The Importance of Central Asia
In the recent Galwan Valley clash with China, the Indian Territory north of Kashmir which was snatched away from India by Pakistan and China was once again sorely missed. One of the largest of the regions that are illegally occupied by Pakistan is Gilgit-Baltistan. It is of more strategic importance than even PoK. Gilgit-Baltistan has a border with Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan, which was created by the British in order to buffer India from Imperial Russia.
Had India managed to retain Gilgit-Baltistan it would have had direct access to Afghanistan a natural enemy of Pakistan and through the Wakhan corridor it would have access to the Pamir Mountains and river in the central Asian country of Tajikistan and before the 90s, to Russia, which during a long time, was India’s close ally. Having a direct access to our allies and Pakistan’s enemies on the other hand would have meant a much stronger position for India in its fight against China and Pakistan.
But shockingly lacking foresight in geopolitical matters, India under Nehru squandered this chance of taking Gilgit-Baltistan. India is still suffering from its consequences.
On the other hand, all other great powers have understood the importance of Central Asian Mountains, steppes and valleys. For anyone having control of the pieces of Kashmir and Pamir alongside other regions north of Kashmir would be in an immensely profitable position. This is why in history, regional powers such as China have fought fiercely for pieces of Central Asia such as Tibet, Sinkiang and Aksai Chin. But not just that, European powers like Russia, Britain, France, Germany and even Sweden have fought for pieces of land and influence in Central Asia. This series is a story of this rush for land and influence in Central Asia. And that story has a glorious name: the Great Game. (Hopkirk 1)
The Chinese at the Gates
Before we embark on our journey of the Great Game or rather Great Games, for there were many, we need to analyze how the current situation came about. China before 1950 did not have a border with India. To anyone who is privy to the pre-independence history of India it seems odd that China is actually venturing into India’s territory, because for most of our history China never had a border with India. India bordered Tibet, Sinkiang and many nations in Central Asia, but never China. It was the great upheaval of the mid-20th century which suddenly brought China on India’s doors. And it benefitted from India’s folly. This is a story of how great countries ignore geo-politics only at their own peril.
The Great Game
To the Indians in 21st century it might see a little odd to hear, that for around five centuries, the supreme prize for which the great powers of the West fought for was: India. India, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, was the place everyone wanted to control. This is what started the great seafaring age at first. Spain and Portugal set out to find a new sea route to India as Islam had blocked the land route to this great land of riches and spices.
We often forget that the Americas were discovered by Columbus because he was on his way to India. Our world was irrevocably changed because of that discovery. That the search for India was at the center for, is significant.
But even a lesser number of people know that India was sought after from a completely different route – the land route of Central Asia. And for two centuries, the Great Powers of the West along with China fought for this land route in order to gain a final and definitive access to India. This is the story which once again becomes relevant in the current scenario. China wrested Aksai Chin and other parts from India because of the geo-political importance of Central Asia. Pakistan took Gilgit-Baltistan from India because of the crucial importance of Central Asia and the land routes that pass through here.
It is on these routes that merchants on one hand and armies on another passed through and still do. It is crucial for any country which has aspirations of becoming a global power to take control of these routes.
India was the goal. Central Asia was the means. The quest to take control of Central Asia was called the Great Game.
As far as geopolitics goes, there is no other place in the world which is as crucial as Central Asia. First, to anyone who controls this region, it gives direct access to at least three great powers and nations with resources like China, Russia and India. India during the colonial times was ruled by Britain and hence it was the playing field between Russia and Britain. Further, it has access to middling powers like Iran and Turkey. In the 19th century, the Iran ruled by the Shahs and the Ottoman Empire in Turkey were stronger than they are today and hence the geo-political importance of Central Asia was even more. It held the keys to the approach to five great and super powers.
The Silk Routes
Historically most of the silk routes and many spice routes have also passed through Central Asia, giving us some of the greatest caravan cities like Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, Khokhand, Kashgar etc. Being on the ancient trade route this region was quickly penetrated by Buddhism. Some of the greatest Buddhist monoliths were created in this region along with several monasteries. It was the golden age of Buddhism in Central Asia in which various great murals, several great paintings and sculptures were created all throughout the vast steppes of Central Asia. (Frankopan 17)
China and India, the two powerhouses of ancient world, supplied many important articles to Europe. While China provided silk and other rare items, India provided spices along with many other trade items. When Islam broke forth upon the medieval world, it took hold of these trade routes at first to create trade monopoly and starve Europe of goods at one hand and India and China of gold reserves on the other.
While the Arabs never managed to win over Central Asia, it was the Persians upon conversion to Islam who first colonized and converted Central Asia. Later on the Turks took over and the Great Steppes of Central Asia turned Islamic. It had a lasting and huge impact on the fate of the world and particularly on India.
Central Asia under Islam experienced a Buddhist Holocaust. The great centers of Buddha were destroyed, the monoliths desecrated and some completely destroyed, the monasteries burnt to ground and the free culture of the region came to an end.
Had the ancient and medieval kingdoms of India tried to colonize Central Asia, it might not have been so easy for Islamic armies to invade India. For it was in Central Asia that these Islamic armies originated, camped and travelled through to invade India. The Ghaznis and the Ghauris made Afghanistan their base, another important part of Central Asia. The Mughals invaded India because they could so easily stroll through the Central Asian lands. Without the support of their armies back in Central Asia, even the Mughals might not have found a permanent foothold in India.
European Imperialism Reaches Central Asia
As the Mughals waned other great powers started emerging on the Western horizon. And it was not only by sea that these great powers of Europe were coming. They were also making their way through Central Asia. While Western European powers like Spain, Portugal, Holland and Britain searched for sea routes to India, Imperial Russia on the other hand was expanding all through the vast continent that lay east and south of it.
We often miss to register that Russia was one of the great colonial powers of the 18th and 19th centuries and while other western European powers expanded by sea, Russia expanded on land. Making a quick meal of ‘empty’ Siberia, Russia was soon in Central Asia on one hand and Mongolia and Manchuria on the other. It was simultaneously knocking on the gates of India and China.
One by one it started guzzling up the various caravan cities and fiefdoms that the crazy Islamic sheikhs of Central Asia governed. There were no ‘-istans’, or well defined countries in Central Asia when Russia colonized it. The region was inhabited by roaming bands of tribes which seldom lived permanently at one place. They would roam across the great seamless steppes of central Asia, spending one season in one ‘country’ and another in other.
What were permanent were the great caravan cities like Samarkand, Bokhara, Merv, Tokhan, Kashgar etc. They were ruled by the Islamic despots whose torturous and capricious reigns are stuff of medieval legends. Along with the city in which they lived they controlled the surrounding areas and the routes where the caravans travelled. The steppes were the no man’s land.
Like other European powers, the Russian generals also had a great sense of geo-politics and they knew that the age had come where if they did not take control of the ‘empty steppes’ and the ‘no man’s land’, some other great power will. They quickly moved in and carved out ‘stans’ and assigned capitals to these places. The Great Russian Bear was moving towards India’s borders. As expressed above, India was the greatest prize.
India was the most important British colony and while Russia was moving towards India’s borders, Britain was not lying idle. First it gained access to great heights of the Himalayas on all sides of India to create a great protective ring of mountains, preventing any invading army an easy march. On the other hand, it also took care that the borders of the newly acquired territories of the Tsar in Central Asia would not touch India’s borders.
For this they created a protective ring of buffer states on the west of India, trying to make Shah of Persia and Emir of Afghanistan their ally. In order to keep puppet regimes in Afghanistan, Britain would subsequently fight two Afghan Wars. Along with this, the British were swinging spies all over Central Asia in hostile lands just so that India’s borders could remain secure. One can hate or love the British, but their geo-political wisdom still cannot be questioned.
On the other side of Central Asia, Tibet was also penetrated by the Western Empires for the first time in history. The Race to Lhasa is an important chapter in this series.
China Moves into the Great Game
The eagerness of Western powers to penetrate Tibet is what finally prompted the communist powers of China to invade it and create a permanent seat of Chinese power there so that no Western or other great power ever gets near China. China was late to the Great Game but it finally woke up with a bang and grabbed some of the most significant and largest territories of Central Asia like Sinkiang, Tibet and Mongolia.
With China moving in, Central Asia was completely divided up between great powers to the ultimate loss of India. India was the only one with negligible Central Asian land in its control. To make matters worse when India became independent, Pakistan and China wrested further land from India in the form of Gilgit-Baltistan, PoK and Aksai Chin along with other smaller territories. India was left with nothing.
From Britain to Russia, Germany, France, China and even Pakistan have got hold of pieces of Central Asia and command some influence in one of the most important of geo-political pieces of real estate in the world today. Only India is left out of this latest of the Great Games.
While India holds’ Kashmir valley, the only commanding heights under Indian control are in Ladakh and it is Ladakh which China is eyeing up now. Its five fingers plan dictates that Tibet is China’s right hand palm and the five fingers are Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. Mao Zedong the first communist leader of China thought that it was China’s responsibility to ‘liberate’ these five fingers from India’s control and influence.
Once again it cannot be stressed that all of these independent countries and provinces of India command great heights and form a natural bulwark against Chinese aggression. Once they are under Chinese control or influence India will have no commanding height and no natural defense against Chinese invasion. In fact, India will be like a sitting duck for Chinese army. And the first episode in that chain of events is Ladakh. If India loses another war in Ladakh, Nepal would fall next and then the rest is just a matter of when and not if.
India has ignored Central Asia at its own risk and the risk is great. The entire episode of Galwan Valley would not have become possible had India risen up to the geo-political challenge that its geographical setting thrown against it. Great nations have great boundaries and great boundaries are defended with great wisdom and long foresight in geopolitics.
Britain for all its faults had a great geo-political sense. After it left, India should have taken over and increased its influence in central Asia. After Britain left, India still had three years until the Chinese occupied Tibet. It could have increased its influence in Tibet and Sinkiang. It could have prevented China from taking Tibet by striking a defense deal with Tibet or by occupying it.
The Thumb Rule of Geopolitics
In the modern world, the meeting of India’s and China’s borders was inevitable. But wars are always fought better at the enemy’s territory. All the risk is the enemy’s then. Right now China has that advantage, and India has the disadvantage. This is why Indo-China wars are always fought on Indian territory. If Indian leaders had any geo-political sense these wars should have been fought in the Chinese territory in the provinces of Gansu and eastern Sichuan. If India had ably succeeded the British in geo-political wisdom, these wars should at least have been fought in neutral territories of Tibet, Sinkiang, Qinghai and western Sichuan and not on India’s soil.
If we look at the map of China today, we see that original China is much smaller than its current expanse. The huge provinces of Sinkiang, Tibet, Qinghai are recent occupations of China. So are huge provinces of Inner Mongolia and western Sichuan. Tibet in fact is much bigger than the autonomous province of today. The entire province of Qinghai and western Sichuan is actually what was undivided Tibet. Yunnan in the south has also remained independent for most of its history and also had some Indian influence.
Had India’s political leaders shown some geopolitical foresight, Sinkiang, Tibet, Qinghai, Western Sichuan and even Yunnan should have been either Indian territories or India’s spheres of influence. Had that come to pass, Indo-China wars would have been fought on Chinese soil. Had that come to pass, Indian armies would have threatening great Chinese cities of Chongqing, Chengdu and with some ambition even the ancient Chinese capital of Xi’an.
India would have commanded all of the Himalayas and also the great Tibetan plateau along with a much bigger chunk of Central Asia and Indian armies then would be looking down on Chinese lands and great Chinese cities, threatening their very existence, just like Chinese armies are threatening Indian borders, Indian land and Indian great cities today. But this did not come to happen. Small mistakes in geopolitics and even a few years of neglect of what is happening inside, on and even beyond our political borders can result in disastrous consequences with long and sometimes final say in the fates of political nations.
Needless to say had India controlled or influenced these vast swathes of land in Central Asia and eastern Asia then it would have controlled Kailash Mansarovar and the origin of all great rivers of Asia including the Brahmaputra, the Mekong and the Indus. India would have no problem of enemies controlling its waters as it has now.
Not only this, India would then also have controlled the origins of the two greatest of Chinese rivers, the Huang Ho (Yellow River) and the Yangtze, the world’s third largest river and the lifeline of entire China now. It would also have controlled the headwaters of the great river Mekong, the lifeline of South-east Asia. The Mekong is named so because in South-east Asia it was once called another Ganga and Me + Kong is the distortion of the words Mother (Me) + Ganga (Kong).
This showed that once upon a time Indian rulers had great geopolitical sense of expanding in the East and we influenced their cultures by converting them to our Dharmic traditions. Entire cities and rivers were named after the sacred concepts in India. For in South-east Asia too we have cities like Ayutthaya (Ayodhya) and Bander Seri Begawan (Bandar Shri Bhagawan); countries like Burma (Brahma) and Siam (Shyam); rivers like the Mekong (Maa Ganga); and languages like Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia with their very name ‘Bahasa’ taken from Sanskrit ‘Bhasha’. Needless to mention here are the countless Hindu temples like Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Prambanan in Indonesia and My Son in as far as Vietnam.
It pains to see that once upon a time before the great colonial age of the West, Indian rulers had the great sense to influence lands as far as Vietnam. In that golden age of India, it was India which had circled China from all sides by influencing Dharma in Tibet and Mongolia in the west and north of China; by influencing religion and politics in the province of Yunnan in the south of China (Dali worshipped gods inspired by Shiva in Hinduism); and by colonizing directly and converting the entire south-east Asian nations to Hinduism from Burma to Vietnam.
Unfortunately it is China which has encircled India completely now: by occupying Tibet, Sinkiang and Yunnan; by making many south-east Asian nations from Burma to Laos its satellites; by befriending terrorist countries like Pakistan which are India’s enemies; by encashing the anti-Hindu sentiment of Islamic republics like Iran; by making ports and depots in countries like Sri Lanka and Burma.
Granted that in the medieval ages, India was controlled by the Islamic and then the British imperial powers and China was not but had India woken up in 1947 much of those advantages of China could have been easily reversed as China was very weak in 1950 with Christian rebellions and mass murder, opium wars and indirect Western colonialism. It had also just emerged from the devastating Japanese occupation of the Second World War and the ensuing Civil War between the nationalists and the communists in China. Had India grabbed those first four years from 1947 to 1951, India could at least have taken Tibet and influenced Sinkiang and Yunnan. South-east Asia could have been an ongoing policy then.
Geopolitics like nature abhors vacuum. If one power does not move in to dominate the second tier powers then some other will. This is the situation of India is and has been. Its reluctance to play the geopolitical game like it is played, has cost it and the world very much for it has allowed more sinister powers like China to move in to fill the vacuum.
Things can still change for, politics in China is very fragile. The stress which the Corona Virus pandemic has brought on and the built-up frustration in the ramshackle Chinese political and social machinery can bring down the Chinese communist party in near future. That situation can be swung to India’s advantage if only India’s leaders and strategists are ready to take lessons from the past.
And of course the first area that India should focus on is Central Asia. Read on this series to know the curious history of Central Asia and how various great powers have gone to extreme lengths to control this land under the sky.
- Hopkirk, Peter. The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia. John Murray, 1996.
- Frankopan, Peter. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. Bloomsbury, 2016.
Featured Image: Asia Society
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Pankaj Saxena is a scholar of History, Hindu Architecture and Literature. He has visited more than 400 sites of ancient Hindu temples and photographed the evidence. He has been writing articles, research papers and reviews in various print and online newspapers and magazines. He currently works as the Asst. Professor, Centre for Indic Studies, Indus University, Ahmedabad. He has authored three books so far. He maintains a blog at http://literaryfalcon.wordpress.com/