By James M. Dorsey
Remarks at conference on Regional Cooperation Initiatives in the Asia-Pacific and the Emergence of New Eurasian Geopolitics, Centre on Asia and Globalisation, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy
One thing this week’s US air strikes in Syria highlight is the fact that the sands are continuously shifting as regional and world powers jockey for position in a future Eurasian world order. The strikes raise questions that go far beyond potential greater US involvement in the Syrian conflict. The answer to those questions will likely impact the role America may play in Eurasia and the Asia Pacific.
What is surprising is not the fact that US President Donald J. Trump ordered the launching of missiles. He has signalled with his appointment of generals in key national security positions as well as his budget proposals a more muscular, military-oriented approach to foreign policy. What that meant has been evident since he came to office in January in greater US military engagement in Yemen.
What is surprising is that days after Mr. Trump declared that he was president of the United States, not president of the world, that he, clearly taken aback by the horror of the Syrian chemical weapons attack, acted to uphold international law and packaged it in terms of compassion. The US strikes obviously countered allegations that he may be beholden to Russia as well as not unfounded perceptions of Islamophobia or an anti-Muslim bias.
Mr. Trump may not have a clearly formulated policy framework. Or maybe he does, but wants to keep everybody guessing. He has repeatedly stated that he would not broadcast his intentions to the world. Whichever it is, he is keeping China on its toes with regard to North Korea. He is also keeping Iran on it toes, particularly given the chances that President Hassan Rouhani could lose the forthcoming May election to a hard-liner.
On the notion, of the king is dead, long live the king, predictions of a US withdrawal from its role as the guarantor of a world order and US isolationism are premature, even if one is seeing a rollback on liberal US values such as human rights. For Eurasia, this alongside numerous other factors, means that the often unspoken notion that China may emerge as an unchallenged power in Eurasia and beyond is equally premature.
No doubt China will be a dominant player, but it will be one of two, and more probably three players, the United States and India being the others. No doubt, China has advantages: it has a first starter advantage with the scale and breadth of its One Belt, One Road initiative, its willingness to take short-term losses for long-term gain, as well as its economic, financial and growing military strength. Yet, all of that is insufficient to guarantee that it will ultimately operate in a unipolar world. More likely it will have to manoeuvre in a multi-polar world. And that may well be one of the takeaways from this week’s missile strikes in Syria.
Several factors are likely to play key roles in the shaping of a future Eurasian world order:
States across Eurasia may be pivoting towards China, but many are hedging their bets. As Saudi Arabia’s King Salman toured Asia last month, his son and powerful deputy crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, travelled to Washington. Middle Eastern autocrats have embraced Mr. Trump lock, stock and barrel, including his controversial travel ban. If anything, the missiles strikes in Syria cemented that. The same hedging strategy is true for democracies like Sri Lanka or Myanmar.
And that is the Achilles Heel of the approach of whatever power, China, the United States or Russia, jockeying for position in Eurasia. The 2011 Arab popular revolts are perceived to have failed, a discussion that goes too far to embark on here, but the lesson of those uprisings stands. Autocracies that fail to deliver are inherently unstable and history teaches that most autocracies fail to deliver. The United States, China and Russia are placing their bets to a large extent on autocracies. In recent years China, has experienced the extent of the risk involved in that approach, witness Libya, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. No bet is shakier than the one Russia and Iran have placed on Bashar Al-Assad. Mr. Al-Assad is damaged goods, a pariah, no matter what happens in Syria. Russia and China as does the United States to a lesser extent run a similar risk in Central Asia.
China’s riskiest bet may well be in Pakistan, the country where it is investing perhaps the most. The risks are multi-fold. They include unease about the terms of Chinese investment involving massive returns on investment expected by China that sink countries into debt traps and raise questions about impact on local economies and the lack of a trickledown effect. Energy is the one aspect of Chinese investment, in what supporters describe as the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and critics have dubbed Colonizing Pakistan to Enrich China where the positive impact on an energy-starved country is likely to be most immediate.
In anticipation of the construction boom, the Mian family in Lahore invested $30 million to build a second plant of Fast Cables, one of Pakistan’s largest cable producers. Instead of benefitting from Chinese investment, the family fears bankruptcy. Cables for Chinese-built energy projects are not procured in Pakistan. They are imported tax free from China. For much the same reasons, protests have disrupted China’s plans for a port and special economic zone in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota. The city’s gleaming, Chinese-built airport operates all of four flights a day. The story repeats itself elsewhere in Eurasia. The Federation of Pakistani Chambers of Commerce and Industry has raised grave doubts about the impact of CPEC, noting that the demography of Balochistan, a thinly populated area of 70,000 inhabitants would dramatically change with the influx of up two million Chinese and Pakistanis from other parts of the country. The cost of the debt trap in terms of land concessions that change demography is already evident in countries like Tajikistan and has sparked protests in Myanmar. A Pakistani financial brokerage calculates that the Chinese rate of return on investment is a whopping 40 percent.
What makes Pakistan China’s riskiest investment goes beyond the pattern of commercial terms that are perceived as not being equitable. The port of Gwadar, a key node in China’s string of pearls, a network of ports across Eurasia, was first inaugurated some nine years ago. It’s not much more active than the airport in Hambantota. Balochistan is engulfed in an insurgency whose connotations go far beyond ethnic and nationalist aspirations. Political violence in Balochistan is as much an expression of long-standing local grievances as it is linked to a Pakistani state that sees militant proxies as part of its security, defense and foreign policies. Pakistan has been able to do so with the support in the 1980s of the United States during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, and since then with the backing of Saudi Arabia and China. The result is a state in which Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism has been embedded in significant segments of society as well as key branches of the state creating an environment in which the potential of violence is significantly enhanced. While Gwadar idles, Chabahar, an Indian-built port in Iran, some 60 kilometres further West is likely to push ahead.
Competition between Gwadar and Chabahar leads one automatically to the role of Middle Eastern players, primarily Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran in shaping the future architecture of Eurasia. Pakistan is emblematic of the impact of Saudi backing of ultra-conservatism in cooperation with governments willing to opportunistically play politics with religion. Yet, the rise of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism and limited Iranian successes in countering it contributes to the groundwork for domestic strife and instability across Eurasia.
Despite widespread perceptions and Saudi success in ensuring that ultra-conservatism is an influential player in Muslim majority countries and minority communities alike, Saudi Arabia has a weak hand that ultimately makes it unlikely that it will come out on top. That is nowhere more evident than in energy and particularly gas. What will determine the future of Eurasia’s energy landscape will not be Saudi oil but Iranian and Turkmen gas. Energy scholar Michael Tanchum estimates that Iran will likely have 24.6 billion cubic metres of gas available for export in the next five years. That is enough to service two of Iran’s three major clients, Turkey, Europe and China. Likelihood is that it will certainly keep Turkey, leaving it with having to choose between Europe and China.
The jockeying for position in Eurasia resembles a game of Risk. The game’s outcome is unpredictable. Wracked by internal political and economic problems, Europe may not have the wherewithal for geopolitical battle. Yet, despite a weak hand, it could come out on top in the play for energy dominance. US backing of India in the Great Game and efforts to drive wedges into mostly opportunistic alliances such as cooperation between China and Russia and Russia and Iran could help Europe compensate for its weakness. Similarly, a hard US approach towards Iran, particularly if Mr. Rouhani is defeated in the next election buys Saudi Arabia time. Assuming, last week’s missile strikes in Syria were not a one-off after which the United States reverts to a more isolationist attitude, greater US assertiveness could temporarily drive China and Russia and Russia and Iran closer together. That, however, would not make potential, if not inevitable differences between them go away.
The missile strikes may well have had another effect that is crucial for Eurasia. If much of Trump’s initial period in the White House was marked by a sense of insecurity and defensiveness about the legitimacy of his election, the missile strikes that enjoyed bipartisan and broad international support may have put that behind him. That has implications for the impact of US investigations into Russian meddling in the US elections that benefitted not only Russia but also China. And it has an impact on populists in Europe with hopes for electoral success in France and Germany who in many ways are inspired by Trump’s success and may not want to stray too far away from his policies despite initial criticism of the strikes by the likes of French populist leader Marie le Pen.
The long and short of this all is:
First and foremost, the future of Eurasia is up for grabs
Multiple players, major ones like China, India and the United States, and lesser ones like Russia, Japan and Middle Eastern states, are jockeying for position.
No one player is likely to emerge as the clear winner.
Energy and ports are key pawns in Eurasia’s Great Game
Black swans could well determine the fate of various players. No swan is bigger than the inherent, if not always immediately apparent, instability of autocratic regimes that have yet to truly deliver. That is certainly true for Central Asian states but equally true for Middle Eastern ones, including those like Saudi Arabia that recognize that the status quo can no longer be maintained and that survival depends on successful efforts to upgrade autocracy and bring it into the 21st century.
In a world of interdependence, it may well be developments in states like those in Central Asia and the Middle East that determine the fate of strategies of the major players.
And just to end with more black swans, that no doubt others will pick up on: uncertainties in the region we are in today, Southeast Asia. Major among those are Chinese territorial claims in the East and South China Seas.
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 the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.