Archive for May, 2015

Another short op-ed in between longer pieces of work, this time for Reuters looking at the China-India-Pakistan trilateral relationship and all its complexities. Reflects a number of views I heard on recent trips to all three capitals.

Untangling the web of India, China and Pakistan diplomacy

By Raffaello Pantucci
May 25, 2015

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Thomson Reuters)

On the eve of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China, Xinhua published a rare opinion piece by his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif. The obvious choreography of the visit and article shows the delicate balance in relations between China, India and Pakistan.

For Beijing, both powers are important if it is to realize its ambitious strategy of trade and economic corridors emanating from the Middle Kingdom under the rubric of the Silk Road Economic Belt. For current governments in Islamabad and New Delhi, Beijing’s economic miracle offers a way of helping develop their economies. Yet we are some way off before this trilateral relationship will be able to live up to its potential as the economic powerhouse at the centre of Asia.

Islamabad reaped substantial benefits from President Xi Jinping’s delayed visit to Pakistan. The formalization of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to the tune of $46 billion signalled a major investment by China into Pakistan’s future (even if one takes a skeptical view that the money was repackaged old deals and multiple-year contracts conflated for a public announcement).

The current outline for the CPEC is a multistage strategy starting with the development of Pakistan’s parlous energy infrastructure and the redevelopment of its road, rail and pipeline network. A series of economic zones will be established along the CPEC route in Pakistan to attract industry that is finding itself increasingly priced out of Chinese markets. As envisaged, the corridor will not only open up China’s western regions to the seas through Gwadar Port, but also create a latticework of prosperity across Pakistan.

India has traditionally seen a close China-Pakistan relationship as a source of concern. Seeing it as a relationship that is built on the foundations of anti-Indian sentiment, hawks in New Delhi are concerned by this proximity. But the new government of Narendra Modi has appeared willing to open up a new conversation with Beijing, one that tries to look beyond these historical tensions to build stronger economic ties, resolve long-standing border disputes and helps reshape the global order to the advantage of the two Asian giants. China has also offered a direct link to India in one of the numerous trade corridors it is pushing out from Beijing — in the form of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor.

But underlying these optimistic perspectives are a number of fundamental problems, the most central of which is regional security. In the context of CPEC, security in Pakistan (in the form of growing sectarianism, terrorism, as well as separatists in Baluchistan) and in neighbouring Afghanistan pose major threats to the route. And while India may be interested in the BCIM as a potential concept, it remains concerned about encirclement by China through the Maritime Silk Road and the network of relationships China is building in the Indian Ocean as well as the ongoing border tensions in Ladakh. India has continued to keep China out of SAARC and Modi’s Project Mausam is a direct pushback to China’s maritime strategy, in contrast to the country’s willingness to engage on the BRICS Bank, AIIB and to work on joint projects in Iran.

And bringing the trilateral complexity of these relationships into focus are incidents like theattack on the Park Palace Hotel in Kabul. While it remains unclear what the ultimate target was, the potential presence of the Indian Ambassador and Indian casualties immediately painted the incident as part of the shadow war between Pakistani intelligence and the Taliban on the one side, and Afghan intelligence and their Indian supporters on the other. Such incidents stoke paranoia on all sides and complicate efforts to try to forge a regional peace and stability.

The China-India-Pakistan trilateral relationship is a complicated one. All three need each other to succeed, but do not believe this to be the case, remaining fiercely independent in their outlooks and jealous when the other two appear to be moving closer together. On the one hand, China has the potential to act as an honest broker, offering economic investment to all while trying to help offer a platform for discussions. But in reality, China wants no part of a situation where it ends being responsible for brokering peace in such a fractious part of the world, and it continues to take advantage of opportunities to assert its dominance over its Asian neighbours. For India and Pakistan, history continues to be stuck in the legacies of partition.

Yet this is a trio of countries that together account for about a third of the world’s population and where future prosperity is likely to come from. The danger at the moment is the assumption that economic development and prosperity will resolve everything and is the goal that needs to be achieved for regional stability. In reality, all three powers need to shed their historical legacies, and find ways of ending the paranoid tensions that underlie their global outlooks. Until this has been achieved, the CPEC, BCIM and any other regional economic framework will be undermined and no long-term stability will be found in the heart of South Asia.

 

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I am travelling and working on various projects which is impeding my productivity and ability to post. A few pieces to come this next week hopefully though. This one is an op-ed for the EU Observer, somewhere I used to write more frequently for but I like to hope gives me an hearing in Brussels. At its base, the idea of the piece is to try to raise awareness of China’s Silk Road Economic Belt in Brussels where so far it has not quite taken off. A Chinese friend pointed out it was translated into Mandarin, while I also see that the Russian press has picked it up. Not sure what I should read into that. More on this topic undoubtedly to come.

Europe: The other end of China’s Silk Road

I'm preparing for my trip to China and when I bought the currently I was a little surprised to see that Mao is still on the Yuan notes.  Hmm. I took some detail shots of the money as well - I always enjoy seeing the currency of different countries.  This shot was taken with my 100mm Macro f/2.8 IS.  Flash fired remotely with a poverty wizard to add sidelight to enhance the texture of the paper.

China is coming closer to European markets (Photo: dolmansaxlil)

LONDON, 18. MAY, 09:24

All of the attention around Xi Jinping’s recent European trip was focused around his visit to Moscow in time for the May Day military parade.

By focusing so singly on the Moscow stop, however, the importance of the route he took was missed.

Coming soon after the President’s visit to Pakistan in which he laid out the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), this trip affirms one of the key routes of the Silk Road Economic Belt – running through Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus to ultimately end in Europe.

This final link is the key which Europe needs to wake up to, to understand that this Chinese outward push is one that is both a reality and one that can advance European interests.

The Silk Road Economic Belt route of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative advanced by Xi is going to become the cornerstone foreign policy of the current Chinese administration. Enmeshed in the idea of returning China to its place at the center of global power, the initiative has led to the fanning out of a number of economic and trade corridors from Beijing.

The precursor to all of the ones currently talked about (a latticework of routes stretching out from China’s ports around the world through the Maritime Silk Road, through Pakistan in the CPEC, through Bangladesh-Myanmar and to India in the BCIM) was the route through Central Asia.

Initiated as part of a strategy to develop China’s western regions, the idea was to help reconnect Xinjiang to Central Asia, and ultimately through the region to European markets. For Beijing, Europe is the other end of the Silk Road Economic Belt.

In trying to implement its strategy, China has made a very conscious effort to reach out to Europe, in terms of official statements and an eagerness to try to find ways of working together on making this strategy work.

At this point it has gone beyond rhetoric. As well as pouring massive amounts of money in helping infrastructure across the former Soviet space, they have also looked at undertaking large investment projects in Belarus, Ukraine and other countries on Europe’s south-eastern periphery.

Closer to Europe

An economic force is sweeping along the Silk Road bringing China ever closer to European markets.

To some this will be seen as a threat. Chinese goods getting a quicker route to European markets will only place more pressure on already threatened European industries.

But this is a dynamic that is going to happen anyway and is already underway. Far better to try to focus on the other side of the equation and the potential opportunities.

Not only in terms of high end luxury and technical goods which Europe continues to manufacture which are so keenly desired by the ever-growing middle class Chinese consumer market which can travel back along this route, but also in terms of the development it will bring along the way to countries that Europe has long sought to help along the path of economic development.

This is something that is particularly true in Central Asia.

Europe has long seen Central Asia as a region it has been trying to support. The current Latvian Presidency has made the region a particular priority. As well as the potential economic opportunities (that Central Asians welcome), the region is one that has fraught internal dynamics.

European entities like the EU and OSCE are amongst the only ones that have been able to help bridge some of these divides – providing a set of lessons and experiences that China is simply unable to replicate, but is keen to learn from.

On the economic side of the equation, Chinese firms have been pushing into Central Asia and encountering all sorts of difficulties be it in terms of local governance or security issues.

This is a space that European companies and international institutions like the EBRD have long worked in and have developed a number of strategies for dealing with these very particular regional problems.

There is an opportunity here.

Building missing links

For Europe, China offers the opportunity to magnify effect – Europe’s economic and political force is substantial, but when bolstered by Chinese capacity and means, becomes an even more substantial force.

As well as the $40 billion Silk Road fund, there is the nascent Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the slowly developing BRICS Bank, and the sometimes talked of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Development Bank.

And China has continued to sign massive bilateral deals in countries along the route, with a particular focus in Central Asia. Admittedly some of this money is hyperbole around official high level visits, but go on the ground across the region and it is impossible to deny the presence of the Chinese funding – tangible as it is in roads, pipelines, railway projects, energy infrastructure and construction across the region.

There is also a larger political point to be made here about China’s relationship with the European Union.

The EU has long sought to find ways to engage with China in a productive manner – Central Asia and the larger Silk Road Economic Belt offers an opportunity to work with China on something that is of direct interest to Europe, but also is clearly a strong strategic priority from the very top of Xi Jinping’s administration.

For Beijing, Europe is the other end of the Silk Road – Europe needs to seize this opportunity to help advance its own interests.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at Rusi, a think tank in the UK

 

I have a chapter in this new Routledge book edited by Magnus Randstorp and Magnus Normark called Understanding Terrorism Innovation and Learning: Al-Qaeda and Beyond. My particular chapter focuses on ‘Innovation and Learning in British Jihad’ and draws on a lot of my research for my book. I am actually going to be presenting a version of the chapter at this forthcoming British Academy conference. I cannot simply post this here, though I am asking the publisher if they will let me. In the meantime, feel free to get in touch to hear more about it and I will try to help. This aside, I spoke to the Wall Street Journal and USA Today about the British government’s new counter-terrorism policies, the Sunday Mail about ISIS and immigration from Libya into Europe, and its daily counterpart the Daily Mail about British jihadi girls in Syria.

Understanding Terrorism Innovation and Learning: Al Qaeda and Beyond

This book examines the role of terrorist innovation and learning in theory and practice, and in the context of three specific EU case-studies.

It is often said that terrorist groups are relatively conservative in character operating in a technological vacuum – relying almost exclusively on bombs and bullets. This observation masks increasing complexity and creativity and innovation within terrorist groups and one of the most distinguishing features of al-Qaeda’s terrorist operations is its propensity for remarkable innovation. This book examines how and why terrorist groups innovate more generally and al-Qaeda-related terrorist plots in Europe more specifically. The starting point for this book was twofold. Firstly to examine the issue of innovation and learning more generically both in theory, within specific themes and within the context of al-Qaeda’s influence on this process. Secondly, this book examines the evolution of specific al-Qaeda-related plots in three specific northern EU states – the United Kingdom, Denmark and Germany – where there has been a significant volume of planned, failed and executed terrorist plots. In particular, these case studies explore signs of innovation and learning.

A new brief reaction piece for my home institute RUSI looking at some of the current trends in ISIS and jihadism. My preference is to use ISIS, but it appears as though the institutional choice is Daesh. Undoubtedly more on this topic to come. In the meantime, I have been doing book promotion events around town, thanks to those who have hosted me and am looking forward to future ones. For those interested, here is me talking to the Henry Jackson Society. I am going to be at the Bradford Literature Festival this weekend, the Hay Festival on the 31st May, and the Lewes Festival on July 18th. And hopefully more of those to come! Please also feel free to leave comments on Amazon about the book should you read it!
The Texas Attack: An Expression of Daesh’s Reach
RUSI Analysis, 11 May 2015 | By Raffaello Pantucci, Director of International Security Studies
The jihadist movement known as Daesh has claimed responsibility for the aborted attack on an art contest in Texas. But other than shared motives, there are hardly anyreal  linkages. Overreaction and misreading of the threat will merely play into their hands.
Garland Shooting Perpetrators 2015

The claim by Daesh (or ISIS, as it is also known as) of some connection and responsibility for the attempted attack on Sunday 3 May 2015 in Texas is credible. While it is unlikely that the senior leadership within the group tasked the American pair or saw the event in Texas as a globally significant target, it is perfectly possible that it will emerge that the two men had at least some online connection to the group and were spurred into action by a combination of this contact and the group’s regular exhortations to its followers to launch attacks in the West.

At the same time, it is not clear that this is in any way an expression of the beginning of a campaign by the group to launch terrorist attacks outside its territory or that we need to worry about Daesh anymore now than before. Rather, Daesh continues to show itself to be an opportunistically canny organisation that is able to read global trends and stoke public debates at the right moment to maximise their apparent reach and power.

The threat picture for the immediate future is likely to be a continuing pattern of similar attacks, alongside a continuing potential menace of more classically directed terrorist cells. This seemingly enhanced threat, however, has to be kept in perspective and care needs to be paid not to overreact. A measured response will help deal with the problem in the longer term, while an exaggerated response will only fuel it.

Daesh Going Out?

Daesh remains a primarily Middle Eastern focused organisation, intent on growing and consolidating its territorial gains in Iraq and Syria. At the same time, over the past few months there has been an increasing level of connectivity and interaction between its core in Mosul/Raqqa and its regional Wilayats (provincial governorates) in Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan and Yemen. The degree of strength of these regional connections is not always clear, though looking at the Libyan case in particular, it is clear that there is some strong link between the centre and what is happening in that country in terms of ideology, means and direction.

A series of attacks on foreign targets in Tripoli, grim beheading videos being done to a schedule dictated from Syria/Iraq and stories of fighters and money flowing from the Levant to Libya point to something more than just an ideological affiliation.

In Egypt, Afghanistan and Yemen at least there is some evidence of ideological and possibly individual, but less clear is the degree to which this is a strong flow with much direction, rather than exploratory links. On the purely aspirational end of the scale, there is the link to Boko Haram – an organisation that has shown itself to be even more opportunistic than Daesh and has proclaimed links to Al-Qa’ida and others repeatedly over the years with little tangible evidence of much by way of strong connections.

In parallel to this there has been the growth in inspired and instigated attacks in the lone actor model: plots undertaken by individuals or small cells lacking any clear command and control from an outside organisation. Choosing soft targets that can broadly be captured under the aegis of the global struggle between Islam and the West, these individuals get caught up in the fervour and hysteria around Daesh and launch attacks at home in the West under their own direction.

Some cases appear to demonstrate links back to Syria (like Mehdi Nemmouche in Brussels) some may be reacting to travel restrictions (like Michael Zehaf-Bibeau in Ottawa), while others appear  simply to be attracted by the allure and hysteria of the group (like the spate of incidents in France late last year or Man Haroun Monis in Australia). For some of these individuals, Daesh’s narrative is simply the loudest in the public conversation for them to draw on.

Lone actor or copy-cat, whichever model it is, Daesh can subsequently claim it or praise the incident and appear as though it is somehow responsible for a global wave of terror.

Extensions of longer-term trends

In reality, both trends are extensions of what has been going on with jihadist terrorism for the past few years. Since around 2010 al Qaeda core’s capability and links globally have shrunk as the group’s ideology has increasingly found that the local causes that it would parasitically attach itself to increasingly moved towards advancing their own more local agendas rather than the group’s global directives. When launching attacks, regional affiliates would still use the jihadist rhetoric and targeting choices, but it was increasingly hard to see strong levels of command and control from the core. There were of course exceptions to this like Yemen where AQAP retains a strong core following loyal to the movement’s globalist perspective. But for the most part regional affiliate groups increasingly drifted away from the core’s orbit as Al-Qa’ida’s remnant leadership spent its time hiding from drones in Pakistan’s hinterlands.

The result has been a fracturing of the global jihadist movement operating under Al-Qa’ida’s ideological banner. As leaders have been killed, it has led to groups splintering into different factions. Furthermore, with a weakened core, regional affiliates have shifted in their targeting and intent back towards their own regions. In launching attacks they will still choose international targets as these bring attention and appear to be part of a global cause. Often, however, the degree to which they have been directed from the core is limited. Examples include the In Amenas attack in Algeria by an off-shoot of AQIM, or the al Shabaab linked attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.

Into this fractured scene steps Daesh, offering a more hardline ideology, a new leader claiming to be Amir al Mu’mineen (commander of the faithful) who commands a territory he declares a Caliphate. Here is a narrative of success that stands in contrast to Al-Qa’ida’s declining fortunes. This quickly offers an appealing alternate power base that becomes the opposite pole to the current established jihadist narrative directed by Al-Qa’ida and draws in many of the disaffected and detached affiliate groups. Daesh appeal to them is not necessarily the ideology of the group, but rather the fact the group offers an alternate expression and successful banner to the status quo for them to attach themselves to.

The lone actor phenomenon is also not one that Daesh can claim stake to owning. Lone actor plots started to emerge in 2007/2008 (arguably Bilal Abdulla and Kafeel Ahmed’s attempted double bombing in London and Glasgow in 2007 was an early expression demonstrating no level of direction by a group, though some connectivity to terrorist networks in Iraq), and have been an increasingly regular feature of the terrorist threat picture since then. In 2010 Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) sought to try to harness the growing wave of such attacks and spur them further on through Inspire magazine and its ideology of ‘just do it’ attacks and ‘open source jihad’ that made jihadi terrorism accessible and actionable by everybody.

But there was little tangible evidence the magazine did much more than stoke fires that were already burning. The magazine became a staple feature of terrorism investigations. A growing number of plotters tried to build bombs to the magazines design and in online forums extremists increasingly talked proudly of being ‘lone wolves.’ But the trend towards this type of terrorism was underway prior to the magazine and there has been little clear evidence that the magazine can be singularly blamed for any specific plot.

Daesh has merely taken this strategy to the next level through its active promotion of the idea of such attacks through speeches, magazines and increasingly through individual fighters who connect through social media to the aspirant keyboard warriors who have not chosen to make the trip to the Levant, but seek it out instead online. By creating more noise around the idea of such attacks, they become more attractive and the group creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in its narrative.

This results in more people hearing it and more disaffected folk concluding that if they want to make themselves heard (for whatever reason) then Daesh’s ideology is the one to attach themselves to. All of this needs to be borne in mind against the backdrop that the ideology of violent Islamist inspired terrorism as one of the dominant global anti-establishment ideologies of the moment. Previously disaffected folk might be drawn to other movements, Al-Qa’ida or Daesh are now the alternative global movement. Again, rather than creating something new, Daesh (and Al-Qa’ida before it), have simply harnessed and attempted to spur on a trend that was already underway.

The Danger of Over-reaction

The importance of understanding the proper roots of these trends is to mitigate against the dangers of overreaction to them. If the Western reaction to the attack in Texas (and other future possible attacks) is to attack the organisation in a large fashion involving deployed armies and forces, this will have exactly the effect the group is likely hoping for.

An overreaction draws it into more direct conflict with the West making it both seem more powerful than it is, showing it able to stand up and fight directly with the world’s superpowers. It feeds into the group’s narrative of where it stands in the world and helps it become more important than it really is.

Instead, the focus needs to be on fixing the underlying reasons behind the contexts where the group’s ideology is able to take root. In Syria this means finding ways of bringing the brutal civil war to a close. In Iraq it involves building a participatory government so that the country’s Sunni’s do not look to groups like Daesh as defenders. In Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan and Egypt it involves solving local problems that will help reduce the space in which the group is able to permeate.

And in the West, it involves engaging with people who are so disaffected from societies that they feel they want to rebel violently against them. None of this is easy, and for Western government’s to succeed the reality is they need to target limited resources on specific countries abroad in a global division of labour, and at home need to find ways of developing grass roots programmes to engage with specific individuals who are drifting towards extremist ideologies. But key to making sure that we do not prolong this problem any longer than it needs to be is a clear understanding of the nature of the threat that is faced.

And another long ago written piece, that has only emerged now, this time an Occasional Paper for my home institution RUSI looking at Boko Haram and the evolution of Nigerian jihad. This was something that I did a little while back when Ansaru were a more prominent threat, and was when I was doing more direct work on the organization. This might revitalize soon given the election and the subsequent push against the group. Thanks to colleague Sasha for her help in completing it out the door, and to Sofia for helping pull it together in the first place! Somewhat related a couple of weeks ago, I spoke to NBC news on the anniversary of the Chibok girls kidnapping.

From Boko Haram to Ansaru: The Evolution of Nigerian Jihad

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As the 2015 general elections in Nigeria neared, the security situation in the country’s northeastern region became a political pawn to boost the respective party platforms. The candidates praised and criticised the national response to the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram, which has grown to a transnational threat with a reputation for brutal militancy.

Download the occasional paper here (PDF)

Its orchestration of several major incidents – including the kidnapping of nearly 300 girls from their school in Chibok in Borno State – has sparked national, regional and international responses. The character of these counter-operations, however, has relied overwhelmingly on a military approach unable to defeat a resilient Boko Haram. Nigeria’s forceful approach reflects rash decision-making founded neither on a considered strategy nor a thorough understanding of the target group.

Drawing on the wide-ranging body of existing literature, this report examines the evolution of Boko Haram from its inception to its modern iteration, deconstructing its supposed cohesive ideology and chain of command. Rather than a single unit, Boko Haram is best considered as falling along a spectrum, with an ideology as fluid and flexible as its relationships with similar jihadist groups, including Ansaru – a breakaway faction with perhaps a close relationship to the core. The report examines how the ideological narratives championed by the key leaders of Boko Haram have shaped the group’s present-day structure and tactics and a military approach alone is insufficient to defeat the group. With a newly-elected government, Nigeria has the opportunity to address the Boko Haram threat effectively, but true success will rely on a solid understanding and appreciation of this elusive and resilient opponent.

I have been rather delinquent in posting here, so am going to now briefly catch up on a few things. First up is a piece written for the UK Embassy Beijing’s ‘Strategic Communications Initiative’ that aims to advance a discussion between China and the UK on strategic questions. I have contributed a piece with a Chinese friend who is very active on the ground in Afghanistan working with business there offering some ideas for China’s possible role in the country. This is not my first piece for the Initiative, and I hope not the last! As ever, much more on the topic of China-Afghanistan (and more broadly China-Central and South Asia) to come.

Understanding the Cultural Fabric: The Missing Piece in China’s Outreach to Bring Peace to Afghanistan

Kane Luo, Vice President of Wakhan Abresham Consulting Service and Raffaello Pantucci, Director, International Security Studies, the Royal United Services Institute

A head of state’s first visit abroad is usually a strong indicator of that country’s future foreign policy. So when Ashraf Ghani, the newly elected President of Afghanistan chose China as the destination of his first state visit, the message from the new President of Afghanistan was clear: as we enter the year of NATO withdrawal, Afghanistan is increasingly looking East.

President Ghani certainly received a warm welcome in Beijing; President Xi Jinping showed China’s generosity promising a $330 million aid package over the next 3 years, a figure that exceeds China’s combined aid to Afghanistan for the last 14 years. China also announced a plan to help to train 3,000 Afghans in various fields, something that builds on previous promises of training, including an earlier program announced during former Politburo member Zhou Yongkang’s visit to Kabul in 2012 of 300 Afghan police. The discussion of re-opening the Wakhan Corridor, the slim mountainous borderland between Afghanistan and China that has long been a request of the Afghan government, has been restarted. Visa requirements for government officials of both countries are said to possibly be about to be scrapped. But in many ways, the most interesting outcome of Ghani’s visit to China was the revelation that China would offer itself as a host for peace discussions between the Taliban and the government in Kabul – bringing all relevant sides to the table to help broker peace in the country. Whether this approach will bear fruit is unclear, but its seeming admission and confirmation by officials highlights the fact that China is proving itself increasingly willing to accept it has an important role to play in Afghanistan’s future.

China’s motives behind her rapidly increasing efforts in Afghanistan are multiple, but the factor most often cited by Chinese experts and officials is domestic security. Violent, disenfranchised individuals from Xinjiang are becoming an increasingly deadly threat, something that has been increasing since 2008 and reached something of a crescendo in the past year. It is unclear how much manpower, resources and organizational capability Uyghur militants actually have; but their increased use of explosives, suicidal tactics and rising frequency of attacks are proof of a problem that is increasing. Angry denizens from Xinjiang have also shown a growing desire to launch attacks in not only remote areas of Xinjiang, but also in major political and population centers in eastern China as well, as the attack in October 2013 in Tiananmen Square, the March 2014 attack in Kunming and other incidents have demonstrated.

The link to these groups and Afghanistan come through Beijing’s claims that they possess evidence to prove that Uyghur militant groups are trained, financed and organized by ‘East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM)’, which is further linked with Afghan Taliban, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Al-Qaeda Central (AQC) in Afghan-Pakistani border area. There is some historical precedent to this link dating back to before September 11, 2001. A number sources verify the presence of Uyghurs in substantial numbers in Taliban Afghanistan with some pledging allegiance to Mullah Omar. These days it may not be the case that every terrorist attack in China is launched from caves of Waziristan (something increasingly recognized by Chinese experts); but Uyghur militants’ recent tactics indicate that they are certainly getting ideas from the global Jihadist movement, be it in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria. Beijing’s concern is that if these Islamic militants are left unchecked and Afghanistan is allowed to become a source of regional instability once again, a sophisticated enough terrorist attack may finally emerge or instigate some larger incident in Xinjiang that would expand the current instability in Xinjiang further around the nation.

Another important reason behind China’s evolving Afghan policy is Beijing’s concern over her ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. The so called ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative consists principally of the ‘New Silk Road Economic Belt’ and the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ (with side projects stretching from Kashgar to Gwadar in the form of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Bangladesh-China-Myanmar-India (BCIM) corridor), an extremely ambitious grand strategic design of President Xi Jinping’s administration. The ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative is meant to drastically increase the movement of capital, humans, goods, speed up cultural exchanges and even start to harmonize governmental policies across Eurasia; by constructing two separate but complementary routes that both start from China and then stretch westward. The ‘New Silk Road Economic Belt’ goes through Central Asia, Russia, Iran, and Arabia before finally reaching Europe; the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ passes through Malacca Strait, Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf and ultimately reaches the Mediterranean Sea. The ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative includes thousands of miles of proposed high-speed railway and highway, seaports and airports, oil and gas pipelines, even nuclear power stations that will cost trillions of U.S. dollars and decades to build. It would conclude with the development of massive trade and economic corridors bringing Chinese products to the world, and opening China even further. It would also have the ancillary effect of redeveloping a large swathe of China’s immediate periphery, something that has led to some prominent Chinese commentators, like Dingding Cheng, to describe it as ‘China’s Marshall Plan,’ a reference to the post-Second World War America’s massive effort to rebuild Europe. Afghanistan plays a very dangerous potential spoiler role within this, sitting adjacent to China and in the midst of a number of these land corridors emanating from China’s western provinces. Should the country collapse into chaos and become an exporter or incubator of instability, it would likely upset this key part of this plan.

But beyond just seeing the importance of Afghanistan to China’s domestic health, Beijing policymakers also see the importance of regional relationships to ensure a stable future. However, in contrast to the United States, China has the advantage of having far less contentious relationships with a key partner for Afghanistan, Pakistan. China is well aware of its influence over Islamabad, and has long nurtured a strong bilateral relationship with the country that both cherish publicly and loudly. China has already used its influence to bring Pakistan and Afghanistan to the table, as well as initiate a number of other regional discussions involving Pakistan (or about Pakistan), the recent admission of contact with the Taliban and a willingness to use this relationship to advance reconciliation all highlight the degree to which China is showing it is willing to use its relationships in advance of greater regional stability.

This approach to bringing the Taliban to the table is not, however, without its difficulties. Taliban are likely to play some role in Afghanistan’s future; but the trouble is, the Afghan government and Taliban today are both highly fragmented entities that lack centralised authority for Beijing to effectively engage with. The Taliban’s addition into this mix will only further complicate Afghanistan’s already difficult political situation. Finally, for China to be taking such a forward role in such a sensitive aspect of Afghan affairs will make it harder for China to maintain its position of detachment from events in Afghanistan – something that has in the past given the country a certain neutral image within Afghanistan.

There are further problems with taking the role of reconciler with a group that is reviled by many Afghans (the Taliban) and country (Pakistan) that many Afghans blame for some of their security problems. Anti-Pakistani feeling is very high amongst Afghans who see their neighbours as meddlers who have supported groups that have led to many deaths. Being seen as a close ally to both the Taliban and Pakistan might not play well amongst the Afghan public. Others within Afghanistan continue to feel that the Taliban have no role to play in their country’s future, highlighting with anger the fact that the government in Kabul is being forced to reconcile with a group that has shown no remorse in butchering civilians, officials, and soldiers alike. Finally, it is not entirely clear the degree to which outside stakeholders will all welcome this mediating role – for western powers, any support in bringing stability and peace to Afghanistan is welcome, but for players like India, Iran or the Central Asian powers, they have their own regional dynamics to consider. These are all issues that Beijing needs to consider.  Beijing must have a 360 degree of vision and be mindful of a basic reality in international affairs: when a button is pressed, there will be a series of chain-reactions. Some of these reactions can be predicted, but others will require rapid appropriate policy responses, something Beijing has historically had some issues with undertaking.

This diplomatic approach aside, China has also placed significant emphasis on developing Afghanistan’s economy, something highlighted again during President Ghani’s visit to Beijing. However, bringing economic and social progress to Afghanistan often requires an acceptable level of security as a pre-condition, something highlighted by the particular problems experienced by the two biggest Chinese investors in the country: the China Metallurgical Company (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper’s investment at Mes Aynak and China National Petroleum Corp’s (CNPC) project in the Amu Darya basin near the border with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Both projects have faced numerous difficulties hindering progress, with security ranking fairly high amongst concerns. Talking to officials at both companies, they will report security as a major factor, though it is likely that it is only one of a number of problems encountered. Others include difficulties with local authorities, lack of access to raw materials and infrastructure.

For the Afghan Taliban there is a natural desire to want to try to prevent any national economic progress from taking place, as a strategy to prevent the government in Kabul gathering public support. In another words, people will not always welcome progress with open arms, and in Afghanistan there is some question of whether major projects can proceed without the support of superior firepower. Despite China’s recently increased efforts in Afghanistan’s economic sphere, if Beijing really wants to see positive results, Beijing still needs to greatly expand the security-related cooperation it is looking to undertake in Afghanistan, as well as seek out bolstering cooperative relationships with powers like India and the remaining western forces.

Finally, and in some ways most importantly, as world’s biggest economy in terms of purchasing power, China has the material resources to achieve her objectives in Afghanistan. However, the lack of human expertise on Afghanistan in particular is a substantial invisible problem that China urgently needs to overcome. Because material resources cannot correctly allocate themselves, they need people to manage them and these people need a deep understanding of their surrounding environment. In other words, China has a need to grow a pool of people who understand Afghanistan’s complex social realities, ethnic mosaics, cultural customs and fragmented history. There is a need for China to support its push into Afghanistan with people who speak fluent Farsi and Pashtun, people who understand the Islamic world, or even, are Muslims themselves. Currently, such knowledge and skills are only the privilege of a few of China’s intelligence officers, diplomats and scholars; but they should also be extended to executive managers and chief engineers in China’s state-owned corporations and the general Chinese population too. This sort of deep cultural knowledge and understanding is the only way to make sure the multi-billion dollar investments are being effective implemented, as these individuals will be able to better understand and interact with the fabric of Afghan society. This will help avoid unnecessary tensions and misunderstandings, and is as essential as the multi-billion dollar aid packages as it guarantees they will actually have impact.

Unlike Britain, the United States or other western or regional powers who have been actively engaging Afghanistan for decades, either through peaceful means or through wars; China has had little intensive engagement with Afghanistan throughout its history. China has never fought a war with Afghanistan (though it played a supporting role in the anti-Soviet jihad); many of the few Chinese intellectuals who understood Afghan Central Asia were purged during early, and at the time the role of ambassadors to the Muslim world were not seen in a positive light. Although China opened up in 1970s, letting the world gradually in again and exposing itself to the world, China was almost exclusively focused on the West and China’s Eastern Asian neighbours, a preference that has continued to this day. It is only very recently that China found itself needing to engage to a greater extent with Central Asia and Afghanistan in particular. China needs more of everything that stimulates China’s knowledge of Afghanistan, otherwise the push towards Afghanistan will find it lacks the crucial internal building blocs to ensure it has a solid foundation for the future.