A new great game is afoot in West Asia

Big powers have been meddling in West Asia for long. Now China has made huge investments there. Will it be able to extend its influence?
Image used for representational purpose.
Image used for representational purpose.Express illustration | sourav roy

In geopolitics, a Great Game is a reference to the build-up to a potential contest in a region where a clash of interests between two or more influential powers appears inevitable. The term was first used academically by Professor H W C Davis in 1926. It referred to the 19th-century Anglo-Russian rivalry in Central Asia. It was not just the confrontation but the strategy of establishing spheres of influence in the various sub-regions of Afghanistan and Central Asia by both Russia and Great Britain that subsequently became an established characteristic of the strategy of any Great Game.

West Asia is prone to and ideally suited to similar Great Game strategies. The US and Russia lobbied hard through the Cold War. The US invariably backed Israel, but maintained a cordial relationship with most of the energy-producing Arab nations. For the US, the stability of West Asia and keeping it conflict-free was a priority to ensure its own continuity of energy interests. The former Soviet Union mainly backed the militant Arab states of Egypt and Syria to remain embedded in its area of interest and prevent any strategic imbalance in favour of the US. 

Both the Soviet Union and the US were far from their home shores, but there was a clear differentiation in approach adopted by them. The US chose to establish military bases, particularly at maritime locations, and parked assets and troops at various facilities, thus also offering incidental security to some monarchies. Russia did not resort to this; although, for them, the stakes were very high to ensure that they had a foothold in warm waters outside the Black Sea.

The Russians came back in 2015 to ensure their interests in Syria, particularly the military facilities, remained intact and were not overrun by the menace of the marauding Daesh, which was then threatening all of West Asia. An earlier contention of US interests in West Asia invariably revolved around hydrocarbons. As more shale gas reserves were discovered, the US appeared to have lost comparative strategic interest in the region in favour of the Indo-Pacific, which after 2015 became the attractive ‘go-to’ domain of worldwide strategic interests. Why did it come back with a bang as it did, especially in the times of Donald Trump?

The Trump administration wasn’t wrong in its supposed assumption that West Asia would always remain the strategic centre of the world, despite many Shangri La dialogues. Take a look, how? A majority of trade routes intersect in the region; the Suez Canal remains a key asset of the region. Energy-wise, it still remains the central zone, providing energy to two of the world’s very important manufacturing hubs Japan and China, besides to populous and fast-emerging India. Conflicts here always had a way of ensuring the rest of the world got involved with the spin-offs. For the better part of the last 75 years, the ideological drivers of conflict have all emanated from here. Political Islam was born here and its contribution to instability in crucial regions around the world is well recognised.

In recent times, the mass migration from conflict-ridden zones have mainly been from West Asia, bringing in their wake social turbulence in the stable societies of Europe. The one phenomenon that has yet to hit West Asia is the politics of overt nuclearisation; the covert part has been rife for some time. That is why the above board and also simmering conflicts have the potential to  trigger events that could become uncontrollable and lead to much more.

Iran’s general proxy war strategy in multiple sub-regions, Syria’s civil war, Saudi Arabia’s war against the Houthis in Yemen and now the raging Israeli war against the Palestinians in Gaza, all bear the potential of going completely out of control and need the influence of the big powers to draw them back. That is why it’s a surprise that the US, with all its interests intact in having a stable and not a turbulent West Asia, continues to soft-pedal the proposal for even a ceasefire in Gaza.

West Asia is not just the hunting ground for the US, although it has retained its interests here by parking sufficient troops and other military assets to enable it to move and build up to any other part of the world. China is now eyeing the area, as was evident from its much-touted brokerage of a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran that  incidentally is not spoken of much in current strategic circles.

What would the Chinese concept of its role in the West Asian Great Game possibly be? China is unlikely to park any military assets here. None of the nations of the regions would want alien troops on their soil at this juncture. US presence continues as it harks back to the Cold War, when the strategic environment was quite different.

China will employ every means short of hard power to retain influence over its energy suppliers and maintain continuity there. It will refrain from ever getting involved in conflicts of any kind. The strategic security domain in which its active involvement may be virtually guaranteed is the maritime zone that  influences the security of its energy sources. The beat, Djibouti to Gwadar and stepping north up to Chabahar, is where China has made investment.

Clearly it is its area of focus, and it's here that it will remain sensitive to the point of responding if provoked. It clearly won’t involve itself against Houthis and the likes in the Red Sea or elsewhere. China is known to have invested $273 billion in West Asia in the period 2005-22, and it will make all that count. What is suspect is China’s ability to fully comprehend culture and civilisation, two areas that  are so essential for empire and extension of influence.

The US and India have a swathe of mutual interests here; from the Western Quad US-UAE-India-Israel (U2I2) to the nascent India-Middle East-Europe Corridor (IMEC). As the US pushes for influence in the Indo Pacific and China pushes for the same in West Asia, the impact of their clash could well be felt most in the middle. No prizes for guessing where that could be.

(Views are personal)

(atahasnain@gmail.com)

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd), Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir

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