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Great Game East: The balance of power fulcrum shifting to the east

| Updated: October 18, 2017 10:44:25


Great Game East: The balance of power fulcrum shifting to the east

Bertil Linter's recent book, Great Game East, is best summarised by its very own subtitle: "India, China, and the Struggle for Asia's Most Volatile Frontier." Of course, the frontier is India's northeast, meaning both Myanmar, which he dubs a "cockpit of anarchy," and Bangladesh which just happen to be front-seat players in what he calls "Asia's most serious superpower rivalry" in the 21st Century, rivalling the original Great Game between Britain and Russia over Afghanistan in the 19th Century. That should be enough to get 21st juices flowing in a way they could not have been in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Disaggregating the three components of the article's review should expose the common dilemma, succinctly stated in an Abba song, "What's the name of the game?" The first component, "Great Game East," justifies the very legitimacy and appropriateness of the label itself: there prevails a real rivalry in India's Hindu Kush counterpart of yesteryears. Even then it was an ambiguous nomenclature: was it a reference to Napoleon's proposal to Tsar Paul in 1801 for a joint invasion of Britain's "crown-jewel" colony, India, which was subsequently scuttled by Alexander II, Paul's son and successor; Britain's desire to block Russia's search for a warm-water port, beginning in 1830, when Lord William Bentinck, the Governor General in India, was asked to find a trade route to Bokhara, and ending in 1895, when the Pamir Commission demarcated Russian-Afghan borders; or Rudyard Kipling's reference to the British intelligence in his equally fictional Kim, written in 1901, when it was itself non-existent?
That rivalry reeked of horsemen, cavalry, and tournaments, not far removed from Sir Lancelot's chivalry on behalf of King Arthur. India's northeast is not the terrain for these. Filled as it is with Arakanese Buddhists, Kachins, Karens, Manipuris, Mizos, Mons, Nagas, Rohingya Muslims, among other tribes, seeking more than the autonomy they were promised (some, for example, by Britain, for helping out during World War II), India's northeast has become the cornerstone of India's economic drive, not least into Southeast Asia. Though this is not different from the British commercial interests across Central Asia then, the imperial context enveloping Britain's pursuits differs fundamentally from the sovereignty-mindedness thrusts today: what was zero-sum rivalry then, epitomised through colonies, is non-zero-sum today, evident in the likes of free trade agreements and partnerships. That is the key: not rivalries but partnerships. As will become evident, substance backs that claim.
The second component, Linter himself, is even a more intriguing piece. Widely recognised across Asia as a renowned commentator of this part of the world, he worked for the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) until it went out circulation in 2009 (it shifted from a weekly into a monthly in 2004). The ban of FEER by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia in April 2002 was prompted by a Linter article. If Myanmar became his "cockpit of anarchy," he dubbed Bangladesh immediately after the turn of the century as a "cocoon of terror" (the April 4, 2002 cover story of FEER). He found then what is uppermost in our mind now after the Gulshan Holey Artisan Bakery incident: a country vulnerable to "Islamic fundamentalism, religious intolerance, militant Muslim groups with links to international terrorist groups." Strange how the circle has come around fully today, yet it is not at the heart of his Great Game East.
The premise of his Great Game East is an "Asian Century" vision, not a "clash of civilisations" prediction involving jihads, but a routine balance of power fulcrum shifting to the east and involving, not a Russian search for warm water ports, but China's sea accesses and controls. So much for horses and cavalry when gunboats and torpedoes get lubricated for today's "game."
Against such a background are the idiosyncrasies behind the third component, Bangladesh. It is not so much that Bangladesh's search for foreign investment has spiralled as it seeks to cast its lowly developmental tags, nor that, in the wake of particularly the Islamic Damoclean security-sword hanging over the country, the largest foreign responses have come from China, India, and Japan: pitting those three in the wake of the South China Sea brinkmanship would give the "Great Game East" a very different tripartite terrain. It is simply the confluence of three domestic forces that have nothing to do with great power rivalry, and awfully little to do with regional power rivalry, that have beckoned this "Great Game East" prism: (a) Sheikh Hasina's administration reviving relations with India in a way that Khaleda's pro-Pakistan and Islamic bent could not; (b) the country's independent decision to build infrastructures right now, which opened the way for China, India, and Japan to quickly respond positively, obviously for quite different reasons: India's rendezvous with a northeast destiny, not just as a stepping-stone towards Southeast Asian economic partnerships, but also to incorporate its resource-rich northeast into the thriving Indian heartland, not just for minerals, but also to integrate and harness its eastern rivers, and not just to fortify positions against China, but also to forge commercial pathways into China; and (c) the country's capacity to pay for these from its own pocket more than through aid and borrowings now that it has foreign exchange coming through exports, and its promise to diversify beyond the RMG (ready-made garment) sector.
Without a friendly Bangladesh, India would not have wanted to open a river cruise connecting Kolkata with Agartala through Ashuganj and Akhaura in Bangladesh, nor even propose a rail-line through those same routes. Bangladesh's infrastructural projects show the neighbour-friendly overtures: the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Highway involves both "Great Game East" antagonists (as well as summons the "cockpit of anarchy" and "cocoon of terror" players), which meshes with the joint China-India Kolkata-Kunmin Highway through Bangladesh. This is a far cry from the rivalry of Galahad fame, Hindu Kush stock, and even Sino-India military tensions (which have not necessarily been buried: they have merely been passed to the back burner amid all the other economic partnership projects). Finally, with Japan entering the playing field, Bangladesh is not deliberately playing foreign powers off to extract the most concessions: it has not closed its doors to any heavyweight western countries, let alone the lightweights, like the Nordic countries, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and the like. Linter's game, with Bangladesh in it, might better, and more correctly, be called the "Great Game Feast".
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.
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