By Venky Vembu
“When everyone is dead,” the writer Rudyard Kipling observed in his immortal Kim, “the Great Game is finished. Not before.”
On that count, there’s plenty more of the Great Game — the rivalry between empires for strategic control over resource-rich Central Asia — to be played out. The US-led coalition, which was drawn into a decade-long war after the 9/11 terror attacks, may be winding down its military entanglement in Afghanistan. But new and emerging regional powers, which are not quite empires, are already looking for a foothold, and beginning to back their economic clout in the region with military muscle as well.
Even India, which has never implanted its security footprint overseas in a defining way, is in on the new Great Game, and up until now has done a fairly good job of playing defence and protecting its interest in Afghanistan. Its actions aren’t motivated by any sense of imperial outreach, but rather more by the felt need to pre-empt the use of Afghan soil as a base from which terror attacks are launched on it.
The harsh memories of Afghanistan under Taliban rule, when the 1999 hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight IC 814 ended bitterly in Kandahar, continue to haunt Indians. It’s an abject lesson on the perils of having hostile neighbours and the proxy states over which they wield influence. It’s a lesson that India may be required to learn yet again, given the new power dynamics that are reshaping the state of play in Afghanistan.
Other regional powers, from Russia to Iran to Pakistan, too are stepping up to fill the security vacuum in Afghanistan that will be created when Nato forces leave in 2014. And in recent times, China too has joined in the hunt.
China had always remained wary of having Nato troops so close to its eastern frontier — in troubled Xinjiang. But to the extent that US and Nato exertions in Afghanistan and Pakistan were targeting Islamic radicals, who China alleged had formed alliance with Uighur separatists at home, it was happy to keep a low profile.
Even when the US, militarily and economically drained by the asymmetric war on an inhospitable terrain far from home, virtually rolled out a red carpet for China — and asked it to help with the Afghan war effort, China declined. It didn’t want to be seen to be playing a subsidiary role to Nato, a sentiment that mattered to domestic nationalist constituencies, and insulated it from jihadi fire.
And in a larger sense, China calculated that the longer the US was bogged down in a losing Great Game, the more elbow room that China would have to expand its influence in the East Asian neighbourhood that it considers its playpen.
China was therefore happy to make investments in mining and oil resources — and extract them for its own use but under cover of Nato troops. It gave rise to the perception that China was having a free ride, and not paying any “blood price” or doing any heavy lifting for the mineral riches it was extracting.
But now, with the Nato troop withdrawal imminent, China is upping its game. In recent years, it has been gradually undertaking work to make the Wakhan Corridor — a thin sliver of land that opens up its land border with Afghanistan — operational for moving both resources out of Afghanistan (and, if necessary, move troops and supplies into Afghanistan).
Work on this area had begun tentatively even as early as in 2009 (as this report notes). It reflected, for the first time, a Chinese inclination to be involved in shaping regional security, even if only in its own interest. China is now about to sign a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan, as part of which it will impart training to the embattled police force. It marks an enhancement in China’s profile in Afghanistan.
India had all along cast a wary eye on suspected Chinese troop presence in parts of Pakiatan-occupied Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. Today, there is a greater understanding of the security implications for India as China opens up the Wakhan Corridor and expands its footprint in Afghanistan.
Gen VK Singh, who retired last week as Army chief, is working on a PhD programme (his thesis is on ‘Fundamentalism in Afghanistan and the Geo Strategic Significance of the Wakhan Corridor’), and in an interview to The Telegraph today, he lays bare the strategic consequences of China’s move to “outflank” India.
“India risks losing the influence it has in Afghanistan because of a China-Pakistan link that is getting stronger and is seen in evidence here,” he said. In his reckoning, China is perhaps even burrowing a tunnel under the Pamir range that skirts Jammu and Kashmir.
“China’s objective,” Gen Singh told The Telegraph, “is to increase connectivity with Afghanistan where it already has considerable presence along with India in development and other projects.”
Gen Singh’s findings take forward what has been known among strategic circles, and validate in some ways China’s “string of pearls” theory of encircling India. If it plays true to form, it opens up a new flank of weakness in India’s defences.
Clearly, the Great Game is far from over, and China’s entry raises the security stakes for India. And in the “graveyard of empires”, the game doesn’t end, as Kipling noted, even with the last man standing. India too will now be compelled to up its game.