Once again a bit late posting, but here is a short piece for the Telegraph in the wake of the London Bridge incident with Usman Khan. While on the topic, spoke to the Observer, Financial Times, Independent about the incident, to the Irish Times about the complexity of prosecuting returnees and the Guardian about the current state of the terror threat. Separately, also spoke to Global Finance magazine and the South China Morning Post about China-Russia, and Suddeutsche Zeitung about Xinjiang.

Politicians don’t understand the true nature of the terror threat

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The almost immediate political spat that arose from the London Bridge incident has occluded some of the bigger lessons to be drawn from the attack. The focus on prisons, probation and who exactly passed the legislation responsible for the terrorist’s release has ignored the wider points raised by this case.

Perhaps the most important is the longer-term question of how exactly we plan to manage an ever-growing cohort of people who, in some cases, appear to decide to re-engage with extremist activity almost a decade after they first encountered it.

As a society we have to face a chronic threat which includes Syria-Iraq returnees, the growing mainstreaming of extremist narratives, and the possibility of an abrupt drop off in our intelligence and security cooperation with key European partners. This is where the focus of the discussion around terrorism should be.

After almost two decades of facing a domestic extremist Islamist community, we have an ever-growing cohort of young men and women who have been attracted to these ideas and in some cases appear not to shake them. This number only grows over time, and given the fact that often people start to engage in their teenage years, the tail of this problem is one that is going to stretch far into the future.

It is not the case that all of these individuals are going to pose a persistent threat. Some people do grow out of these ideas which they adopt in their early adulthood and move on. Lives change, partners are met, new jobs are taken; people move on. In some cases, intense engagement with deradicalisation programmes or mentors help move them into a different space mentally, encouraging them to leave behind the extremist ideas.

But some only do this half-heartedly, never really shake the idea or find that the alternative to the extremist ideology is not a particularly exciting world. Their lives might never move forwards (or not to the level they were expecting), or other things happen around them which mean they do not leave the radical milieu.

In some extreme cases, the individuals seem to enjoy the violence. Some of these can be diverted through intense activity which channels their energy, but this requires a constant level of engagement.

The difficulty is understanding how each case is going to play out. In retrospect cases that go bad can appear obvious but this is not always so at the time. And given the easy terrorist methodologies deployed at the moment (cars and knives), it has become almost impossible for security forces to effectively and completely police this group.

Clearly more resource will help manage this problem, but it is unlikely to get rid of it. It is also key to remember that this is not a short-term investment. The London Bridge attacker first got involved in extremist activity in his late teens and then turned to violence a decade later.

When this timeline is put against the case of 2017’s 52-year-old Westminster attacker, this means you have a potential window of more than 30 years in which the state needs to potentially monitor extremists. And that resource requirement needs to be placed against the many other issues which call upon the public purse.

Ultimately, this is a problem which is going to require a long-term engagement and investment. And eradication is unlikely to succeed.

This is not a call for despair, just an acknowledgement of the reality that until some of the bigger perceptions and cases of injustice around the world are eliminated, we will continue to see some people drawn to using violence to try to rectify these issues.

In the short-term what we can do is tackle some of the immediate problems, such as dealing with the British nationals in Turkish, Iraqi or Kurdish custody. They require repatriation, detention and rehabilitation (or longer-term conviction if the legal case is met).

We also need to check the habit of mainstream politicians feeding and supporting extremist narratives. This is either through their unhelpful demonisation of others, pandering to baser narratives in the public discourse, or more simply politicising issues that should be handled more carefully.

Finally, there is a need to ensure that whoever enters government ensures that the information links that we share with European security partners are maintained. Given the increasingly diffuse, multi-ideology and international threat that we face, sharing data and information amongst our security forces is going to be a crucial tool.

It is unsurprising that the London Bridge attack has generated the sort of political debate we have seen. Coming during a tense election campaign it has immediately tapped into bigger tensions. Yet we need to be careful that we learn the right lessons and ensure that any ensuing policy change is dealing with the actual problem rather than the hysteria around it.

This is the only way to maintain the resilience of our society to dealing with the long-term problem that terrorists and extremists pose.

Raffaello Pantucci is Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

Somewhat belatedly, posting a book chapter that emerged in Jihadist terror: New Threats, New Responses, edited by Dr Anthony Richards, Devorah Margolin and Nicolo Scremin, a book that came out of a big project and conference in London last year. A very big event with lots of interesting people, resulting in a very interesting looking edited volume. Given it is a book, the entire text is not published below, but I have pasted the abstract and feel free to get in touch if you would like to read more.

In media, my recent Wall Street Journal piece on how terrorism might evolve post-Baghdadi’s death generated an amusing epistolary response in the paper , and was also translated into Spanish. Also spoke to the National about the new allegiance pledges to the ISIS, to NBC about foreign fighters, AFP about the attack claimed by ISIS in Tajikistan, and earlier comments about the threat picture in the UK were used by Press Association and the Independent after JTAC lowered the terror threat level in the UK. Finally, Dr Philip Lewis quoted my book in a very interesting review essay in Church Times. On the other side of the coin, the IPI Global Observatory republished another recent piece for the East Asia Forum on China and Central Asia.

Personal and Organisational Patterns of Known Terrorists and Related Groups in the UK Since 1998

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As the UK’s domestic jihadist threat enters its fourth decade, the threat picture is one that is radically transformed from its early days. Drawing on information from just under 70 separate plots in the UK since 1998, this chapter sketches out the changing nature of the external threat picture, the nature of the individuals involved in the plots and the sorts of attacks that they were planning. Given the relatively limited space and discursive nature of the set thesis, the following is necessarily superficial in some ways, but sketches out a trajectory in the threat picture in the UK. The chapter breaks the time period down into four separate phases (1998-2004; 2004-2009; 2009-2013; 2013-2018), which capture four distinct moments in the nature of the violent Islamist terrorist threat to the UK. In concluding, it observes that the arc of threat has shifted from the UK being a launchpad for threats abroad, to a threat picture which is characterized by lone-actor style plots with greater inspiration, rather than clear direction, from foreign groups.

And now back up to date with writing as far as can tell, my most recent late last week on Baghdadi’s death trying to look further to the future about what is happening with terrorism more broadly for the Wall Street Journal. Some bigger ideas in here that need greater exploration in the future, but here is a short start.

Beyond this, spoke to various news outlets over the past month since last providing an update. Starting most recently with the Baghdadi death with the Financial Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Guardian about its impact on the UK threat picture (which was also picked up by an outlet called Go Tech, the Mirror and Sputnik) and this Norwegian site Klasse Kampen seems to have picked up my comments about the defunct terrorist leader from somewhere. Subsequent to his death, spoke to the Independent about his successor. Earlier, spoke to the Financial Times about Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria and its impact on ISIS, to the Sun about Syria returnees in the UK, and to the Independent about the shooting in Halle, Germany and the broader threat from XRW. On the other side of the coin, spoke to Foreign Policy/Newsweek about China-Russia, to Asia Times about China-Iran, and to Bloomberg about Russian pipeline politics.

After Baghdadi, Terrorism Without Ideology

ISIS provided a template for attacks. Now isolated people reproduce them as meaningless spectacle.

Raffaello Pantucci
Oct. 30, 2019 6:44 pm ET

 

French soldiers stand guard after a knife attack in Paris, Oct. 3. PHOTO: GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead, a few weeks after Europe was racked by four separate incidents classified as terrorism: a truck-ramming in Limburg, Germany; a series of stabbings at a police station in Paris; a shooting at a synagogue in Halle, Germany; and another set of stabbings at a shopping mall in Manchester, England. While the investigations are still under way, at this stage it doesn’t appear that any of these attacks had any structured link to a terrorist group like Baghdadi’s Islamic State. Most of the perpetrators displayed some awareness of an extremist ideology, but we don’t know that any of them were directed to do what they did.

What relevance does the death of Baghdadi have to any of these attackers, or to the terror threat at large? There is little historical evidence that decapitating terrorist groups destroys them. Leaders have networks around them built on personal contacts, and their deaths change those dynamics. Some particularly charismatic leaders drive groups forward by force of personality or personal narrative. Their removal can weaken the aura around their organizations, but it can’t promise eradication.

When leaders are abruptly lopped off, terror groups tend to fragment and become more radical. Pretenders to the throne or anointed successors want to establish their own brands and often use a spectacular attack to do it. One can look to Afghanistan, where repeated strikes against the Taliban’s leadership have only made the group more violent, or to the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, attacked in 2013 by a rising al-Shabaab terrorist leader stamping his imprint on the world. Earlier that year, an attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria followed a similar pattern. Different factions often will forge their own paths away from the core organization, seizing the opportunity to change directions and employ new tactics.

But this tells us only about the classical terror threat—the large-scale plot, often directed from abroad. Such conspiracies still exist, and authorities are fighting them with success. Where they have found more difficulty, however, is in stopping the smaller incidents, in which attacks appear in sync with terrorist ideologies while lacking clear links to the groups propagating them. ISIS honed the art of directing lost individual acolytes around the globe to launch attacks in their immediate environments with whatever tools were at their disposal. This group was supplemented by a further cadre who launched attacks drawing on the ISIS methodology and interpreting its ideology without ever establishing contact with the organization.

Then there is the terrorist without an ideology, such as Salih Khater. On Aug. 14, 2018, he drove his car into pedestrians outside the Houses of Parliament. Coming more than a year after Khalid Masood launched a similar attack near the same location, the attack set London on edge again.

In sentencing Mr. Khater, Justice Maura McGowan concluded that he had committed a terrorist act, but she couldn’t identify a clear ideology he was advancing: “You replicated the acts of others who undoubtedly have acted with terrorist motives. You deliberately copied those others. . . . You have never explained your actions and have not given any account, before or today, that is capable of dissuading me from drawing the conclusion that this offending had a terrorist connection.”

In a growing number of terrorism cases, ideology is at best an appendage to an act of planned, performative violence. These terrorists are people driven by personal demons or interactions on chat forums or online communities, people with social disorders or mental-health issues, or people with a desire to make statements in a world on which they have failed to make an impression.

Where was Baghdadi in Mr. Khater’s attempted car-ramming attack and others like it? In this new age of terror, ISIS provided only the background idea by popularizing the method of driving cars into pedestrians. The group generated the meme, or at least helped it become viral, making it easy for others to replicate.

It is too early to dismiss the structured terror of groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS. Undoubtedly other groups, leaders and followers will emerge. But the West is moving into an age of isolated and even meaningless terrorism, an age when leaders contribute more conceptually than tactically. Before long, we may look back through rose-tinted glasses to the time when terrorism was made up of easily comprehensible networks and leaders.

Mr. Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.

 

 

More delayed catch up posting, this time a short piece for an excellent website called East Asia Forum, which is a platform for a very interesting discussion about Asian affairs drawing on a wide variety of authors and topics. Some very interesting stuff covered, well worth checking. Mine draws on a well-worn topic for me which is only going to build up further as time goes on.

China’s complicated relationship with Central Asia

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Author: Raffaello Pantucci, RUSI

The closure of a mine in Kyrgyzstan, protests on the streets in Kazakhstan. The grand guignol of menacing Chinese investment into Central Asia appears to be rearing its head in public discourse. Both fearful and grateful, the region is a paradox for China at the beginning of its Belt and Road. Hardly a week goes by without a senior Chinese visitor appearing somewhere in Central Asia, revealing a long-term influence game that Beijing is winning.

But the situation in Central Asia goes beyond foreign investment. People want to connect with China. In Ashgabat, queues of eager young Turkmen wait outside the Chinese Embassy seeking visas. For the young in Dushanbe, learning Mandarin is in vogue. In Uzbekistan, Chinese investment is the talk of the town, as the city celebrates the Chinese autumn festival and the China Expo showcases Uzbekistan as key to China’s Central Asia vision. And while Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan may have protests, Kazakh leader Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has just visited Beijing talking of strategic partnerships and Kyrgyzstan awarded Chinese President Xi Jinping their highest national award when he visited earlier in the year.

We have seen anti-Chinese protests in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan before. Back in 2009 and 2016 there were large-scale protests focused on reports that the government was going to allow China to rent land for agricultural purposes. In 2011, fighting broke out between oil workers and the Kazakh state in Zhanaozen leading to a number of deaths — Chinese company CITIC was among the investors and received some blame for the bad pay which appeared to underpin the protests. Smaller scale brawls between Kazakh and Chinese workers are frequent. As seen currently in Kazakhstan, protests are usually linked to bad working conditions, clashes between workers or environmental damage. There is also usually a strong undertone of local politics.

Central Asians have watched as Chinese money, workers and influence have shaped the regional economic geography with the open support of local authorities. This is a lever that political opponents can sometimes use. Building on an elemental sort of racism towards Han Chinese that can often be found in the region, the protests can actually often be complaints aimed at local authorities. People are often protesting against their own government, with China becoming a target by proxy. This confluence was most clearly on display recently in Kazakhstan where protestors’ public anger was targeted at the Chinese, but the protests were clearly instigated by governmental political opponents.

In Kyrgyzstan, paranoia towards foreign mining investors has repeatedly led to locals scaring away foreign investment. The massive Kumtor mine in Kyrgyzstan has faced environmental issues and other problems for its Canadian owner. Chinese projects are smaller, but beset with similar problems. Stories of pollution, bad pay and local corruption blend with a general fear of Chinese investment which is sometimes stirred up by local potentates seeking to extract more money or score points against political rivals.

And there have been some dramatic failures by Chinese firms in the region. In January 2018, Bishkek lost powerfrom its main power station after refurbishment by Chinese firm TBEA failed at exactly the wrong moment. There are questions surrounding corrupt and pollutive practices of Chinese companies working in the region. Chinese firms tend to lower their standards in the region, ignoring requirements they usually adhere to back home.

What is less visible are the expressions of sympathy and concern about the plight of Uighurs in Xinjiang. US State Secretary Pompeo may have heard polite noises during his comments to Central Asian foreign ministers in New York but there is little public sympathy for their plight. Concerns tend to focus on co-ethnics and family members caught up in China’s camps system and fears that their governments might seek to purchase similar technology to use against them. When people do express fear about how events in Xinjiang might impact them, it is at a very personal level focussed on their own personal safety, rather than the broader cause of abuse of Muslims in China.

But very little of this matters to Beijing. Central Asian leaders remain eager for Chinese investment. The once closed Uzbekistan is the most obvious example of this, where the surge of Chinese investment is openly welcomed. Beijing is increasingly holding large portions of debt and becoming the main trading partner across the region.

China, in the meantime, is increasingly focusing on its security equities in Central Asia. Stories of Chinese private security emerging in the region sit alongside more overt displays of strength through the building of bases, the conduct of joint training exercises and the provision of equipment for Tajik forces along the Chinese border with Afghanistan. Already this year, there have been reports of joint training exercises with Tajik, Kyrgyz and Uzbekforces.

It would also be unfair to not point out the positive side of China’s presence in the region. In Badakhshan, Tajikistan locals may have conspiracy theories about China’s long-term intentions in the back of their minds, but they will admit that the Chinese-built roads have changed their communities for the better. Chinese companies and projects are often seen as more credible than locals — who often show up, make a lot of noise and fail to deliver. And while Confucius Institutes are regularly talked about in the public debate as centres focussed on brainwashing the young to be Xi acolytes, visit them on the ground and they are full of eager young Central Asians chasing the opportunities that China offers.

The story of China in Central Asia is a complicated and nuanced one of an emergent region which is being swallowed up by a neighbour who cares little about it, focussed instead on its geopolitical clash with Washington. Locals at an individual level do not care about these broader issues and are instead trying to navigate their way to prosperity among the economic boom they see in China. As the world watches the US–China confrontation play out on the international stage, few are paying attention to the heart of Eurasia where a sea change is happening. China’s natural borders mean it will always have a strategic interest in Central Asia, but helping the region develop other options should be the focus of western policymakers.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), London.

More catching up, this one a bit more recently after Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s death over the weekend for the Telegraph.

The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi could make a fragmented Isil more dangerous

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Notwithstanding President Trump’s declarations, Islamic State (Isil) has not been destroyed by the death of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Like most terrorist groups, the organisation is more than its leader.

There are three key questions to consider when considering his death and what it means for Isil and terrorist threats more broadly.

The most immediate concern will be the army of fanboys that exist around the group and its ideology across the world. For some of these isolated individuals, his death might read as the moment at which they should leap into action to conduct a terrorist atrocity.

The group will undoubtedly claim these attacks as planned revenge, when in reality they are at best opportunistic. But given the growing preponderance of copycat incidents after major terrorist events, it is going to be a major preoccupation of security forces around the world.

For Isil, the question will be whether the group can continue to maintain its coherence in the absence of its iconic leader who led them at their most totemic moment. He may not have had the same personal charisma and back story as Osama bin Laden, but he was the significant figure when the group was at its apex.

This kept the group coherent under him. In his absence there will be a question about whether his successor can maintain this narrative.

The danger will be fragmentation among the regional affiliates who may decide to now re-prioritise their local concerns over the group’s globalist agenda.

But a greater question might exist between the group’s Syrian and Iraqi followers.  Isil is a group made up of Iraqis who took advantage of the conflict in Syria to grow and expand. As they grew in Syria, more locals flocked to their cause.

Over time this will have created two groups who were driven together by the joint cause of building a Levantine (and global) caliphate led by Baghdadi, their longstanding leader. His removal might precipitate a clash between the two groups which might lead it to fragment as the Syrian or Iraqi factions disagree over where they should focus their attention.

This fragmentation might make it more dangerous. Historically, the removal of terrorist leaders gives rise to eager pretenders who use dramatic violence to announce their arrival and eclipse their predecessor. It can also lead to in-fighting which can have a knock on effect on their environment.

At the same time, his removal might raise some interesting questions about Isil more broadly and its historical conflicts with al-Qaeda and other groups in Syria.

Some early commentary by jihadist groups who were against Isil on the ground in Syria suggests they are dancing on his grave and mocking his group. But cooler heads might prevail at a strategic level and try to use this as an opportunity to forge a rapprochement between the two groups in some way.

Lots of death and bad blood between Isil and al-Qaeda stands between this potential outcome, but the death of a significant leader like this does potentially change the dynamic in such a way that might create an opportunity for a renewed alliance or agreement between the two groups.

Whatever the case, Baghdadi’s death is undoubtedly a victory for the West. It may be cliché to say that it does not mean the end of Isil, but it is certainly a successful strike and further evidence of the importance of maintaining a strong war of attrition against such groups.

For much the same reasons as last time, been a bit delinquent in posting. Going to try to catch up a bit now, starting with a piece for my host institution RUSI looking at the China-Russia relationship. There is a possibility that some may see a whiff of contradiction in here, given the volume of writing I have done about how the China-Russia relationship is changing, but at the same time the point here is to say that it increasingly feels like in some places we are letting this get a bit too far. All of which reflects a weakened understanding of the topic. More on this as you can imagine to come, and as ever, comments, corrections and contradictions welcome.

The Over-Hyphenation of ‘China-Russia’

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary, 3 October 2019
China, International Security Studies, Russia, Global Security Issues, Land Forces, Military Personnel, Technology

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A growing Western habit of linking China and Russia as joint adversaries in various contexts is missing the actual strengths of the relationship, and their varied interests in third locations.

Geopolitics have returned with a vengeance. Public discourse is increasingly conducted in adversarial terms, with ‘our side’ versus ‘their side’ dominating the strategic narrative. And while the ‘enemy of the day’ from a UK perspective is Iran, there is a growing discussion about China and Russia as though they are one and the same, a new ‘axis of evil’ working to stymie ‘our’ ability to operate in the world.

Reading between the lines of the narratives of most international confrontations, ‘they’ – for the most part the Russians and Chinese – inevitably appear to be supporting almost all of those who the UK (or ‘West’ more broadly) is against in the world: blocking votes at the UN; working together on military exercises; building up bases in the Arctic; and supporting Venezuela, Iran or the Syrian regime. This new entente appears to be behind many adversaries.

Yet there is a real danger of creating a Frankenstein’s monster in this interpretation of the Sino–Russian vector. There is no denying that the two have moved closer together in recent years – just watch the optics from Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Moscow where he was feted as a great potential saviour of the Russian economy, or the latest security exercises involving Russian and Chinese forces, Tsentr 2019 – but the truth is that there are tensions between the two countries bubbling below the surface.

Start with Central Asia where there is a perennial tussle between the two over who is the dominant force. Russia has watched as China has become a major holder of regional debt, as its companies have moved in en masse to dominate local economies, and it is increasingly clear how China is moving into Russia’s traditional role of security provision. Chinese border guards are showing up along Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan, doing training exercises and furnishing equipment. Security ministries across the region have growing numbers of officials who speak Mandarin or have experience in China. Russia’s power no longer looks as strong as it once was. It takes little effort to find voices in Moscow who worry about this erosion of Russia’s sphere of influence.

Or look at the growing Chinese technological penetration into Russia. Like much of the world, Russia is in the midst of a debate to determine who is going to build its 5G networks. But unlike the US, the UK or the rest of Europe, there is little evidence that Russians are going to resist China’s entry into this sector. Moscow’s spooks may worry about what this means for their dependencies on China but, as they will candidly say, what alternatives do they have? They point to who is sanctioning them at the moment. China may be scary, but the West is actually punishing Russia.

And, to look at a loftier normative level: China is fundamentally a status quo power, while Russia is the ultimate disruptor. Beijing quite liked the world structure as it was before US President Donald Trump took his sledgehammer to everything; the old world order fostered China’s stratospheric economic growth. It was a good path to which Beijing would like to return. By contrast, Russia has made itself increasingly relevant around the world through disruption, by creating chaos or by helping spur it along, as a prelude to Moscow inserting itself as an important player to help bring resolution.

These are fundamentally contradictory positions: Beijing likes the status quo, while Moscow derives relevance in chaos. And there are moments where these two perspectives have clashed. Beijing disapproved of Moscow’s redrawing of Ukraine’s borders (and Georgia’s beforehand). China has its own provinces with ethnic minorities seeking independence and recognition. It certainly does not like the precedents that Moscow set in recognising the South Ossetians and Abkhazians in Georgia or the breakaway parts of Ukraine. What if people were to start doing this to Tibet or Xinjiang?

Yet notwithstanding these tensions, the West is increasingly looking for a China–Russia axis around the world. The US has articulated this axis most clearly in the Pentagon’s National Defence Strategy, and similar concerns are echoed in Brussels and London. More glib commentary tries to separate them out – Russia is described as being a storm, while China is climate change. The argument here is that both are problematic, only that the former is an irritant, while the other is seismic. Yet increasingly such perspectives consider the two countries as parts of a linked problem.

Russia and China are not blind to this narrative and the broader global confrontations. For them it can be useful to show a strong alliance in the face of the growing Western bloc. At most major international conferences, senior figures stand up and champion their close relationship. They are undertaking ever more ambitious and important military exercises together. Beijing’s strategic bombers have participated in Russia alongside 1,600 troops as part of the massive Tsentr 2019 military exercise, the third or fourth such drill this year they have done together. They are talking about an ‘Ice Silk Road’ over the Arctic and have obviously developed a modus vivendi of sorts over what is going on in Central Asia. Li Keqiang’s latest visit has highlighted more investments into Russia (and Russian sales to China), at a time when Beijing’s economy continues to suffer under US trade tariff impositions.

Beijing and Moscow also share a worry about the ongoing pattern of popular uprising endangering regimes around the world. For Beijing this is most visible in Hong Kong, while Moscow has watched protestors rumbling on its streets for some time. For both of them, the fear is that this is part of the bigger wave of ‘colour revolutions’ that swept through Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in the 2000s, and more recently through the Middle East in the Arab uprising. Seeing these as Western-orchestrated plots to bring down governments the West found inconvenient, Moscow and Beijing worry that they might be next on the list.

There is no doubt that China and Russia increasingly see their futures as linked and are binding themselves closer together. But the West’s current habit of only seeing them this way is exacerbating this tendency and creating a unified adversary.

Adopting such an approach also means the UK is blind to the potential opportunities that exist on the ground in some contested areas of the world. Simply seeing a China–Russia axis means that observers miss their different equities in different places, and the fact that the local dynamics in each context and region vary. The UK must be careful not to will itself into a confrontation against an adversary that does not always exist.

BANNER IMAGE: Ceremony for exchanging the documents signed during the President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping’s working visit to the Russian Federation, 2018. Courtesy of President of Russia/Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

And finally in this catch-up blast, a longer op-ed for the South China Morning Post looking at some of the recent machinations between China and Iran. Had a few comments back that this was an obvious point to make, but it feels like it needs to be all considered against the broader backdrop of China’s growing influence and power in its own backyard. More on this topic to come.

All of these posts aside, spoke to the Sunday Times about Chinese investment and influence in Ireland, spoke to CNBC about China-Russia (which was translated into Hungarian), The National about the far right in Germany, to Samaa TV about ISIS in Khorasan, to The National again about bounties being put on ISIS leaders heads, an old interview was used again in this fantastic Portuguese piece in Sabato by Nuno Tiago Pinto about important Portuguese foreign fighter Nero Saraiva who lived for a while in the UK, an earlier comment to the Telegraph about Hamza bin Laden’s death was picked up again, and another earlier piece in the Sunday Times was picked up by VoA.

Why Iran has got China wrong: Beijing will follow its own playbook in countering the US-led West

  • While regional players like Iran seek to bring China into the conversation as an ally, Beijing continues to rely on the rhetoric of non-interference
  • China is focused single-mindedly on its own interests and set to get stronger as a result

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The first-ever Chinese goods train to Iran arrives in Tehran on February 15, 2016, after a 14-day journey hailed as a revival of the Silk Raod under China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China is emerging as the central power in its immediate and expanding neighbourhood, while the West tears at itself and old alliances. Photo: EPA

Buried among last week’s news of confrontation with Iran was a story that China was on the cusp of investing US$400 billion into the country’s hydrocarbon industry. This was followed late in the week by the news that Iran was going to be joining China and Russia in new naval exercises, an announcement that came a week after the Iranian Armed Forces Chief of Staff, Major General Mohammad Baqeri, visited a naval base in Shanghai.

The clear suggestion was that Iran was showing it had a strong ally in Beijing. The axis of convenience against the West was bringing Tehran firmly into its bosom.

Yet, in the face of all of this noise from Iran, Beijing was largely silent. A foreign ministry spokesman denied any knowledge when confronted with a question about the investment during a regular press briefing. The Chinese commentariat seemed mostly focused on downplaying Iran’s role in the strike on the Abqaiq and Khurais facilities in Saudi Arabia, and President Xi Jinping had a phone call with King Salman.

Reported in similar terms by both the Saudi and Chinese state media (the Belt and Road was only mentioned in Xinhua’s read-out and the Saudi statement was far more aggressive), the phone call was a decorative effort highlighting the importance of the bilateral relationship and China’s desire for events not to escalate.

And, while Beijing seemed eager to not engage, Iranian sources appeared to deny the existence of the supersized investment. On Friday, an interview emerged with the head of money and capital markets at the Tehran Chamber of Commerce stating that he had not heard anything about it.

Furthermore, Iran’s oil minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh denied the rumours, bluntly saying, “I have not heard such a thing.” In fact, the discussion in Tehran at the moment around China is about how long the Bank of Kunlun will be able to continue to be a lifeline of sorts for the country.

Owned mostly by the China National Petroleum Corporation, the bank is a Xinjiang institution that has long served as a conduit for financial relations between China and Iran. As the rest of the world severed its links to Tehran, Kunlun has kept a connection going. The bank has faced some pressure, falling into the US Treasury Department’s sights, leading the bank to try to downplay its relations for fear of damaging repercussions for parent institution CNPC.

The result has been a paring back of financial relations between the bank and Iran, with the maintenance of only a few lines of credit focused specifically on non-sanctioned goods.

Rather, the Iranian announcements have the ring of similarity to previous announcements to have emerged from Moscow, as its relations with the West went downhill.

Back in 2014, as the West’s condemnation of Russia’s redrawing of Ukraine’s borders reached fever pitch, President Vladimir Putin headed to Shanghai where he oversaw the signing alongside President Xi of a US$400 billion energy deal between China and Russia. The deal was one which had been announced and signed a few times before, but it landed in Shanghai at a convenient moment for the Russian leader.

Again, this was not a moment without some irritation for Beijing. While China never condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine, it was not best pleased, keeping its comments sparse. China is not keen on major disruptions to international affairs, like the attack in Saudi Arabia, especially ones which might have repercussions for Beijing.

The precedent that Russia set in redrawing borders in Ukraine was not one that China wanted widely adopted –
fearing the loss of its own restive regions. And disruptions to international energy supplies result in higher prices, something China could do without.

The question, then, is whether China is hostage to disruptive powers like Iran and Russia, or whether Beijing is, in fact, gaining the upper hand.

To better understand this, it is important to note another event over the weekend that ties the three countries together – the Taliban negotiating team’s visit to Beijing after stops in Moscow and Tehran.

Organised after the dramatic failure of the American-led talks, the whistle-stop regional tour appears to be an effort by the Taliban to understand better where things now stand. With Afghan elections around the corner and the conflict showing little evidence of concluding, all three surrounding powers have begun to worry about how they will manage the long-term instability with which Afghanistan seems cursed.

From China’s perspective, however, this is all reflective of the fact that everyone appears to want to show that Beijing is on their side. In each of these situations, the regional players have all sought to bring China into the conversation and show that Beijing is backing them.

China is judicious in avoiding apportioning blame, and at best uses the opportunity to make digs at the United States. The net result is that China emerges as the central power in its immediate and expanding neighbourhood, while the West tears at itself and old alliances.

For Beijing, there is some danger in assuming this position. First, it reinforces the image of China as the central power in a new axis of convenience against the US-led West. And second, it places China in a position of potential responsibility between some of the world’s most intractable conflicts.

Yet, it is equally possible that Beijing has factored both of these realities in and is actually happy to bolster alliances against the US.

In terms of China’s unavoidable responsibilities, this is something that has been on the cards for some time, and yet Beijing has yet to really demonstrate a requirement to have to step in.

Instead, China continues to call on the rhetoric of non-interference to simply let things play themselves out, focused single-mindedly on its own interests. Rather than taking on the activist West at its own game, China appears to be crafting its own playbook.

And while Tehran may think that it is hustling Beijing into showing its hand in its favour, the reality is that it is China that is most likely to emerge strengthened from this geopolitical dance.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London