Not so Great Game

THE world has turned upside down. The United States under Donald Trump is rapidly becoming unrecognisable from the country that has been the patron-saint of ‘globalisation’ since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than 25 years ago. Across the Atlantic, the European Union is in tatters, continuing to reel from Brexit as right-wing xenophobes make inroads into mainstream politics across the continent.

And just to make sure that our cognitive world gets thrown totally into whack: Chinese Premier Xi Jinping announced last month that China would now lead a new ‘golden age’ of globalisation. The setting was the grandest of grand summits in Beijing to mark the formal launch of the One Belt One Road initiative, through which almost $900 billion of Chinese capital will flood Asian countries over the next couple of decades, mostly to fund roads and other physical infrastructure.

While recent events have appeared to signal immense and sudden shifts in the global political economy, in truth change has been coming for a while. The engine of global production started to shift away from Western countries and towards East Asia as early as the 1990s, while it is also an established fact that the labour flows associated with the era of post-Soviet globalisation have deeply affected the cultural and political make-up of most of the world’s countries.

Enmity has cost us a cumulative fortune.

In effect, the US and China have been moving in the direction of swapping global roles long before the current conjuncture, even though political developments like Trump’s election indicate that the forces of change are steadily intensifying.

All of this affects Pakistan greatly, given that we count both the US and China as major allies. Unfortunately, Pakistani officialdom seldom scratches beneath the surface of any phenomenon. My sense is that our brightest minds (read: those in power) are almost always focused on where to look for the next wad of cash. In this respect alone, Pakistan’s rulers must feel pretty good about themselves right now; on the one hand they continue to garner substantial military aid from Washington and on the other, they are now raking in big bucks from Beijing as well.

Perhaps this euphoria explains why we continue to cultivate enmity with our immediate neighbours. In contrast to shifts in the global political economy, our relations with Iran, Afghanistan and India never seem to change, getting worse with each passing day. Yes, these countries do not offer windfall aid agreements but it can easily be argued that developing mutually beneficial ties with all of them is actually more important than all of the dollars (or yuan) that the two superpowers can offer.

After all, mutual enmity has cost us a cumulative fortune for seven decades — and I mean not only in monetary terms, but also with regards to the immense social costs we have incurred by cultivating hate within our own society and criminalising dissent under the guise of foiling ‘foreign conspiracies’. But our rulers disagree that friendly relations with Iran, Afghanistan and India are necessary for a peaceful, prosperous future. Certainly, regimes like the Modi sarkar hardly make things easy, but blaming the other side too easily helps us justify our own intransigence.

I may be stating the obvious, but our never-ending tensions with our neighbours indicates we have so deeply internalised the logic of the Great Game that we are now collectively unable to move beyond it. Most readers are familiar with the history of the British and Russian empires jostling for control over southwest and Central Asia from the 18th century onwards. By the 20th century, the US, Soviet Union and China had become the carriers of the Great Game tradition. The US and China today remain the major competitors, with Russia gradually trying to re-establish itself a couple of decades after the USSR’s demise.

The northwest of British India — later Pakistan — and adjacent Afghanistan have been the major staging ground of the Great Game for the best part of its existence. Iran and post-1947 India are therefore implicated by the sheer fact of geography. In principle, the Pakistani state is entitled to use its strategic location to generate rents, as it continues to do in its relations with the US and China. But it also shares the responsibility of maintaining a modicum of peace in the wider region, to the benefit of the region’s people.

It boggles the mind, for instance, that the long-talked about Iran-India-Pakistan gas pipeline never got off the ground, even though multilateral donors appeared willing to provide financing for it. Both India and Pakistan have serious energy shortages, so having Iran help address them seems eminently logical. But then what would ‘brotherly’ Saudi Arabia say? Ah, the perils of the so-called ‘greater national interest’.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.