In the ancient Chinese game of Weiqi, better known in the West as Go, the objective is not to knock out your opponent but to weaken and stifle the enemy with more space. Players seek to build large structures and shun contact that adds to more unresolved challenges and frustration for the adversary and the advantage shifts to whosoever poses the sharpest threats. Asia is on edge, and allies are watching as Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States of America, begins her congressional delegation trip to the Indo-Pacific region. If we track murmurs in the Indian Sub-continent- we see a brawling Weiqi contest unfolding in Pakistan, China, and the US.
Pakistan’s polity has descended into chaos after Punjab CM Pervaiz Elahi is back as the CM of Punjab following a high-octane drama. Jubilant Imran Khan is back in the fray, restructuring his party and gearing up for fresh elections. The repetitive vehement attacks on General Bajwa make the situation similar to Weiqi — Wherein Imran Khan’s objective is to corner the Army Chief on the neutrality of the Army to prevent himself from getting flanked in the next elections. Imran Khan knows the country is on a spirialling economic tumble with no fix!
Meanwhile, Political instability emboldens Imran to build a case for early elections. Having thrown his weight on the incumbent government, General Bajwa is going all out to secure a bailout from IMF or a bailout for himself is unclear?! Everything in Pakistan is hinging on the question, come November, who would head the all-powerful Pakistan Army? Whether or not the current Army Chief General Bajwa gets another extension or a new general is appointed will be answered soon.
While the Chinese ambassador is busy flirting with Pakistani media on the prospects of extension of CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) into Afghanistan and how Pakistan has assured the safety of Chinese investors – there is no movement whatsoever on CPEC. The Chinese are wary of the impending economic collapse and have adopted a hands-off approach until General Bajwa retires or a new chief is appointed.
The Gospel truth is that it is not the imminent financial throes or the vortex of insurgency in the northern regions that plagues Pakistan today but the position of Army Chief Gen Bajwa looking extremely shaky. With a troll army of PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) supporters questioning the only bulwark in Pakistan, the Army’s ability to manage and control politics looks whittled down. The helpless state of the establishment in maintaining neutrality has invigorated not only IMF and the US in dealing with Pakistan but also Imran Khan, who is already somersaulting over Gen Bajwa. Unlike in Weiqi, where one learns from others’ mistakes, conceited Imran Khan seems to follow in ZA Bhutto’s footsteps.
The Chinese Spy Ship Yuan Wang 5 and tiny dual-use border villages east of Doklam clash point in Bhutan have created a stir in India, fulfilling its intended purpose. Military projection aimed to counterpoise disconcerting glitzy real estate. Chinese draw similar tactics from Weiqi- start with protecting one’s side and flank and create threats elsewhere to divert focus and dismay the enemy.
The Chinese property sector amounts to 30 percent of its GDP and is a significant driver of its growth. It was in last year when we could see a looming crisis emerge that is now irrevocable- property giants like Evergrande, Kaisa, and Fantasia are on a downswing mode. Amidst Covid waves last year, the Communist Party’s flamboyant theatrics in Wuhan and Xi’s zero Covid policy were always a precursor of worse to come. As it stands, 235 projects spanning 91 cities in 31 provinces, customers are refusing to pay mortgages on loans.
China’s Yang Huiyan, the richest woman in Asia and owner of the largest real estate developer in China, saw a dramatic fall- thanks to the impending crisis, she lost $11 billion, half of her wealth this year. While Jack Ma is a glaring example of Xi’s purge, Ma’s rivals are not far behind, Ant has lost at least $70 billion in value since its scuttled IPO, and companies from Tencent to JD.com are under pressure.
Xi’s ‘common prosperity’ program is a rebuke of businesses that have accumulated capital over his second term; it is also a reflection of perceived challenges to his rule and how economic successes can translate into political clout over craved fractions within the Party. Jack Ma, Wang Jianlin, and Wu Xiaohui are among many who faced crackdowns because these billionaires had lamented that traditional state-owned Chinese banks were ignoring businesses that badly needed funding and had sought to develop their comprehensive lending system, thus weakening Xi’s grip on the economy and diversifying their interests with that of the CCP (read President Xi).
As the 20th Party Congress in November draws close and fire in Dragon’s belly has plummeted- Xi is busy building LIFE(read Weiqi strategy- A group of stones/bases that prevent the capture of own territory).
Xi has already pitched for a more socialistic driven state-controlled, command economy. Xi told a high-level political symposium in Beijing in July- “The next five years will be a critical time to start building a socialist modernized country in an all-round way.”
While Xi’s re-election looks certain, irrespective of the results party will have to face the burnt of retaliations (against political opponents) and inevitable purges coupled with the economic slowdown, covid lockdown disruptions, and deteriorating global influence.
US President Joe Biden hit the jackpot following Zawahiri’s drone strike on Monday- a vital brownie point following nose-diving economy, failed information operations against Russia in the Ukraine conflict, and hasty response to aggressive Chinese posturing in the Indo-Pacific. With Republicans lurking around the midterm elections in November, Biden has a tough time consolidating his ground internally and externally.
President Zelensky running out of steam post vogue photo shoots and slow but gradual Russian advances breaking through Ukrainian frontlines, Biden and allies have faced difficulties in keeping this prolonged war going. With Arab allies unconvinced of pumping more oil post-Biden’s visit to the Saudi Kingdom and Iran not budging to salvage JCPOA talks- the Biden administration is on the path to self-inflicted pain. Paper cracks have emerged in tackling the energy crisis post the Russian invasion, with European partners desperately moving to salvage the 2015 JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) deal in Vienna.
The point of contention is the US’s efforts to double down on businesses run by IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps). Moves in Indo-Pacific are more resonating for Biden- QUAD is evolving at a good pace, IPEF(Indo-Pacific Economic Framework) is showing a positive response, and there is far greater coordination between US-Australia-Japan.
While the US underscored a huge strategic victory by killing Zawahiri and reigning in the dragon’s bluff, the threat remains. Just as in Weiqi, flashpoints victories are cyclic and maneuverable by the enemy; it is the corner that can land a significant blow to these victories. The US is engaged on multiple fronts with an aggravated energy crisis and slow growth rate. Deadlock over JCOPA, North Korea’s nuclear challenge, Afghanistan imbroglio, and Military aid to Ukraine means partners in West and East Asia are left to contemplate how to address regional issues.
Japan and Saudi allies are left to ponder over the reliability of the US for the defense of Taiwan and the war in Yemen. AUKUS is yet to see much-needed progress on the future of nuclear submarines and capability building of the Australian Navy. For India, strategic patience may yield a good result against Pakistan and the Chinese until November. It also gives India time to control our neighborhood and address economic turmoil in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, upcoming elections in Nepal, events unfolding in Myanmar, and build military response capability in Bhutan against Chinese pinpricks.