Archive for November, 2018

A new post for a new outlet – this time for the British political magazine Spectator’s website drawing together impressions on some recent travel through the heart of Eurasia. Rather than the title suggests, it is about more than just Russia. Look forward to hearing feedback and to be writing more on these themes. This aside, spoke to the Financial Times about the China-US clash and the growing pressure on Huawei which was subsequently picked up by Silicon.

How the West failed to bring Russia into line

28 November 2018 | 5:15 PM

Moscow does not feel like a city under siege. Cracking jokes about Novichok, Muscovites are sanguine about the conflict they are currently in the midst of with the west. Rather, a sense of hardening has settled in, with most presuming the current deep freeze with the UK and west is permanent and adjusting their realities accordingly. There is little evidence that our action is having the desired effect; 

instead a new geopolitical alignment is settling in – something that is only confirmed by further visits to other Eurasian capitals and conversations with officials and experts from other powers like China or Iran. The longer it grows, the deeper and more permanent it becomes. Rather than a new Cold War, we are entering into a moment of clearer multipolar hostility.

Having recently returned from a two week trip which included stops in Moscow and Astana, Kazakhstan, one thing is certain: winter is bitterly cold in the heart of Eurasia. But while a simple narrative would translate this weather as chill wind welcoming in the new Cold War, this misses the broader and more nuanced picture which is visible from both of these capitals. These reflect a shift which is taking place at the heart of the Eurasian continent and with which we need to rapidly engage or miss out on one of the major geopolitical changes of our times.

The narrative starts in Moscow where there is little evidence of relenting in the face of western pressure. Russian officials and experts continue to advance lines which show little admission of defeat or culpability in recent events in Salisbury or the Hague. The closest they will get to admission is to say that such intelligence operations are more properly handled behind closed doors. More often than not, blame is apportioned to UK officials who are accused of stirring up trouble in an attempt to distract from Brexit. 

Such cynical conspiracy theories are par the course in Russia. But what is interesting is that they are accompanied by a strong sense of confidence. Economic indicators are not wonderful (but when have they been in Russia? And at the moment they are to some degree buoyed by rising energy prices), but there is little evidence of this having major effect on the public. On the one hand this is evidence of our consistent inability to comprehend Russian willingness to endure hardship. But it is also the reality of a sanctions regime that is not delivering what we might be hoping. The Russian agricultural industry has undergone a sweeping revival in response to the sanctions regime, while Russian defence contractors are doing a Machiavellian job of selling the same military hardware to both sides of a number of conflicts around the world. And Moscow’s rich natural resource wealth continues to attract not only booming Asian markets, but our own western firms that are locked into long-term projects on the ground.

But the confidence this has engendered goes deeper than this. Moscow now sees itself as an integral player in numerous conflicts around the world. In part this is self-generated relevance through insertion into existing conflicts to give the leaders more cards to play. But it is also seen grudgingly in the Eurasian heartland as the constant expression of Moscow’s behaviour. Here Russia is seen as frustrating, but a consistently significant player than cannot be ignored. Iranian experts will point out Moscow’s ability to talk to everyone around the table, while Chinese experts will spend the time to pay respect to a power that, when asked privately, they describe as their inferior in many different ways. 

Caught in between, Central Asian powers can increasingly see that their geopolitical narrative is shifting from Moscow to Beijing, but they nonetheless continue to speak Russian as their lingua franca and acknowledge the importance of their relationships with the Kremlin. Shortly before my stop in Astana, the capital hosted a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-driven institutional response to Nato which continues to be one of the most coherent non-Nato Eurasian security institutions. People in Astana wondered about whether the exercise was a show of strength for the audience in Moscow, a display to pushback on encroaching Chinese influence or more simply a way of showing non-CSTO member Uzbekistan of the value of joining. There was very little evidence of any of the messaging being targeted at the West; they have started to stop caring about us.

More significant than Russian influence, however, is China’s growing footprint in what Victorian geographer Halford Mackinder described as the ‘geopolitical pivot’ of Eurasia. The story in itself is not new – we have been hearing about Belt and Roads through the Eurasian heartland for some time – but this has now been accentuated by a sharpening trade war between Washington and Beijing.

In London and Washington, the interpretation of this clash is of an attempt by the new US administration to better respond to China’s vertiginous rise. Sat in the Eurasian heartland the view is very different. As president Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan put it in Astana, as the ‘counter-globalisation movement’ was building, China proffered its Belt and Road Initiative, proposing an opportunity built on connectivity. China is funding opportunities in his country and his neighbours, and they see the potential that this offers them. We may see debt traps and corruption, but they see the potential opportunity and like the connectivity narrative. The West in contrast is using economic relationships as weapons; it seeks to impose sanctions to coerce behavioural change in Eurasian powers like Russia and Iran.

The problem is that these weapons are becoming less effective: new industries emerge within countries to fulfil needs that can no longer be met by imports, for example, while parallel financial systems also quickly emerge. In Tehran, people now talk of using Renminbi to process payments; in Russia people are increasingly using Chinese payment systems, and Beijing continues to establish independent systems that are able to circumvent sanctions while continuing their economic relationship with the United States and the west. This, of course, is very much a ‘having cake and eating it’ approach. And even in pro-American European capitals, leaders talk of trying to find ways of circumventing sanctions with Iran. The system is clearly not working but is fostering a permanent change at the heart of the Eurasian continent.

It is not a done deal. We still hold a great many cards. Many prominent figures still seek to send their children to our colleges and schools. They all love to visit our historical capitals and enjoy the open and comfortable lifestyle we take for granted. As one oligarch put it to the Financial Times, ‘a new world order is obviously better than the current one. But no one here is a big fan of the Chinese life.’ People are waiting for the west to wake up, but the longer we take, the more permanent the shift will be. Mackinder was right in capturing the importance of the Eurasian heartland for global power – currently it seems it is leaders in Moscow and Beijing who are paying attention to his lessons.

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Finally, a short post for the Financial Times Beyond BRICS blog, trying to challenge some of the narrative that we see around the Belt and Road pushback that has become the dominant feature of the public conversation. It is happening, but being mischaracterised at the moment. To also separately catch up on media, spoke to NBC about the US-China clash and to Reuters about the recent attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi by the Baluchistan Liberation Army (which was picked up a few places including in 普通话 for VOA Cantonese).

China’s Belt and Road hits problems but is still popular

US should not oppose the projects but offer alternative solutions
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Chinese construction project in Sri Lanka: countries that criticise the Belt and Road Initiative overlook the real need in developing nations for foreign investment © Bloomberg

There is a narrative of pushback against the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s programme to finance and build infrastructure in about 88 countries around the world. Coming against the backdrop of US-China confrontation, this evidence of pushback is being read as a collective response to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s overarching foreign policy concept.

But this misses the detail of several deals in which the context is more one of renegotiation than cancellation. The fundamental logic of many of the BRI in developing countries neighbouring China remains intact. Such is the need for investment in these countries that Chinese proposals for new bridges, highways, railways, power stations and other crucial infrastructure remain alluring.

It is five years since Mr Xi’s pair of speeches in Astana and Jakarta launched the BRI. Since then, much of what China does outside China has become associated with the BRI. At one stage, this was true of much within China as well, where almost every region and institution sought to associate themselves to the leader’s big initiative.

Five years later, it can come as no surprise therefore that some of the projects that were brought under the broader BRI umbrella have encountered issues. One consultancy, the Washington-based RWR Advisory Group, has estimated this number to be around 14 per cent. This number does not seem too high when one considers the surge in project announcements that followed Mr Xi’s speeches in 2013.

It is also useful to dig into the detail of the projects that are being repeatedly highlighted as problematic. Three prominent cases are in Pakistan, Malaysia and Myanmar. But rather than revealing consistent flaws in the BRI’s design, each of these cases derive in part from a push by local governments to renegotiate some BRI projects.

With both Pakistan and Malaysia, an election appears to have precipitated the change. The election of Mahathir Mohamad as prime minister in Malaysia led to dramatic changes within the country, including a general re-accounting of some of the deals that had been signed under the former government with China.

The most prominent were a series of pipelines and the East Coast Rail Line. After a visit to Beijing, Mr Mahathir seemed to cancel them all, but subsequently, it has emerged that while the pipelines were put on hold until the country was able to deal with the “internal fiscal problems” he had inherited, the ECRL has instead entered a period of re-negotiation as both sides seek to keep the project moving.

Mr Mahathir’s public rhetoric has expressed concern about China, but he has also repeatedly stressed the importance of Chinese investment into Malaysia.

The case is similar with Pakistan, where the election of Imran Khan as prime minister led to a change in public rhetoric in Islamabad. Specifically, it has helped crystallise a series of complaints about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that had been rattling around the Pakistan government.

This was given a boost through public statements by Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, and a bipartisan letter from the US recommending confronting China over the BRI in general and CPEC in particular.

Yet, the reality is that this has not resulted in massive changes to CPEC. Pakistan’s balance of payments crisis has prompted a push by the new government to seek new loans or debt rescheduling between Saudi Arabia and China. Following his inaugural visit to Beijing, Mr Khan agreed to a joint statement in which the two countries “dismissed the growing negative propaganda against CPEC”.

They also announced the creation of a new working group “on social-economic development to assist with livelihood projects in Pakistan”.

In fact, the active pushback on CPEC projects took place before Mr Khan’s election, with the decision to reject a proposal to build the Diamer-Bhasha Dam taking place when Nawaz Sharif was still in power. This was widely touted as evidence that Pakistan was not simply going to take every infrastructure project that China wanted to do in the country.

Finally, there is the case of Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, a massive port project that is in some ways one of the precursors to the BRI, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar BCIM Economic Corridor. Seeing how the international mood was shifting against Chinese investments, Naypyidaw appears to have taken advantage of the situation to renegotiate the port deal.

Part of a much bigger Chinese investment that includes Special Economic Zones and pipelines, the project is one that is clearly important to China. The re-negotiation ended up with the size of the project being cut back considerably (reportedly from $7.2bn to $1.3bn), with Chinese investor CITIC still the biggest single partner on the project holding a 70 per cent stake.

Reflecting the positive tenor of this negotiation, Myanmar officials in September signed an agreement in Beijing to create a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. While this may appear to dilute the importance of a pre-existing Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar corridor, it certainly does not suggest that Myanmar is vociferously turning against the BRI.

Doubtless, some of this re-negotiating is a product of each other. The press coverage to emerge from Hambantota in Sri Lanka and the reports that the country ultimately signed over a 99-year lease on the port to a Chinese firm, have all become something of a byword for BRI concerns. Leaders in capitals like Islamabad, Kuala Lumpur and Naypyidaw all saw an opportunity to push back on terms themselves.

It provided easy domestic wins, while also being something that they knew they were likely to win given China’s need for the BRI to be seen to be continuing to move forwards. For both the idea of scrapping BRI within their countries was never really on the table. The underlying logic and general trend of Chinese investment in these countries continues to hold.

What has accentuated the negative narrative in the public discourse has been Washington’s attempt to harness this pushback into its broader conflict with China. Donald Trump’s administration has led an increasingly aggressive bipartisan push against China in numerous different fields.

Yet fought on these terms, this is a losing battle for Washington. In many cases the countries in question are developing countries that need investment. As Chinese neighbours, there is a natural logic in them trying to tap the Chinese economic boom, and improving their regional connectivity.

A far more productive response can be found in Washington’s decision to super-charge the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, offering a funding boost for e-infrastructure investment in south-east Asia while encouraging other regional powers like Australia and Japan to focus their efforts on specific projects in developing countries currently considering BRI investment.

This is the sensible response to BRI, as it both understands the logic of the projects in these developing countries and offers a logical alternative that they can choose. This is a response that far more effectively captures the broader logic of re-negotiation that is visible across BRI countries.

Five years since the announcement of BRI, it has grown to become a synonym for China’s outward investment strategy and broader foreign policy. As is natural with any major effort like this in foreign policy by a big power, it is raising concerns in countries impacted along the way.

What is essential to understand is the logic of this pushback which is not part of a broader conspiracy, but rather a set of individual reactions that are taking place at the same time. Keeping this understanding in mind will enable the world to better respond to the BRI and China more generally, while also remembering that the broader vision is one that is appreciated in some parts of the world as much as it is feared in others.

The writer is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute.

Some belated catch up posting, this time something for my institutional home RUSI. Was inspired by the terrible rhetoric that we continue to be seeing deployed in the wake of terrorist incidents by political leaders, and the particularly horrible incidents attacks we saw in the US ahead of the mid-term elections. There is something brewing on the far right which while not totally new, has the potential to cause some major societal damage. On top of the fact of how our public discourse has now shifted, it seems deeply unwise for certain rhetoric to be deployed. Unfortunately, little evidence on the horizon that anything is going to change.

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Lone Actor Terrorists and Extreme Right Wing Violence

Recent attacks perpetrated by extreme right wing terrorists in the US are undoubtedly linked to the upcoming mid-term elections, reflecting the reality that the country’s charged political scene may be pushing would-be terrorists into action.

 

There can be little doubt that there is a correlation of some sort between the spate of mail bombs dispatched around the US last week, the murderous shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue and next week’s mid-term elections. The poisonous rhetoric deployed in political discourse will rile people up and stir anger, which a few individuals will take to its natural extreme conclusion. This in turn is exacerbating a growing shift towards lone actor terrorism as the principal expression of extremist violence in Europe and North America, something that we see acknowledged in the spate of incidents in the US and the news that MI5 is to take on a greater leadership role in fighting the extreme right wing (XRW) in the UK.

The sorts of attacks seen in the US over the past week can, on the surface, appear to be the sort that are almost impossible to prevent. An isolated individual who decides to take matters into his own hands, using objects which are relatively accessible to the general public might set off very few tripwires for authorities. In fact, what is usually discovered in the wake of such incidents is that the individuals involved were in fact quite indiscrete in their behaviour. In the case of both Cesar Sayoc (the mail pipe bomber) and Robert Bowers (the Pittsburgh shooter), there was ample evidence of their vile views in their online activity. In Sayoc’s case, he was also vocal about his extreme views among people he knew and in public. Bowers was quieter in person, but foreshadowed his intent on a social media platform called Gab prior to launching his attack.

None of this behaviour is surprising for lone actor terrorists. In a study undertaken by a RUSI-led research consortium in 2016 focused on lone actor terrorism in Europe, from a pool of 120 cases between 2000 and 2014 across the ideological spectrum, perpetrators exhibited ‘leakage’ of some sort in at least 46% of cases. This ‘leakage’ took various forms, with some individuals changing behaviour in front of their families, while others made far clearer statements of intent which almost exactly described the acts they later committed. While there were considerable similarities among the various ideological groups in the dataset, there was a noticeable difference between the XRW and religiously inspired terrorists (the two biggest groups in the dataset), with XRW terrorists being far more likely to post telling indicators online. One perpetrator identified by researchers posted on an XRW website, ‘watch television on Sunday, I will be a the star … Death to zog [Zionist Occupation Government], 88!’. ‘88’ represents ‘Heil Hitler’, as H is the eighth letter of the alphabet. There is some similarity between this commentary and Bowers’s final post on Gab, ‘I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in’. Given the data for the study was largely drawn from what was available in the public domain, and with some cases being drawing on sparse information, researchers suspected that the actual number might be higher than 46%.

From current understanding, Sayoc does not appear to have signalled his intent as explicitly, but he seems to have had a deep appreciation for US President Donald Trump’s more extreme narratives and this appears to have shaped his choice of targets. Aiming at a wide range of prominent figures and institutions which have arrayed themselves against Trump politically, in public reporting Sayoc appears to have expressed his extreme pro-Trump views to several people in his immediate surroundings, having driven a van emblazoned with his support.

This appears to be in stark contrast to Bowers, who seemingly moved through his immediate community ‘like a ghost’. His in-person behaviour was apparently different from his crude, violently anti-Semitic and anti-Trump online persona.

While divergent in outward appearance, neither of these patterns are atypical to XRW lone attackers, where socially awkward individuals will externalise their behaviour abruptly and dramatically, often with some clear indicators beforehand that are unfortunately often only comprehensible in the aftermath of an attack. Even Bowers’s apparently obvious online vitriol is depressingly indistinguishable from the torrent of hatred that can be found on some XRW websites.

What is clear, however, is that the increasingly poisonous political rhetoric seen around the world is in part to blame for such incidents. In much the same way that the anger stirred up around the 2016 EU referendum was likely, in part, to blame for the murder of MP Jo Cox, it seems likely that the political winds stirring in the US in part compelled these two men to act. The sense of great political confrontation at hand and the language used in the mainstream likely accelerated the behaviour of already undoubtedly troubled individuals.

But what is most worrying is the fact that aside from the violence that is visible through these individual acts, there is a growing organisation and structure to the XRW in the UK. While the US scene has long been populated by a mix of groups and isolated individuals, the UK scene was, until relatively recently, largely the domain of isolated individuals, with organised violent groups a limited part of the XRW picture. This has been changing of late, with the emergence of groups like National Action, whose intent on murdering politicians and organising attacks in the UK has led to them becoming a growing focus to the UK’s intelligence services.

It is still difficult to make absolute comparisons between the XRW and violent Islamist terrorism in the UK. While there is a growing organisational structure and menace in the XRW in the UK, the shadow of violent Islamists’ aspirations remains far more dangerous. But the XRW draws from more mainstream political narratives, meaning the damage to society’s fabric can be more substantial. There have also been catastrophic XRW attacks in Europe in recent memory – specifically, Anders Behring Breivik’s 2010 massacre in Norway. The XRW has the potential to cause mass innocent death, and feeds off a broader political discourse which is already deeply troubled. There is a link between what is happening in the world more generally, and society’s violent political edge. And unless attention is paid, one will make the other worse.

BANNER IMAGE: Smoke rises over Oslo following the detonation of a car bomb near the executive government quarter of Norway, 22 July 2011. Right wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik’s attack remains one of the most catastrophic extreme right wing attacks in Europe in recent memory. Courtesy of Wikimedia. 

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