By James M. Dorsey
The United States and China are playing Eurasia’s 21st century Great Game from different but equally skewed maps. While the US map appears to be outdated, the Chinese map portrays a reality that is imagined.
If the skewed realities of both China and the United States have one thing in common, it is in strategist Parag Khanna’s mind the fact that neither realizes that the Great Game’s prize, a new world order, has already been determined.
“We are living – for the first time ever -- in a truly multipolar and multicivilizational order in which North America, Europe and Asia each represents a major share of power,” Mr. Khanna says in his just published book, The Future is Asian.
While the United States sees the Great Game as an as yet open-ended battle for influence in Europe and Asia and looks at Russia as a European rather than a Eurasian power, China overestimates what its future position, aided by its US$1 trillion infrastructure and energy-driven Belt and Road initiative, is likely to be.
The skewed perceptions of both the United States and China create spaces for multiple other powers like Russia and various Middle Eastern states to carve out positions of their own.
China, nonetheless, alongside Russia has one advantage. In contrast, to the United States, it adopts the notion put forward by former Portuguese Europe minister Bruno Macias that the number of the world’s continents is shrinking from seven to six. Increasingly, Europe and Asia no longer see their common landmass as two separate continents and are gravitating towards what Mr. Macias calls a “supercontinent.”
Mr. Khanna implicitly acknowledges Mr. Macias’ notion by concluding that contrary to perceived Chinese expectations “ultimately, China’s position will be not of an Asian or global hegemon but rather of the eastern anchor of the Asian – and Eurasian – mega-system.”
China’s perceived other advantage, its economic and financial muscle, in the juggling for position on the new supercontinent is also proving to be its Achilles Heel.
The belief that the driver of the Belt and Road is geopolitics rather than economics is bolstered by predictions that none of China’s Indian Ocean port projects have much hope of financial success.
A Financial Times study last year concluded that 78 countries targeted by China for project development are among the world’s most risky economies. On a scale of one to seven, the highest level of country risk, Belt and Road countries ranked 5.2, a significantly higher risk than the 3.5 average for emerging markets. They had a median rating by Moody’s, the credit rating agency, that was the equivalent of non-investment junk investment grade.
The risk was reflected on the balance sheets of major Chinese state-owned companies that build, operate and invest in many Belt and Road projects. The study reported that China’s top internationally active construction and engineering contractors were almost four times more highly leveraged than their non-Chinese competitors.
In a bid to avert a financial crisis, the government has ordered state-owned companies to reduce their debt burden, in part by attributing greater importance to the viability of overseas projects.
The risk to China is not purely economic. It is also geopolitical and reputational. Increasingly, China is forced to focus short term less on the Great Game itself and more on countering the negative effect of a growing perception that China’s projection of the Belt and Road as a mutually beneficial proposition is more fantasy than fact.
A growing number of countries, like Pakistan, Malaysia, Myanmar and Nepal, question the benefits of Belt and Road projects and are resisting China’s often onerous commercial and funding terms.
Ironically, China’s immediate rivals in efforts to maintain its status and ensure that it does not lose hard-won ground are not the United States, India or Japan but its newly assertive, geopolitically ambitious friends in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well as Iran.
That is nowhere truer than in Pakistan, a Belt and Road crown jewel, where Saudi Arabia and the UAE have exploited to their advantage Chinese irritation with Pakistani demands to shift the emphasis of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) from infrastructure and energy to agriculture, job creation and the enabling of third-party investment, primarily from countries in the Gulf.
Chinese chagrin has been evident in China’s hesitancy to respond to Pakistani requests for help in averting a financial crisis.
Filling the gap, massive Saudi and UAE aid and investment to the tune of US$30 billion in balance of payment support, deferred oil import payments and investment in the troubled Pakistani province of Balochistan that borders Iran has helped the government of Imran Khan avoid asking the International Monetary Fund (IMF) cap in hand to bail it out.
China fears that Pakistan’s mounting dependence on Saudi Arabia and the UAE coupled with a US campaign intended to curb Iran’s regional projection potentially complicates the security of its massive US$45 billion plus investment that to a large extent targets Balochistan.
The United States and Saudi Arabia see Balochistan as a possible launching pad for possible efforts to destabilize the Islamic republic by stirring unrest among its Baloch population and other ethnic minorities.
Increased Saudi and UAE influence in Balochistan could, moreover, suck China into the escalating maelstrom of the two countries’ rivalry with Iran.
Ironically, Saudi and UAE investment has at the same time shielded China from potentially embarrassing disclosure of the financial terms of CPEC-related projects that the IMF was demanding as part of any bailout. Media reports said that Pakistan had informally told the IMF that it would be paying China US$40 billion over 20 years for US$26.5 billion in Chinese funding of CPEC-related projects.
The impact of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, like much of the rest of the Middle East, goes far beyond Balochistan. It also puts its mark elsewhere on the Eurasian supercontinent. In the words of analyst Galip Dalay, the Middle East or West Asia will, for better or for worse, shape each other.
“The contemporary Middle East is no longer the geopolitically US-centric space that the Europeans once knew. Europe can respond in several ways: proceed with its largely ad-hoc, incoherent and crisis-driven policies of recent years; continue to be incorporated into someone else's game plan, as with the French-German involvement in the Russian-led Astana (peace) process for Syria; or craft a more coherent policy towards the region, with a strong emphasis on democratisation, reform, good governance, inclusion and reconciliation… If Europe doesn’t engage and invest in the transformation of the Middle East, regional developments will dramatically transform it, whether through radicalism, refugees, terrorism, xenophobia or populism. Interactions between Europe and the Middle East will be transformative, for better or for worse.,” Mr. Dalay said.
The Middle East is similarly crucial to the success of China’s Belt and Road with Iran and Turkey representing key nodes that further the rise of Eurasia through Chinese-funded rails that link the Atlantic coast of Europe to the People’s Republic.
The Middle East’s impact is one facet of a bigger game in which world and regional powers are competing for position in Mr. Khanna’s multipolar and multicivilizational order.
Robert Malley, a former Obama National Security Council official and head of the International Crisis Group argues that autocratic and authoritarian leaders are testing the limits of the Great Game as the power of Western nations erodes and embattled concepts of multilateralism no longer serve to constrain them.
“As the era of largely uncontested U.S. primacy fades, the international order has been thrown into turmoil. More leaders are tempted more often to test limits, jostle for power, and seek to bolster their influence—or diminish that of their rivals—by meddling in foreign conflicts… Having annexed parts of Georgia and Crimea and stoked separatist violence in Ukraine’s Donbass region, Russia is now throwing its weight around in the Sea of Azov, poisoning dissidents in the United Kingdom, and subverting Western democracies with cyberwarfare. China obstructs freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and arbitrarily detains Canadian citizens… Saudi Arabia has pushed the envelope with the war in Yemen, the kidnapping of a Lebanese prime minister, and the gruesome murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its consulate in Istanbul. Iran plots attacks against dissidents on European soil. Israel feels emboldened to undermine ever more systematically the foundations of a possible two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mr. Malley said.
By implication, Mr. Malley was suggesting that efforts to push the envelope were enabled by the US’ failure to recognize that Europe and Asia were becoming one supercontinent.
That failure was mirrored in the U.S. National Security Strategy published in 2017 by the White House and a study by Rand Corporation in 2018 designed to conceptualize current geopolitics as an era of intensifying international competition.
Rather than recognizing an increasingly evident divergence of interests between the United States and Europe, the study suggested that the US would continue to have the opportunity, if it chooses, to lead a predominant coalition of value-sharing democracies and other largely status quo states to help preserve stability.”
The study appeared to downplay any divergence by reducing differences to “identity-fuelled nationalism” that aims to recapture (countries’) “rightful place” in world politics,” a reference to Russia, China, Iran and North Korea as well as European nations grappling with the rise of nationalist, populist and far-right forces and a Middle East that is shaping Europe through highly emotive issues such as migration, political violence and religious identity.
The US focus on Russia as a European rather than a regional power with global ambitions also means that it underestimates Moscow’s play in the Middle East despite its military intervention in Syria.
Russia national security scholar Stephen Blank argues that President Vladimir Putin’s strategy in the region is rooted in the thinking of Yevgeny Primakov, a Middle East expert and linguist and former spymaster, foreign minister and deputy prime minister, who like Mr. Khanna envisioned the emergence of a multi-polar, multi-civilizational world with Eurasia at its centre.
Mr. Primakov saw the Middle East as a key arena for countering the United States that would enable Russia, weakened by the demise of the Soviet Union and a subsequent economic crisis, to regain its status as a global and regional power and ensure that it would be one pole in a multi-polar world.
By identifying the region as a preferred battleground, Russia benefitted in the words of historian Niall Ferguson from the fact that its significant oil reserves made it “the only power that has no vested interest in stability in the Middle East.”
Mr. Blank argued that “in order to reassert Russia’s greatness, Primakov and Putin aimed ultimately at strategic denial, denying Washington sole possession of a dominant role in the Middle East from where US influence could expand to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS),” a regional grouping of post-Soviet nations.
They believed that if Russia succeeded it would force the United States to concede multi-polarity and grant Russia the recognition it deserves. That, in turn, would allow Mr. Putin to demonstrate to the Russian elite his ability to restore Russia to great power status.
Syria offered Russia the opportunity to display its military prowess without the United States challenging the move. At the same time, Russia leveraged its political and economic clout to forge an alliance with Turkey and partner with Iran. The approach constituted an effort to defang Turkish and Iranian influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Similarly, Russia after brutally repressing religiously inspired Chechen rebels in the 1990s, was proving to be far defter than either China or the United States at promoting politically pacifist or apolitical Islam in a complex game of playing all sides against the middle.
Russian engagement runs the gamut from engaging with militants to cooperating with Muslim autocrats to encouraging condemnation of the kind of Islam adopted by partners such as Saudi Arabia.
Said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center and a former Russian military officer: “Russia is not the Soviet Union. It does not see the Middle East as a region that it can dominate. Displacing the United States from the leading position in the Middle East is way above Russia’s capacity, and keeping the region in its sphere of influence is way above Russia’s resources. Russia has certainly benefited from waning U.S. interest in the Middle East as, absent an active America, Russia can act with more confidence and ease.”
Describing Russia as “a lonely power,” Mr. Trenin went on to say that the difference between Russia and the Soviet Union was that the “Soviet Union was heavily engaged around the Middle East in spending money on an ideological and geopolitical project, the Russian Federation is active in the region trying to make money. The Soviet Union was about an idea. Russia’s idea is about Russia itself.”
In the Great Game’s jostling for position, Mr. Trump’s America First approach mirrors Mr. Trenin’s portrayal of Russian policy. That leaves China tied up in the contradictions of a policy that is packaged in assertions of lofty ideals but like the United States and Russia is in effect first and foremost about the pursuit of Chinese interests.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and recently published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom