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China and India: The New Great Game Redefined

Photo: Indian Defence Research Wing

By Mir Sajad

Ever since the ‘Great Game’ was devised in the 1830s, it became rife and popular until the first years of the 20th century in the novel, Kim, by Rudyard Kipling. However, the concept of the ‘New Great Game’ is a redefined balance of power, which is ‘entwined’ with the geopolitical schema.

The year Myrdal’s Asian Drama (for which he received the Nobel Prize) was published, India was mired in economic stagnation and the Maoist China was in the throes of the self-inflicted Cultural Revolution. Few could have imagined from the vantage point of 1968 that barely four decades later, a new and contrarian Asian Drama would unfold – the rise of China and India on the global stage.

Scrolling back to the progress curve, we find China’s economic plan of the time, the Great Leap Forward, made an appeal to chao ying gan mei (literally, ‘overtaking England and catching up with the United States’). This reflected a long-standing commitment of the Chinese elites (irrespective of political ideology) to the idea of zhong xue wei ti, xi xue wei yong (Chinese learning for fundamental principle, Western learning for practical use), while India was trapped in the vicious economic entanglement of Hindu ‘rate of growth’.

With regard to their unique historical asymmetrical trends leading to their modern state structure and their slightly variegated political systems, the French economist and author, JJ Boillot, in his new book, Chindiafrique, tersely remarks: “India has a democracy, China has a government.” Combined with the ongoing territorial disputes and geopolitical rivalries, the ‘New Great Game’ entails a wide-ranging view over the tactics and strategies adopted by both countries to have their interests on board.

An orthodox way of looking at India’s foreign policy is to see it as obsessed with “two-and-a-half countries”: United States, China, and Pakistan. This completely ignores the fact that the nation’s foreign policy is anchored in a broad and expanding worldview, stretching from Fortaleza to Fiji. Expert opinions vary on the foreign policy record so far. A former foreign secretary opined that India’s foreign policy was losing momentum, stressing that “image must serve substance.” In a rather subjective assessment, an academic demolished Modi’s South Asia policy, advising Delhi not to “behave like the Modern-day Raj.” A senior journalist highlighted that Modi’s activism had put the Ministry of External Affairs “in the shade.”

On the other hand, examining the issue of the rise of China’s power and its implications for the future, there are sufficient reasons to believe that China would remain preoccupied with the process of building its ‘comprehensive national power’ (Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China) in the coming years, and hence would seek cooperation with other countries, while avoiding a direct conflict. The acquisition of comprehensive national power remains a core principle by which China’s strategic planners evaluate and measure national standing in relation to other nations.

Hyphenated with regional ambitions, economic development, and strategic calculus, the ‘New Great Game’ is leading to the equations (Cline’s power equation included) which give China an upper hand, thus deciding the Sino-Indian differences, both of bilateral and global significance owing to their concurrent rise. The fundamental paradigm propelling the ‘New Great Game’ is dominated by selective containment (wealth, cultural, and social) rather than blank containment which is in line with this fascinating “new geopolitics game”. Propelled by the rapid economic growth achieved thus far, China and India are already extending their geopolitical influence as well as strengthening their military capabilities and reach. China is quickly closing in on its goal of becoming a major global power, if it is not one already, and India is likely to achieve global power status in the next two decades. Chinese and Indian contributions to the expansion of the international economic system are generally welcomed, with growth in both nations promising to function as the “motor of the international economy”. 

With both countries vying for having Wallerstein’s “hegemonic cycles” in their side”, the ‘New Great Game’ opens up some new matrices to be paired/multiplied to have “respective power spaces” in their side. That China and India would be the ascending powers in the next few decades has become a mainstream view today. However, the fate of nations is unpredictable even when things may appear to be rather rosy now. There is a saying: “Sometimes just one inch ahead is darkness.” Simply put, while we may draw on the lessons of history, the future is often unpredictable. While there is much to be optimistic about the future of India and China today, many imponderables remain for them and other nations, too, in this Great Game. 

And all along this arch of cartographic instability, from the mountains where South Asia gives way to Southeast Asia to the Indian Ocean, the problems and issues are intertwined, making it as intriguing, dramatic, and unpredictable – and important in a geopolitical context – as Conolly’s first ‘Great Game’ more than a century ago.

These are incalculable questions and only time can tell whether India and China can live up to the high expectations among many that they will be rising for decades to come. If both giants were to become the leading actors in the “New Asian Drama” and help transform the region from the “poverty of nations” to the “wealth of nations”, then their rise will not only benefit themselves but also possibly spearhead a new Asian Renaissance.

Mir Sajad is a Research Scholar at the Department of Geography, University of Kashmir.


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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘India’s Response to the Holocaust and its Perception of Hitler’, edited by Dr. Navras Jaat Aafreedi, Presidency University,  Kolkata, India.

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