The original Great Game was the 19th century Anglo-Russian rivalry in Central Asia, including Afghanistan. But territorial powers have always clashed where control of resources was at stake. The importance of territory and natural resources has continued, even as economic development has shifted some of the basis of power to human capital and technological capabilities. Sea lanes, airspace and the seabed matter too, as goods, people and electrons move around the world.
In the world as it is, the New Great Game is not in Central Asia, but it is global. And the competition is not just over natural resources, but over minds and money. US President Barack Obama’s visit to China, and the resulting joint statement, must be seen in this light. China is the world’s factory. It has the largest foreign exchange reserves. It has economic and military clout, and it is extending its strategic reach. Russia may have more nuclear weapons, and lots of oil, but it is a puny economic player compared with China. The US is engaging with China in a comprehensive manner, and the joint statement reflected this, ranging over nuclear threats, military issues, climate change, and much more, even down to student exchanges.
The headline in India, though, was the single mention of that country. It came in a short paragraph about the region. To recap, it said: “The two sides welcomed all efforts conducive to peace, stability and development in South Asia. They support the efforts of Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight terrorism, maintain domestic stability and achieve sustainable economic and social development, and support the improvement and growth of relations between India and Pakistan. The two sides are ready to strengthen communication, dialogue and cooperation on issues related to South Asia and work together to promote peace, stability and development in that region.”
India reacted sharply to the implication that China, or even the US, was being projected as a peacemaker between India and Pakistan. The US backtracked vigorously, with senior officials denying that any such thing was implied. My guess is that someone in the US state department goofed, or was deliberately tilting and slipped that poke at India into the long document. We have seen that before on several occasions. The Chinese were no doubt delighted with what could be read into the statement, and Pakistan, long a de facto client state of both the US and China, also jumped to welcome the words.
Actually, the official Indian reaction was muted and mature. Non-official commentators, including former diplomats, seemed somewhat more exercised by the US gaffe (if that is what it was). In fact, India got off lightly. The poor Dalai Lama and Tibet have gotten much shorter shrift from the US, as it seeks to develop an accommodation with China: No meeting with the President, a reiteration that Tibet is part of China, with a weak appeal to the Chinese to talk to the Dalai Lama’s representatives. The Tibet issue is a tricky one for India to negotiate in its bilateral relations with China, since it is also linked to lingering border disputes. On top of that is the looming threat of Chinese dams on the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra, coupled with changing patterns of water flow as climate change seems to be affecting precipitation and glacier melt.
All in all, India is better off playing down this particular move in the New Great Game. It must focus on working out what its strategic interests are, and how to further them tactically. Just as China is in a much stronger global position than India, India is much more significant than its South Asian neighbours. Pakistan is fragile in many respects, and India has to accept that it is going to be a rough neighbourhood for a while. Strengthening internal security is imperative, and privately asking the US and China to do their part in controlling Pakistan’s rogue elements is a must—in this, India, China and the US have similar interests. It is not clear to me that extending India’s presence in Afghanistan is necessarily the way to go in calming things down in the region. This merely increases suspicion of India’s intentions.
On the other hand, ties with Iran are important, not just with respect to a possible gas pipeline, but because the Iranians have a border with Afghanistan and would possibly like to see it stabilized. India should also focus on building economic ties throughout South-East and East Asia. Just as in the case of the US, India has a huge potential value to other nations as a counterweight to China. Territory and resources are a zero-sum game, but economic ties can lead to mutual benefit. And the faster India grows, the more it will catch up with China as a global player. As for the US, India should be studying the rest of the US-China joint statement, and see how it can pursue its own interests best across the board. Strategizing well is the best revenge.
Nirvikar Singh is professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org