The original Great Game was played out in the 19th Century, between Britain and Russia in Afghanistan, an ever-shifting military, economic, and geopolitical competition, which often took the form of proxy wars, with the great powers backing local forces, to fight one another. Today, the region is host to an even larger and more complex Great Game, with implications for the fate of the modern world, as it is being played out between several of the world’s largest, nuclear-capable, armies: the United States, India, Russia, China, and Pakistan.

The U.S. pull out from Afghanistan has left the door open for China to intensify its cooperation with the Taliban. Meanwhile, China’s “Iron Brotherhood” with Pakistan is drawing Pakistan further away from the U.S. sphere of influence. China is promising Pakistan trade and investments, while providing Pakistan with weapons.

At the same time, the enmity between Pakistan and India is drawing India closer to the U.S. India and the U.S. share mutual concern over a rising China. Both countries are committed to stabilizing South Asia, as well as opposing terrorism launched from Afghanistan and through Pakistan. And while India is buying an increasing amount of its weapons from the U.S., their main supplier remains Russia, the former enemy of the U.S. and sometimes-ally of China.

Trade And Investment Relationships

The Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party publication reported that “China does not have allies, but has friends with partnership diplomacy." This is especially applicable to Russia, China’s largest, most powerful would-be-ally. Although the two giants have some cooperation agreements in place, and they sometimes work together on issues of mutual interest, their cooperation is extremely limited. The imbalance in their wealth means that China would have to fund their joint projects. However, Beijing does not seem prepared to start writing the necessary checks. China’s vision for a China-led world-order would relegate Russia to second fiddle on a China-dominated planet. This seems a proposition Vladimir Putin would never accept.

The two countries face conflicting interests in Central Asia, where Russia wishes to maintain primacy, and in South Asia, where Russia sells weapons to India, while China sells weapons to Pakistan. Russia also sells weapons to Vietnam, a sworn enemy of China and an ally of the United States.

China and Russia are both members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) an economic, political, and security alliance. The SCO regularly hold joint military drills. The two nations are also members of BRICS, composed of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.

Both Moscow and Beijing tout China-Russia cooperation and their desire to stop using U.S. dollars in trade, as well as their wish to counter U.S. hegemony in trade and global finance. To date, however, no concrete steps have been taken to achieve these goals. They mutually signed the China-Eurasian Economic Union Free Trade Agreement, in 2018, to establish a free-trade area, but so far, no progress has been made.

In 2019, Russia exported $58.1 Billon to China, mostly crude petroleum, refined petroleum, and sawn wood. This figure includes just over $1 billion of service exports, such as transportation and construction. China exported $47.1 billion to Russia, so it is running a trade deficit. The main products were broadcasting equipment, computers, and vehicle parts. China exported no services to Russia. Over the past 24 years, Russia’s exports to China have increased at a rate of roughly 12.8% per year, while China’s exports to Russia have increased by 14.9% per year.

China is Pakistan’s largest trading partner with $14.36 billion of total trade in 2020. Pakistan exported only $1.86 billion to China, while importing $12.4 billion. So, China runs a tremendous trade surplus with its Iron Brother. The U.S. is Pakistan’s second-largest trading partner, with $6.811 Billion in 2020 trade. The U.S. runs a trade deficit with Pakistan of almost $1 billion.

India’s largest trading partners is the U.S., with $92 billion last year. The U.S. runs a trade deficit with India. U.S. exports to India are about 40% of U.S. imports from India. China is India’s second-largest trading partner, with $82 billion. China runs a huge trade surplus with India, exporting about four times as much as it imports.

Russia is not even in the top 20 of India’s trading partners, with total trade of about $9 billion. Russia runs a trade surplus, importing about a third as much as it exports to India. Roughly 23% of Russia’s arms exports go to India. Recent agreements signed by Modi and Putin, set a target of $30 billion in trade and $50 billion in investment over the next four years. From the start of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, until 2018, the U.S. was Pakistan’s single-largest donor. Between 2002 to 2011, the U.S. provided Pakistan $18 billion in aid. The U.S. aid was largely grants, unlike China’s aid -- which consisted of high interest loans.

In 2013, Xi Jinping inaugurated the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s trillion-dollar project to connect the entire Earth through a grid of Chinese-funded roads, ports, and infrastructure projects, as well as computer and financial networks. Two years later, Xi announced the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which was meant to be the jewel of the BRI. The basic concept was that China would lend money to Pakistan, at a high interest rate, to build infrastructure. And then, Pakistan would use the income, generated by the infrastructure, to repay the loans.

Eight years later, many of the projects are completely stalled. Pakistan has seen only a modest increase in its GDP, and the loans are coming due. In 2013, Pakistan’s debt to China was $4.1 billion. As of 2021, it had increased to $24.7 billion. When the first round of CPEC interest payments came due, Pakistan was forced to turn to the IMF for a $6.3 billion bailout.

Military Alliances

India and Russia are both concerned about Afghanistan being used as a safe haven for terrorists, as both countries have been the target of major attacks in recent decades. Consequently, they have plans to work together on the Afghanistan issue. Russia has kept its Kabul embassy open, and has hosted top Taliban officials in discussions about the country’s future.

For 12 years running, India and Russia have held the "Indra" joint military exercises. Recently, India signed a 10-year defence cooperation agreement with Russia. Sanjay Kumar Pandey, a professor at the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that engagement with Russia was not only important for India’s defence, from a possible conflict with China or Pakistan, but also to maintain regional stability. Furthermore, he added that India could not allow Russia to get closer to China or Pakistan.

One of the most significant military collaborations has been BrahMos Aerospace, a joint venture between India’s Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and Russia's NPO Mashinostroyenia, rocket design bureau, to build BrahMos, the world's fastest supersonic cruise missile. New Delhi and Moscow have concluded a $681 million deal to jointly produce AK-203 assault rifles in India. Six-hundred-thousand of the weapons will be produced, replacing the dated rifles currently used by the Indian military. Additionally, the Russians have begun delivering long-range S-400 surface-to-air missile defence systems.

The S-400 missiles are a potential wrinkle in the relationship between India and the U.S. The U.S. could see the purchase as a violation of the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which imposes economic sanctions on countries that purchase military hardware from Russia. Given the strengthening ties between New Delhi and Washington, the Indian side hopes to be granted a CAATSA waiver. U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that the U.S. recognizes India "as a major defence partner." This suggests that a waiver may be granted.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with President Biden and attended the Quad Leaders’ Summit. The U.S. regards India as a key ally, countering China, in the Asia-Pacific. Over the past 10 years, the U.S. has sold $22 billion worth of aircraft, helicopters and missiles to India. During the final year of the Trump administration alone, deals reached $3.4 billion. In the first year of the Biden administration, the president has already approved $2.42 billion of arms sales to India. In total, there are roughly $10 billion of deals, currently in the works. Among the weapons the U.S. has sold to India are P-8I Poseidon long-range maritime patrol aircraft, C-130J transport aircraft, 30 MQ-9 Predator-B drones, NASAMS-II missile shield, ISTAR aircraft, and Chinook helicopters.

The U.S. and India regularly conduct joint training, such as Exercise Yudh Abhyas 2021, which was held in Alaska. Defence agreements that are now in place include the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement, as well as the Industrial Security Agreement. The two countries, along with Japan and Australia, are also member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad), a defence pact designed to counter Chinese expansion.

Indian defence experts believe the country is facing a two-front threat, from China and Pakistan. They worry that Pakistan and China could attack India simultaneously, or that China could support Pakistan with weapons and funding to attack India. One of the many flashpoints is Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir. Part of CPEC runs through Gilgit-Baltistan, an area in the greater Kashmir disputed territory, which India sees as an encroachment on its sovereign territory.

India’s top generals are concerned that China could start a war with India in the disputed Ladakh border area, where skirmishes between Indian and Chinese troops took place last year. The generals posit that even if Pakistan does not participate, if they just mobilize troops on the Indian border, India would be forced to split its troops, to prevent an impending Pakistani invasion.

Pakistan has been buying weapons from China for decades. By the 1980s, China provided nearly 75% of Pakistan’s army tanks and 65% of its military aircraft. Today, Chinese weapons account for 73% of Pakistan’s arms imports, making Pakistan the largest importer of Chinese weapons. The country purchased 38% of China’s total weapons exports between 2016 and 2020.

Over the past 50 years, China has been instrumental in developing Pakistan's nuclear and missile programs. China educated Pakistan’s nuclear engineers and provided the country with uranium, as well as the means for processing uranium. Chinese blueprints were used to construct Pakistan's nuclear bomb. Additionally, China provided Pakistan with nuclear-capable M-11 missiles. Pakistan’s current missiles have a range of 186 miles, but China has provided them with technology that could double the missile range.

Pakistan and China conducted joint military training in Tibet. They also conducted joint training, along with Mongolia and Thailand, in Henan, in an exercise called “Shared Destiny-2021.”

Faced with terrorism emanating from Afghanistan and through Pakistan, as well as a possible war with Pakistan or China, or both, India is juggling its relations with both the U.S. and Russia, the number-one and number-two military powers in the world. India dubs its enemies the Sino-Pak-Taliban trio. And in response, India has been expanding its military, becoming the world’s second-largest arms importer. Meanwhile, Pakistan is the world’s 10th-largest arms importer, and China’s military support for Pakistan has caused a nuclear arms race with India.

The Great Game of the 19th Century was contained to one of the most remote and inhospitable corners of Earth, with the only casualties being the locals and the imperial soldiers who tried to dominate them.

The new Great Game, by contrast, is a global power competition, which involves the three most formidable armies in the world, plus two of the least-stable nuclear nations. The stakes of this new game are dire, with implications for the entire world.