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China Plays to Win the 21st Century's Great Game

[In the latest JINSA Global Briefing, M.D. Nalapat, Vice-Chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group and UNESCO Peace Chair as well as Professor of Geopolitics at Manipal University in India's Karnataka State, explains that in the 21st century version of the Great Game, China seeks to replace the U.S. as the dominant player in Asia by manipulating Pakistan to ensure a NATO failure in Afghanistan.]

September 23, 2010

China Plays to Win the 21st Century's Great Game
By M.D. Nalapat

Among the reasons why NATO is losing ground to the People's Republic of China (PRC) in the global geopolitical race is the belief in the permanence of tradition and precedent in world affairs. It is hard to understand that such beliefs still have adherents when it is clear that today paradigm shifts are accelerating and even core conditions are altered beyond recognition within a decade. The PRC is itself an example of such a trend, having morphed several times since its founding in 1949. To understand present day realities in that country and adjust policy, analysts and scholars sometimes need to remove from their memory concepts and information that were valid during earlier stages of the PRC's evolution.

Each decade since 1949 has seen changes in the form and spread of economic progress and societal evolution in China. The first was the consolidation of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) power over the country. The next (1959-1969) was the establishment of Mao Zedong's personal dictatorship over the Party. The third (1969-1979) was reflected in the leadership's efforts at fashioning a strategy for ensuring China's global success - even through an alliance with the United States. The fourth period (1979-1989) saw a reversal of the economic stagnation of the previous three decades. If the fifth period (1989-1999) was exemplified by experimentation with western culture and possible alliances, the sixth (1999-present) saw the growth of a Han nationalism that had as its core objective the restoration of China's historically long-held status as the most developed nation in the world. This sixth period witnessed both the deepening of self-reliance in technology as well as a geopolitical push to wrest primacy from the United States first in Asia and Africa, then in South America and finally in Europe.

Afghanistan, Once Again the Setting for the Great Game

As the PRC has emerged as a serious challenger to American global pre-eminence, it is not surprising that one of the arenas of confrontation is Afghanistan. If this rivalry has not engendered much attention then the reason lies in the fact that the PRC usually goes about the fulfillment of its objectives in as "silent" a way as possible. This is in stark contrast to the United States, which usually advertises its engagements and confrontations in some part to increase the perception of U.S. global primacy.

Those who suffer from the handicap of remembering Kipling believe that the present Afghan situation resembles his "Great Game" that was played out between the British and Russian empires. Current events in Afghanistan are indeed following a well-worn path, but one that resembles less the 19th Century than it does the 20th, specifically the 1980s.

In this age of accelerating change (including in societal mindsets), history seldom gets repeated beyond a 20-year cycle, which in the first half of the current century will shrink further to about ten years. What is taking place in Afghanistan is indeed a repeat of the history that took place when the United States and Saudi Arabia used the Pakistani army to wage an unconventional war against the Soviet Union. Today, the PRC seeks to use that very same military force - the only one to have jihad as its official motto - to carry out the humiliation of what some would term an exhausted super power, the United States.

The new Great Game is being scripted almost entirely by a single PRC entity, the People's Liberation Army (PLA), which has today become a near autonomous player within the PRC governance structure. This represents a considerable change from the past. 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 core that he regarded as enemies, and the latter succeeded in pushing the PRC out of sight.

Once Jiang Zemin took control of the Chinese Communist Party in the 1990s, however, he began to indulge the PLA, a process that has yet to be checked by his successor. Part of the reason could be that Jiang's own actions established appear to have established a precedent whereby the CCP General Secretary extends his period in formal authority and policy relevance past the mandated retirement age by continuing on as Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC). Jiang served 20 months as CMC Chairman after handing over the party baton to Hu Jintao in 2002.

PLA Taking Foreign Policy Lead

Given his Asia-oriented geopolitical vision and desire to ensure that the CCP respond to grassroots sentiment rather than rely on the coercive powers of the state security apparatus, Hu is also likely to seek to continue as CMC chief even after stepping down as CCP chief in 2012. Because of this, he, like Jiang Zemin before him, has adopted as conciliatory a line towards the PLA and, in the process, has allowed it to fashion policy in several crucial areas, including toward India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Of great consequence, the policies adopted by the CCP toward each of these countries reflect the perceptions and narrow needs of the PLA rather than that of the broader state or nation.

Over the past 15 years, strong control of the CCP has eroded, one consequence being that displays of muscle have taken place that have gone counter to Deng Xiaoping's philosophy of "speaking softly" even while carrying a big stick. Examples include the display of military temper across the Taiwan Strait in the 1990s, the present standoff with India over the status of Kashmir and tensions with Southeast Asian countries about the extent of their claim on territorial waters in the China Seas.

In the formulation of strategic and foreign policy, the PLA has become an autonomous player within the CCP pantheon and no longer appears to be limited by the State Council. Because of this situation, General Secretary Hu Jintao's vision of a close alliance between the PRC and India has broken down as well as the policy that India and Pakistan would be treated in parallel, rather than pursuing a policy favoring one over the other.

PLA Quashes India Relations in Favor of Pakistan

The PLA, however, has its own priorities and views the Pakistani army as its closest ally in Asia after the militaries of North Korea and Myanmar. Hence, it has ensured that China's policy toward India be reduced in a manner similar to that adopted by Nixon and Kissinger toward Taiwan in the early 1970s.

While U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates publicly fantasizes about the loyalty and reliability of the Pakistani army, the reality is that, since the 2001 Afghanistan War and the 2003 occupation of Iraq, more and more members of Pakistan's officer corps have turned hostile to the United States, a sentiment not hidden at regimental dinner tables. The reason why such a shift in opinion is significant can be found in the fact that since the period of Zia ul-Haq's command, those succeeding him as Pakistani Chief of Army Staff are dependent on the support of the key Corps Commanders to retain authority over the overall military.

In Turn, Pakistani Military Favors China over U.S.

The assumption held in many Western capitals, that if the top echelon of the Pakistani military are favorably disposed toward NATO the rest will follow, is flawed on two counts. First, the top echelon in the Pakistani army wishes NATO forces to withdraw from Afghanistan and favor the return of Taliban rule there. Second, the majority of Pakistan's generals are opposed to the fulfillment of NATO's goals in their neighboring country and, moreover, prefer China to the United States as Pakistan's closest ally.

Of the top 20 generals in Pakistan, only two prefer the United States to China, while six are loyal to the China and the rest neutral. As a group, the Corps Commanders view Beijing as a far more natural partner for them to have than Washington and, consequently, respond to signals from there rather than from the Pentagon. Even if Pakistani Chief of the Army Staff General P.A. Kayani had wanted to advance the NATO agenda in Afghanistan (as improbable as that is) he would be unable to do so given the need to have the Corps Commanders on his side in the perpetual effort to ensure the primacy of the Pakistani military over the civilian establishment.

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 a subsidiary role in the calculus of the Chinese military. The PLA sees U.S. armed forces as its rival and responds to India only to the extent that it perceives Delhi to be a fellow traveler of the United States.

Pakistani Military Inaction Furthers China's Interests

It is hardly a secret that the PLA would like the U.S. military to withdraw 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? Given this, what better means of achieving this objective than the Pakistani army which has perfected the science of professing compliance with U.S. requests while doing very little to carry them out in practice. Indeed, Pakistani military elements often prosecute U.S. requests to the opposite intended effect thereby sabotaging U.S. objectives and interests. Such actions, of course, are nearly exclusively carried out by "retired" or "on leave" personnel preserving the Pakistani military leadership's plausible deniability for their subordinates actions. Both the Pakistani army as well as their PLA ally believe that a American victory in Afghanistan would entrench U.S. forces in that country while a defeat would send them packing leaving that country as low-hanging fruit for Islamabad and Beijing to dominate.

Small wonder, therefore, that the many "operations against the Taliban" that are being conducted by the Pakistani army seem to be having zero success in checking the progress of the Taliban and its tribal allies. This lack of success is startling because, unlike in 1994-1995, today the Taliban is feared and loathed by the overwhelming majority of Pashtuns. That the PLA is even willing to make a foe of India by riling Delhi over Kashmir, including the denial of visas to Indian army commanders who were invited to visit China by the PLA and stationing thousands of uniformed personnel in the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir ostensibly to "build roads."

The prize of this 21st century version of the Great Game is nothing less than China's replacement of the United States as the pre-eminent military power in Asia the way the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan in 1988 signaled the eclipse of Moscow by Washington throughout the globe.

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