truly Follow ‘No Camp Politics’?South Asian Voices, March 14, 2022.

Bibliography

  • Batool, Fizza. “The Ukraine Crisis: Can Pakistan Truly Follow ‘No Camp Politics’?” South Asian Voices. March 14, 2022.
  • Borger, Julian. “Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Crystallises Divide between US Allies and Rest.” The Guardian. March 26, 2022.
  • Calamur, Krishnadev. “High Traffic, High Risk in the Strait of Malacca.” The Atlantic. August 21, 2017.
  • Chakravarty, Pinak Ranjan. “Why Afghanistan Will Be A New Geopolitical Pivot.” Observer Research Foundation. September 16, 2021.
  • Gordon, Oliver. “What Will Be the Impact of Western Sanctions on Russia?” Energy Monitor. March 9, 2022.‌
  • Havelock, Rachel. River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line. (University of Chicago Press, 2011). 210.
  • Hussein, Mohammed and Mohammed Haddad. “Mapping Afghanistan’s Untapped Natural Resources.” Al Jazeera, September 24, 2021.
  • Hussain, Fakhar. “Geostrategic Imperatives of Gwadar Port for China.” The Korean Journal of International Studies 18. no. 2 (August 2020). 145-167, doi: 10.14731/kjis.2020.08.18.2.145.
  • Hussain, Tom. “Pakistan Fears US Is Targeting Its China Links as It Seeks to Settle Score.” South China Morning Post. October 2, 2021.
  • Ingram, Edward. “Great Britain’s Great Game: An Introduction.” Taylor & Francis Online. December 1, 2010.
  • Jaffery, Syed Ali Zia. “Navigating Pakistan’s Afghanistan Conundrum.” Atlantic Council. February 3, 2022.
  • Khetran, Mir Sherbaz. “The Potential and Prospects of Gwadar Port.” ISSI Publications. (January 28, 2016).
  • Mahmood, Naazir. “A Peek Into The Collapse Of USSR.” The News. December 18, 2016.
  • McDermott, Roger N. “Brothers Disunited: Russia’s Use of Military Power In Ukraine.” in The Return of the Cold War. 1st ed, (2016).
  • Metcalf, Barbara D. and Thomas R. Metcalf. “A Concise History of Modern India.” 2nd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2006). 221-222.
  • Sofuoglu, Murat. “Could China Benefit from the Ukraine Crisis?” Trtworld. March 11, 2022.
  • Swaine, Michael D. “America’s Security Role in the South China Sea.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. July 23, 2015.

This piece was originally published on Global Village Space.

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