Archive for the ‘BLOGS’ Category

Another post, this time being published in a slightly more timely manner for my publisher Hurst’s blog. It looks at the links with history in the recent terrorist attacks in the UK, and specifically ties into al Muhajiroun. For lots more stories like this, of course read my book!

Al-Muhajiroun and the simmering divisions in British society

‘You know, the Qur’an even tells me which direction I must break wind in,’ declared Omar Bakri Mohammed in the late 1990s. Taking the bait, roving reporter Jon Ronson asked, ‘And which direction do you break wind in?’ leading Omar to break into hysterical laughter as he announced, ‘In the direction of the non-believer!’ Omar is the founder of al-Muhajiroun, the group linked to the London Bridge terror attack ringleader Khuram Butt and numerous other terrorist plots. His joke does not seem as funny 20 years later.

The interview with Omar Bakri Mohammed was part of a series of entertaining pieces by Jon Ronson that tracked a variety of extremists convinced that dark conspiratorial forces ruled the world. At its culmination, Omar unmasked Jon as a Jew to an audience of his jihadist acolytes at a training camp in Crawley. This dark conclusion to the encounter was a portent in some ways of what was to come. The group that Omar was fostering, al-Muhajiroun, became what another reporter characterized as an ‘old boys network’ for British jihad. Men from the community in Crawley were linked to a training camp attended by the 7 July bombers. Britain’s first known suicide bomber in Syria came from Crawley and supposedly knew Omar Bakri Mohammed personally. The gym that Khuram Butt worked at was managed by one of the supporters of the Crawley network. My own research has found clear links to the group in at least half of the jihadist terrorist plots in the UK, while a senior security official I once spoke to shrugged and pointed out that a link of some sort was ‘almost always there’ in every investigation.


From Hurst and Getty.

The first hints of trouble came soon after Omar’s then comical interview with Jon Ronson. In December 1998 one of the leaders of al-Muhajiroun, Amer Mirza, angered by the resumption of bombing in Iraq, threw a petrol bomb at a Territorial Army barracks in West London. Later that month authorities in Yemen arrested six Britons from a competing faction of violent extremists in London, linked to the infamous hook-handed cleric Abu Hamza. Arrested with explosives and guns, they were accused of planning a series of New Year’s Eve atrocities in Sana’a. These two communities were to become the beating heart of Britain’s international terrorist threat, producing a thread that links history right up to the current day.

The pattern of where the threat came from in the UK is consistent. Abu Hamza’s community produced a pair of shoe bombers, the murderer of a policeman in Manchester and fighters for the Taliban. Al-Muhajiroun helped to build an infrastructure in Pakistan for those going to fight in Afghanistan. The group was also responsible for the pair of suicide bombers who blew up a bar in Tel Aviv, provided access to training camps for the 7 July bombers, and orchestrated an attack on the CIA base in Afghanistan at Camp Chapman. Far closer to home it stirred hatred in the community from which the murderers of Lee Rigby emerged. And many more in between.

Radicalized young Britons with links back to these communities have been a regular feature of jihadist battlefields across the world. Their radicalization has led them to fight and train in Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Nigeria, Libya, Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, parts of Southeast Asia and more.

Syria, however, was the real game-changer. Attracting feverous support across the world, it seemed to hearken back to the golden age of ‘just jihad’ against oppressive regimes, much like the struggle of the brave warriors in Afghanistan. Here there were people oppressed while the West did nothing about it. Only the brave muhajireen were willing to stand up to the cruel Assad regime.

Some of those drawn to this endeavour were on their way to becoming career warriors, such as Ibrahim al Mazwagi, one of the first reported British fighters to die in Syria. Prior to Syria, he had faced combat in Libya, as part of the British-Libyan mobilization who returned to Libya as the Arab Spring took hold there. For a short period they were fighting on the same side as the British government against the Gadhafi regime. Within this contingent were long-term anti-Gadhafi activists and members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a salafi-jihadi anti-Gadhafi group who had taken refuge in the UK, and who saw in the wake of the Arab Spring an opportunity to finally achieve their long-desired goal. Having been in the UK for decades, many had settled and had children who they swept up along with them, showing them that armed struggle against unjust governance was acceptable and sometimes necessary.

Initially the assessment of the Arab Spring was a relatively benign one. Long-awkward partners across the Arab world were headed for civilian overthrow as people around the world reacted to Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia. Western governments cheered, and President Obama demanded that President Mubarak of Egypt step down. But rebellions tend not to play out the way we want them to. And it was not long before the jihadist narratives started to resonate across the various battlefields born out of the Arab Spring. Young Britons and their European counterparts alike started to mobilize in substantial numbers, in particular drawn by what was happening in Syria.

Sitting in London, it quickly became clear that the groups going were the same ones who had been active for years. For instance whilst aid convoys heading to Syria from the UK had with them food, aid and ambulances, they were also used by young men as cover to go and fight. This was only the latest example of a long tradition of convoys being used as a method to enter these conflicts; for some young men this was not their first experience with activism. For example, a number of those who went on convoys with George Galloway’s Viva Palestina charity to Gaza ended up fighting in Syria. Others were arrested at protests outside the Israeli Embassy in London or had been caught trying to go to battlefields in Africa earlier. Even more had been involved in al-Muhajiroun’s constant cycle of protests and marches around London. Previously convicted activists showed up on convoys heading out to Syria, and from his new home in Syria, Omar Bakri claimed to have recruited innumerable young men to fight in the country.


From Hurst and Getty.

Whilst the stakes were raised abroad the threat in the UK seemed to have evolved. After the murder of Lee Rigby, authorities constantly kept people on edge. The government reacted in August 2014 and raised the threat level to ‘Severe’ – meaning ‘an attack is highly likely’ – but nothing seemed to materialize. In the wake of the Paris attacks in 2015, David Cameron announced an uplift in security agencies’ capacity, highlighting that the agencies had disrupted at least seven plots in the past six months, ‘albeit attacks planned on a smaller scale.’ Contrarily, right wing extremists began to slip through the security services net. A notable incident was the Ukrainian Pavlo Lapshyn’s one-man murder campaign in the West Midlands in 2013, in which he stabbed Mohammed Saleem in the street and targeted three mosques with bombs. This was succeeded by one of the most politically prominent actions of the far right during the run-up to the Brexit vote — the murder of Jo Cox by Tommy Mair as she attended MPs surgery in Birstall.

What exactly was going on was not clear, but it seemed as though the far right was a growing menace. In a piece of research by a consortium led by my think tank RUSI, we found that in the 14 years since the 11 September attacks, there have been as many extreme right-wing lone wolf terrorist incidents as there have been individual acts of terrorism driven by violent Islamist ideology. This is coupled with evidence of something more substantial and organized simmering as well. The rise of groups like the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First, both in part explicitly reacting to al-Muhajiroun’s loud and ugly protests, were one facet to this. On the continent in Europe, Anders Behring Breivik’s massacre of young political activists in Norway in July 2011 and the uncovering of the National Socialist Underground showed how the extreme right in Europe was not just organizing, but was also willing to use violence.


From Hurst and Getty

And then we had 2017. The year was off to a confusing start with the UK still reeling from Brexit, but in quick succession attacks came from both sides. The sequence of atrocities began one quiet morning in Westminster, followed by a concert in Manchesterstabbings on a busy Saturday night in London Bridge and a vehicle attack on worshippers outside the Finsbury Park mosque in London. The first still seems like an outlier, a loner not connected to any particular group. We still do not have the whole story of why Khalid Masood did what he did. But the others all touched directly on history: Salman Abedi, a child of LIFG-linked parents, and Khuram Butt with his long and public history with al-Muhajiroun. And while we still do not know exactly why Finsbury Park was targeted, the choice of the mosque where hook-handed Abu Hamza had led his acolytes gives us a connection to history that is unmistakable.

It has now been two decades since Omar Bakri established al-Muhajiroun in the UK. The days of seeing Omar as a clown have long passed, and doubtless he is not laughing from his cell in Lebanon. But the grim reality is of a threat that appears persistent, evolving and sparking counter action and response on the other side of the ideological equation. The government has launched another review of its counter-terrorism policy, seeing where there are gaps that need plugging or updating needs to be done. More attention is focused on the extreme right wing, though it remains something that is left to the police rather than intelligence agencies. But the reality is that they are addressing the same threat that has been managed for the past two decades. Incremental improvements are made in our response, some bad policies are binned, and some are steered off a path to violence, but it is not clear that we are materially eradicating the ideas and groups that are ultimately behind the violence on our streets.

But maybe this is what the end state of this conflict looks like. History tells us that on most political spectrums there is a radical edge, and some of those will turn to violence. Previously it was a struggle of the left and right, now the opposite ends appear to be the extreme right and violent Islamists. For societies stuck in the middle it seems imperative to ensure that we all come together and reject these extremes while also realizing that to some degree they are always likely to exist. Unfortunately, these are threats that we are going to have manage rather than eradicate.


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

New piece for the Lowy Institute of Australia’s Interpreter blog, drawing on a batch of Eurasian travel from the end of the year.

Central Asian connectivity: Going beyond China

Central Asia is experiencing a connectivity boom, with China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ the most dominant vision for the region. Yet this dominance has started to worry Central Asian powers, leading to the emergence of a new narrative – that of diversification. With China becoming the region’s most influential economic actor, steadily increasing its role in local security and politics, Central Asian powers are seeking to broaden their engagement and bring to life a long-advocated ‘multi-vector’ diplomatic approach.

I was fortunate enough to spend the end of last year travelling the Eurasian heartland, with stops in Ashgabat, Astana, Beijing and Islamabad. It was a variety of different trips, covering different projects, but one overriding message about China shone through at every stop: the expansion of Chinese investment into its immediate neighbourhood is having a game-changing impact on the ground. This is positive, but it is also worrying those on the ground and is changing the way that Beijing is thinking about its external investments.

Talk to any Central Asian foreign policy planner and you will almost invariably hear about a ‘multi-vector’ approach to foreign relations. Sitting at the centre of Halford Mackinder’s ‘World-Island’, Central Asians envisage themselves as commanding vast power from the heart of the Silk Road. Yet it’s not always clear the degree to which they actually control the options on the table before them, or whether these great powers move around them to their own tune. Nowhere is this balance highlighted more acutely than in regards to foreign investment. Ideally, Central Asian states would want a multitude of options on the table before them, but while their FDI figures are more diverse than is sometimes given credit for, it is clear that Chinese money is increasingly the principal source.

This is increasingly the story across Eurasia, where everyone is both clamouring for Chinese investment and finding themselves uncertain about relying too heavily on a single investor. In Beijing, officials at state policy banks and private companies worry about the countries they are investing in and the fact they do not know the environments, yet at the same time find themselves under great pressure to deliver on Xi Jinping’s vaunted ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ through commercially viable projects. This leads them to trying to puzzle out how to deliver these projects effectively and seek partners to share the burden.

For landlocked Central Asians, however, the story is a different one. Trapped by geography between a sanctioned Russia, a still-recovering Iran and the disputed Caspian, they are only able to find China as a substantial and long-term investor and partner. India has tried and thus far not delivered, and while they discuss with Pakistan, Europe, Korea and Japan, projects as big as China’s have been slow in arriving. In contrast, Beijing signs contracts and infrastructure appears.

But all are aware of the dangers of having a single customer. In Ashgabat, they link Turkmenistan’s most recent push on breaking ground with the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline and alternate energy partners to a sharp slowdown in Chinese interest in their gas, as China’s economy slowed down. In Astana, President Nursultan Nazarbayev links Kazakhstan’s Nurly Zhol (Shining Road) economic vision to the Chinese Silk Road Economic Belt, in that the local strategy is intended to build on the Chinese infrastructure, showing how they are making the Chinese investment work for them.

But they also discuss the many other partnerships they are developing. Kazakhstan is planning a consulate in Bandar Abbas, the Iranian port city that provides Central Asia a different route to international markets. This was reinforced in Astana, where senior officials spoke of ‘connectivity being the number one point for Kazakhstan’ and that the country ‘will look in any direction with no discrimination’. At the same time, according to the Kaznex Invest Chairman Borisbiy Zhangurazov, China is set to undertake around 50 investment projects in Kazakhstan worth more than $24 billion, an amount almost equal ($26 billion) to all US investment in the country in the past 10 years.

In Pakistan, people worry about the degree to which they are becoming dependent on Chinese loans. Figures published earlier this year indicate that in Q1 FY17, net loan and FDI inflows from China were $1.1 billion (of which $700 million was a loan). Total FDI inflow is down from $192 million a year ago to $91 million this year. Trends that worry people who on the ground express a high level of concern about the transparency of the projects being undertaken as part of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the excessive reliance on Chinese investment.

What is interesting about Pakistan, however, is that it is clear that China is finding itself mired in as many problems as others have previously experienced in the country. As a Dawn editorial flagged at the start of this year, ‘for China, the year 2016 was when the country began to discover the complexities of doing business in Pakistan’. Beijing’s answer is to encourage others to become involved to share the burden. Russia is seeking a role. The UK is interested (an idea my institute is currently working on). Other parts of the Belt and Road, such as Kazakhstan, are equally keen. During my recent visit to Astana, senior figures intimated they were contemplating even going so far as opening a consulate in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’s crown jewel, the port of Gwadar in Baluchistan.

Connectivity remains the keyword in Eurasian geopolitics. Talk of Silk Roads continue to dominate regional conversations. Yet diversification will be essential to realise the visions that are being advanced. It will only work if it is a collective project, something even Beijing appears to be beginning to consider as well.

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.

 

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 http://www.chinaincentralasia.com 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.

A brief post in the wake of Islam Karimov’s death in Beijing for the site I post everything China-Central Asia related. As ever, this is something I have a few bigger things in the pipeline about. Somewhat related, spoke to the Associated Press about the attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek, the Wall Street Journal about Anjem’s jailing, the Telegraph about the numbers of children being referred to Channel and Times about a new ISIS magazine.

Karimov’s Death Seen From Beijing

zhang-gaoli-karimov

Islam Karimov’s death is the realisation of a regional concern that many have long worried about: succession amongst leaders of the Central Asian states. The question of who comes next has been a persistent concern, particularly in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Beijing is not immune to these worrries. On every visit to Beijing in which Central Asia has been a focus of discussions, there have been inevitable conversations with Chinese Central Asia analysts who have been particularly perplexed about what might happen in a post-Karimov Uzbekistan. Yet, now that this scenario has arrived, China seems unperturbed and experts spoken to seem equally unconcerned. Seen from Beijing, Uzbekistan post-Karimov is a case of business as usual.

The biggest indicator of China’s reaction to Islam Karimov’s death is how the leadership responded to the news of his demise. It came at an awkward time for China, with Beijing policymakers and planners consumed with the preparations and meetings around the G20 Summit in Hangzhou. Consequently, the best that Xi Jinping could muster was a formal note through the MFA to acting President Nigmatilla Yuldoshev praising Karimov as ‘true friend’ to China. He later dispatched Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli to the funeral as his special envoy, while Prime Minister Li Keqiang paid his respects at the Uzbek Embassy in Beijing.


This set of moves could be read as dismissive, especially given the importance of respect in the Asian context. Zhang Gaoli is ultimately the seventh ranked member of seven within the Politburo Standing Committee. Therefore, in some ways, he was the most junior senior person Beijing could send. In contrast Tajik leader Rahmon, Afghan leader Ghani and Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev attended. If Beijing was to punch at this weight, then presumably Prime Minister Li Keqiang should have attended.

But at the same time, there are no other state funerals that China has reacted to in this way. The most recent possible comparison that comes to mind was the passing of Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, a leader who commanded such respect in life that he was able to muster meetings of the Politburo outside Beijing when he visited China. Yet when he passed away, Beijing sent Li Yuanchao. Like Zhang, Li Yuanchao was a Vice Premier, but only a member of the Politburo – a second tier of senior leadership made up of 25 of the most senior members of the Party. While important, Li is definitely junior to Zhang, a Standing Committee Politburo member – ie, one of Beijing’s most inner circle of seven who rule the country. Li, it is worth mentioning, appears to also have been Beijing’s representative at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, suggesting that he may be the unofficial Chinese representative to international state funerals.

Admittedly, this is a lot of ‘Pekinology’ tea-leaf reading. However, it does seem that Beijing’s leadership made some effort to show their respect to Uzbekistan in the wake of President Karimov’s passing, notwithstanding the fact that they were otherwise preoccupied with the world’s heads of state descending on Hangzhou for the G20 meeting.

Looking beyond this speculative analysis, there is further substance to Zhang Gaoli as the representative of China to Karimov’s funeral. As well as his role on the Standing Committee, Zhang is also head of the Leading Group for Advancing the Development of One Belt One Road, a group established in February 2015 which has been tasked with steering Xi Jinping’s great initiative across the Eurasian continent. Considering the importance of Uzbekistan within this context, it is possible that Zhang is in fact one of the more appropriate members to attend the funeral given the opportunity it also presented to interact with Uzbekistan’s likely new leadership. During his visit he – like the other eminent visitors who came to pay their respects – secured an audience with Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev in which they spoke about continuing ‘to promote the Belt and Road initiative, and enrich the connotations of their all-round strategic partnership by prioritizing economy, trade, energy, production capacity, traffic and security in bilateral cooperation.’

Interested to hear more about the broader context of Uzbek-China relations, I reached out to contacts in China working in the think tank and corporate sector about what they thought of Karimov’s passing. Professor Zhao Huasheng of Fudan University in Shanghai, one of the eminent dons of Central Asia research in China told me ‘I think it [Karimov’s passing] will have no significant impact on China-Uzbekistan relations, because there are no serious problems in bilateral relations. And there is no reason for the new leader not to maintain good relations with China. A peaceful and smooth transition of power is critical for stability in the country and for security in the region.’ The biggest prerequisite and issue on the table for Professor Zhao was that the country had a ‘peaceful and smooth transition of power.’ This view was confirmed by a couple of other Chinese experts spoken to, all of whom pointed to the fact that China’s pre-eminent concern was that Uzbekistan stayed on a stable trajectory. This in fact may have been the concern that had been expressed previously – with people worried that Karimov was the lid on a cauldron that might boil over without him, rather than the leader himself being the key lynchpin in the relationship.

There are in fact no indicators at the moment to suggest that the transition of power should be anything other than smooth, or that there will be an upending of Beijing and Tashkent’s warming relationship. While there has been some speculation that the likely successor (and now interim leader), PM Shavkat Mirziyoyev, may have an openness to a more productive and close relationship with Moscow than his predecessor, it is not clear this will come to China’s detriment. Mr Miriziyoyev has already established a relationship of sorts with President Xi as the individual who personally escorted President Xi Jinping to the airport when he visited Tashkent in June 2016, a visit during which President Xi was the first ever foreign leader to give a speech in the Oliy Majlis and the two leaders (President’s Xi and Karimov) together opened a railway line that China had helped build in the country.

Suffice to say all the indicators in China-Uzbek relations are positive (notwithstanding underlying concerns that are fairly common across the region towards the potentially overbearing nature of large Chinese investments), and it would be surprising if the new leader broke away from, or reversed, this relationship. Uzbekistan continues to want foreign investment, and China has proven a fairly reliable actor in this regard. While Moscow appears to be quite actively courting Tashkent in the wake of President Karimov’s death, Beijing is the one with the relationship on a steady upward trajectory. For Beijing, the priority remains that Uzbekistan stays stable and finds ways of incorporating and building into the ‘Belt and Road’ vision. Seen from Tashkent, there is no clear reason why this wouldn’t be a possibility.