And a final short piece in a latest burst of commentary posting mostly around Mosul, this time for the New Statesman looking a bit more at the history of ISIS.

Battle for Mosul: will this be the end of Islamic State?

The militant group’s grip on power is slipping but it has proved resilient in the past.


The battle for Mosul is the latest stage in the long struggle to defeat Islamic State. The group has been around since the late 1990s in one form or another, constantly mutating in response to its environment. Undoubtedly its ejection from Mosul will be a significant moment in the group’s history, but it is unlikely to be its final chapter. The destruction of the group will only be complete when some fundamental changes occur within Iraq and the war in Syria comes to an end.

IS’s roots go back to a training camp established by the militant Islamist Abu Musab al Zarqawi in the late 1990s in Herat, Afghanistan. Founded as an army to overthrow the apostate regimes of the Levant, it fled to northern Iraq in the wake of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan post-9/11 where it re-established itself as a force alongside Ansar al Shariah, a hardline Salafi jihadi organisation.

As American attention shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq, the group was ideally placed to become one of the leading lights in the post-Saddam Iraqi insurgency. Brutally announcing itself to the world in August 2003 with successive attacks on the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, the UN headquarters and a Shia shrine in Najaf — the latter being the deadliest attack in Iraq that year with a death toll of 95 — the group grew to assume the mantle of al-Qaeda in Iraq. By 2006 this brand had become somewhat damaged through the brutal sectarian campaign the group waged, and when its founder, Zarqawi, died it sought to reinvent itself as the Mujahedeen Shura Council. This incarnation did not last long either, and eventually it assumed the title of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), alongside a more Iraqi leadership.

This was the start of a diffcult period in the group’s history. Its excesses in Iraq (including indiscriminate slaughter of Shia Muslims to stir sectarian hatred and filmed decapitations of prisoners) lost it local support and led to the tribes in Sunni Iraq rising up and supporting the government in Baghdad’s fight back against the group. By 2009, when the west abruptly stopped paying attention and withdrew from Iraq the group was largely perceived as in decline, with the Shia Muslim-led Iraqi government appearing to slowly assert itself more effectively across the country.

The terrorist attacks by the group continued. And the new government started to advance an increasingly sectarian agenda. These two played off each other in a downward spiral that was given a fresh boost of blood when the civil war in Syria erupted in 2011. Drawing on its existing networks (that were leftovers from when Syria was used as a staging point by the organisation to launch attacks into Iraq), the leadership sent a cell to Syria to explore what opportunities existed within the emerging fight there. This cell became the seed that grew into Jabhat al Nusrah and ultimately IS – a label the group adopted when in June 2013 IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided it was time to reveal this link between his Iraqi group and Jabhat al Nusrah. This led to divisions and the breaking up of the two organisations.

For IS, however, it was the beginning of an upward trajectory, building on this division to grow itself substantially in Syria (with Raqqa as its capital) and in 2014 taking over Iraq’s second biggest city of Mosul. We then reach the apex of IS’s success and the biggest expansion of the group yet.

It now seems that this growth had a shelf life of just two-and-a-half years. As the group appears to be losing Mosul, it is likely that we will see the beginning of a period of retraction. But this will not be its end – rather, it will flee back to the hills and the ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria from where it will continue a persistent terrorist strategy in both countries. Here it will bide its time until the moment presents itself to rise up. Waiting until the governance in Iraq and Syria fails its people again, the group can paint itself as the protector of Sunnis and once more build on that group’s disenfranchisement to win supporters and occupy a space vacated by local governments.

IS’s grip on power might currently be slipping but as history has shown, it has waxed and waned depending on the context it is operating in. We are now going to see a period of withdrawal, but unless attention is paid by the global community, it will expand again in the future.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Visit his website at

Another piece for the Telegraph, this time after the fall of Mosul, looking in particular at the worrying consequences subsequently if attention is not paid to the fall out.

What happens after Mosul? Chaos – unless the West keeps its eye on the ball


It has been a dramatic weekend for Isil. The symbolically significant town of Dabiq in Syria fell over the weekend, and then, this morning, the assault on Mosul, their capital in Iraq, has begun.

This likely heralds the beginning of a period of retrenchment for the group, as they find themselves in retreat and unable to project the same vision of power and victory and before. The consequences for the West are important.

Undoubtedly the threat from the group will evolve, and work needs to be done now to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. We must lay the groundwork to properly eradicate the group, rather than let Iraq sink into sectarianism as it did in the past.

A major concern is what will happen now to the mass of foreign fighters who will be suddenly left without a home. Rudderless but with a sense of revolutionary purpose, this group will present a menace to security officials around the world for years to come. In terms of the numbers of fighters who have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, it is hard to find an exact precedent. The closest is the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s when the mujahedeen rallied to fight the Soviet Union. This produced the beginnings of the network that later developed into al Qaeda, but also created a cadre of warriors who sensed an opportunity to use the battlefield experience they had honed in Afghanistan on overthrowing regimes in their home countries.

In some cases, the revolutionary fighters kept on going, seeking another struggle to join, be it in Algeria, Chechnya, Kashmir or Bosnia. The war’s aftermath created clusters of militants with links to each other across the Eurasian continent, North America and Asia – cells that later turned into the base for al Qaeda plots for years to come.

How this will replicate now is difficult to predict. The speed and nature of the flow of fighters that went to Syria and Iraq to fight with Isil is different. But there’s a high probability of a threat and it will be a combination of things. There is an obvious risk of directed cells. Isil has shown a capacity to send individual fighters back hidden among the flow of refugees coming to Europe. This will likely continue, with a confusing mix of individuals returning home feeling that their fighting days are over, alongside individuals tasked with establishing networks or even launching attacks. Keeping track and understanding this flow, then preventing any plots emerging now or in the future will be a major concern to European authorities for some time.

Communities of Arab, South-east Asian, Central Asian, Russian and North African fighters may also decide to start heading home. In some of their home countries, the injection on a large scale of well-trained and battle-hardened fighters may become too much for authorities to cope with. This may lead to instability and violence which in some cases may be targeted against western nationals.

The fall of Mosul is likely to exacerbate this flow. As various reports appear to indicate, the numbers of disenfranchised fighters who are seeking to leave the Caliphate is increasing. The loss of Mosul will shatter the vision of the group as an all-powerful entity which controls a nation with major cities, something that will inevitably reduce its appeal as a destination for people to go to.

In many ways, however, it is exactly now that the longer-term danger rears its head. As the group is pushed back from Mosul, not only will its threat evolve, but there is also the possibility that western attention will drop off once again. Last time the West seemed to score a victory in Iraq, western powers rapidly lost attention and withdrew. The result was a sectarian mess in Iraq that provided the groundwork for Isil, creating  the environment from which it was able to grow. In addition, while the group is losing ground in Syria – as evidenced most recently by the loss of Dabiq – it is still a force on the ground and the brutal civil war there rages on.

The danger is now that with thi precipitous loss of territory, the rich world’s attention will wane. And in taking our eye off the ball, the stage may be set for Isil to re-group and re-establish itself. The pressure must be kept up on the battlefield, but also in terms of finding ways of rebuilding communities and cities that have been torn apart by conflict. All of this is a long-term struggle that the West has failed to follow through on in the past. It is essential to make sure that this same mistake is not made twice.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and author of ‘We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists


Another short piece off the longer interview with Andrew for the new site The Question, this time looking at ISIS in its Gulf regional context.

How can we fight Islamic State when our allies Saudi Arabia are also extreme Islamic fundamentalists?

There was a moment, which was very embarrassing, when people noticed that some Islamic State schools in Syria were using official Saudi school textbooks – which certainly suggests some proximity of outlook, at the very least, between the two places.

But they key difference is that Saudi Arabia is not at war with us. Saudi Arabia is actually helping to disrupt these terror networks, to counter these problems, and is ultimately a strategic ally – with many flaws and many problems, but an ally which fights with us.

Saudi Arabia realises that an organisation like Islamic State is going to come after them, at some point. For an Islamist organisation like Islamic State or al-Qa’ida, the Saudi regime is one of the most evil things on the planet. They see these guys not as austere practising Muslims who are living according to the prophet’s Sharia, but as a group of very rich people who are stealing money, and leading these incorrect, impure lives.

If you think back to al-Qa’ida, they had two levels of enemy that they were focused on: the near enemy and the far enemy. The far enemy was the West, and the near enemy was the various regimes in the Gulf, who they saw as impure, and incorrect, and puppets of the West. So Saudi realises that Islamic State are a problem, and that they’ve got a huge problem with their people going to fight in Syria and Iraq – and with what might happen when those people come home.

I’ve not seen categoric evidence that Saudi Arabia is supporting terrorist plots against the West. I have seen evidence that they have disrupted terrorist plots against the West. But are there potentially people in senior positions who may actually be more interested in supporting the other side because that’s who they’re more ideologically aligned with? I don’t discount that. But do I think that the state of Saudi Arabia is hell-bent on fighting against us? No.

Saudi Arabia is one of many important elements involved in the fight against Islamic State. They’re a very important power in the region, so which way they go on any issue is influential. They’re very significant when we look at Syria, especially. Islamic State will only be able to survive as an organisation as long as there’s chaos and trouble in Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia can certainly play a role in stabilising that.

And because of the unfortunate reality that Saudi Arabia has so many young men who’ve gone to fight alongside groups like Islamic State, they’ve got very good intelligence capacities about these organisation,. That’s very important when it comes to preventing them striking against the West, or elsewhere.


Slightly late posting of a new piece for the Telegraph which was written a little while back and finally got up last week. I am not in total agreement with the title chosen by the editors which explicitly suggests that the sectarianism was something linked to Kashmir which was not my intent. My point, which I hope the article shows, was to say that violence and militancy in South Asia tends to resonate in the UK.

Sectarian violence in Kashmir is increasingly spilling over onto the streets of Britain

An Indian policeman fires tear gas shells towards the demonstrators during an anti-India protest in Srinagar, October 4, 2016

An Indian policeman fires tear gas shells towards the demonstrators during an anti-India protest in Srinagar, October 4, 2016 Credit: Danish Ismail/Reuters


Two of the world’s nuclear powers almost went to war recently to little notice in the UK. And yet the group accused of being the spark for the violence and the countries involved are ones with deep historical links to this country.

Violence in South Asia has a habit of resonating in Britain, be it in the form intra-communitarian clashes, terrorist violence or familial murder. And while it is unclear in what way the current clashes in Kashmir will resonate, Britain’s historical connection with South Asia mean that rising violence and sectarianism over there will have an impact here.

The group that stands accused of being behind the recent cross-border incursions from Pakistan into India that generated a violent ‘surgical’ response by India is Jaish-e-Mohammed (the army of Mohammed) a group established in the late 1990s by Maulana Masood Azhar. A long-standing jihadist and Kashmiri independence ideologue, Masood Azhar has a history of links to the UK.

In 1993, when he was involved in a precursor group called Hizbul Mujahedeen, he came on a fundraising tour of the UK, giving emotional speeches about jihad, raising money for training camps in Pakistan and recruiting young men to join his cause. His speeches were reportedly so stirring that women would take off their jewellery there and then to contribute to the cause. In 1999 he was released from captivity in India alongside Briton Omar Saeed Sheikh (a young man he knew from their time together in Hizbul Mujahedeen), an LSE graduate who went on to play an important role in his group and who currently sits on death row in Pakistan guilty of involvement in the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

Maulana Masood Azhar, Muslim cleric and leader of the militant group fighting in Indian-held Kashmir against Indian forces, arrives at Karachi airport in January, 2000, after being released by Indian authorities in a prisoner exchange

Maulana Masood Azhar, Muslim cleric and leader of the militant group fighting in Indian-held Kashmir against Indian forces, arrives at Karachi airport in January, 2000, after being released by Indian authorities in a prisoner exchange Credit: Athar Hussain/AP Photo

On Christmas Day 2000, Masood Azhar’s group Jaish-e-Mohammed (which he founded on his release from Indian jail) claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Srinagar that was undertaken by a Birmingham born 24 year-old using the name Mohammed Bilal. In 2005 Masood Azhar’s brother in law, Rashid Rauf, another Birmingham-born lad, took Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer around al Qaeda training camps in Pakistan as they learned how to make bombs, recorded suicide videos and prepared to launch the July 2005 attack on London on behalf of al Qaeda.

A year prior to launching his attack, Mohammed Siddique Khan attended a training camp in Pakistan at which a group of radicalised Brits learned how to make bombs and shoot guns. At night the young men would entertain themselves reading Masood Azhar’s tracts to each other around the campfire.

Rashid Rauf is escorted by police commandos during his appearance in court in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, 2006

Rashid Rauf is escorted by police commandos during his appearance in court in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, 2006 Credit: Mian Khursheed/Reuters

South Asian militancy and violence has resonated in other ways as well. In 1984 a pair of Kashmiri men living in Birmingham murdered the Indian Deputy Consul General in retaliation for the jailing of one of their leaders in India. And more recently there have been sectarian murders which have more in common with intra-ethnic hatred in South Asia than anything in the UK.

The murder of Jalal Uddin in Rochdale in February was done by a pair of angry young men, one of whom subsequently ran away to Syria to fight alongside Isil, who thought Uddin’s practice of taweez, turning pieces of the Koran into amulets, was blasphemous. A month later Bradford cab driver Tanveer Ahmed drove to Glasgow and brutally stabbed shopkeeper Asad Shah to death, apparently angered by videos he found online of Mr Shah suggesting he was the prophet.

While in the Uddin murder there was some evidence that the men had absorbed Isil ideology, it was also clear that the men’s anger against Mr Uddin’s behaviour had a deeper root. Mr Shah was a member of a minority Ahmaddiya sect, and while it seemed as though Mr Ahmed was angry about specific videos Mr Shah had put of himself online, the fact of his Ahmaddiya background played substantially into the narrative around his murder.In many ways, both the Uddin and Shah murders were a product in part of sectarian hatreds that have their roots in South Asia. The Ahmaddiya community is frequently persecuted in Pakistan, with senior figures often calling for them be declared apostates. The practice of taweez is equally controversial amongst conservative Muslims who believe the worship of amulets is a form of idolatry. Most disturbingly as Mr Ahmed was sent down to life imprisonment for the murder of Mr Shah, supporters in the public gallery chanted “god is great.” In the wake of both deaths, there were public conversations amongst Britain’s Muslim community about the practices the men were accused of being involved in, and the degree to which they might be considered properly Muslim.

Looking beyond the problem of violence and conflict with neighbouring countries, militancy and crime within the country, one of the biggest problems Pakistan currently faces is rising sectarianism. In 2010, two Ahmaddiya mosques in Lahore were targeted with bombs leading to almost 100 deaths and over a hundred injuries. On March 27 this year a suicide bomber detonated explosives at an Easter celebration in Lahore killing 75. Both attacks were claimed by militant groups and were targeting minority communities in the country. Visiting Pakistan late last year, a security official told me how one of the number one security concerns his country faced was “sectarianism.”

Seen in this light, the Shah and Uddin murders are echoes from South Asia. Narratives from the region regularly appear on Britain’s streets, be in the form of political protests marching along Whitehall, religious or political murders or terrorist plots – often linked through long-standing networks and communities that tie the UK to South Asia. Now we are seeing sectarian murders.

Politicians and militant leaders from the sub-continent have long noticed and profited from this proximity of the now long-settled South Asian communities in the UK and the sub-continent and used it as a source of fundraising and support. Violence over there tends to resonate here. And while it will be impossible and incorrect to try to cut this umbilical cord linking us together, greater attention needs to be paid to understanding how this connection is evolving.

The danger otherwise is the gradual importation of escalating violence from South Asia to the UK’s streets.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at RUSI and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists

And another post as part of an interview for The Question, this time looking at the threat to the UK. Also realize I never posted the fact spoke to the Telegraph about trouble in Morocco, and the Express about a baggage handler who had an ISIS logo.

Is Islamist terrorism a genuine danger to me in Britain?

The government sees a threat level that is very substantial. At the moment the threat level is at ‘Severe’, which means that an attack is expected at some point, but they don’t have any immediate intelligence pointing to it. I think that reflects the reality of the threat picture at the moment linked to Islamist terrorism.

I think that in the UK, because of natural borders, because it’s slightly harder to get guns in this country, and because the police and intelligence services work so closely together to counter these threats, it is harder for people to launch attacks here. It wouldn’t be unexpected if something did happen here – there is quite a lot of active plotting going on – but I think the threat on the European continent is much greater.

The most likely attack that’s going to get through is the individual with the knife, or the home-made bomb. Those are the hardest to prevent because the flash-to-bang time of an attack like that is so short that it’s hard for the security services to catch it. But the big concern is the attack on multiple sites, multiple targets, with multiple weapons. The Anders Behring Breivik-style attack, the Paris-style attack, on targets in Britain.

What the police and security services are worried about is the system getting suddenly and completely overwhelmed by a group which has the savvy to launch multiple attacks over an extended period. The model of the Charlie Hebdo attack was small-scale version of that, the Paris attacks a bigger one. The one everyone looks at with great fear is the Mumbai attack of 2008, where ten men basically took over a city. That would be incredibly difficult to deal with.

A short piece (that was done in the form of an interview with Andrew Mueller who then published it) for a new site called The Question that is focused on answering key questions about specific topics of the day.

Is Islamic State losing its war?

In the short term, at least, they seem to be on the back foot. The land they control in Syria in Iraq is shrinking – and they controlled, for a time, a territory the size of the United Kingdom. Their leading people on the battlefield, quite senior people, are being killed. Their capability to launch the sort of attacks they have before is ebbing away, which suggests a period of relative decline.

Their goal was always to turn the entire planet to God’s greater glory – to bring about the end of days and the second coming of the Lord. This is a group that ultimately has a milleniarian vision of transforming the world in God’s image. That’s a very high bar to clear, but they start with what they start with, and build upwards. For IS, they were always very focused on their Levantine space, and if you read the ancient texts, you’ll see that those lands are very important, as the place where the war that will transform everything will start. So they had a vision of the world as it should be, but they’re also people who don’t much like the governments in those places, which leads to this mesh of personal angers and a bigger ideology which knit quite tightly together.

What is still going well for them is that they continue to exist, and are able to launch some quite substantial attacks, and to control a certain amount of territory. For a group like this, survival is important. And the attacks outside their territory are important, in a number of ways. They’re attacks on an enemy – you’re fighting us, so we’ll fight you. And there’s a political idea behind it as well – they’re trying to stir an ultimate clash of civilisations between the West and Islam and bring about the end of days.

With the taking out of their leaders, there’s a debate in the counter-terrorism community about what it actually means. Some people think decapitation of a terrorist organisation leads to bigger problems – what you’ll sometimes see is that after the removal of a senior figure, factions within the organisation will want to rise up and prove themselves, which they’ll do by doing something more atrocious than the last guy.

You look at al-Shabab in Somalia for example – their leader was killed, the next guy comes in, and you see the Westgate mall attack. The other model is that if you decapitate groups, they sometimes wither and die. You think of the Shining Path in Peru – their leader was taken out, and it kind of disappeared, because it turns out it was really a one-man band.

But an aggressive attrition of the middle ranks of people does have an impact on a group’s ability to function. If you keep hammering that middle level, you break the fighters away from the leadership, and that’s what we’ve seen happening to Islamic State recently. The leaders have to stay hidden, and aren’t in contact with many people. But if you take out the people around them, their ability to direct the organisation changes – if the guy who was looking after the accounts gets killed, who has that information now? Maybe there was a guy who knew where all the safe houses were. Look at Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who was very involved with Islamic State’s external operations – when he was killed, a lot of those would have been lost, or confused. A lot of these relationships are built on trust, and that doesn’t automatically transfer to the next guy.

The numbers which have been circulating recently suggest that the numbers of people from Europe going to fight with Islamic State is down to 10% of what it was last year. There are two main reasons for that. One is that security forces in Europe and elsewhere have a much better understanding of how recruitment networks function, and how to disrupt them. The other is the fact that the attraction of the group has reduced: Islamic State is no longer as powerful and successful as it was. If I’m going to go off and fight for someone, I don’t want to fight with a bunch of losers.

Raffaello Pantucci is the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists.

A short blogpost for a new outlet, the rather impressive China Policy Institute Analysis blog which is linked to the University of Nottingham. Touches on a couple of topics which are going to be a focus for the immediate future, the ‘Belt and Road’ and the BCIM in particular. As ever, much more on these topics to be found at China in Central Asia.

How New is the Belt and Road?

Chiang Sheng Yang, Presenter, Phoenix Satellite Television Holdings, Hong Kong SAR, Zhang Bingjun, Corporate Chairman, Tianjin TEDA Construction Group, People's Republic of China, Ian Bremmer, President, Eurasia Group, USA; Young Global Leader Alumnus; Global Agenda Council on Geo-economics, Jin Liqun, President, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Beijing, Li Daokui, Dean, Schwarzman College, Tsinghua University, People's Republic of China; Global Agenda Council on Global Economic Imbalances and Benedikt Sobotka, Chief Executive Officer, Eurasian Resources Group, Luxembourg at the World Economic Forum - Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Tianjin, People's Republic of China 2016. Copyright by World Economic Forum / Sikarin Thanachaiary

 Copyright by World Economic Forum / Sikarin Thanachaiary

Written by Raffaello Pantucci. 

Back in the late 1990s, then-PRC President and Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin noticed that the country was facing an imbalance. Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms had opened up the coastal cities, transforming them into beacons of international industry and development. Cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou were on their way to becoming international hubs. And yet looking inland, the difference was stark, with parts of the centre or border regions with neighbouring Southeast, South and Central Asia remaining poor and underdeveloped. Seeking to rectify this, and in part to help Chinese companies go out, Jiang Zemin instigated a ‘Develop the West’ or ‘Great Western Development’ strategies.

Academics like Zheng Xinli came back from their travels along China’s borderlands with southeast Asia with ideas of developing multilateral institutions that would help address one of the key problems in the region, a lack of infrastructure to help accelerate trade between parts of the world that were already deeply economically interdependent. To China’s west, the problems were political and had a security bent to them thanks to the proximity of Afghanistan, historical conflicts with Russia and an angry resident Uighur population. As the Soviet Union fell apart, China accelerated a process of border demarcation going on between itself, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan into a process called the ‘Shanghai Five’ – named after the city in which they met. The priority was largely to define what China’s borders were, with a later attempt to move the discussion towards other economic and political goals.

To China’s south, the scenario looked different. In the absence of a collapsing superpower with which China had fought conflicts, Beijing instead found itself confronted by a series of underdeveloped nations (including ones with which it had fought conflicts in some cases) that nonetheless had deep economic and ethnic links back and forth across China’s equally underdeveloped borderlands. In August 1999, over one hundred academics and experts from China, India, Burma and Bangladesh gathered together in Kunming for a conference at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences (YASS). The outline for the conference was laid out as:

  1. Practical and strategically significance for the regional cooperation among China, India, Bangladesh and Burma;
  1. Feasibility of cooperation in the economic, trade and technological cooperation among China (Yunnan), India, Bangladesh and Burma (including industry, agriculture, tourism and finance);
  1. Study on the construction of communication channels and networks among China, India, Bangladesh and Burma (including the opening and reconstructing roads, air lines, water routes and railways);
  1. Prospect and basis for the economic cooperation among China, India, Bangladesh and Burma;
  1. Open-door policies and trade and investment environment for China, India, Bangladesh and Burma;
  1. Construct the framework for regional cooperation in China, India, Bangladesh and Burma.

Its conclusions were similar and thus was laid out the framework for the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM), or the ‘Kunming Initiative’. Focusing on improving infrastructure and opening markets, the BCIM was dreamed up as a way of developing China through opening of markets, building infrastructure, and enhancing cooperation between China and its border nations.

The vision was one that was actually suggested a few months earlier in March 1999 at the 9th National Party Congress in Beijing by President Jiang Zemin. Crystallized in speeches delivered later in the year and put on the front page of the People’s Daily on June 19 1999, the ‘Great Western Development Strategy’ was a vision that suggested the ‘time was ripe’ to speed up the development of the central and western regions’ and that this ‘should become a major strategic task for the party.’

In other words, the Chinese Communist Party was to throw itself into working to develop the left behind ‘western’ (put in parentheses as the logic of ‘west’ was substantially stretched to anything not on China’s coast), and the ‘Kunming Initiative’ was to push this concept out as a trade and economic corridor that swept through Myanmar and Bangladesh to India.

All of which sounds a lot like the current vision that is being advanced for the ‘Belt and Road’, where we see Beijing pushing out trade and economic corridors in every direction as a way of helping not only China’s companies go out into the world, but also to help develop China’s under-developed ‘western regions’, be this in central China, Xinjiang, Tibet or Yunnan. Given the problems in Xinjiang, it is maybe unsurprising that the Central Asian strand of the ‘Belt and Road’ – the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ that Xi Jinping christened when he visited Astana in September 2013 – has found itself front and center, but it is also the one which is building on a well-established political track which Beijing had been laying since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

There is an additional problem with the BCIM which is that it ends with a power, India, with which Beijing continues to have tense relations that are complicated by China’s intimate embrace through another strand of the ‘Belt and Road’ with India’s persistent enemy Pakistan (the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor). This tension alongside the persistent problems of development, governance and criminality that are encountered in Myanmar and Bangladesh, all serve to illustrate why China has had a harder time of things in Southeast Asia.

But the BCIM and its history do serve to illustrate that the ‘Belt and Road’ vision that is on its way to becoming the signature foreign policy initiative of the Xi Jinping administration is not in fact as new as it may sound. Rather, it is a case of an old model being re-attempted in a new cast. And as the ‘Belt and Road’ continues to remain a nebulous vision rather than a specific project, its conceptual embrace becomes ever tighter and it drags in historical projects like the BCIM into its all-encompassing horizon. During their July 2015 meeting on the fringes of the joint SCO and BRICS meeting Russia hosted in Ufa, Presidents Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping confirmed the proximity of the two visions. As reported in the official Chinese read-out of the meeting:

‘Both countries should also join efforts to promote the construction of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), New Development Bank (NDB) of BRICS nations and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM), and discuss on effectively connecting China’s initiative of the “Belt and Road” with related initiatives of India, so as to achieve mutually beneficial cooperation and common development.’

The BCIM has therefore been brought into the broader ‘Belt and Road’ vision, highlighting the degree to which its goals are interchangeable with the approach being practiced by Beijing in the modern ‘march west’ strategy as laid out by Xi Jinping. Thus bringing in full circle the repetition that is inherent within the current vision and the historical one, and showing how this approach is in fact one that China has attempted before. Whether this one will succeed where previous have not is unclear at this point, but when one considers the vast sums that Beijing is able to muster and deploy under the auspices of the current approach, it seems that the current ‘Belt and Road’ will leave an indelible impression. One that may even help imprint the BCIM onto Southeast Asia in its wake.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). He is also the co-creator of and is currently working on a number of projects looking at the Belt and Road through a number of different lenses. Image credit: CC by World Economic Forum/flickr.