Archive for January, 2019

And second up, a piece in the Sunday Times just as the year closed which looks at the growing divisions in the world. Draws on a lot of the travel and workshops I have been fortunate enough to attend over the past year, and themes touched on elsewhere in my writing. Given my current workload at the office, suspect there might be some more in this broader vein. Separately, spoke to France 24 in the wake of the Egypt attack late last year, and this piece was picked up by the Daily Express.

Don’t fear Putin’s hypersonic nuke. Fear the gulf in East-West understanding

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The rhetoric and imagery of the Cold War is back. The year has drawn to a close with President Vladimir Putin flexing Russia’s military might. The test of a new hypersonic missile, which Putin boasts is “invulnerable” to western defences, heralds a world that we had thought was consigned to history. Yet while our threat perception in the past year has shifted from a fear of non-state groups to great-power confrontation, we are still nowhere near the fearsome heights of the Cold War.

The key difference is not the size of our weaponry, but rather the lack of a clear ideological confrontation and greater economic interdependence. Traditional thinking about deterrence no longer provides a frame with which to understand our enemies, leaving us open to the risk of dangerous miscalculation.

The clearest indication of the different level of global confrontation is military spending. Notwithstanding Russia’s new weapons and a blockbuster Pentagon budget this year, both sides remain far from the lavish spending of the Cold War. The US is nowhere near the roughly 10% of GDP it was devoting to defence at the height of that confrontation, and Moscow is far from the expenditure that brought the Soviet Union crashing down. It is also a long way from catching up with American defence spending.

While these new Russian weapons appear a terrifying development in the global arsenal, there is little clear evidence that they materially change the balance of power. Putin has over the past year announced a number of hypersonic and other menacing-sounding weapons, but these announcements are intended more for domestic consumption and for weapons sales abroad than for making Russia seem an invincible military power.

Moscow feels compelled to demonstrate a sense of global confrontation to enhance national power and to explain at home the imposition of economic sanctions and the vilification of Russia in the international media.

This need is vastly different from the ideological boundaries that used to divide the world during the Cold War. In contrast to that earlier world, we now inhabit countries that are deeply economically interdependent.

Moscow’s rich — despite sanctions — own property in London, while China’s national wealth is tied up in American Treasury bonds. This transforms national perceptions of enemies and means that even when countries such as Russia and China try to change the international order, they are hesitant to sever the links. This may change in time, but it has not yet. We live in a world that can at best be described as divided by forms of governance, rather than by ideology.

Ideologies do continue to dominate, however, at the non-state level, where constellations of individuals come together around a utopian vision to threaten the old order. Countries and governments, on the other hand, still inhabit traditional structures. Moscow still thinks in these terms and therefore has to create a sense of narrative with traditional tools.

None of this should leave us complacent. There is a growing sense of confrontation in the world. Non-state groups such as al-Qaeda and Isis have not gone away. China is confused about the limits of the pushback it is facing. Its new national economic champions, such as the telecoms and electronics company Huawei, are targets of international ire. Beijing is struggling to interpret a world that wants its economic investment but at the same time fears its growing weight.

Moscow sees the current confused order as a prime environment in which to assert its meddlesome influence abroad and build a narrative at home of international power and importance. And Iran’s mullahs fail to understand why they are cast as an enemy or what the parameters of the current confrontation are.

There is a distinct, if fractured, axis coming together between Beijing, Moscow and Tehran. And while it takes little to find fissures between them — Beijing dislikes Moscow’s tendency to disrupt defined national borders and recognise stateless peoples; Moscow is no fan of Tehran’s use of proxy groups or Beijing’s encroachment into its back yard in central Asia — they all regard a democracy-promoting West as an adversary they need to worry about.

The threat they see is to their leadership structures rather than national ideologies. But this is not a popular narrative to sell at home: hence the need for confrontation abroad.

But these fissures also undermine the West’s ability to respond to them in a coherent way. With no unifying ideology and coherent enemy, it is hard to rally western capitals together in a clear and consistent fashion.

We are able to respond in only a piecemeal fashion and struggle to maintain a unified line for long. Previously, the clarity of a structured order between the Soviet and western blocs defined who the enemy was and what we would need to do in response to the weapons they were developing. Today we have a messy order, where we are as economically tied to our adversaries as we are locked into preparing ourselves for the possibility of confronting them.

Even worse, while our world is ever more interconnected, the gulf in understanding between our governments has deepened. On both sides there is a surprising lack of insight into what the other is thinking. Narrow lenses suited to domestic concerns and power plays are ill suited to understanding how people in faraway capitals think.

Travel to Beijing, Moscow or Tehran and you hear views we would dismiss as conspiracy theories being shared among some of the most sophisticated thinkers as mainstream perspectives. Doubtless they observe the same phenomenon when they visit us.

Notwithstanding the current rhetoric and bombast, we are far from a new Cold War. The past year may feel as though we are returning to the 1970s, but the biggest danger we face is not large-scale military conflict fuelled by hypersonic weapons. It is a miscalculation of one another’s aims and intentions that precipitates confrontation and spirals out of control into conflict.

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

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A couple of quick posts begin the year of separate pieces that emerged towards the end of last year. On a more geopolitical bent than some of my previous work, but reflects a broader trend in my work. First up is an interview that I did with the magazine Fortune in India about India’s views and response to the Belt and Road.

‘To suggest that India rejects the Belt and Road Initiative in its entirety would be wrong’

Raffaello Pantucci from the London-based think tank The Royal United Services Institute explains what India has got right and what it has got wrong about the initiative.

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China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has created a stir around the world. Will this multi-country infrastructure and investment project, which conservative estimates put at around $1 trillion, transform the global power structure or will it trap numerous countries in debt leading to chaos? And what does it mean for India? In London, Hindol Sengupta spoke to Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at The Royal United Services Institute, for some answers. Edited excerpts:

What do you think most people are getting wrong about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)?

What’s most missing in the discourse is often perspective from these countries (the countries through which the project runs) and which reflects their interests. We should be wary of superimposing our external interpretation or perception on them. For instance, this entire point about debt traps. Now there are issues about debt, but it is not really about China trying to trap these countries into debt. It is more about the capacities and issues within these countries. Two problems happen while analysing the BRI: one, people tend to think of it as one grand strategy as opposed to lots of things happening in diverse ways in lots of places; and [two], try to superimpose that view or superimpose the view of the bigger U.S.-China clash that is happening now onto this. But both are not quite correct. There are many nuances that get lost when we cut in that way.

What are the most interesting nuances in the Indian subcontinent that are being missed out in the BRI analysis?

On the India side, there is a tendency to think that India does see this as a big, hostile thing [in] its entirety, whereas I would say that the reality is in fact India can never sign up to the BRI project in its entirety because the China-Pakistan corridor cuts through disputed territory [Pakistan-held Kashmir]. But there are other elements in the vision like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), like investment into third locations, and like Chinese investment into India that the Indian government quite likes and would like to foster. In Pakistan, once again we talk about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as one overarching thing whereas, in reality, these are a number of smaller projects. And even the loans are of various kinds—some are loans given by Chinese banks to Chinese companies to complete projects, others are loans given to the Pakistani government as a concessionary rate, and then the Pakistani state hires companies on projects. We have a habit of treating these as one big block whereas actually these are a bunch of different projects being handled in different ways and with different kinds of reactions on the ground in Pakistan. In some regions, you see some tensions and local pushbacks on the ground in Pakistan like in parts of Balochistan; in some others, like in parts of Punjab, people are quite happy about these projects.

In this scenario, how do you look at the insurgent attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi (in November 2018) for which Pakistan blamed India?

That incident did not surprise me in the least. If you track recent incidents in Pakistan, there have been more and more direct attacks on Chinese interests in Pakistan by militant groups. We recently had an incident where a bomber of the BLA (Balochistan Liberation Army) targeted a busload of Chinese engineers. The BLA has been very clear that they are targeting Chinese interests in the country. The accusations against India have a long history. The thing that worries me is that while it is impossible to say whether there is any merit to these accusations, what is certainly true is that there is a lot of anger in Balochistan, which has been there for a long time. What they have now realised is that attacking the Pakistani state hasn’t really delivered any results. They have realised that if we attack the foreigners we will get more attention internationally, and we are attacking the Pakistani state’s biggest ally; and that in itself might deliver some results for us. It is erroneous to blame this on India or Afghanistan, and it is impossible to know for sure if there are any elements from these countries lurking in the background, but what we can say for certain is that there is real anger in Balochistan, and it has now decided that targeting the Chinese gets some sort of a reaction.

If this flares up, what does it mean for CPEC?

The underlying logic of CPEC would remain and this will remain an irritant to that. If the Chinese put more pressure on the Pakistanis to stop this kind of attacks, you will see a much stronger crackdown on the Balochi groups by the Pakistani forces. CPEC remains important and within Pakistan, CPEC has become kind of synonymous with Pakistani national economic rejuvenation, and that’s important for the whole region. Chinese companies will have much greater security around their assets and they might struggle on sending large numbers of engineers to Pakistan if these sorts of attacks escalate. But China is big; they will still find some people to send and its unlikely that these kinds of attacks would bring some sort of a grinding halt to the CPEC. A major attack might mean that the Chinese might [have] some of their security forces on the ground, but largely they would want the Pakistanis to solve this.

What ramifications does China’s stringent actions on the Uighur Muslims—including ‘re-education camps’—in the Xinjiang region have on its ties with Central Asian countries, Pakistan and the BRI?

What has been depressing is the lack of response from the Muslim world on this issue. Whatever comments there have been has largely come from Western capitals, and some from Malaysia. This is mainly because those countries do not want to upset China. But there have been some tensions in Central Asian countries some of whose citizens live in China and who are getting caught up in these issues in the Xinjiang region. What we have seen is concern, for instance, in Kazakhstan, where people are worried about these measures in China making their influence felt in their own country. There is pressure from the people in some of these countries for their governments to bring up these issues with China. This is not what the governments want to do because they want economic ties with China. This friction will grow.

How will the BRI project impact India’s future relations with China and Pakistan?

Clearly, in the Indian strategy vision, China is the biggest threat they look out and see. You see this in all kinds of things, in the strategic military purchases of India, in the so-called ‘necklace of diamonds’, in its relationship with Japan and the U.S. But notwithstanding all of this, we still see India hesitate to let the relationship with the Chinese to blow up into a full-fledged confrontation. That’s why we haven’t seen the Quad [Quadrilateral Security Dialogue; the strategic coming together of the U.S., India, Japan and Australia] really live up to its expectations. This is because none of the countries want this to become very confrontational and seem like a great front against China. Because they realise that they have other business with China. The U.S. has been trying to push things towards a confrontational direction, but the other countries realise that they must engage with China, its rise is happening around their borders. It is a very complicated picture. The real question going forward is how India will accommodate China’s rise, but also that China must learn to handle India’s rise and take its concerns more seriously. They have historically really looked down on India and treated India in a really disparaging fashion. This has led to angry confrontations and a sense in India that it just not taken seriously enough. I think there is a rebalancing that will happen [between the two]. And if that happens successfully, it could be massively beneficial to both. But at the moment it seems to be that national pride in both countries means that they are butting against one another but if these two great powers can figure out a way to work together and how, their growth models would intertwine with another.

What is the low-hanging fruit that India and China can pick off to better their relationship?

The low-hanging fruit could be Afghanistan. If India and China could agree that they would partner in Afghanistan, you could see a real game changer on the ground in that country with hugely positive effects. The other is why does India and China have to see projects in the surrounding island countries as threats? Why not jointly build infrastructure projects using the AIIB or the BRICS Bank, which could again lead to cooperation.