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China, Afghanistan, and the widening of Asian geopolitics

April 29, 2011

The Wall Street Journal’s story a few days ago on Pakistan’s exhortations to Karzai to look towards Islamabad and Beijing for its regional future are an important reminder of the geopolitical realities in Central Asia.  Whether Afghanistan will embrace China and Pakistan is unclear. After all, there are plenty of unresolved conflicts between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and India has invested heavily in Afghanistan. That said, Pakistan has longstanding national interests, both perceived and concrete, in maintaining leverage in Afghanistan, while China has its own agenda of expanding its economic access and political influence in Central Asia.

As both Steve LeVine and Myra MacDonald note, China has enormous capacity and credibility when it comes to making these sorts of long-term investments. Geographically, it is also more realistic to expect that China, rather than the United States, would have the resources and willpower in Central Asia necessary for a broader development of the country and integration into the broader regional economy. For too long, both proponents and detractors of a long-term US role in Afghanistan have assumed, unrealistically, that energy interests and Afghanistan’s central position in Eurasia could somehow form the nexus of a US-led “new silk road” to bring energy resources and raw materials from and through Afghanistan to the wider world, with the dual benefits to the US of stabilizing Afghanistan and expanding US power. Some pounced on speculation about these plans as evidence of a neo-Mackinderite imperial great game. In reality, the prospect of the US taking the lead on any kind of regional economic network in Central Asia has always been illusory.

In terms of ending the war in Afghanistan and bringing some degree of stability to the country, involving China and Pakistan as the long-term leaders in Afghan development is certainly a better prospect than perpetual and predominant US involvement and an enormous investment. Given the competing priorities the United States has, trying to lead the project of Afghan regional economic integration and support a dominant enough place in the region to keep China or the ISI “out” is a Sisyphean task flying in the face of geography and common sense.

How concerned should the United States be in the long run, however? While certain countries can achieve “win-win” outcomes on certain issues, geopolitical power is, at the broadest level, zero-sum. Determining where it is zero-sum, however, requires determining who is competing with who, where, and over what. Russia and India are not likely to gain as much economically or politically from increased Chinese presence in Central Asia. Although Russia and China have a common interest in preventing instability and US incursions into Central Asia, on the balance, an increased Chinese role in the region means more regimes and resources gravitating to Beijing and not Moscow. Whether Russia and India find this acceptable depends on how these countries conceive their broader grand strategies.

On a purely economic level, Asian integration benefits virtually all the major players in Asian geopolitics.  However, on a strategic level, who it benefits the most remains an open question. Deepening economic integration does not negate the zero-sum nature of power politics. As Myra MacDonald points out, India and Pakistan are deepening economic ties, and perhaps, the result of these efforts will be similar to Franco-German economic integration and European pacification.

However, Franco-German integration did not reject power politics so much as deference to a new form of power politics that rendered intra-European competition strategically foolish. European integration must be considered not just as an escape from history but as an adjustment to the reality of superpower competition. France and Germany could no longer stand as equals with the reigning powers, the gargantuan continental states of the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States wanted to pacify Europe for both ideological and strategic reasons, as it did not want to be drawn into another European war nor see the Soviet Union gain from exploiting weakened and divided Europe.

Similarly, economic integration in Central Asia, India, and Pakistan will only displace strategic competitive friction, not end it. In India’s case, there is a strong incentive to prevent China from reaping all the gains of economic integration, and India has less flexibility to maneuver as a truly global power so long as its strategic efforts remain tied down in its own backyard. Indian strategic plans are demonstrating an increasing concern towards China, and in that context, it makes sense to try to pacify its border with Pakistan, which both reduces a major security concern to India and reduces Beijing’s influence over Islamabad.

As competition in Central Asia gives way to what is likely Chinese-led economic integration, tensions between major powers seems to rise on Asia’s maritime periphery. Steve LeVine noted that for years, the US strategic model in Central Asia was reducing Moscow’s influence in the region. Now, however, the long-term US concern is Beijing – although the war on terror has diverted US efforts, particularly in Central Asia, from that model. While the US might want to welcome China into Central Asia to help extricate it from the Afghan war, as Levine speculated on, this would hardly mean strategic competition is old news in Asia generally. Maritime East and Southeast Asia is an increasingly tense realm, and it is from here fears of Chinese dominance and backlash against a Sinocentric system have been the strongest. Stabilizing intra-South and Central Asian relations may just be the sideshow to destabilizing relations and the reasserted primacy of strategic concerns in the maritime, and maritime-accessible realm.

Finally, this entire debate displays just how ill-prepared the United States is for an increasingly Asia-oriented global system. As Evan Feigenbaum explains in the Washington Quarterly, the US government’s conception of its areas of policy responsibility are archaically divided when it comes to Asian relations. While many in the US view, analyze, and craft policy for South and Central Asia in a way largely separate from concerns in East Asia, and vice versa, actual Asian powers are behaving quite differently. Regardless of what sort of geopolitical approach or strategic emphases one thinks America should take on the continent, executing them successfully will need a more holistic view of the Asian map.

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