How China Plays the Great Game
Image Credit: Richard Fisher

How China Plays the Great Game


One of the reasons the United States and its NATO allies are losing ground to China in the global geopolitical race is the belief in the permanence of tradition and precedent in world affairs—this in an age when paradigm shifts are taking place at an accelerating pace, and when even core realities can change beyond recognition within a decade.

There’s no better example of this trend than the People’s Republic of China itself, which has morphed several times since its founding in 1949. Indeed, to understand present-day China better, and to adjust policy accordingly, some Western analysts might need to set aside the fundamental preconceptions they’ve picked up from studying China’s evolution. Because the fact is, many of them are no longer valid.

Broadly speaking, each decade since 1949 has seen changes in the form and spread of economic progress and societal evolution in China. The first saw the consolidation of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) power. The next, 1959-69, saw the establishment of Mao Zedong’s personal dictatorship over the party. The third, 1969-79, reflected the leadership's efforts at fashioning a strategy for ensuring the global success of China, even if this meant allying itself with the United States. The period from 1979 to 1989 saw the reversal of the economic stagnation of the previous three centuries.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

 But if the 1990s were a period of experimentation with Western culture and possible strategic alliances, the next decade saw the growth of a Han nationalism that had as its core objective the restoration of China's long-cherished status as the world’s leading nation. This was reflected in a deepening self-reliance in technology as well as a geopolitical push to wrest primacy from the United States—first in Asia and Africa, before moving on to South America and finally Europe.

Because China has emerged as a serious challenger to US pre-eminence, it’s not surprising that one of the arenas of confrontation is Afghanistan. If this rivalry hasn’t received the attention that it’s due, it’s more than likely because China has typically attempted to fulfil its objectives there in as ‘silent’ a way as it can (this is in stark contrast with the United States, which usually advertises its engagement and confrontation, in part to bolster perceptions of US global primacy).

Many of those who suffer the misfortune of still remembering the words of Rudyard Kipling believe that the present Afghan situation resembles his ‘Great Game,’ which was played out between the British and Russian empires for mastery of Central Asia. But while current events in Afghanistan are indeed following an already-trodden path, it’s one that’s less 19th century and more 20th —specifically the 1980s. In this age of accelerating change, history seldom gets repeated beyond a 20-year cycle (a cycle which itself is likely to shorten further).

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief