Features | Security | East Asia

How China Plays the Great Game

The prize for China is ejecting the US from Asia, says Madhav Nalapat. Its best chance to claim it? NATO’s defeat in Afghanistan.

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 Because the fact is, many of them are no longer valid.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.

 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).

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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).

What’s taking place in Afghanistan is in many respects a repeat of what took place when the United States and Saudi Arabia used the Pakistan Army to wage an unconventional war against the Soviets. Today, that very military (the only one in the world to have Jihad as its official motto) is being sought out by China to script the humiliation of what some see as an exhausted superpower—the United States.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about the new Great Game is that it may not be taking place with the participation of several of the organs of state power in China. In fact, it looks very much like it’s being scripted almost entirely by a single entity—the PLA—which has today become a near autonomous player within the Chinese structure of governance.

This is a considerable shift. Both Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping kept the PLA on a tight leash, the former making it an accomplice of his depredations on those elements in the CCP that he regarded as foes, and the latter succeeding in pushing it out of sight. However, once Jiang Zemin took control of the Chinese Communist Party in the 1990s, he began to indulge the PLA, a process that has yet to be reversed by his successor.

In part, this could be down to the fact that Jiang established a possible precedent whereby a CCP general secretary could extend his period in formal authority and policy relevance by continuing as chairman of the Central Military Commission beyond his retirement as CCP general secretary (Jiang doing so for 20 months after handing over the party baton to Hu Jintao in 2002).

Given his Asia-oriented geopolitical vision and his desire to ensure that the CCP respond to grassroots sentiment rather than rely on coercion, Hu is likely to seek to continue as CMC chief even after stepping down as party head in 2012. Because of this, he too has adopted as conciliatory a line towards the PLA as Jiang did, in the process allowing it to fashion policy in several crucial theatres, including India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In each of these, the policies adopted by the CCP core reflect the perceptions and narrow needs of the PLA rather than that of the broader state.

Over the past 15 years, the control of ‘the party over the gun’ has eroded, one consequence being that displays of muscle have taken place that have run counter to Deng’s philosophy of ‘speaking softly’ even while carrying a big stick. One clear example was the display of military temper across the Taiwan Strait in the 1990s. More recently there’s been the present standoff with India over the status of Kashmir and tensions with South-east Asian countries about the extent of their claim on territorial waters in the South China Sea.

In foreign policy, the PLA has become an autonomous player within the CCP pantheon, rather than being limited by the policy set by the State Council. Because of this, some disconnect has developed between General Secretary Hu's vision of a close alliance between China and India and the actual direction of policy.

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The PLA, after all, has its own priorities, seeing the Pakistan Army as its closest ally in Asia after the militaries of North Korea and Burma. The consequence has been a policy toward India that has been tilted in a way similar to that adopted by Nixon and Kissinger in the early 1970s.

Meanwhile, while the US defence secretary fantasizes publicly about the loyalty and reliability of the Pakistan Army, despite the reality being that since the launch of the Afghan war in 2001 and the 2003 occupation of Iraq, more and more members of Pakistan’s officer corps have turned hostile to the United States (a sentiment apparently not hidden at regimental dinner tables).

The reason why such a shift in opinion is significant can be found in the fact that successors of Zia ul-Haq as Pakistan’s chief of the army staff need the support of the key corps commanders to retain authority within the overall force. In a way, this dependence on his peers is similar to that of the once all-powerful general secretary of the CCP, who needed to have the backing of the Politburo to ensure he didn’t go the way of Hua Guofeng, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang—all three of whom were rendered ineffective by opposition from within the Politburo's Standing Committee.

Today, Pakistan’s corps commanders view Beijing as a far more natural partner than Washington, and consequently respond to signals from there rather than from the Pentagon. But even if Chief of the Army Staff Gen. P A Kayani wanted to advance the NATO agenda in Afghanistan (itself improbable) he’d be unable to do so, given his need to have senior commanders on his side in the perpetual effort to ensure the primacy of the military over the civilian establishment in Pakistan.

Yet, although the Indian strategic community regards the world's most populous democracy as being the target of the PLA's expansion of its capabilities within the Indian Ocean Rim, the reality is that India plays only a subsidiary role in the PLA’s considerations. The PLA actually sees the US armed forces as its main rival, and responds to India only to the extent that it perceives Delhi to be a fellow traveller of the United States.

It’s hardly a secret that the PLA would like the US military to exit from Asia, and what better way of hurrying this along than by ensuring that NATO is defeated in Afghanistan, the way the USSR military was? The best way of achieving this objective is through the Pakistan Army, which has perfected the science of professing compliance with US commands while apparently doing very little to carry them out. Indeed, it has shown considerable skill in doing the reverse, sabotaging US interests through ‘retired’ and ‘on leave’ personnel, so that deniability can be maintained. Both the Pakistan Army and the PLA evidently believe that a US victory in Afghanistan would entrench US forces in that country, while a defeat would send them packing, leaving the  country as low-hanging fruit for the intrepid duo to dominate.

Small wonder, then, that the many ‘operations’ against the Taliban that are being conducted by the Pakistan Army seem to be having zero success in checking the progress of that ragtag band, this despite the fact that—unlike in 1994-95—the Taliban is feared and loathed by the overwhelming majority of Pashtuns.

This is why the PLA is even willing to make a foe of India—riling Delhi over Kashmir, including by rejecting visas to Indian army commanders who they had themselves invited to visit, and stationing thousands of uniformed personnel in the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir, ostensibly to build roads.

So what would the prize be should China prevail in this 21th century version of the Great Game? It would be nothing less than the replacement of the United States by China as the pre-eminent military power in Asia. It would look much, in fact, like the defeat of the Soviets in 1988, which ultimately led to the eclipse of Moscow by Washington across the globe.