Tibet, Afghanistan: The Empires Russia, America, and China – Musings on a new century.

a jolly map“I shall go far and far into the North, playing the Great Game….” – Kim, by R. Kipling

Once, during the Cold War, the Soviet ambassador to Pakistan gave Pakistan’s president a slender leather bound book. When asked what it was the Soviet answered that it was a statement of the USSR’s foreign policy. The ambassador respectfully said the following to Pakistan’s president.

“Your Excellency, this is our foreign policy. You can take this book and read it one hundred years from now, and nothing will have changed. Your American friends change policy every year. Russia’s policy never alters. you should remember this.”

Russia’s policy never alters, we should remember this.

There can be only one master of Asia.

Contention: much of what we hear in the news; regional conflict, terrorism, and war, is the result of competition between world powers acting to secure their geo-political and geo-strategic imperatives.

In Asian affairs there are four dominant powers playing:

The Unites States of America
The People’s Republic of China
The Russian Federation
The Republic of India.

All four are large regional powers, a few are super-powers.

The USA is clearly a super-power (though a waning one) with the ability to massively project force worldwide. On a military level the USA is the most powerful super-power in the world, however in Financial terms there are other greater powers..

China can be, and should be, considered as a Super-power, and only gross arrogance or ignorance our people to not consider China a super-power. China has the ability to massively project force throughout Asia, and to a more limited degree worldwide; China’s financial clout is even more massive, in that China owns a good deal of the debt of the world’s “greatest” super-power, the USA. It can be argued that as a financial power China outweighs the USA. In fact China finances the USA, China is our bank, in a manner of speech.

Russia is a massive regional power, and in-spite of tremendous internal problems remains a super-power and a sphere of influence all of its own – though one whose role is diminished greatly since the end of the Cold War. Russia retains a massive ability to project military force throughout Europe and Asia, in particular massive nuclear stockpiles.

India is not a super-power, but it is a highly powerful Regional power. India is a growing financial power whose march to wealth in the service sectors is as impressive, and in some ways more impressive than China’s.

India’s collective mastering of the service sector and seizing on the financial possibilities of Information Technology is an entirely new paradigm, whereas China’s role to wealth – producing lots of cheap crap for the world to buy, cheaper than their competitors, stealing technological processes and refining them, doing such processes better and faster than those who innovated them originally (the USA) is the older Industrial age way.

RUSSIA: Russia’s clear strategic policy has always been, is and remains, and will be, expansion to all maritime borders. Russia’s great quest has been for “the warm waters.” By the end of the 19th century Russia had fought its way into access to all the world’s great seas excepting the Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean. The ONLY thing that halted this – the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

From the time of Ivan the Terrible, to the Soviet Union, Russia and then the USSR has engaged in a steady and clear campaign of Imperial expansion and conquest of neighboring powers, or increase in indirect hegemony of the same; in particular the Muslim States, Khanates, and Republics of Central Asia.

From 500 years ago as a small collection of landlocked principalities ruled by the Rus of Kiev and the Rus of Moscow, the grand historical strategy of the Rus, and later the Russian people, were to expand their borders and gain access to maritime ports, a relentlessly outward pressing onwards. The 19th century “Great Game” between Russia and England was the drama over Russia’s push towards the Arabian Sea, the Himalayas, and India’s port waters.

Russia’s stated foreign policy aims, for well over a century, has been to reach southern shores. Russia was determined to reach India, through Afghanistan and Pakistan, some day. Russia has through ALL of its governments shown remarkable patience. Remember the quote above?

Strategically, Russia has four great fleets, The Pacific, the Black Sea, the Baltic, the Northern. EACH is locked from each other and can not concentrate. Japan’s 1904 defeat of Russia (the first time in modern history an Asian power defeated a White one) taught the Russians that enemy fleets if concentrated can achieve tactical superiority over isolated Russian fleets. The solution?

Seize the Mediterranean; through Turkey, joined with Serbia, then down to Albania. During the cold-war Soviet dominance over the Balkans gave some small measure of security here, but someday Russia will have to do away with Turkey itself – a staunch US ally.

Seize the Arabian Sea: Conquer Central Asia, then drive hard and fast through Pakistan, Baluchistan, and dominate the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.

Once these two events occur Russia would be the most powerful empire in Asia and Europe and dominate ocean trade.

NOW in the 19th century the British checked this expansion, through covert war and action in Tibet, Afghanistan, and Nepal, Russian agents and British agents locked teeth in the most Romantic, and ruthless, of adventures.

In the 20th century one of Lenin’s early goals was to “Carry the revolution” into central Asia; Trotsky’s Revolutionary Military Council early on sought to recruit and train a large army in Central Asia, and to us it to invade and seize part of India with the cooperation of Indian revolutionaries like M.N. Roy.

They would “Set the east ablaze”, recruit thousands of angry and fanatically anti-British tribes thirsting for revenge after previous British defeats, and secure for the Bolsheviks Central Asia and Afghanistan, while ending British rule in India. The 1921 Anglo-Trade agreement between the Soviets and British ended these schemes, as a necessary corollary to the agreement the British demanded Lenin stop all anti-British conspiracies, halt any planned invasions of India, and reign in Moscow’s revolutionaries. And so he did.

These and other events during WW I, slowed the Soviet’s expansion but after Stalin’s rise to power consolidation in central Asia was rapid and brutal, and after WW II the USSR further consolidated its European sphere, and its Central Asian sphere.

“The Great Game” became “The Cold War” in which an increasingly imperial USA locked horns with the Soviet Empire. China, in spite of being communist, more often than not sided with the USA in maintaining a status quo in Central Asia. Soviet support of Afghan socialists and communist revolutionaries, and the horrid bloodshed of the Afghan communist revolution, which drew Moscow into the fray to stabilize the situation, reignited the Great Game in Afghanistan.

It was in all parties interests to leave the Afghans fragment, divided, and mutually squabbling while, in the meantime, liquidate the Muslim Mujahedeen fighters who had previously fought the Soviet’s. A new Cold War dawned, between a loose confederation of International Islamic Mujahedeen who saw themselves as being bitterly used, betrayed, and thrown away by the USA and other former allies but who had tasted victory against the Soviet Union and who now believed they could take on the entire world, and between the USA and it’s allies.

Russia fought its fronts in Chechnya. Russian allies in Turkemestan and Uzbekistan harshly repressed Muslim movements and potential insurgencies.

And while the Soviet Union fell in 1990, the Russia Federation continued to support some of its former Afghani allies, AND some of its enemies including Burhandudin Rabbani and the late Shah Masud.

The USA gave marginal support to the Taliban and looked the other way while Pakistan’s Frontier Constabulary, and later the ISI, groomed the Taliban and their mysterious, sinister one eye’d leader, “Mullah Omar”. The Great Game continued.. eventually the Taliban would prove too difficult to control, and its guests – Osama Bin Ladin and his group “Al-Qaida” would also grow too difficult to control,

All of this led to the events of 9/11 and the initial near destruction of the Taliban, and the inauguration of the US Global “War against terror”. Now, 7 years later, the world is a different place. Russia waits and rebuilds itself, China grows in wealth as does India, Pakistan is rocked with tribal warfare and political instability, the Taliban once more exist but on a smaller level, as an insurgency force constantly on the move, and Osama Bin Ladin? He is the enigma..

Russia’s interests in Central Asia place it into direct conflict with China and India, historically. This was the case when British Government ruled over India. It was less the case during the cold war because the Soviet’s alliance with India placed India into it’s sphere, in which a Soviet conquest of Afghanistan would open Pakistan up to the Soviets, solving one of India’s problems, and creating immense problems for the USA – the Russian drive would place them hours from the chief Oil centers and ports serving the Middle East, endangering US Oil interests in the regions. Today could potentially places Russia into conflict with India, Pakistan, China, and the USA EXCEPTING for the vast internal mess in which Russia is currently in.

The Russian bear will not rest long, a proud and powerful nation with a glorious history of conquest and empire, a reinvigorated Russia could be, and will be, an interesting player in the 21st century. As the Russian experiment with democracy dies, and a strongly centralized Russian Federation is increasingly dominant, a weakened USA would be wise to watch whom it makes as friends, and whom it makes into enemies, very closely.


India’s increasing wealth and power will continue to place it on a closer course for conflict with an increasingly hyper-wealthy China.

China and India historically have been rivals, Fox News may gloss over the complexities of Asian geo-strategy but China and India are direct competitors over trade routes, and resources. Trade links increase between the two, as the 21st century moves on military jousting is increasingly less likely between the two, however both seek greater power in the Asian sphere.

China, militarily, has India beat hands down. Strategically China has placed itself in a position to CONTAIN INDIA, this is a clear goal of china policy.

1. Alliance with Pakistan, Pakistan and India are bitter rivals, both engaged in proxy warfare against each other chiefly in Kashmir – whose high mountains are of great strategic concern to both nations.

India and Pakistan both fight a continuous series of secret wars, battles of intrigues, and destabilization operations against each other. Occasionally this flares into near open Warfare, such as during Pakistan’s Kargil operation in which Pakistani supported Mujahedeen fought a bitter battle against Indian forces in the mountains overlooking Kashmir.

It is argued, with some evidence, that many of the terrorist incidents that occur in Pakistan (such as Sunni/Shia mosque bombings and shootings) are actually covert false-flag operations by India’s RAW (The Research and Analysis Wing ) India’s covert operations and intelligence agency.

There is also evidence showing India’s covert action in Bhutan, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Sikkim.

On the other hand it is also argued, with some evidence, that a good deal of terrorist incidents that occur in India (bombings, etc.) are connected to actions of Pakistan’s ISI Intelligence agency. The ISI’s support of the Taliban in it’s North, and the Kashmiri Mujahedeen, are both examples of the use of proxies to covertly project force outside of Pakistan’s borders.

In other words, both countries are engages in a tit-for-tat low-intensity strategy of covert action and terrorism aimed at each other, consisting also of proxy warfare by arming partisans and guerrillas in both countries engaged in war against the state.

In the 1980’s China’s alliance with Pakistan and the USA involved a good deal of operational assistance to the Afghani Mujahedeen, whereas BOTH China and the USA found it useful to fund and assist the Afghan Jihad against the Soviet Union, whereas India was solidly allied with the Soviet Union. Afghanistan holds a special case for China as a useful no-mans-land and buffer zone to keep Russia distant. India see’s Afghanistan as the gateway between Russia and Pakistan, it’s bitter rival.

2. TIBET: “Free Tibet” Won’t happen. Ever, unless it was in China’s manifest best interests, which it is not. As many times as the Dali Lama appears on TV the Chinese government will not surrender Tibet. Why should they?

China invaded and conquered Tibet as a strategic ledge over India. Tibet is a vast plateau overlooks China and India at very high altitudes. Dominance, hegemony, or Influence over Tibet is a strategic necessity for China or India.

In a forgotten chapter of Cold War history our American CIA did initially support and assist anti-Chinese Tibetan guerrilla fighters, China’s hold on Tibet was far too ruthless and strong, however, and this was one battle of the cold war ceded to the Chinese.

India’s hosting the Dali Lama’s government in exile, and cultural connections with Tibet, clearly point to where India’s interests lie. The problem is that China militarily and financially is too powerful to be made to budge, and far too ruthless.

Analysts have noted increasingly frequently Chinese border patrols making border crossings from Tibet into India. This is a clear “pushing buttons” tactic and allows the Chinese to test the psychology and vulnerabilities of India’s border defense.

2006 was the year of “Sino-Indian Friendship” in which China and India publicly tried to mend relations and inaugurate a new age of joint cooperation, not competition. In agreeing to cooperate, rather than compete, for global resources and markets, China and India take a softer kinder role.

One has doubts that this will last, their geostrategic interests are naturally in competition, the nuclear issue divides them, both China and India have growing nuclear weapons arsenals pointed, more or less, at each other and China steadily opposes our 2005 U.S.A.-India nuclear energy agreement.

China continues to try to build an block of Asian powers favorable to its interests, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh formed a juicy pro-China axis at the 13th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation Summit. At numerous other regional summits and meetings China acts to move India to the margins. It is clear that both power perceives the other’s actions, constantly, as aggressive while perceiving its own actions as rooted in self-defense.

3. Burma: China’s relations with the military government in Myanmar, with Pakistan, with Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka, all grow warmer. Astute readers will recognize most all of the se countries as being within the India Sub-Continent or right on its doorsteps.

China engaged in arms deals with the government of Nepal, something that annoyed India greatly, and has made moves to court Bangladesh’s vast Natural Gas trade.

The role of the USA in Asia will increasingly become one of proxy, as military engagements in Iraq continues to bleed the US Economy (aprox. $2 Trillion so far) and OUR ABILITY TO CONDUCT WAR is subsidized by the Chinese, our increased borrowing from China to pay our war debts will cause our foreign policy to increasingly nod to Chinese interests, to the detriment of Russia. My contention is that this will drive further wedges between the Russians and ourselves.

Oil: US Canadian and Russian Oil reserves will last well into the 21st and possibly even 22nd century, if consumption continues to increase this will be problematic, but at present rates of consumption The USA, Canada, Russian, and Venezuela will dominate the Oil markets, the middle east will fade into irrelevance as Saudi oil dries up and as Kuwait dries up.

Iraq oil has been very little exploited, some may suggest some cynicism at work here, the less it flows, the higher world prices go, AND the more there is left-over when all other players have exhausted their supply.

It will be a very, very, interesting century. A bloody one to be sure, but an interesting one.

Partial list of References:
Hopkirk, Peter “Setting the East Ablaze: Lenin’s Dream of an Empire in Asia”

Hopkirk, Peter “The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia

Margolis, Eric S. “War at the Top of the World: The Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Tibet”

Malik , Dr. Mohan February 06, 2006 “China’s Strategy of Containing India: “PINR : Power and interest news report” http://www.pinr.com/report.php?ac=view_printable&report_id=434&language_id=1

Meyer, Karl E. & Shareen Brysac “Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game And the Race for Empire in Central Asia”

4 Comment

  1. I liked this a lot. You show the complex, competitor/peer policy towards China, by the US. My question is, why doesn’t Russia help out with troops? Is it because, it’s not in Nato?

  2. I meant, help out NATO, UN and US/UK with troops in Afghanistan and Pakistan, against the Taliban. Perhaps it’s helping out covertly, with intelligence and weapons.

  3. Thanks for stopping by. Those were good questions really. Good questions.

    Here are my hunches, regard them at best as informed guesses.

    I suspect that historically Russia has maintained a position of keeping itself as a locus of influence within regions under its sway, or adjacent to it. In this light Russia sees itself and its satellites as a locus of influence coequal, and equivalent, to NATO. NATO is to this day largely influenced (“influenced by” being distinct from “dominated by”) by the geo-political concerns USA and UK, my hunch is that Russia simply sees commitments of the nature you mention as being simply not in its best interests.

    Consistently after 2001 Russia has shown caution regarding the presence of US supply depots and operational bases in the central Asian republics. So my hunch is that the Russians see, to some degree, US and NATO actions in Afghanistan as being too uncomfortably close “on their turf”.

    In the early days of the Taliban’s rise, US and Pakistani influence was strongest on the Pashtun factions, both Gulbudin Hekmatyar early on as well as the early incarnations of the Talban (which were groomed, by some accounts, by Pakistan’s Frontier Constabulary and later by the I.S.I.) – on the other hand Russian covert influence was strongest on the northern Tajik and Uzbek factions.

    Reports exist indicating that the factions of General R. Dostum, on one hand, and Burhanudin Rabbani and his lieutenant Ahmed Shah Masud, received either overt Russian aid and operational support, or at least some degree of covert provisioning.

    So in essence, prior to 2001 the US’s and Pakistan’s strategic interests and role in Afghanistan were in direct opposition to Russia’s. It is my suspicion that Russia has not forgotten this and simply sees NATO’s presence as a subtle continuation of the previous state of affairs.

    In this like, and here is my weasel idea:

    – it is entirely possible that the current state of affairs in Afghanistan serves Russia well, as it is a good buffer between China’s zone, and India’s zone. On this mater, a subtle point, looking at the relative symbolic disdain with which Russia’s administration treated Obama during his visit.
    – Thus, I get a faint impression that Russia’s elite circles may cultivate a vision of the US as sort of a slowly fading power.

    – If this is the case then I would expect them to relish in a strategic poise of letting NATO remain embroiled in Afghanistan as a siphoning of resources.

    – thus buffering Chinese and Indian commercial and political influences,

    – thus weakening Political Islamist streams in the area (which Russia takes as potential threats to its hegemony in the Caucasian regions and historically Persian influenced central Asia)

    – thus also weakening the US – at the same time.

    In other words: polite stalemates may benefit them. A Taliban ascendency threatens Russian hegemony over traditionally Muslim Turkic and Persian regions, now under their sway.
    A defeated Taliban opens Afghanistan fully to the sway of NATO powers, opening up Uzbekistan, Turkemestan, Tajikistan, and other such regions to greater US influence.

    A stalemate suits them. I have observed that Russians tend to be patient people by nature.
    It is important to realize that Sept 11’th “changed everything” – for us.

    But this is not necessarily the case for other players on the game board..
    This hunch may b a key to understanding Russian ambiguity towards Iran. There are ancient cultural and historical ties (as complementary as adversarial) but currently if Russia sees itself as the very equivalent to NATO and the US combined in that region, it will not take well to a situation overly benefiting the USA. Washington’s previous administration hardly did a lot to get the Russians “on our side” and Russia still very much sees itself as an Empire and superpower. Albeit a broke and barely functional one, but one does wonder what a worst case financial crisis scenario may do to the USA. It is possible that the next 20 years might see a very different balance of power.

    I suspect that Russia has long term fears regarding Chinese ascendency. US influence in its backyards could leave a vacuum into which China could step once the USA fades away.

    Just my speculations.

  4. Remember someone lecturing pictures …

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