A fascinating tussle for the mantle of global leadership is on. There is unmistakable evidence that the US’ unipolar moment is long gone by and that the re-birth of the multipolar world is all but imminent. The US appears adamant to forestall it. While the US’ sphere of influence is contracting, that of China is expanding, now reaching the South-Central Asian Region (SCAR), the Greater Middle East Region (GMER) and beyond. The focus of the world powers has definitely shifted from the Asia-Pacific (Mackinder’s Eurasian Heartland) to the Indo-Pacific (Spykman’s Rimland).

The global balance of power needs to come to an even keel.

This is a particularly inauspicious time for the US. It appears to be in decline and abdicating its role as the undisputed leader of the world. It has always employed coalitions, alliances and its oft-practised offshore balancing strategy to pursue its national and collective interests abroad. Recently, it has offered mediation twice between India and its neighbours (Pakistan in Kashmir, China in Ladakh) instead of proactively supporting its strategic partner. What should this inexplicable reluctance to confront China at this point in time indicate to the world, India and China? Is US presence in the South China Sea and West Pacific then hollow meaningless power projection too? The US is now showing a very perceptible and crucial imbalance in its capacities to assert itself as an unquestionable, hegemonic superpower. It is still by far the most formidable military power of the world with unmatchable strategic reach; however, it does not demonstrate any compatible political will or infinite economic resources to ruthlessly pursue its national interests overseas. This critical imbalance portends severe geopolitical and geostrategic connotations.

President Trump has not shown any outstanding leadership at the domestic, international or global levels. He has grossly mishandled the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 US Elections loom ominously ahead for him, the US economy is generally tanking, and the US national debt is hovering in the US $ 25-26 Trillion range and counting. His zero-sum, coercive and abrasive foreign policy has alienated foes, friends, partners and allies alike. An apparently isolationist US seems destined to withdraw West of the Atlantic and limit itself essentially to continental USA. That will leave a vital vacuum at the global leadership level.

Is this then the most opportune moment for China to assert itself at the global level?

The US has created an anti-China Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, (aka the QUAD) comprising itself, Japan, Australia and India to circumscribe China’s inevitable rise. However, China seems to have struck right into the heart of the QUAD. It has censured distant Australia for its predictable anti-China stance and threatened trade and other sanctions. China-Australia bilateral trade and ties run into multiple-billions of dollars annually. Australia can ill-afford to lose the lucrative Chinese market, its students and tourists and look for alternatives in these times of the deadly COVID-19.

Furthermore, China has moved to crystallise the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India by occupying its legitimate positions along it. These Chinese manoeuvres have literally stupefied PM Modi and his military into a stunning operational paralysis. At the operational strategy level, India stands largely outmanoeuvred and neutralised in Ladakh-LAC-Himalayas. This obviates a two-front war scenario for the Chinese emphatically. To add further insult to injury, smaller South Asian states like Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Maldives and even Bangladesh have shown a clear inclination towards China. India’s isolation in South Asia is spectacular, for its impact and the speed with which it has materialised.

Two of the four-member QUAD have thus been served a stern notice.

However, China’s masterstroke lies in the timing of its deal worth US $400 billion over 25 years with Iran. This move brings China right into the GMER, more or less evicting the pro-US India from Iran. This gives China immense oversight on the world’s oil trade going through the Persian Gulf-Arabian Sea Region (PG&ASR). This paradigm shift in Iranian policies nullifies its purported isolation and entrenches it firmly in the Chinese camp. It can now deal with the West from a position of relative strength, look at economic stability and massive investments in its oil, gas, infrastructure, technological and military sectors. It is also likely to get unstinted Chinese support in all international fora especially the UN/UNSC.

The impact of these Chinese manoeuvres will be phenomenal at the geopolitical and geostrategic levels. Chinese presence in Iran-GMER and on the Makran Coast, Pakistan (ironically both erstwhile US allies) will have defining strategic implications. All Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) and maritime trade routes through the PG&ASR and the Indian Ocean Region will potentially come within its oversight and strategic reach. This will split the Indo-Pacific into the Pacific and the Indian Ocean theatres of war and embroil USCENTCOM, USAFRICOM and USINDOPACOM simultaneously. It will enlarge the spectrum of war and its costs in forging coalitions/alliances and in men, materials and treasure; it targets current US weaknesses, its economy and foreign policy.

By incorporating Iran in its BRI, China has reiterated its two-ocean state credentials and will get firmly established in the SCAR-GMER. The CARs and Afghanistan are also likely to join Pakistan in an expanded version of the CPEC-BRI. Thus, the contours of a future geopolitical grouping are now discernible and gradually crystallising. China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey (CRIPT), as a subset of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), can potentially form the nucleus of a competing pole to the US-led Wests’. To that end, it needs to acquire strong economic (a linkup between the EEU-SCO) and military dimensions in addition to the political one it already has. In time, the SCO will acquire very meaningful strategic dimensions. However, India will have to opt either for the SCO and BRICS or the QUAD and be a strategic partner of the US. It cannot possibly ride in two different boats, simultaneously.

The US has been unable to stop China’s advances in the South China Sea and the SCAR-GMER so far. Is the change in the global balance of power already underway?

Imran Malik

The writer is a retired brigadier of the Pakistan Army. He can be reached at im.k846@gmail.com and tweets @K846Im.