The largest geopolitical development in the first half of this century is arguably the Belt and Road Initiative that is being championed by China. The BRI consists of a large number of commercial projects that are designed to link China to Europe through the development of all points in between. The Steppes of Central Asia are of vital importance to the land based element of the BRI. Whilst being commercial in their implementation, the BRI also has a distinct geopolitical aspect as well. The purpose of this matrix game was to explore these nuances.
The strategic thinking was not undertaken in a void. Central Asia is of interest because it is one of the places where the interests of China, Russia and the US come into contact and have to interact with one another. In thinking about this framework, we were rather influenced by Christopher Coker's book 'The Rise Of The Civilisational State'. Coker maintains that the policies of China, Russia, and the US have a civilisational dimension to them and that where they bump into each other, we have conflict that is civilisational in nature. This sounded like the basis of a good game.
According to Coker's thesis, the Chinese civilisational approach has a commercial underpinning. The traditional policy of tributary diplomacy has an expression in the current policy of BRI. China receives from the tributary states, but gives back far more in return. This sounds odd to the more transactional approach that is associated with western civilisation, but it does establish the role of Chinese leadership.
By way of contrast, the Russian civilisational approach is characterised by the occupation of territory. The past two hundred years has been characterised by the expansion of Russia into Central Asia and the Far East. This territorial expansion was checked and moved back in Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As we move into the twenty first century, a degree of push back has started. We can expect that to continue in the years ahead.
The American approach is a hybrid between the territorial approach of Russia and the commercial approach of China. The US can take a transactional approach to it's dealings in Central Asia, and the advancement of US commercial interests - especially in the hydrocarbons sector - is of paramount importance. However, the US is thousands of miles away from home base, so a degree of territoriality is needed in order to secure American commercial interests.
This determined the first axis to be considered - Russia would be territorial, China commercial, and the US would be somewhere in between. Once having taken that decision, the next question in the design of the game was who else to include. Kazakhstan occupies the territory between Russia and China, it has a vital transportation corridor going through it, so it would be difficult to leave out Kazakhstan. Following the lead of Russia, we felt that Kazakhstan would be more territorially inclined.
An overlay of conflict within the region is the struggle between Shia Islam and Sunni Islam. We wanted to capture this because it does have a bearing upon the development of Central Asia. We included Iran to represent Shia Islam and the Taliban to represent Sunni Islam. Both are hostile towards the US and open to relationships with Russia and China. We felt that, owing to the impact of western sanctions, Iran would have more of a commercial focus, whilst the Taliban, in search of a state, would have more of a territorial focus. We decided to let the umpires play the governments of Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan as they have only a minor role in the region much of which is controlled by the Taliban.
The second axis was far easier to define. The big three - Russia, China, and the US - in a scheme of civilisational conflict have to be gravitating towards a unipolar world order. Civilisational conflict, the fundamental assumption of the game, is characterised by one civilisation dominating all others. Against this, we felt that the minor actors - Iran, Kazakhstan, and the Taliban - would be content with a greater degree of multi-polarity. This does involve a question of degree, which we introduced through the game objectives.
In this way, we generated our 2x2 matrix to define the position of the actors, as shown above. There was sufficient space between the positions of the players to allow conflict to develop. As our focus was developments to 2050, we settled on a game of six turns from 2020, each representing five years of time elapsed. All that was then needed was to write the specific player briefings, which we will deal with in a subsequent post.
© The European Futures Observatory 2020