The world is passing through a transitional phase, where the existing world order is under stress, politically, economically and militarily. Unipolarity has been formally challenged by a clearly visible strong Sino-Russian pole on one hand, and a few more poles morphing in near future (five to ten years) like certain European and Asian powers. The small and mid-level countries are re-evaluating their old economic and military affiliations throughout Asia, Europe and Africa. The United States of America, after enjoying more than two decades of unfettered and absolute command in geopolitics, is misbehaving like a spoiled adult, that is not ready to adjust to the shifting dunes of reality on the global horizon. The universe moves slowly but surely, indicating a certain eastward direction that can only be altered by some disruptive events. Political philosophers and economic strategists at all significant intellectual centres should be pondering the future trajectories of the world polity and economy, and where they would find themselves if the path of the dotted curve is not altered. And then there will be a clear distinction drawn between the status-quo loving and the disruption-wishing powers. And this is the crux of the entire debate in this article.

It seems to be the earnest desire of China to continue on its spree of economic development and expansion, both in terms of time and space. But they are quite aware of the adage that, “You may not be interested in war, but war may be interested in you”, thus doing a lot in the military field to create a ‘deterrence’ against any ill-intended entities. But China has not been able to forge an alliance strong enough similar to NATO or the European Union. Its endeavour to create and strengthen platforms like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is presently no match with the influence the US, the west and the allies wield in world bodies like the IMF, ADB, FATF etc. Thus in spite of the Chinese rise in manufacturing, agriculture, development in high tech and mammoth exports, it probably lacks the compatible strength in political influence and military prowess (not yet seriously tested). Also because of the language barrier and not enough spending in the fields of mainstream and social media, they are no match to the American and Western perception management and psychological influencing techniques. Their main ideological partner Russia has already been drawn into a war in Ukraine which might leave Russia weakened and mauled. North Korea is barely surviving due to its political isolation and suppressive regime. Iran, Syria etc are in no position to provide any worthwhile support to China in case of any future expanded conflict. Pakistan has been left economically and politically weak due to internal wrangling and confused policies. Whereas China kept encouraging Pakistan to continue their good relations with the US and the West, but the Americans have made it amply clear that deepening of China-Pak relations, flourishing of CPEC and any positive gestures toward Russia are no more acceptable to them. The failure of China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran to forge a unified policy on Afghanistan has encouraged India and other countries to reappear significantly in war-torn Afghanistan, which is desperately looking for international political legitimacy and economic support.

On the other side, the US and the West along with Australia, Japan and India are creating brand-new political, economic and military alliances. Though India is still trying to assert its independent policies especially related to Iran and Russia, nevertheless for the time being, it has joined the Western bloc mainly to thwart China and intimidate Pakistan. This factor alone should have brought China and Pakistan closer, but reluctant China and fearful Pakistan remained at a certain distance from each other.

The outcome of the Ukraine conflict, whenever it ends, will shape the future world order in a big way. For the time being, the US and West are adding fuel to the fire and have no sympathy or concern at all for the heavy cost in human lives that Ukraine is sustaining. During this conflict, Russia is also flexing its economic muscle by challenging the hegemony of Petro-Dollars and an endeavour to break through the economic sanctions and isolation that the US and its allies are trying to enforce. If Russia succeeds even partially, a big dent may appear in the prevailing political and economic order of the world. But if the West effectively neutralises Russia, which is a possibility, because of the Chinese reluctance to outrightly provide support to its otherwise avowed ally, then the existing world order will get further strengthened, at least for a decade or two.

India is an important wildcard in this entire game plan, and she has very cleverly kept all choices open. In the Russo-NATO conflict, she may immediately join the winning side. Keeping trade and communication open with Iran and China, India can mend fences with them in little time. New overtures towards Afghanistan have checkmated Pakistan’s special position throughout this conflict. And, unfortunately, Pakistan’s internal turmoil and foreign policy confusion is consuming all its intellectual and diplomatic prowess.

After dealing with Russia effectively, if they succeed, the US and allies next target is likely to be China. The strategists in the US could decide to engage China in a military conflict before it becomes too strong to be dealt with. The main war zone could be the Indo-Pacific, and the casus belli could be Taiwan or other Indo-Pacific Islands. If the West succeeds in their second phase without invoking any big response from other countries (not likely) then a weakened China may retract and shrink back to its own old land and ocean borders. The existing world order will get further prolonged for a few more decades.

The nature and character of war is undergoing some fundamental changes. Strategic gurus have always been advocating that the character of war keeps changing due to technological revolutions, but the nature of war remains constant. This notion may be reviewed in the era of disruptive ideas and techniques. As this is not the main theme of this article, deeper indulgence in this area is being avoided. But as we discuss the possibilities of great transition in geopolitics and geoeconomics, geostrategy and warfare cannot remain unaffected. The use of non-state actors, false-flag operations, disinformation, economic hitmen etc, are some of the main ingredients of modern hybrid conflicts. The Ukraine war offers a great insight to interested military minds.

Pakistan’s position during this transitional phase is precarious. The politico-economic situation at the global level is still not clear and we have been forced to make decisions and take sides. If the environment reading and shaping was left to the experts, that is the diplomats, they could have found some way out. But this delicate balancing act was undertaken by political forces and institutions that do not excel in diplomacy, international relations, and negotiation skills. Resultantly, we may end up annoying all our friends to the delight of our enemies. All is not lost, not yet. Only if we, as a vibrant nation, can forge political stability, which is the only recipe to usher in economic revival. A non-partisan caretaker setup should ensure fair and free elections; this seems to be the only way forward. Lowering the political temperature, resulting in some modicum of economic relief, may give us a breather to review the entire geopolitical landscape, and provide us some space to take important decisions according to long-term national interests. Whether the ticking clock will wait for us to catch up, or if we have missed the train, remains to be seen.

Adroit diplomacy, with some good luck, may put us on top of the newly formed politico-economic dune, or Allah Forbid, bury us under the old sands of wasted time.

Plan, act and then pray, in the same order, to get out of this morass.

Lt Gen Naeem Khalid Lodhi Retired

The writer has held various commands during his military career. For his services he has been conferred the award of Hilal-e-Imtiaz (M). He has also served as the Defence Secretary. He is currently an Advisor at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research (CSCR).