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Great Game II

Although the US is still the primary global economic, military and technological power, American actions have given room for others to walk into the space being yielded. A resurgent Russia and a rising China are spearheading the global strategic reorientation, writes Vikram Sood.

india Updated: Feb 28, 2007 13:49 IST

The tectonic shift in the global strategic plates has to be steadied quickly, otherwise the world will face unimaginable consequences of the chaos that could follow. The first is the drastic loss of prestige and power that the US has suffered in West Asia where opinion polls indicate that the Arabs fear the US more than they fear Israel or Iran. Most Americans are increasingly convinced that the adventure into Iraq, which was about as cerebral as a World Wrestling Federation bout, has harmed US standing in West Asia.

Although the US is still the primary global economic, military and technological power, American actions have given room for others to walk into the space being yielded. Obviously, US ability, or perhaps willingness, to reconstruct, as it did immediately after World War II, no longer matches its ability to deconstruct.

The second is the rise of Russia — Vladimir Putin’s speech at the recent Munich Security Conference was like a punch in the Western solar plexus where he spoke of "one single centre of power, one single centre of force and one single master” and the dangers of this situation. This was evidence of an angered Russia on the rebound. Not for nothing does Putin have a 70-80 per cent approval rating in his own country. His speech was not in isolation but comes after the Russian economy with its vast energy resources has shown signs of revival.

Putin followed this with a visit to Saudi Arabia that has the potential to be as epochal as Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. Not many years ago, the Saudis had been enthusiastic members of an alliance that sponsored and financed a jehad against the god-less Soviets. During his recent visit to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar, Putin spoke of a ‘gas Opec’, offered military assistance to Saudi Arabia as well as nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

The third is the continued strong showing of China as an economic and military power on the rise. China has made important gains in Africa, where it is likely to be in contention with the US just as it may be partly in cooperation and partly in competition with Russia in the energy rich Eurasian and West Asian regions. Meanwhile, China seeks to strengthen its position in Asia seeking but not admitting to eventually wanting to replace the US as the primary power in the continent.

Ironically, the American decline began, unnoticed, soon after the end of the Cold War. It seems that the American military-industrial complex, dependent on the profits of war and insecurity, was horrified that peace seemed to have broken out. Most of the American establishment went hunting for new enemies and they thought it best to go for the Russian jugular. Thus, instead of helping the Russians to recover from years of communism, the opposite happened. This only proved the prediction that Washington and Moscow would always have competed for global dominance regardless of ideology.

After the Warsaw Pact was beguiled into disbanding, Nato quickly moved into Poland and the three Baltic republics. Ukraine and Georgia were sought to be brought under US influence through sponsored multi-coloured democracy revolutions. Caspian Sea oil was no longer to be delivered through Russia but would go from the Caspian coast of Azerbaijan through Georgia into Turkey with pipelines guarded by US troops. When the US wanted temporary bases in Central Asia to fight the war on terror in Afghanistan, Putin agreed only to find that these were becoming permanent US facilities in Russia’s own backyard. Anti-missile defence systems are now located in Poland and the Czech Republic and new US air bases in Bulgaria and Romania. The Western oil conglomerates encouraged Russian oil and gas to break free of Russian government control.

Russia and China have been moving closer to each other in the last two years as relations between the US and Russia began to sour. The border issue between China and Russia having been settled; there have been military exercises and increased Russian arms and energy sale commitments (45 per cent of Russian arms sales have been to China and at the rate of $ 2 billion annually). The first-ever joint military exercise of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO — Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan) and the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) would be held this year in Russia’s Volga-Urals area. Quite obviously, this is a reaction to the eastward expansion of Nato.

In the years ahead, both China and Russia, in competition with each other or jointly in asymmetric opposition to the US, will seek geo-strategic space and vital strategic minerals in Central Asia and the Caspian region. China can be seen to be increasingly present in what has been Russia’s traditional heartland. Having resolved its territorial disputes with Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan, China has begun to assert itself. China also seeks a transport corridor for its exports all the way to Europe and the Persian Gulf. One route is the China-Pakistan-Karakoram Highway to be expanded further, with Kazakhstan added as another destination. Chinese assistance is also available for road construction from Tajikistan and Kyrgystan into China.

Chinese preference for the land route is also evident in the rapid construction of overland pipelines from Kazakhstan into China. The $ 700 million 960-km pipeline with an initial annual capacity of 10 million tons and full capacity of 20 million tons was a joint venture between China’s National Petroleum Corporation and KazmunaiGaz. The initial supply to China’s north-west may be small but the idea is to break away from dependency on West Asian sources and sea-lanes.

The recent Russia-China-India meeting in New Delhi of the three Foreign Ministers, therefore, assumes a heightened significance. It is still early days to predict where this dialogue is headed because each country of this evolving triangle seeks better relations with the US. Nevertheless, the idea also is to counter US unipolarity and unilateralism through a loose tripartite arrangement seeking to build a more balanced multi-polar world. The fact that these three countries, together, account for two-fifths of the world’s population, a fifth of the economy that is growing rapidly to reach two-fifths in the decades ahead, the largest armies in the world and are nuclear armed would not be lost on commentators and strategic planners. A strategic reorientation may be taking place.

In the context of dwindling fossil fuel supplies and rising demands, he who controls not just the production but also the supply and has discovered substitutes, will rule the world. India, whose buoyant economy has a 70 per cent dependency on imported fossil fuels and weaponry for its security, is disadvantaged as it has neither the deep pockets of the Chinese and the Americans, the military power of the Russians and the Americans and nor the single-mindedness of the Chinese or the Russians. The jostling for vantage positions to control energy resources in the years ahead is going to be ruthless and urgent. This will largely determine each country’s future in this century.

As the Great Game intensifies, there is need to reposition and reorient our strategies. There has to be an Indian version of the CNN-BBC-Al Jazeera kind of voice in India’s extended neighbourhood. There is need to capitalise on the soft power of our IT industry, the talent of our young population and the ability of our engineers to handle infrastructure and petro-chemical projects. India must seek to have a higher profile in the West Asia-Eurasia region.

Vikram Sood is former Secretary, Research & Analysis Wing.