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Shadow Play: The New Great Game in Eurasia

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So, right in the heart of Bali, spellbound after a serious conversation with a dukun — a spiritual master — it struck me: this should be the new Yalta, the perfect setting for a Trump-Xi-Putin summit setting the parameters ahead for the ever-evolving New Great Game in Eurasia.

Balinese culture makes no distinction between the secular and the supernatural — sekala and niskala. Sekala is what our senses may discern. Niskala is what cannot be sensed directly and can only be “suggested”. Massive geopolitical shifts ahead could not be more shrouded in niskala.

Captive to the vertiginous velocity of the here and now, the West still has much to learn from a highly evolved culture that prospered 5,000 years ago along the banks or the river Sindhu — now Indus — in what is currently Pakistan, and then migrated from the Majapahit empire in Java to Bali in the 14th century under the pressure of advancing Islam.

In the Hindu-Balinese conception of cosmic structure, Man is a kind of scale model of the universe. Order is personified by Gods, disorder personified by earth demons. It’s all about dharma and adharma. As for the West, adharma rules, unchecked.

In Hindu-Balinese religious philosophy, for every positive force there is a counterbalance, a destructive force. The two are inseparable — coexisting in dynamic equilibrium. Western dualism is so unsophisticated compared to it.

In the Suthasoma — a great Mahayana Buddhist epic poem composed in central Java at the time when Buddhism was merrily mixing up with Shivaist Hinduism — we find an outstanding verse: Bhineka tunggal ika (“it is different but it is one”).

That also happens to be the motto of Indonesia, emblazoned in its coat of arms, below the golden Garuda mythical bird. It’s a message of unity, like the American e pluribus unum. Now it looks more like a message presaging Eurasian integration via the New Silk Roads; it’s not by accident that Xi Jinping officially launched the Maritime Silk Road in 2013 in Indonesia.

With the Trump era about to begin, our current geopolitical juncture looks and feels like a massive Wayang kulit — a Balinese shadow play.

The historical origin of the shadow play lies most possibly in India, although it has been performed all across Asia. Good and evil coexist in shadow play — but Hinduism seeks to depict the clash as a sort of quirky partnership.

Kulit means skin, covering. Wayang is the puppet, made out of cow hide, painted and braced with sticks that the dalang — the puppet master — manipulates at will.

Every Wayang kulit performance is a story told by a dalang through voices (which he must impersonate), shadows on a screen, and atmospheric music. The dalang — a sort of priest — incarnates all characters and must know the stories he tells by heart.

Only a select few in the West qualify as dalangs — especially in the geopolitical sphere. The real dalangs are in fact totally invisible — deep down in niskala. But then we have their emissaries, the visible, media-savvy, media-worshipped dalangs. Back to them in a New York minute.

The white bull and the Asian girl

Now compare the Balinese shadow play — acting out sekala and most of all niskala — with the made-in-the-West approach; the Ariadne’s thread that might, just might, extricate us from the current geopolitical labyrinth by applying an exceedingly overhyped commodity: logic.

First, a rewind; let’s go back to the birth of the West, as in Europe. Legend tells us that one fine day Zeus happened to set his roving eye on a girl with big, bright eyes: Europa. A while later, on a beach in the Phoenician coast, an extraordinary white bull showed up. Europa, intrigued, got closer and started to caress the bull; of course, that was Zeus in disguise. The bull then annexed Europa and darted toward the sea.

Zeus had three sons with Europa — and left her a spear that never missed its target. One of these sons, as we all know, was Minos, who built a labyrinth. But most of all what legend taught us was that the West was born out of a girl — Europa — who came from the East.

The question now is who will find the Ariadne’s thread to extricate us from the labyrinth, which five centuries after the Western-led Age of Discovery has brought us to The Decline of the West, with its leader, the United States, in the forefront.

The Obama administration, leading the West “from behind”, counter-attacked with a pivot to Asia (for which, read containment of China) and Cold War 2.0 (demonization of Russia)

The whole EU project is facing utter collapse. The myth of European/Western cultural and political superiority — cultivated over the past five centuries — lies in the dust, as far as “all Asiatic vague immensities”, as Yeats wrote in The Statues, are concerned. This is bound to be the Eurasian century.

A sound way forward would have been what Putin proposed way back in 2007 — a unified continental trade emporium from Lisbon to Vladivostok. The idea was later picked up and expanded by the Chinese via the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) concept.

Instead, the Obama administration, leading the West “from behind”, counter-attacked with a pivot to Asia (for which, read containment of China) and Cold War 2.0 (demonization of Russia).

Enter the Western dalangs

And that leads us, on the eve of a possible, new geopolitical era, to what the foremost, visible Western dalangs may be concocting across niskala.

Sekala exhibits out-of-control 24/7 hysteria in sectors of the US deep state over “evil” Russian deeds, with neocon and neoliberalcon Obama administration remnants pushing Cold War 2.0 to its limits. Yet niskala, where Henry Kissinger and Dr. Zbigniew “Grand Chessboard” Brzezinski operate, is where the real (conceptual) action is.

It’s no secret that the “urbane”, “cerebral”, “legendary” Kissinger is now advising Trump. The long-term strategy might be characterized as classic Divide and Rule, but slightly remixed: in this case an attempt to break the Russia-China strategic partnership by allying with the — theoretically — weaker node, Russia, to better contain the stronger node, China.

From a “Nixon in China” moment to a “Trump in Moscow” moment.

It’s a no-brainer that vain sycophants of the Niall Ferguson variety will bathe Kissinger’s cunning in rivers of hagiography — oblivious to the fact that Kissinger might be entertaining a way more profitable sideshow, in the form of booming business for his star-studded consulting firm Kissinger Associates Inc., which happens to be a member of the US-Russia Business Council, side by side with ExxonMobil, JPMorgan Chase and Big Pharma anchor Pfizer.

So, in a nutshell: exit regime change, enter benign containment. Here’s Kissinger at his Primakov lecture, almost a year ago, already sketching how Washington should deal with Moscow: “The long-term interests of both countries call for a world that transforms the contemporary turbulence and flux into a new equilibrium which is increasingly multipolar and globalized … Russia should be perceived as an essential element of any global equilibrium, not primarily as a threat to the United States.”

Multipolar Kissinger extolling “no threat” Russia — one wonders why the Clinton machine back then did not expose the old man as yet another Putin bromance hostage.

Also months before Trump’s victory, but in marked contrast with Kissinger, Brzezinski was in deep red alert territory, alarmed by the “erosion of US military-technical advantages”, as detailed for instance in this CNAS report.

Brzezinski gloomily asserted the obvious — that a militarily inferior US “would spell the end of America’s global role” and the result would “most probably” be “global chaos”.

His solution then was for the US to “fashion a policy in which at least one of the two potentially threatening states becomes a partner in the quest for regional and then wider global stability, and thus in containing the least predictable but potentially the most likely rival to overreach. Currently, the more likely to overreach is Russia, but in the longer run it could be China.”

There you have it, over and over again: Divide and Rule, to counteract the unruly “threats”.

Brzezinski, after the Clinton machine/Obama debacle, is now no more than a sore loser. So he was forced to slightly shuffle the cards. Unlike Kissinger, and faithful to his rabid Russophobia, his Divide and Rule is centered on seducing China away from Russia, by which means “American influence is maximized”.

In a predictable, Western navel-gazing way, Brzezinski assumes China may not choose to go against the US, as it is “in their interest to belong to the dominant pack”. Yet the “dominant pack” is not the US anymore; it is Eurasian integration.

OBOR, or The New Silk Roads, is the only wide-ranging geoeconomic/ geopolitical integration project on the market. While Kissinger may remain, arguably, the ultimate realpolitik dalang, Obama mentor Brzezinski is still a hostage of Mackinder. The Chinese leadership, for its part, is already way ahead of both Mackinder and Alfred Mahan; the New Silk Roads aim to integrate, via trade and communications, not only the Heartland (One Belt) but also the Rimland (the Maritime Silk Road).

A partnership with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) will be essential to the whole project. Few will remember that as Cold War 2.0 was running amok back in September, the Eastern Economic Forum was doing business in Vladivostok, with Putin proposing a “digital economy space” all over Asia-Pacific and China pledging further involvement in the development of the Russian Far East.

So what we have now is arguably both top Western dalangs trying hard to adapt to the new normal — Eurasian integration via OBOR/EEU — by proposing conflicting, benign versions of Divide and Rule, as US intel keeps hangin’ on, in far from quiet desperation, to the old confrontational paradigm.

As the key nodes — the Triple Entente? — of Eurasian integration, Moscow, Beijing and Tehran are very much aware of a stranger bearing gifts shrouded in niskala. A stranger aiming, variously, at Moscow selling out Tehran in Syria, as well as with the nuclear deal; Moscow parting ways with Beijing; Beijing selling out Tehran; and all sorts of wayang containment/plunder permutations in between.

That will be the key story to follow further on down the (New Silk) roads. Yeats memorably wrote that, “mirror on mirror mirrored is all the show.” Yet the show always must go on — dalangs East and West let loose in deep niskala. Welcome to the 21st century Tournament of Shadows.

This piece first appeared in Asia Times.

Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007), Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge and Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).  His latest book is Empire of ChaosHe may be reached at pepeasia@yahoo.com.

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