The Pulse

India and the 21st Century’s Great Game

A new monograph calls for India and the U.S. to work together in Eurasia.

India and the 21st Century’s Great Game
Credit: The White House

The U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute recently published a monograph by Roman Muzalevsky on India’s strategic role in the 21st century’s “Great Game” in Central Asia. Titled “Unlocking India’s Strategic Potential in Central Asia,” Muzalevsky’s work analyzes the complicated relationships between, and rivalries among, India, China, Iran, Russia and the United States in the heart of the Eurasian landmass. He concludes that India and the United States can best advance their interests in the region if they develop a “strategic partnership” that allows them to both compete and collaborate with the other powers vying for influence in Central Asia.

Muzalevsky, a researcher and analyst for iJet International, Inc., has studied and written extensively about the region. He is the author of China’s Rise and Reconfiguration of Central Asia’s Geopolitics: A Case for U.S. Pivot to Eurasia (2015), From Frozen Ties to Strategic Engagement: U.S.- Iranian Relationship in 2030 (2015), and Central Asia’s Shrinking Connectivity Gap: Implications for U.S. Strategy (2014). In this monograph, Muzalevsky discusses both the geopolitical constraints and opportunities that India confronts as it develops policies and strategies to increase its influence in Central Asia.

India, the author notes, is a latecomer to the 21st century’s Great Game, having stood by after the end of the Cold War as China, the United States, Iran, and a resurgent Russia sought to improve their respective economic and political interests in the region. India’s initial reluctance to compete in the region was due, in part, to its focus on domestic issues and its tradition of non-alignment. India also suffered from geography: It lacks a common border with Central Asia and must interact with the region through unstable Afghanistan and hostile Pakistan. Meanwhile, China exploited its geography and economic power to implement its so-called “Silk Road” strategy in the region, Russia used its geographical proximity and traditional economic and political ties to the region and its leaders to further its Eurasia strategy, and Iran used favorable geography and common cultural/religious ties to further its interests there.

Muzalevsky notes that the United States has a military presence in the Eurasian heartland for the first time in history, but is currently pulling back militarily from the region – a move he believes will harm U.S. long term interests. A politically stable and secure Afghanistan is an interest that India shares with the U.S., and Muzalevsky recommends that India and the U.S. work in tandem to do more to bring that about. He laments, however, that the U.S., after long and unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, seems more intent on withdrawing militarily from Afghanistan than on promoting stability.

India recognizes that its greatest strategic rival in the region is China. Muzalevsky calls China the greatest “barrier” to India’s emergence as a power in Central Asia and a global great power. Indeed, India views Chinese strategy here as one of geopolitical encirclement. Muzalevsky writes:

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To that purpose, China has . . . used its growing economic and security partnerships with Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar to India’s northeast; Sri-Lanka, Thailand, and Malaysia to India’s southeast; Pakistan and Afghanistan to India’s northwest; and Central Asia to India’s northwest.

This landward geographical encirclement coupled with China’s expanded role in the Indian Ocean poses insurmountable dilemmas for India’s plans to expand its influence in Central Asia unless it eschews non-alignment and, Muzalevsky suggests, strategically partners with the United States.

In 2012, India’s leaders announced a policy called “Connect Central Asia,” which is designed to further India’s economic and political ties to the states of Central Asia, especially in the areas of energy and transportation. Muzalevsky recognizes India’s growing economic ties to a few Central Asian states, and envisions possible collaborative efforts here between India and Iran and China, all of which would benefit from energy and transportation improvements in the region. He even goes so far as to suggest that India and the United States may be able to shape Iran’s interaction with the states of the region. He makes it clear, however, that “Connect Central Asia” has lagged far behind Chinese and Russian moves in the 21st century’s Great Game.

Muzalevsky’s sophisticated geopolitical analysis, however, produces more questions than answers. For example, India and the U.S. would, as he suggests, appear to be ideal partners to contain or counterbalance China in Central Asia, but there is no indication that policymakers in Washington have decided how to approach the growth of Chinese power despite all of the rhetoric about the “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia.  As noted earlier, the U.S. is militarily retreating from the region in the wake of two unpopular wars, and has done nothing substantial in response to Russia’s aggressive moves in the Middle East. Moreover, it is not clear that India would be wise to rely on a U.S. commitment to a strategic partnership given the current U.S. administration’s affinity for global retrenchment and multilateralism in foreign policy.

There is also a question as to whether democracies, such as India and the United States, can conduct a foreign policy based on pure rational national security interests instead of sentiment, popular emotions, and competing special interests. Muzalevsky envisions India and the U.S. engaged in a delicate, sophisticated, nuanced approach that combines elements of competition and collaboration with current and potential adversaries. This may be too much to ask. The great British geopolitical theorist Halford Mackinder once noted that, “Democracy refuses to think strategically unless and until compelled to do so for purposes of defense.”

In any event, the Great Game of the 21st century proceeds apace. It is a geopolitical competition that will likely influence the future global balance of power.

Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (Transaction Books) and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War (University Press of America). He is also a contributor to Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics (Potomac Books).  He has written on historical and foreign policy topics for Joint Force QuarterlyAmerican Diplomacy, the University BookmanThe Claremont Review of BooksThe DiplomatStrategic Review, the Washington Times and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.