GREAT Britain of the 19th century had to have a great game. It believed it was the world’s first “free” society and the most industrially advanced, and therefore, it had a duty to make Central Asia in its image. So was born the Great Game.
A tale of blundering and unintended consequences, as one academic described it. It was — trimmed of all the frills — an Anglo-Russian rivalry for the domination of Asia.
Thanks to Rudyard Kipling, the poet laureate of British imperialism and his 1901 novel, Kim, the English reading public knows a thing or two about the Great Game. Thus, literature dons the cloak of geopolitics.
Today, the United States — thinking itself to be a “free” and “advanced” society — believes that it has a duty to make the rest of the world look and be America.
Unfortunately, for the US, the Asian century has awakened the sleeping lion of China. Napoleon Bonaparte was right: “China is a sleeping lion. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will shake the world.” What a le grand jeu it has turned out to be.
The Russian bear is on the prowl, too, though its growl is occasional. Lest we forget, Vladimir Lenin did try to set Asia ablaze once. There is no reason why Vladimir Putin shouldn’t do the same.
There may not be an American, Russian or Chinese Kipling to write another Kim, but the geopolitically conscious reading public is beginning to connect the dots.
Is the US-China trade war an extension of the New Great Game that is still being played in Central Asia? Datuk Steven Wong, the former deputy chief executive of Institute of Strategic and International Studies of Malaysia, sees it as a 30,000-foot question.
Great powers — even before the 19th century — have always wanted to reshape the world in their best interests. The World Wars 1 and 2 — and the 19th century Afghan War of the Great Game and the 21st century Iraq War — were all about reshaping one country or the other. World history is, in one reading, a collection of great games. Pax Britannica. Pax Americana. Pax Sinica.
Wong says a historical purist would not see the US-China trade war as the classical great game played out by superpowers, but it sure does have a geopolitical dimension. What started off as a tariff tirade has turned into a trade tyranny and more.
Technology has entered the equation. Viewed through strategic lenses, Wong adds, the US-China trade war cannot be a transient phenomena. To Sunway University academic Dr Yeah Kim Leng, it is a “long-term tussle for global supremacy” pure and simple.
Wong sees allies as critical in this geopolitical competition. “The US has the most military bases around the world, but China is gaining ground through its economic cooperation with the many Belt and Road Initiative partners.”
Malaysia and its Southeast Asian partners appear neither so fond of the American eagle nor the Chinese dragon. But as Wong points out, neutrality is a fragile concept. When tensions rise and hostilities break out, its frailty is there for all to see. Renascent Europe laid this bare. Renascent Asia will do the same.