Archive for the ‘PRESS’ Category

Have been slow in posting and also been slow in production of late. A few longer projects that have been working on which should land soon. And a few shorter ones which are just taking a while to land. For the time being, here is my latest for local newspaper the Straits Times, looking at China-Pakistan relations.

The rising costs of China’s Pakistan project

Last month, the obscure Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army (SRA) claimed a pair of attacks against Chinese businessmen going about their affairs in the Pakistani port city of Karachi. A bomb was detonated near a restaurateur, while a businessman and his interpreter were shot at as they looked around a car showroom.

The random attacks were not surprising, with the group being one of a number that have targeted the growing Chinese population in Pakistan, but the decision to attack so brazenly in Pakistan’s largest city showed the group’s growing ambition.

Touted as the jewel in the crown of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, Pakistan is increasingly emblematic of the problems China faces as it invests in its periphery.

Announced shortly before Mr Xi’s speech in September 2013, when he inaugurated the Belt and Road concept, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) was quickly wrapped into the broader concept and elevated within the broader vision.

The idea was to create a web of economic links, trade and projects between China and Pakistan that would build on the historical relationship between the “iron brothers”.

But this proximity has brought China problems in many different forms. There have been historical concerns of militant Uighurs using Pakistan as a base to target China, though these seem much reduced now. Currently, the most prominent, direct security threat is illustrated through the attacks on Chinese businessmen in Karachi. The growing Chinese footprint has created a new range of potential targets for local militants.

In some cases, the perpetrators are internationally minded terrorists affiliated with Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria who are eager to strike at foreigners to draw more attention to their cause.

LOCAL MILITANT ATTACKS

But more frequently, the danger in Pakistan comes from local separatist militants who are angry at the government, and see Chinese support as justification for targeting Chinese nationals.

The SRA is one such group. Focused on the liberation struggle of the Sindhi people, the group is active in the Sindh region of Pakistan where Karachi is located. Last July, the SRA announced a partnership with the Baloch Raji Ajoi Sangar, a grouping of organisations from neighbouring Baluchistan province.

Both the Baluchi and Sindhi groups have repeatedly targeted Chinese nationals and interests in the country – including, in the Baluchi group’s case, ambitious targets like the Chinese consulate in Karachi, the Karachi Stock Exchange, busloads of Chinese engineers and the Pearl Continental Hotel.

The attack on the hotel in May 2019 which left five people dead particularly highlighted local anger at Chinese investment. The hotel, which was established to cater to the business community that was expected to be drawn to the region, was built near the port in Gwadar, Baluchistan, a project that was first proposed during a 2001 visit to Pakistan by then Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji.

Between 2007 and 2013, the port was run by Singapore’s PSA Corp, though it relinquished the contract to a Chinese operator, having concluded that the security situation was too difficult.

Since then, the project has become the focus of discussion for armchair strategists who see it as a key point in an alternative route for Chinese access to the warm waters of the Gulf, bypassing the crowded Malacca Strait.

In reality, Gwadar is a huge underused port whose practical use is questionable even to Pakistan. Disconnected from major trading routes, adjacent to the already well-connected and thriving port of Karachi, Gwadar appears to be a white elephant, which China finds itself having to support nevertheless, given the investment and effort that has been put into it. The security situation has always been complicated, leading most recently to a discussion about trying to build a wall around the site.

These complications come not only from the fact that the much-discussed investment has not materialised in the way that was expected, but also from the fact that locals do not feel like they are getting any value from the port.

In fact, groups like the Baloch Raji Ajoi Sangar see the port as an expression of the predatory Pakistani state, supported by China, merely stealing from their territory once again.

Pakistan has long been aware of this security problem and has sought to address it through mobilising thousands of soldiers to protect Chinese nationals or projects within the country. Yet, this has not stopped repeated attacks and rising rhetoric from separatist groups in the country, making China an adversary on a par with the Pakistani state.

SUNK COSTS, RISING DEBTS

The clash is one that has become entangled with larger South Asian rows, with accusations that India is fuelling the separatists’ fight against China in Pakistan, further showing how Beijing is getting dragged into toxic local dynamics.

It is not the only way in which China now finds itself ever more deeply embroiled in Pakistan. Last month, as Pakistan faced a payments crisis after Saudi Arabia called in its debts, Beijing came to Islamabad’s rescue offering a US$1.5 billion (S$2 billion) extension to a currency swap deal. Pakistan was then able to use this to pay off the Saudi debt, but it merely strengthened China’s place as Pakistan’s largest creditor.

With reports of CPEC investments going into tens of billions of dollars, Beijing is finding itself holding large amounts of debt in a country struggling with payments and security issues.

Meanwhile, the pace of CPEC projects has slowed down, reflecting hesitation by companies as well as local managerial problems.

Furthermore, growing pressure from the United States on Pakistan has raised questions among some in Beijing about Islamabad’s commitment to the relationship, while escalating tensions with India have only made it harder to get Pakistan to focus on its immediate problems.

Part of Beijing’s answer came last October, when a new ambassador was deployed. He was not chosen from the cadre of officers from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs who are focused on South Asia, but was instead a party official from Guangxi. The decision reflects a desire by China to see a strong party hand steering the relationship forward on the ground.

The Pakistani side has reciprocated by growing the number of military officers in prominent roles managing the CPEC. Beijing has always preferred the reliability of the Pakistani military – often referred to as the backbone of the China-Pakistan relationship – to Islamabad’s feckless political class.

But the problem is that this places a massive infrastructural and economic undertaking on military officers. These are competent men in many ways, but not those usually responsible for complex economic projects.

And there is only so much soldiers can do even on security matters. On Jan 3, ISIS militants abducted and killed 11 Shi’ite coal miners in Quetta, capital of Baluchistan. Even though the Chinese were not the targets this time, the deadly attack has cast a further shadow and highlighted sectarian tensions in a Pakistani province where Chinese nationals and CPEC projects have been repeatedly targeted.

Another sign that relations between the “iron brothers” are not well: The annual bilateral meeting of the CPEC’s top decision-making body, the Joint Cooperation Committee (which brings together key Pakistani planners with their Chinese counterparts), has been postponed again after the last one in November 2019. Although the delays were initially attributed to Covid-19, the more recent setbacks are reportedly linked to disagreements over Chinese financing and delays in getting the special economic zones up and running.

Covid-19, however, did not appear to hinder China’s defence minister from visiting Pakistan last month to sign a memorandum of understanding between the two countries to counter a similar agreement signed between the US and India.

The CPEC is regularly referred to as the keynote project of the Belt and Road Initiative.

But as seen in the problems China is experiencing, it is shaping up to be a warning sign of what happens when Beijing invests heavily in countries with histories of ethnic and religious strife and insurgencies. Local corruption, instability and less-than-effective workforces can all create situations where large volumes of money get absorbed with little immediate return.

While this matters little in boom times, it becomes more questionable when budgets tighten. As Western countries have found, the expansion of one’s geopolitical footprint comes at a price.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and has a forthcoming book looking at China’s relations with Central Asia that draws on almost a decade’s worth of travel and research across the region.

An end of year piece (or beginning of the new decade depending on how you see things), this time projecting forwards looking at how conflict with China is likely to play out for a UK audience in the UK’s Sunday Times. Have a suspicion that this year is going to involve a lot of discussion around this, have a few events already planned which will touch on some of these issues. The newspaper also produced a great graphic to accompany the piece which is posted below and draws on Global Fire Power‘s data.

Beijing aims to avoid battle but win war with new dark arts

As Britain prepares to send the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Asia-Pacific region in a new year show of hard power, 2020 is ending with ringing warnings about the military threat that China presents to the world order.

Shortly before Christmas, the chiefs of the US navy, Marine Corps and coastguard pointed out that Beijing’s naval battle force was bigger than America’s (350 ships and submarines to the US Navy’s 293). The chief of the UK defence staff, General Sir Nick Carter, warned in sync with the Americans that the West needed a long-term strategy against Chinese expansionism.

Is China preparing for war? Not quite. The conflict is likely to be dominated by asymmetry, cyberweapons, clashes in third locations and economic sniping. As Carter explained, paraphrasing the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu: “Their goal is to win without going to war.”

China is aware of its hard-power limitations. While the military has been on a spending spree of dramatic proportions over the past few years, it remains a relatively weak power overall compared with its biggest rival, America. As a consequence, it has sought to harness opportunity where it sees over-reliance and weakness in its principal adversary.

The result is an army that is focused on diversionary conflict, trying to throw the US off balance. On the battlefield this means a focus on electronic warfare, satellites and disruption, making it hard for the highly advanced American fighting machine to talk to itself and deliver its shock and awe capability.Off the direct field of battle, it involves political meddling, using economic levers, and targeting American allies such as Australia in ways that undermine their links with America and create complicated situations that Washington will struggle to confront in classic deterrence terms. It is difficult to calibrate an appropriate response to economic sanctions against Australian wine producers.

This does not, however, mean that China has not also developed advanced weapons to place on the field of battle. The military has swarm drone technology that seeks to overwhelm adversaries with a confusing number of small, unmanned vehicles. Over a tense summer in which the US conducted exercises in the Pacific and a cabinet-level official visited Taiwan, China showcased its ability to conduct exercises simultaneously across its coasts.

It concluded this summer of tension by testing its DF-21D, the so-called “carrier killer” missile. According to a Chinese academic it also deployed microwave weapons to move Indian forces off rival mountaintops during their springtime clashes. China’s army is making sure that it is able to deliver on President Xi Jinping’s demand that it can “fight and win”.

But true to Sun’s maxims, the priority for China is the asymmetric conflict that avoids confrontation on the battlefield. While being ready for conflict and showing strength is important, it is clear that Beijing realises that a catastrophic global conflict would hurt China as well. Reliant on global trade and commerce, Beijing would worry about the consequences of a clash that brings the world’s economy shuddering to a stop.

Translated to the field of battle, this means confronting your enemies in indirect ways: targeting American allies in lieu of angering the US directly.

This means aggressive tariffs on Australian products alongside an escalating war of words played out over social media. It means kidnapping and holding hostage the Canadian consultants Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor as punishment for the detention by Canada of Meng Wanzhou, a senior Huawei executive, in response to an American arrest warrant. Or it means detaining or scaring off journalists from English-speaking publications based in Beijing; an action that is a net loss to both sides, depriving everyone of a key bridge in understanding between China and the world.

And then there is the new bombast of the Chinese foreign ministry. While it still talks of win-win and a harmonious world, it has increasingly taken a tabloid approach to delivering these messages.

Twitter has become populated by a growing number of Chinese diplomats and journalists who use their feeds to shout at and confront adversaries online. Look at the webpages of Chinese embassies, and it seems as though their priority is confrontation with America, rather than the priorities of the countries they are based in.

The UK has been fortunate to have avoided most of the direct fire. The clash over Huawei caused a lot of noise, but resulted in little response. Downing Street walked away from the company, notwithstanding all the menacing talk. Nor, aside from public declarations of anger, has Beijing responded directly to Britain’s criticism of its clampdown in Hong Kong.

When it does so, the response is unlikely to be a military. Rather, it will be a complicated web of pushing and pulling of levers that will hit the UK in different ways. It will materialise in pressure on countries with which the UK is seeking to develop stronger ties or with which it has strong links — in parts of Africa and south Asia in particular we are likely to see this sort of competition heating up.

China usually seems more eager to focus on the UK as a potential partner in these parts of the world, but it is hard to know how long this will last. China might start to try to push the UK out of some of these locations by forcing local leaders to make a choice between China or the UK. The trigger could be a decision by Beijing to more prominently associate the UK with America.

Beijing is also likely to seek to use the UK’s post-Brexit isolation from Europe as a fissure to apply more strategic economic pressure to persuade the UK to take its side on the world stage. Any tensions between London and Washington will be exploited in similar ways. Key trade restrictions may be applied, UK companies targeted for punishment or cyberinterference increased.

So far, none of this has taken place any more than usual, but these are the sorts of options that Beijing is more likely to turn to instead of open warfare.

These actions are ones that recognise that conflict is taking place against a backdrop of a world that continues to be deeply interconnected, meaning that the effort by Beijing (and Washington) will constantly be to keep the adversary on the back foot and off-balance, avoiding the catastrophic consequences of direct confrontation.

These are the choppy waters into which HMS Queen Elizabeth will be steering. A conflict that is neither black nor white, but is made up of moves and countermoves played out across a globe where no one really wants to have to choose sides, and no one really wants to fight.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies

Posting my latest piece for the South China Morning Post which seeks to push back on some of the latest narratives to emerge about the end or collapse of the Belt and Road Initiative. Am skeptical we have seen the end of it for various reasons. Am not very convinced by the title or image chosen by the editors to be honest, but cannot complain as the piece got some attention online and always enjoy publishing with the SCMP. A longer piece on BRI is coming out next month for those keen, and next year is going to be full of China-Central Asia material in the build up to the book coming out. As ever, welcome thoughts back.

As the face of China’s foreign policy, the belt and road will survive debt and coronavirus

An exhibitor sells goods at the “Belt and Road” exhibition area of the 17th China-Asean Expo in Nanning, Guangxi, on November 27. The belt and road is an idea rather than a project, and lends its name to multiple projects and events, even theme songs, cartoons, courses and think tanks. Photo: Xinhua

Having had such a catastrophic year, the world seems eager to turn the page and jettison what went before. Among the many victims of this purge appears to be the Belt and Road Initiative, which after some seven years of existence is reportedly winding down.

This premature dismissal is based on an interpretation of a vision as a project, and misses how embedded the belt and road is in Chinese foreign-policy thinking.

The belt and road draws on a long tradition of Silk Road conceptions linked to China. Clichés abound when one thinks back to Marco Polo, Matteo Ricci, the epic Battle of Talas in 751 or Ferdinand von Richthofen, who in 1877 coined the Silk Road phrasing after his travels through Asia.In contemporary Chinese parlance, the idea first came into focus under premier Li Peng, who in 1994 embarked on a tour of Central Asia in the wake of Deng Xiaoping’s historic “Southern Tour” that started China on its communist-capitalist path.

Li’s trip was intended to take place in 1993, though he was reportedly delayed by ill health. Also, the visit did not stop in every Central Asian capital: Tajikistan, in the midst of its brutal civil war, was given a miss. Security was a key aspect of Li’s trip, and requests for support in suppressing militant Uygur networks were made at most stops.But the visit was also framed around trade and connectivity, and reopening the Silk Road across the Eurasian continent to China.

Following the trip, Li hosted a conference in Beijing where he called for rail connectivity across the region. Around that time, Chinese officials also held discussions with Japanese officials and investors about building pipelines from Turkmenistan, across China, to the eastern seaboard from where the hydrocarbons could help fuel Japan’s booming economic growth.

The Silk Road routes at the time went across China, rather than from it. Looking in the other direction, premier Li also travelled to Europe seeking business links.

So when President Xi Jinping announced his own interpretation of the Silk Road in 2013, under the framing of the Belt and Road Initiative, he was treading on familiar territory – both practically, but also conceptually. It was about building links around the world, and reaching European markets.

But ultimately, the belt and road as articulated by Xi is to provide a vision for Chinese foreign policy. There are undoubtedly many individual projects under the broader umbrella, but they are specific items rather than a connected infrastructure plan.

When Xi announced the idea, it was not meant to be the inauguration of a single large infrastructure project, but rather to provide the great machine of China’s external-facing apparatus with a new driving vision. The idea was that, from now on, China would articulate its foreign policy identity on the world stage as one built around building things, connecting with people and countries, and together fostering prosperity.

That’s a fairly anodyne and positive foreign policy vision, and one that resonates with anyone who has listened to Chinese officials’ endless win-win rhetoric.

It built on the earlier steps that Xi and his predecessors had laid, not only in terms of using Silk Road terminology, but also in focusing first on China’s immediate periphery and helping focus domestic efforts of spreading prosperity to China’s historically poorer inner territories.

Jiang Zemin had his Great Western Development strategy, and Xi built on Peking University professor Wang Jisi’s call to “March West”. All of these are tied together and projected forward with the grandeur now appropriate for a China that was on its way to being the world’s second-largest economy. Thus was born the Belt and Road Initiative.

But the key is that this was an idea rather than a project. Many infrastructure projects and corridors were immediately attributed to it, but so were innumerable non-infrastructure-related projects. Theme songs, cartoons, cultural shows, think tanks, courses and more were thrown into the mix (alongside many non-infrastructure-related economic projects).There was a moment when you could not avoid the framing in every conversation you had in China. It was also enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party’s charter. Belt and road became a way of thought.

This is not only about Xi imprinting his ideas onto the nation’s history, but also creating a vision that is the central organising concept which will dominate Chinese foreign-policy thinking in the near and possibly far future.This is also why it is not something that can fail, end or be drawn to a close. Quite aside from it being linked to a supreme leader who will not brook failure, the vision has largely artificial and unclear deadlines. While China has put a date of 2049 on achieving the belt and road, what needs to be done by then is not specified.

And even if it was, it would be in typically vague terms, meaning that whatever result has been achieved could simply be drafted into whatever the new interpretation of the Belt and Road Initiative was. Goalposts on ideas can move if they are set loosely enough.

The belt and road as a foreign policy idea is unlikely to end as long as the current leader is in power. And if it looks like it is slowing down, the vision could be reinterpreted to suit. It was never about pure aid, and it was never a single project.

It is simply Xi’s vision for how China should talk about going out into the world. Phrased like this, it has no reason to ever be completed or resolved. Unlikely to die, it will simply continue to evolve.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

A longer piece for my current local newspaper the Straits Times on a topic that have been doing a lot of work on of late, China in Afghanistan. It has been something of a running theme for some time and this tries to focus the analysis specifically through the lens of the pending US withdrawal. When I started to first really dig into this topic in the early 2010s, the discussion was Obama’s potential withdrawal which seemed to accelerate Chinese thinking. This time, it does not seem to be having the same effect.

In addition, a quick media catch up. Spoke to the Financial Times in the wake of the Austria and France terror incidents (which was picked up in Croatian), to RFE/RL about Central Asian decisions to repatriate more of their people from the Syrian camps, and on the other side of the coin spoke to David Wertime for his excellent Politico China Watcher column.

Will China be better off as the US withdraws from Afghanistan?

A US Chinook helicopter flying over Kabul in 2017. Beijing may now be enjoying America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, but it is the one that is most likely to feel the longer-term repercussions, says the writer.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

China is enjoying the United States’ precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan. From Beijing’s perspective, America’s abrupt dash for the exit as the conflict continues to rage reinforces the argument that the US is an erratic and unreliable player on the world stage.

This glee, however, should be tempered by the fact that the trouble that is likely to follow America’s withdrawal is going to cause Beijing more trouble than the seemingly never-ending conflict which it has been able to observe from the sidelines.

In the short term, China has comfortably hedged itself against all direct threats from Afghanistan.

In the wake of declarations under the Obama administration that the US was going to withdraw from Afghanistan, China started a programme of investment into the military and border capabilities of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan, countries with which it shares the Wahkan Corridor, China’s direct border with Afghanistan.

It established a forward base for the People’s Armed Police in Tajikistan, as well as built a base for Afghan forces in Badakhshan, where in the first few years Chinese forces would also patrol. The Chinese also inaugurated a new regional multilateral structure, the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism, that brought together the chiefs of army staff of the countries with which it shared the Wakhan Corridor.

China also started to more openly cultivate its relations with all of the factions on the Afghan battlefield. Previously Beijing would rely on its “iron brother” Pakistan to facilitate contacts with the Taleban. This included visits to Kabul pre-2001 to meet Taleban leader Mullah Omar and offers by companies like Huawei to help build infrastructure in the country. But while this outreach was initially done behind the scenes, from 2014 onwards China started to openly host Taleban delegations in Urumqi and Beijing, while its special envoy for Afghanistan Sun Yuxi would help organise meetings involving Pakistan, Afghanistan, the US and China.

In addition, every senior visit by a Chinese official to Afghanistan was accompanied by photo calls with all of the major political leaders in the city. The result of all this engagement was statements by the Taleban that they would help protect Chinese infrastructure investments in the country, as well as regular support for Chinese perspectives by all factions in the Afghan government.

Neither side – Taleban or the Afghan government – said they would provide support for Uighur militant groups using Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks in China. In fact, both said they would actively eject such groups from their territory.

All of this has given Beijing the sense of having effectively shielded itself from the Afghan conflict. It has hardened its direct and indirect borders and has won friends across the board. Theoretically, China is well-placed no matter what happens in a post-America Afghanistan.

INDIA, U.S. AND THE UIGHURS

Yet this happy situation for China is now vulnerable to the broader tensions it has engendered through its recent aggressive foreign policy. Afghanistan used to shine for China as a place where it could cooperate with even its most difficult partners. During the Obama years, China and the US had developed a series of cooperative projects in Afghanistan, including a diplomat training programme which involved courses in Beijing and Washington. When President Xi Jinping and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi met first in Wuhan in April 2018 and then later near Chennai in October last year, they discussed Afghanistan as a place for cooperation, with infrastructure as a possible area of particular focus.

But the souring of ties with the US and India has largely put paid to these efforts. The Sino-US joint programme was suspended earlier in the year purportedly because of Covid-19 restrictions, but seems unlikely to start again. And anyway, any cooperative activity between the US and China in Afghanistan is going to be complicated by the fact that the US government made a decision in October this year to remove the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) from its list of terrorist organisations.

An organisation whose specific existence has long been disputed, ETIM is the catch-all term used by the Chinese authorities to describe Uighur militants. For years the US had acceded to the group’s inclusion on its list of banned terrorist groups, in part to ensure China’s support for Washington’s broader war against terrorism. But what Uighur militants do exist tend to use a different name, fighting in Afghanistan and Syria under the banner of the Turkestan Islamic Party. They talk about attacking China in their videos, and have historically claimed links to incidents in China (though the evidence of actual responsibility is limited).

Washington’s decision to remove ETIM from its list of proscribed groups hardens the rupture between China and Washington in Afghanistan. One of Beijing’s biggest stated concerns about Afghanistan is the possibility of Uighur militants operating as ETIM using the country as a staging point from which to attack China.

Yet now Washington does not even acknowledge that the organisation exists, meaning it formally disputes one of the fundamental reasons for Chinese engagement in Afghanistan. For the US to reverse this decision would require the State Department to push through legislation targeting Uighur militants at the same time as the entire US government is attacking China’s broader policy towards Uighurs through an escalating sanctions regime.

India’s position is less complicated, though it is unlikely that the government in Delhi will be very interested in engaging China over Afghanistan given current broader tensions as a result of the border clashes earlier this year.

The Taleban’s continued hostility towards India as well as Pakistan’s long shadow and close ties to China suggest it is unlikely that we will see cooperation between Delhi and Beijing soon. In fact, there are indications that we might even see the opposite.

BALUCHISTAN SEPARATISTS

One of the irritants that China has noticed over the past few years is the growing instances of violence by Baluchi separatist groups in Pakistan targeting Chinese projects in the country. These groups loudly tout their anger against Islamabad and Beijing, accusing them both of raping their land in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province while launching attacks on prominent targets linked to China such as a busload of Chinese engineers, or a hotel in Gwadar (the Pakistani port that is spoken of as the “jewel” of the wider China Pakistan Economic Corridor). They do this from bases in Afghanistan, particularly in Kandahar.

Pakistani, and increasingly Chinese, experts blame much of this Baluchi violence on Indians and their Afghan proxies. From their perspective, Delhi is playing an old game of manipulating militants based in Afghanistan against them. Place this activity alongside the American decision about ETIM, and it can look to Beijing like Afghanistan is becoming a place where two of its biggest adversaries are lining up to support anti-Chinese militant groups.

Whatever the merits of the accusations, the fact remains that Afghanistan’s geography and porous borders make it an inviting base from which militant fighters can strike at Pakistan and Xinjiang province.

TALEBAN PROMISES

China may draw comfort from Taleban statements about not supporting foreign militants in using their territory, but the Taleban’s history of reliability about such statements is quite thin.

Chinese officials and experts alike love to chuckle about how Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. They point to the futility of previous British, Russian and now American efforts to assert their might over the country. They would never be so silly as to get caught in that trap, they say.

Yet simply standing back is not going to make Afghanistan’s problems go away. China’s large mineral extraction projects in Afghanistan (a copper mine in Mes Aynak and an oilfield in the north) have not brought the Afghans the benefits hoped for. Beijing cannot but be on the watchout for its adversaries latching on to local disgruntlement against failed projects to stoke a bigger backlash.

China may not want to get dragged into Afghanistan’s troubles, but it may find itself unable to avoid them. Whether America completely withdraws or not, China will still be Afghanistan’s wealthiest neighbour with growing economic interests in every country that Afghanistan borders. Its concerns about domestic and regional threats from terrorism and instability have links into the country.

Beijing may now be enjoying America’s embarrassing withdrawal, but it is the one that is most likely to feel the longer-term repercussions.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and has a forthcoming book looking at China’s relations with Central Asia that draws on almost a decade’s worth of travel and research across the region.

Bringing myself up to date, this is an article to post a couple of interview pieces that were translated into other languages at request from foreign publications. First up (and the title of this post) was a short interview with La Razon from Spain about the recent French incidents. Below that is a short piece for Dunyo News in Uzbekistan about their President’s call for key regional CT/CVE events next year. In both cases, have posted the published version above, with the English that was submitted afterwards.

While am here, am also going to catch up on some media appearances. Spoke to Nikkei Asian Review about Kyrgyzstan-China after the trouble in Bishkek, the Telegraph about terrorism in the wake of the recent French attacks, to The National about one of the attacker’s Tunisian heritage, and then finally some comments I made a while ago about ‘jihadi cool’ were picked up after a play in Holland about one woman’s experiences in Syria came out, while The National ran quotes from an earlier interview about ISIS in Afghanistan.

“El objetivo de los yihadistas en Francia es atacar a símbolos del Estado”

Raffaello Pantucci, investigador sénior en el Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), analiza para La Razón la última ola de ataques islamistas en Francia

Esther S. Sieteiglesias

Última actualización:30-10-2020 | 07:41 H/Creada:30-10-2020 | 03:12 H

El terror se volvió a apoderar este jueves de las calles de Francia. Al grito de “Alá es grande”, un terrorista irrumpió en la basílica de Notre Dame en Niza y asesinó a tres personas. Además otro individuo fue abatido en Aviñón armado con un cuchillo con la intención de apuñalar a los viandantes.

Raffaello Pantucci, investigador sénior en el Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), analiza para LA RAZÓN esta última ola de ataques islamistas en Francia. “El país siempre ha sido visto como una de las naciones ‘cruzadas’ clave en el canon de la literatura e ideología islamistas violentas y, en consecuencia, es un objetivo”, asegura.

-¿Por qué Francia es nuevamente blanco de tres ataques terroristas diferentes? (Niza, Aviñón y Arabia Saudí)

-Lamentablemente, Francia ha sido durante mucho tiempo objetivo de violentos terroristas islamistas. Antes del 11 de septiembre, fueron el objetivo de grupos con vínculos con Argelia y Al Qaeda, después del 11-S sufrieron primero a manos de grupos vinculados a Al Qaeda y, más recientemente, a personas dirigidas o inspiradas por el Estado Islámico. El país siempre ha sido visto como una de las naciones “cruzadas” clave en el canon de la literatura e ideología islamistas violentas y, en consecuencia, es un objetivo. Lo que estamos viendo ahora es una continuación de la misma amenaza, que recientemente se ha puesto de relieve en el juicio contra los involucrados en el ataque de 2015 contra la revista satírica “Charlie Hebdo”.

-¿Cómo puede el presidente Emmanuel Macron luchar contra este tipo de “yihad low cost”? El arma es “solo” un cuchillo pero es muy letal …

-Uno de los problemas clave respecto a la amenaza terrorista a la que se enfrenta en este momento es que se está viendo un flujo constante de personas que se radicalizan rápidamente, sin ningún contacto obvio con extremistas y grupos conocidos, y están lanzando ataques que se inician por sí mismos utilizando herramientas que se puede encontrar en la casa de cualquiera. El tiempo que lleva pasar de la radicalización a la acción también se ha reducido. Todo esto significa que la amenaza se ha vuelto muy difícil de gestionar para los servicios de seguridad. Un mayor seguimiento de las comunidades en línea y la comprensión de la trayectoria desde la radicalización hasta la acción podrían ayudar, así como un mejor seguimiento de los objetivos potenciales y las personas vulnerables en momentos específicos que podrían ser de inspiración para los extremistas. Pero la triste verdad es que es probable que este sea un problema que solo se podrá manejar, en lugar de algo que se podrá erradicar.

-El hecho de que algunos líderes musulmanes estén atacando públicamente al presidente Macron y pidiendo un boicot a los productos franceses, ¿prende esta radicalización ya preocupante en Francia? ¿Están los ciudadanos franceses en peligro en el extranjero?

-Sí, los comentarios inútiles y de alguna manera hipócritas de algunos líderes extranjeros sobre Francia y algunas de las declaraciones del presidente Macron sin duda están provocando más problemas. El tema se está convirtiendo en un tema de conversación global, por lo que parece un momento importante de choque épico entre civilizaciones. En otras palabras, un momento en el que la gente debería actuar. Si bien los grupos organizados que pueden estar interesados en realizar ataques lo harán a su propio ritmo preestablecido, los individuos aislados o los individuos inspirados verán un momento como éste como propicio para hacer algo. En consecuencia, atacarán cualquier cosa francesa que encuentren. Desafortunadamente, esto podría incluir objetivos franceses aleatorios en todo el mundo.

-En las últimas semanas en Francia hemos visto un ataque contra las antiguas oficinas de “Charlie Hebdo” (libertad de prensa), un maestro (educación) y ahora una iglesia, (libertad de religión) … ¿Son estos los objetivos típicos de los yihadistas o alguien los ha liderado?

-Lamentablemente, hemos visto ataques contra todos estos objetivos por parte de terroristas en Francia (así como en otros países). Todos son símbolos del Estado y, en particular, el tipo de estado democrático occidental libre al que se oponen los yihadistas violentos. Desafortunadamente, son exactamente el tipo de lugar cotidiano al que los terroristas atacarán.

Original

In less than two weeks, why is France targeted again in three different terrorist attacks? (Nice, Avignon and Saudi Arabia) 

France has sadly long been a target of violent Islamist terrorists. Pre September 11, they were the targets of groups with links to Algeria and al Qaeda, post-September 11 they suffered first at the hands of al Qaeda linked groups and more recently people directed or inspired by ISIS. The country has always been seen as one of the key ‘crusader’ nations in the canon of violent Islamist literature and ideology, and consequently it is a target. What we are seeing now is a continuation of the same threat, which has recently been brought into particular focus by the trial against those involved in the 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo.  

How can president Emmanuel Macron fight this type of “low cost jihad”? The weapon is “only” a knife but it is very lethal. 

One of the key problems with the terrorist threat that is faced at the moment is that you are seeing a constant stream of individuals who are radicalising rapidly, without any obvious contacts with known extremists and groups, and are launching self-starting attacks using tools that can be found around anybody’s house. The time it takes to go from radicalising to action has also shrunk. All of this means that the threat has become a very difficult one for security services to manage. More monitoring of online communities and understanding the trajectory from radicalisation to action might help, as well as better monitoring of potential targets and vulnerable individuals at specific moments that might be inspirational to extremists. But the sad truth is that this is likely a problem that you will only ever be able to manage, rather than something that you will be able to eradicate. 

The fact that some Muslim leaders are publicly attacking president Macron and calling for a boycott to French products, does it ignite this already worrying radicalization in France? Are French citizens in danger abroad? 

Yes, the unhelpful and in some ways hypocritical commentary by some foreign leaders about France and some of President Macron’s statements are doubtless stirring trouble further. The issue is becoming a global talking point, making it seem like an important moment in an epic clash between civilizations. In other words a point in time that people should act. While organized groups who may be keen to do attacks will do it at their own pre-planned tempo, isolated individuals or inspired individuals will see a moment like this as a ripe one to do something. They will consequently lash out at whatever French thing they might find. This would unfortunately potentially include random French targets around the world. 

In the last month in France we have seen an attack against Charlie Hebdo (freedom of press) former offices, a teacher (education) and now a church, (Freedom of Religious). Are these typical jihadists targets or were they leaded/conducted/spotted by terrorist groups?  

We have unfortunately seen attacks on all of these targets before by terrorists in France (as well as other countries). They are all symbols of the state, and in particular the kind of free, western democratic state that violent jihadists object to. They are unfortunately exactly the sort of quotidian place that terrorists will target.

Взгляд из Великобритании: Предложение Президента Узбекистана о проведении конференции по Совместному плану действий – хорошая возможность для определения действий по эффективному решению проблемы радикализации в регионе

ЛОНДОН, 30 сентября. /ИА “Дунё”/. Ассоциированный исследователь Королевского объединенного института оборонных исследований (RUSI)  Рафаэлло Пантуччи (Великобритания) 

поделился с ИА «Дунё» своим мнением относительно выступления Президента Шавката Мирзиёева на 75-й сессии Генеральной Ассамблеи ООН:

–  Центральная Азия, которая на протяжение долгих лет сталкивается с проблемами терроризма и насильственного экстремизма, стала первым регионом в мире, принявшим Совместный план действий по реализации Глобальной контртеррористической стратегии ООН. Это выделило Центральную Азию как регион, который перешел от слов к действию в плане международного сотрудничества по противодействию угрозам международного терроризма. В данном контексте предложение Президента Шавката Мирзиёева, озвученное в ходе его последнего выступления на сессии Генассамблеи ООН, о проведении в следующем году в Ташкенте конференции по Совместному плану действий, принятому 10 лет назад, является хорошей возможностью для подведения итогов и определения дальнейших действий по эффективному решению проблемы радикализации в регионе.

Проблема терроризма и насильственного экстремизма в Центральной Азии продолжает существовать. И в чем-то она стала более сложной. На фоне продолжающегося сужения зоны боевых действий в Сирии и Ираке появилось мобильное сообщество обученных и радикальных людей, имеющих связи и присутствие по всему миру. Тысячи жителей Центральной Азии отправились воевать в Сирию и Ирак, противодействие созданным ими сетям потребует согласованных усилий. Страны Центральной Азии одними из первых репатриировали соотечественников из зоны конфликта, организовали их возвращение на родину и реализовали программы реинтеграции. Изучение опыта других и создание моделей, которые могут быть использованы, является важным вкладом региона в решение этой глобальной проблемы.

Использование криптовалют, онлайн-сбор средств и координация действий через Интернет, наряду с использованием зашифрованных мобильных приложений для планирования и вербовки, создали сложный набор проблем, решение которых требует более тесного сотрудничества.

И, наконец, долгосрочный ответ на вызовы, связанные с радикализацией и экстремизмом, можно найти только путем устранения фундаментальных дисбалансов и напряженности, существующих в обществах. Поэтому проведение крупного саммита в Ташкенте через десять лет после принятия Совместного плана действий для Центральной Азии является хорошей возможностью, чтобы оценить и лучше понять, что сработало, что еще требует доработки, а также как регион может лучше коллективно решать сложную проблему терроризма и насильственного экстремизма.

Original

Central Asia has long faced problems associated with terrorism and violent extremism, and was the first region to decide to bind together to adopt a Joint Action Plan for the region to implement the UN’s Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. This set the region apart as one that was keen to turn talk into action in terms of using international cooperation to deal with the threats from international terrorism. Ten years on from the announcement to adopt the Joint Action Plan, a stocktake conference in Tashkent as proposed by President Mirziyoyev in his address to the UN GA is a welcome opportunity to evaluate success and see what further actions need to be taken to ensure the problems of radicalisation are effectively addressed across the region. 

The problem of terrorism and violent extremism in Central Asia remain. And in some ways have become more complicated. With the continuing dissolution of the battlefield in Syria and Iraq, a mobile community of trained and violent individuals now exists with links and footprints around the world. Thousands of Central Asians went to fight in the country, the networks they have created will require coordinated efforts to counter. Central Asian countries have led the way in repatriating some of those captured on the battlefield, ensuring programmes are in place to manage their return and reintegration. Learning from each other’s experiences, and providing models that others can emulate is an important contribution by the region to dealing with a global problem. 

The threat from Central Asian terrorists has also become more complicated. Growing numbers are emerging in plots around the world, while the internet and social media have created a new set of problems. Use of cryptocurrencies, online fund raising and coordination, alongside the use of encrypted applications to plot and recruit has created a thorny set of issues where greater cooperation is important. 

And finally, the long-term answer to dealing with the problems around radicalisation and extremism is only going to be found in addressing the fundamental imbalances and tensions that exist within societies. These are the key issues which will deal with the problems of violent extremism and terrorism. Holding a major summit in Tashkent ten years since the decision to establish a Joint Action plan for Central Asia is an excellent opportunity to understand better what has worked, what needs refining and how the region can better collectively address the complicated issue of terrorism and violent extremism. 

Another piece for Prospect on a topic which am doing a bunch of work on, the impact of COVID-19 on terrorism and violent extremism. Am in the midst of a number of projects on the topic which should hopefully result in some interesting findings. But at the moment, much of the evidence base is anecdotal. Here I sketch out some of the evidence that I have seen in the UK context in particular.

How the pandemic is making extremism worse

More time spent locked down and online is allowing people to seek out chilling ideas – and act violently on them

by Raffaello Pantucci / October 28, 2020

Forensic officers at the scene in West George Street, Glasgow, where Badreddin Abadlla Adam, 28, from Sudan stabbed six people in June 2020. Credit: Andrew Milligan/PA Images

In late March, as Covid-19 was spreading, probation officers in London took part in a phone call with one of their charges. A troubled young man, part of the extremist Al-Muhajiroun community, he had been repeatedly arrested. His latest round of probation followed his conviction for putting up anti-Semitic posters outside synagogues in north-east London. Talking to his case officers, he expressed frustration at his situation. He had been unable to work due to lockdown and as a result was spending more time online. Already paranoid and angry, his time locked down was only fuelling his rage. A week later, he was re-arrested on charges of disseminating extremist material.

The case is unfortunately not atypical of what has been happening during the pandemic. The repeated lockdowns have meant we are all spending more time at home and online. This has meant a surge in all sorts of online activity—including radicalisation.

The degree to which online activity is a driver of radicalisation is a complicated question. Studies used to show that online activity is often driven by—or conducted in parallel to—offline activity. People will look at material online, but when they consider acting on their beliefs will often seek real-life contact with others. But this balance has been shifting. In the past few years there has been a growing number of cases featuring individuals who had limited or no physical contact with other extremists before deciding to act. Some of these are very young people, often with obsessive personalities, for whom the internet is a deeply captivating place.

The problem is made worse during lockdown. Enforced unemployment (or home schooling) mean that we turning to our electronic devices for longer periods of time. For those curious about extremism, this provides an opportunity to explore chilling ideas. In June, after being alerted by the child’s parents, police arrested a teenager who appeared to be making bottle bombs at home. He had recorded videos in which he claimed to want to become a martyr, and praised Islamic State. He had reportedly converted to Islam, though exactly when this had happened was unclear. What was clear from his internet search history was that he had embraced ever-more extreme ideas during lockdown.

In the end, he was cleared of the charges pressed against him—but the details of the case remain undisputed. He had made videos and attempted bottle bombs. What was unclear was whether he intended to actually carry out violent attacks. His case, however, breathed life into concerns articulated by National Prevent lead Nik Adams, who told the press: “My fear is that people have got more opportunity to spend more time in closed echo chambers and online chat forums that reinforce the false narratives, hatred, fear and confusion that could have a radicalising effect.”

His concerns referred not only to violent Islamists, but also to the growth in conspiracy theories online and the proliferation of obsessive ideas which seem to bleed into extremist narratives—like 5G causing Covid-19 and masks and vaccines being dangerous. Also alarming has been the growth of QAnon (an online conspiracy theory built around the idea that President Trump is fighting a deep state made up of paedophilic vampires) and the Incel phenomenon (made up of involuntary celibates—an online community of men angry at their rejection by women). Both QAnon and Incels have generated terrorist violence in North America.

By late April, the police had signalled their concern that Prevent referrals had dropped by 50 per cent during lockdown. Prevent relies on referrals from communities to identify potential cases of extremism. Lockdown made such engagement impossible.

Other aspects of counter-terrorism efforts have also been impacted by the virus. New MI5 chief Ken McCallum said his service had found it harder to discreetly tail suspects around empty city streets. Social media companies have found themselves relying more on algorithms to take down questionable posts—unable to deploy the manpower usually available due to restrictions around people going to workplaces to double check they are catching inappropriate material.

But the police’s biggest concern is the emotional tensions being bottled up during Covid-19. In the wake of a random set of stabbings in Birmingham in early September, West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson said “The amount of violence that is happening is actually very, very disturbing.” But he spoke of his lack of surprise: “I have been saying for some time, in the context of Covid-19, that a lot of the feelings people have and not being able to get out, and combine that with people who are now unsure about their future and their jobs, it was almost inevitable that we would see a growth in violence.”

The incident followed a pair of similar mass stabbings in June. As the UK started to lift restrictions, two troubled individuals launched attacks in Reading and Glasgow, murdering three and injuring nine. The Reading case is currently working its way through the legal system, but the incident in Glasgow was carried out by an asylum seeker who seemed to have cracked under the pressure of being moved into highly restrictive hotel accommodation as a result of Covid.

None of these were ultimately prosecuted as terrorism (and in the Glasgow case the perpetrator was killed by police). But they looked like—and were initially speculated to be—terrorist incidents. We have grown accustomed to terrorists seeking to stab random members of the public. But here we had three mass attacks (which included at least one perpetrator who had been on the security services’ radar for potential terrorism concerns) arising after lockdown relaxed. The causal link is impossible to draw definitively, but it seems hard not to see a connection.

We are still in the midst of Covid-19. This makes it impossible to know exactly what its impact will be on terrorism. But all of the indicators are that it is unlikely to make the problem—and the related phenomena of random mass violence—any better.

Been doing a bunch of media around the terrible attacks in France. Tensions seem very high in and around the country at the moment, depressing how these cycles never seem to end. Ahead of the upcoming US election, however, wrote this short piece for my local paper the Straits Times looking at the potential for domestic terrorism in the US and drawing the narrative of this threat back in American history.

In the US, terror is increasingly coming from inside the country

US President Donald Trump has consistently baited the extreme right wing during his presidency. From retweeting extreme right material to refusing to condemn groups during presidential debates, the concern is that by election time he will have unleashed a wave of uncontrollable anger that will result in mass civil unrest.

This is unlikely, but it is equally likely that no matter the outcome of the election, violence of some sort will follow.

The stage has been set for the continuation of a persistent problem in America that will continue to cloud and confuse the political debate and sadly result in domestic terrorism.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

The attack, which killed 168 people and injured almost 700, remains the worse incidence of domestic terrorism the United States has seen.

The perpetrator of the attack, Timothy McVeigh, was an unrepentant member of the Patriot movement who feared an oppressive government was going to take away people’s guns as a first step towards a tyranny.

He saw his fears realised in a series of incidents in the 1990s when the government used violence against individuals he believed were simply trying to live lives away from the federal government.

His strain of libertarianism is not new to the American political discourse. Founded by men and women who carved out their piece of territory in the Wild West, the US has always seen itself as a frontier nation peopled by rugged and independent individuals.

This has fostered a national spirit founded on the importance of independence of mind, body and spirit – rejecting central control and fearful of anything that impedes human development.

This in part helps explain the endless optimism and opportunity that characterises America. However, it has also meant the existence of a deep tension in some parts of American society.

Some take these basic societal principles to the extreme. These are people who reject government, and believe lives should be lived independently away from strong central authority.

They reject taxes, rules around education and other strictures imposed by the government. Those eager to live off the grid are often ardent supporters of gun ownership rights and, more often than not, tend towards Republican politics, if they believe in the party system.

The Patriot movement that McVeigh emerged from was one that was closely linked with various Christian religious groups and militias that exist in America’s remote areas.

These communities seek to live self-sufficient lives out of government control, though sometimes ending up making choices which breach the laws of the land.

This leads to clashes and confrontations with the state, most often law enforcement at a local and federal level.

With McVeigh’s atrocity, much greater attention was placed on these groups and communities, leading to a reduction in their capability and a number of disruptions.

But the problem of terrorism for US law enforcement was upended by the events of Sept 11, 2001, which refocused attention on the danger of external threats.

The internal threats, however, never went away, and the Patriot movement, militias and various extreme right-wing groups continued to fester.

In the mid-2010s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation highlighted its growing concerns about the sovereign citizen movement, members of which believe they get to decide which laws to obey and which to ignore, and think they should not have to pay taxes. The group had developed alongside the Patriot milieu and sought to use violence in some cases to separate themselves from the federal government. They were part of a broader community that has long existed but often felt marginalised.

The Trump administration has been a boon to such groups. Already ascendant prior to his arrival, his polarising form of politics has merely served to strengthen their sense of conflict within the country, for which they need to prepare.

This has fostered the more public emergence of a range of groups that have long existed in various forms – from armed militias around the country such as the Wolverine Watchmen, who were planning to kidnap Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer; groups like the Boogaloo Bois, whose aims are confused but talk often of provoking a second Civil War; the Proud Boys, who see themselves as fighters against left-wing extremists; the Oath Keepers, made up mostly of former and current servicemen and police officers who believe the government is failing; to a whole range of violent extreme-right groups who barely hide their xenophobic beliefs.

The dilemma is what will happen after election day. Unfortunately, it is unlikely any good will follow.

If President Trump wins, such groups will likely feel emboldened. Their sense of impending conflict will be fuelled by the fact he is likely to continue to see his polarising politics as an effective way to govern.

The likely backlash from the left and others angry at Mr Trump’s re-election will only feed their sense of a civil war within the country.

Should his Democratic challenger Joe Biden win, doubtless they will see an election stolen. President Trump’s repeated comments and tweets raising questions about mail-in voting and election rigging have set the tone. His loss will likely speed them on their confrontational path towards violence.

Mr Trump may not be the creator of these groups, but he is providing substantial succour to them. And whether he wins or loses, they will continue to exist.

This is not a guarantee there will be violence on election day – though given tensions it would not be surprising – but it does mean that the problem of an extreme right and libertarian violence will persist in America after election day no matter who wins.

The problem predates Mr Trump and speaks to something deep in some parts of the American psyche.

Sadly, neither a President Trump nor a President Biden will be a salve to soothe this.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

A short piece for the South China Morning Post which did not quite land as was intended. Oh well. More to come on China in Eurasia – book now going through second round of edits.

Why China playing bystander to the trouble in Eurasia is not ideal

  • Beijing’s reluctance to get involved in the unrest in Belarus, Nagorno-Karabakh and Kyrgyzstan is in line with its traditional attitude towards conflicts that do not impinge on its own security
  • However, given Beijing’s growing global influence, its disinterested posture muddies the waters for others trying to resolve unrest

Beijing has yet to articulate much by way of major policy initiatives on the trouble in its Eurasian backyard – in BelarusNagorno-Karabakh and Kyrgyzstan. Is China’s decision to wait and watch as the chaos unfolds a conscious reflection of the power it wants to be, or acknowledgement of the fact that it has little to offer and no idea what to do?

The question of whether China should have a view on all of this instability is a reflection of its place in the world today.

On the face of it, the question seems to be merely a banal reflection of the China hysteria that has engulfed the world. However, given that China is the world’s second-largest economy and is vying for a place at the top table, the question is increasingly relevant, especially since the affected countries have often expressed a desire to engage with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.

In reality, China’s trade with these countries is quite limited. While Beijing is often the fastest-growing trade partner or investor, the money involved is fairly small. Of all of the countries in trouble in Eurasia, Kyrgyzstan is of greatest concern to Beijing. But this is not particularly because of trade or investment, but rather because it sits on China’s border, has a substantial Chinese diaspora and an ethnic Uygur population.

All of the countries in question are former members of the Soviet Union. Perhaps China sees this as a Russian problem, up to Moscow to manage through the sphere of influence it inherited and continues to exert influence over. Yet, China has not always appreciated how Russia has handled such problems in the past.

While with both Georgia and Ukraine, Beijing – like Moscow – was worried about the spread of “colour revolutions”, China was not happy with how the situations ultimately played out, perturbed by Russia’s redrawing of international borders and using minority populations as an excuse for interference.

Yet, Beijing did not articulate its concerns loudly, instead letting Moscow have its way. While this could be what we are seeing play out once again here, it goes against the vision of China as an increasingly influential power on the world stage, something Xi has sought to foster.

The truth is that China is a disinterested international power. Its interests outside are only relevant insomuch as they impact China directly, and more specifically, the Communist Party’s rule. Consequently, countries of marginal economic interest and little geostrategic importance can be left to their own devices, or to others. When China does have a direct interest in parts of Eurasia, it can and does focus its efforts.

For example, Beijing has helped Tajikistan strengthen its borders with Afghanistan, and also developed strong assets and links to the security forces in Kyrgyzstan. This was done, not as part of a geostrategic competition with Russia, but rather to address a security issue of direct interest to China.

It is also not clear that China would know what to do even if it could. Beijing has a limited track record of bringing warring factions to the table or of getting political factions within a country to stand down. China prefers the stability offered by strongman leaders, preferably ones in uniform, but will just as happily work with whoever comes to power.

The case of Egypt is instructive – China seamlessly maintained links through the collapse of the Mubarak and Mursi governments, and still maintains good relations with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Kyrgyzstan, witnessing its third chaotic transfer of power in 15 years, is a textbook case for Chinese strategists of the dangers of letting democracy run wild.

Non-interference plays into China’s persistent foreign policy credo. In refusing to get involved, but offering a hand of engagement to whoever comes out on top, China’s message is that it is letting each country have its own history and is not meddling, in contrast to the American-led West.

But this posture is at odds with China’s growing investments and economic footprint globally. Conflicts are infrequently bound by borders. While China may sit loftily above conflict, others do not, all of which creates instability and economic damage.

While an overly activist Beijing is a source of concern, China the disinterested superpower is not necessarily a good thing. Given China’s position on the world stage and economic clout, it is carving out a position for itself in most capitals. When chaos breaks out, people look to understand Beijing’s view and need to keep it in mind when making decisions. If China is inactive, it leaves a potential spoiler which could stymie efforts by others to bring resolution.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

As ever, have let a lot of time pass since my last posting, but have not been delinquent in my writing. Am struggling with some longer pieces, this time of enforced immobility has been of mixed usefulness in being productive in this regard. In any case, first up another short piece for the South China Morning Post, this time looking at the China-India clash which has not resolved itself but seems to be settling in to a higher level of tensions as the norm.

Crumbling China-India relations suggests escalation will continue

China has never taken India seriously, while New Delhi has never made a clear choice about what it wants from relations with Beijing. The possibility of miscalculation is growing

China and India continue to talk past each other. China still does not regard India as a serious power, while New Delhi is prodding Beijing in areas of great sensitivity.

Security planners on both sides appear willing to accept higher tensions in their bilateral relationship, but the clash in the Galwan Valley shows this can get out of hand. The space between escalation and miscalculation is closing, and a dangerous new normal is establishing itself across the Himalayas.

China has never taken India seriously. This irritates New Delhi, which can feel Beijing’s condescension. China has also increased activity around India without considering what that looks like to its neighbour. With growing Chinese economic and security activities in almost every country around India, it is no wonder New Delhi sees what looks like encirclement.

India, on the other hand, has continually hedged and never defined what it wants from its relationship with China. In some contexts, its choices speak to a desire for close engagement – from entering the BRICS bloc, the Russian-India-China grouping or the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s love-in meetings with President Xi Jinping.

At an economic level, Delhi has welcomed some Chinese investment. It tried to engage with parts of China’s Belt and Road Initiative it liked, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor.

At the same time, India has bristled at China’s close relationship with Pakistan, sought a closer strategic relationship with the United States and other Chinese adversaries and tried to limit some Chinese investment in the country. The global backlash against TikTok first emerged in India, which accounts for a huge part of the application’s users.

The two Asian giants bump into each other across the Himalayas, where they share an unclear border. Both claim they want to resolve this, yet little movement has been achieved. This border has become the focus of the current clash in which soldiers on both sides have died and no clear resolution appears likely any time soon.

Rather, the discussion now appears to be an acceptance of higher tensions across this disputed border, with both finding ways of strengthening their position and jostling against the other. The tensions have moved into every other part of their bilateral relationship.

The result has been a confused emboldening by Delhi. Planners talk about how things cannot go back to normal with Beijing, but it is not always clear where they want them to go. Economic resistance to China is tempered by reality, while there is a clear limit Delhi sets to the other alliances it wants to forge against China. It wants confrontation with Beijing, but maybe not as aggressively as Washington is pushing.

Worryingly, Delhi has injected Tibet into the narrative. The press is full of stories of Tibetan soldiers in the Indian armed forces. The death of one Special Frontier Force officer, Tenzin Nyima, in an explosion near Pangong Tso turned into a major news story following leaks in the Indian press about the unit. A political leader in Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, Ram Madhav, attended and tweeted about the funeral.

All of this led to more posturing by Beijing. Official media reports ever grander military statements and exercises in the region near the border with India. Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokespeople continue to reject any Indian claims while calling their own bellicose posturing merely routine behaviour.

From Beijing’s perspective, the confrontation with India is being manipulated by Washington. Rather than treat Delhi as a direct competitor with agency, it sees India being pushed towards such action by the United States.

The result is a repeat of a continued Chinese position on India – one of faint derision. Beijing does not take India seriously but rather sees it as acting at others’ behest.

This means Beijing does not seriously engage with Indian concerns while overlooking the provenance of potential threats. Now that Beijing has created a new context of tension on its border with India, it will not back down – especially as it does not think India is doing this on its own behalf.

It seems unlikely tensions will escalate into nuclear conflict. However, India playing the Tibet card prods Beijing in a very sensitive place. Meanwhile, China’s refusal to take India seriously exacerbates Delhi’s sense of needing to do more to get China’s attention.

The space for miscalculation is growing, and both are increasingly doing things to the other in a way in which they are more likely to misjudge reactions. This fisticuffs over the Himalayas has the potential to escalate further.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

Finally, in my latest catch-up, a piece for my new local paper the Straits Times, this time exploring the phenomenon of QAnon and its straying back and forth across the line between terrorism and politics.

Am also taking advantage of this opportunity to do a catch up media posting. On the terrorism side of the coin, spoke to the Mail on Sunday about the reported death in a new book of al Muhajiroun leader Siddartha Dhar fighting with ISIS in Syria, to the Telegraph about the situation of the women and children in the Kurdish camps in Syria which was picked up by Arab News, and my interview for CTC Sentinel with Gilles de Kerchove was picked up by the UK’s Independent and their sister paper in Ireland. On the other side of the coin, spoke to CNBC18 in India ahead of the EU-China Summit, to the South China Morning Post about Mongolia and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and separately the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Reasons for the Rise and Rise of QAnon

Screen Shot 2020-09-21 at 05.52.26

How did an online conspiracy theory become so strong that it is influencing the politics of the party ruling the world’s most powerful country while inspiring terrorists at the same time’

The rise of QAnon – an online conspiracy theory that has the trappings of a religious cult – is reflective of broader trends in society, notably how technology is blunting our ability to know what is real while driving existing tendencies for politics to head into ever more extreme directions.

QAnon seems an improbable platform for political office.

It claims, among other things, that a powerful cabal of paedophiles and cannibals within the “deep state” is engaged in a global fight to take down US President Donald Trump.

No one knows who Q is (hence the Anon tag) but his (or her) cryptic messages have led to actions that are sufficiently worrying for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to flag QAnon as a potential domestic terror threat.

The movement has not merely survived its infamous early fiasco (involving a gunman attacking a Washington pizza outlet in the belief that it was a front for a Hillary Clinton-run paedophile ring) but has thrived.

QAnon has increasingly grown in popularity in Republican political circles, with several supporters winning recent congressional primaries. One of them, Ms Marjorie Taylor Greene, is likely to land a seat in the House of Representatives.

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Reddit have shut down numerous QAnon accounts and communities, Republican politicians have voiced misgivings – Senator Lindsey Graham has called it “batsh*t crazy” – but notably Mr Trump has seemed to welcome its supporters, claiming that they “like me very much” and “love America”.

QAnon’s success comes from a strangely modern brew.

It lacks a leadership, beyond an imagined one online (in which Mr Trump is an unknowing leader and anonymous individuals working within the government are leaking information to the world), but this almost complete lack of structure helps explain why a series of online posts has become a movement that encompasses everything from domestic terrorists to people running for Congress.

To be sure, openness at an ideological level is not unique to QAnon. Most movements are inherently evangelical.

If you are advancing a world-transforming idea, you are usually seeking adherents or followers. This requires an ability to broadcast and a method by which people can join and participate.

But the point at which they move from becoming merely a listener to being a more active member is the point at which a barrier usually needs to exist.

Here, a comparison with violent Islamist groups can offer insights.

For groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the ideas can initially be found online or at public gatherings where preachers speak or teach. This provides an initial point of contact which the individual can then follow up and, if he is assiduous enough, eventually leads to his recruitment after some “vetting”.

QAnon is different. Rather than being a structured organisation that has individuals who control entry, QAnon provides access online through discussion forums such as 4chan and 8chan where ideas and conspiracy theories can be followed and developed.

More active adherents produce documentary films or write long articles which expound and explain links to others.

But the fundamental ideas are out there for anyone to find.

And similar to those of other such movements, they offer an answer.

But unlike ideologies with a core text which requires interpretation by trained subject matter experts, here the core text is one that is self-assembled, drawing on the limitless volume of information that exists in our online world.

The core ideas of QAnon – that the world is ruled by a dark cabal which Mr Trump is fighting – are perennial, but how you get to them and where you see the links are up to the individual and his own interpretation.

The ideology becomes one that you partially assemble yourself. This gives the ideas greater salience and strength for the individual, helping to explain the appeal.

As Q followers say: “Do your own research, make up your own mind.”

The idea that humans need an explanation for how the world works is not new.

In dark and confusing times, people will regularly turn to more extreme explanations and strong messengers.

We are living through a moment of great political disruption alongside an explosion in information and disinformation. Certainties no longer exist.

Deepfakes mean that even moving images can be credibly altered. We struggle to know what we know and what we do not know.

The one certainty many people seem to have is that the world is getting worse and entropic forces are taking us down towards some catastrophic end.

Messianic or demagogic leadership becomes important at a moment like this as it appears to provide clarity amid confusion.

Problematically, QAnon’s leader is the ether.

Unlike ISIS, JI or Al-Qaeda in their heyday with clear hierarchies, plans and direction which their followers were steered towards, QAnon offers an idea and sense of belonging to an entirely leaderless organisation.

This makes the tipping point to violence much harder to identify, as it is located within each individual rather than the organisation itself.

QAnon offers itself as an idea that adherents can build themselves.

Some individuals get so worked up they end up like the Illinois woman who threatened to kill Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden over claims of sex trafficking.

Others organise, either by running for public office or taking part in a pro-police protest in Portland, Oregon.

Many are content amplifying the elliptical messages online and, at Trump rallies, flashing symbols and slogans.

Being such a broad-spectrum, DIY movement, QAnon is able to embrace both the mainstream and the extreme.

It also helps explain why the FBI can identify it as a source of concern while numerous Republican party members can run on campaigns that openly reference it.

It is also why it will be impossible to eradicate. Scattered online, it is unlikely to go away until something else comes along and replaces it.

Humankind is always seeking leadership and explanation, and QAnon offers both in an almost limitless, crowdsourced and reinterpretable form.

It provides a haven for those angry at the world who can interpret it as a rationale for going towards violence, while it also creates a large enough community that is attractive to politicians seeking supporters.

QAnon is a cult for our troubled times, bringing religion, explanation, leadership and identity to its followers at the same time.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior visiting fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.