Thursday, 6 January 2022

Introducing Xi Turns West

We naturally tend to focus on the expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Central Asia. This is an area that is contiguous with the external borders of China and it seems natural that this is to where our attention ought to be paid. In doing this, we naturally gravitate towards considering the relationship between China and Russia in Asia, to the neglect of other areas in which points of contact are made. This may be a mistake.

The BRI provides a grand geopolitical narrative for Chinese foreign policy out to the middle of this century. It is vast in its scope and ambition, which is nothing less than to bring the Eurasian landmass - the 'Heartland' of Mackinder - under Chinese dominion. In true Chinese diplomatic style, which goes back over three millennia, the aim is dominance rather than conquest. It is an expression through the soft power of commerce, trade, and diplomacy; rather than the hard power of military ambition and force. In this, it is distinctly Asian rather than European.

One neglected aspect of the declared plans for the BRI is the southern route - from Central Asia, south of the Caspian Sea, across the Middle East, and thence over the Mediterranean into Europe. The purpose of this game was to examine the challenges associated with achieving this ambition.

One of the more striking aspects of designing a game around this question is the degree to which a large number of layers of conflict can be found in a small space. That influenced our game design. We constructed a game that had four layers of conflict - the civilisational, the religious, the regional, and the local. Each layer had a dimension within the game, and each added a layer of complexity to the game.

At the civilisational level, the Middle East has the potential to see the approach of western civilisation - as championed by the United States - come into direct contact with the approach of the Chinese civilisation. We slotted into the game assumptions about the 'Biden Doctrine', which, admittedly, is in formation, that the United States will no longer act as the global policeman and that America no longer is willing to provide unconditional support to regimes that do not contain core US interests. This could create a power vacuum into which China could expand.

We decided to include Russia at the civilisational level. It could be argued that Russia is not quite a civilisational state in that it does not represent a way of life. However, we wanted to explore the relationship between China and Russia, and the Middle East provides a nice point of contact in which to do so. In previous games, Russia came out as the junior partner to China by 2050. We wanted to tease out the possibility that this may not be so and the game was designed to give Russia a more equal footing with China. It represents our view that if this happens anywhere, it will happen in the Middle East, which is a core territory for Russia, and which is vital to the plans for the BRI.

We placed China and Russia as broadly co-operative powers. On top of this lies the great religious struggle of the first half of the twenty-first century: that between Iran and Saudi Arabia. We added this dimension to the game, but we placed both powers as representing a more modern approach to Islam. History and geography allowed us to align Iran with China and Russia, and Saudi Arabia with the United States. These would provide the civilisational underpinnings to the religious conflict.

We also wanted to capture some of the regional rivalries. Within the dimension of the religious conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, we added the more regional actors of Turkey and Russia. These are potential rivals across the Black Sea. In order to roll out the BRI, China needs both Russia and Turkey to lay aside their regional differences. Turkey has been inclined more towards Europe and North America in the past, but this is now changing. Rebuffed by Europe and spurned by America, Turkey is now in the process of turning more towards Asia, with a little encouragement - and development funds without conditions - from China. We wanted to encourage this process and nudged the game into greater co-operation between Turkey, Russia, and Iran. This had the potential to act as something of a check to Saudi ambitions in the region.

These ambitions would have been felt at a local level. On this level, we wanted to examine a unitary Syria, largely backed by Russia and Iran, against a federal Iraq, largely backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia. We tested the federal nature of Iraq by giving voice - backed by Iran - to the aspirations of Kurdistan. That provided the final element in a very confused - and confusing - game.

The game was designed to represent the period 2020 to 2050, with six turns of five years duration each. The umpire team would represent a worsening climate, the energy markets, the bond markets, and all other countries not represented by players in the game. It was hard to decide who to leave out. We had a great deal of discussion about the exclusion of Israel in the game. However, the impact of Israel upon the BRI is fairly minimal, even if they are a large player in the Middle East, which we felt justified the exclusion. With nine players and three umpires, we felt that the game had the potential to become unmanageable, so we set the limit, for good and for ill, where it was.

Once we had the basic game structure, the next task was to design the opening positions for each of the nine actors. We shall turn to this in our next post.

Stephen Aguilar-Millan
© The European Futures Observatory 2022


  1. Right now, the US military budget is bigger than the next 10+ countries. It is confronting the PRC re: Taiwan and the South and East China seas; it is confronting Russia in the East re the EU/Ukraine and its position regarding Iran and MENA is unsettling with China creating bases in the area, including east Africa and the spread of the BRI. And now the Biden administration has problems at home, including vets going to food shelves. What is still problematic is the balance of payments with China is negative, US dependence on China exports including digital tech and business interests still entangled in mainland China and Taiwan.

    China's culture and history is one of patience. They can wait and watch.

    How many rounds did you play and over what period of time?

  2. Hello Tom, the penultimate paragraph explains that the game was over six turns - which we shall report out in the next two or three weeks - with each turn representing 5 years. In all, the game covers the period 2020 to 2050.