Archive for the ‘PRESS’ Category

Up next another China piece, this time for the South China Morning Post looking at the Belt and Road in the wake of Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar.

Is China getting real with its grandiose visions for the belt and road?

  • Beijing is toning down its rhetoric for the grand plan and rethinking its massive international infrastructure programme, Raffaello Pantucci writes
  • Signs of a more modest approach from Xi Jinping’s trip to Myanmar when there was little official mention of an economic corridor involving the two countries
Topic |   Belt and Road Initiative

Absent from almost all of the official coverage around Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Myanmar was any mention of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC).

A belt and road route before the Belt and Road Initiative existed, the corridor was a concept first mooted in the late 1990s but has largely gone nowhere. The bigger question this poses is whether this is a harbinger of China shedding its grander overambitious belt and road visions over the next decade for a more focused and logical set of bilateral engagements.

Certainly there has been a toning down of rhetoric around the belt and road, an infrastructure vision to link economies into a China-centred trading network. While it remains a hot topic in Beijing and a sure-fire way for leaders of other countries to be seen to be aligning themselves with China, its scattered record of success has meant there has been rethinking about how this grand concept will continue to fit into Beijing’s foreign policy repertoire. It continues to be a convenient tag for Chinese diplomats to use given its broad and positive conceptual basis but, it is not clear that China wants to continue to talk in the expansive corridor terms that it used to.

The result has been that while the initiative continues to feature in the public discourse, there has been a refocusing of attention around it. Rather than talk in terms that are almost impossible to deliver to or fail to deliver with the rapidity that might be hoped, the focus of the next stage of the narrative around belt and road will be to focus on the bilateral. Rather than China painting itself as the global regional connector, Beijing will scale back its ambition to focus on delivering direct connectivity to China in the first instance, with everything else coming in the future.

The logic of this from Beijing’s perspective makes sense: why go to the expense and effort of pushing your resources in directions whose direct benefit to China is limited or on a very long time horizon? Better instead to focus on things that are tangible and immediate and provide China with clear connectivity that it can show results at home for.

It will also help address some of the belt and road pushback that Beijing has faced globally, where the initiative is referred to as “debt trap” diplomacy, and an attempt by China to reshape global economic geography around its interests while creating a list of client states.

Not only has the volume of recipient countries complaining been growing, but foreign companies are calling out the win-win rhetoric as they grow frustrated at their inability to benefit from this push of external Chinese capital. Most recently, the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China published a report in which its members complained about a lack of transparency in belt and road projects and irritation that the benefits they had seen from the initiative were “quite insignificant”.

On a visit to Pakistan last year, I met a wave of Pakistani businessmen frustrated at their inability to tap the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor money they heard reported flooding into their country. Beijing is not unaware of these concerns. The Belt and Road Summit in Beijing last year was largely a story of China trying to address global concerns around the initiative, focusing on making it more inclusive, ensuring more local benefit and making a greater effort on environmental concerns.

From this perspective, the dropping of BCIM-EC from Xi’s visit to Myanmar might be a first sign of how Beijing wants to drive the initiative forward. The BCIM-EC was always an awkward corridor to fit into the belt and road given Indian hesitation around it more generally. We saw little public reference to it during the meeting between Xi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year, and then again during Xi’s visit to Myanmar.

Instead, we see China focusing on the bilateral, delivering what has already been discussed, and avoiding too much grandiloquence which will ultimately be hard to live up to. Beijing’s track record in Myanmar is a patchy one, and recent reporting has shown how China’s efforts to support peace processes in the country have also failed to deliver.

Ultimately, Beijing will be an important partner for Myanmar. Geographic proximity assures this. The questions are how high a bar does China want to set for this relationship and how much does Beijing want to become the responsible stakeholder it was setting itself up to be?

This might be the key lesson to draw from this visit for the broader belt and road. From a half decade of ever growing grandeur, the next half decade of the initiative will be a more realistic tone and narrative focusing on ensuring China gets what it needs from these bilateral relationships rather than the overblown – and expensive – rhetoric that dominated the first half decade.

And in many ways this is a reflection of the reality of the first intended aim of the initiative, which evolved from Xi’s call for a focus on periphery diplomacy, then developed into a call for greater infrastructure and economic connectivity, and then grew into the globe spanning beast that stretched from Asia to Latin America via Africa and Europe and back. In many ways it could be that this is going to be a period of the belt and road returning to its roots. A moving of the goalposts that will allow for a shift in belt and road rhetoric without having to completely walk away from it and the loss of face that would follow.

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

And now my first piece for the new year for the Telegraph offering some thoughts on how the UK needs to develop a strategy towards China now that the Huawei question has been resolved.

The Huawei drama has exposed a depressing reality – Britain has no coherent plan for China

Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace (L) and General Sir Nicholas Carter (R) leave Downing Street after attending the National Security Council meeting convened by Boris Johnson

Britain’s way forward has been wrongly framed as a binary choice between China and the US

In recent days, the Huawei debate has obscured a concerning longer-term trend; London’s inability to have a serious discussion about its approach to China.

The story of China’s rise to the first rank of international powers is well-known, but in Britain at least, it has largely been treated as an external event, of little direct consequence to the UK. The result has been an immature discussion that let the conversation about Huawei turn into a proxy for a discussion about China, reducing the debate to a false binary choice between Washington and Beijing. The truth is far more complicated, relating to where the UK sits in the world and how London will navigate the great power games buffeting the planet.

The world has changed in the two decades since the turn of the century. Where once terror threats dominated, the preeminent concern that now faces capitals is great power politics. While the trans-national threats posed by terrorist groups challenged our way of understanding who were our enemies, the challenge of current geopolitics is that it is not as conveniently binary as the Cold War.

China is a particularly complicated case. An authoritarian power whose internal fragilities are almost impossible to calculate (thus making it hard to know how strong or weak it actually is), what is clear is its assertive posture on the world stage.

The UK, like every other power on the planet, needs to have some sort of a relationship with both Beijing and Washington. Quite aside from the globalised economy that binds us all together  (notwithstanding the many difficulties of doing business with China), challenges such as climate change cannot be addressed without some engagement and coordination between everyone. Choosing between China and the US is therefore not a useful frame with which to look at the world.

And while this binary choice makes no sense from London, this reality is even more acute in parts of the world which are more dependent on China. While China’s actual economic influence, power and investment is often exaggerated in the developing world (as compared to European or American economic links), it is far harder for them to stand up to Beijing or Washington. This reality is something that complicates the UK’s engagement in these parts of the world. For example, both India and Pakistan are important powers to the UK. Both have complex relationships with China (as well as of course between each other and the US) which rank very high in their strategic thinking. They see China as both an opportunity and threat. Yet the UK needs to find a way of balancing between them all to advance its own interests.

The goal for the UK must be to focus on understanding where and when it should choose to engage, influence or counter Chinese behaviour. We must push back on aggressive Chinese activity – whether against neighbours or human rights abuses at home – and influence China as it plays an ever greater role in developing global norms. Chinese action on climate change, as well as Beijing’s role in the developing world requires engagement.

Looking at the other side of the coin, the US remains the UK’s preeminent security partner. The Five Eyes intelligence network and intimate security partnership is matched only by the close human, political and economic relationship across the Atlantic. Notwithstanding disagreements, like over Iran policy or the US’s recalcitrance on climate change, the transatlantic alliance is going to persist as London’s main security pillar on the world stage.

But the UK has no desire to follow the US down the path of cleaving the world in two. The idea of severing all links and pushing China into a purely adversarial relationship misses the vast complexity of China’s place in the world and is not to the UK’s advantage.

The truth is that both large powers are behaving in a manner they feel commensurate with their size and power. We now occupy a world which is determined by the realities of hard power rather than ideology. For the UK, navigating this world in a post-Brexit context will be a complicated soup of diplomacy and activism. It will not be an easy path to forge, but London needs to engage with the world as it is, rather than as it would like it to be. It will require a more serious conversation about foreign policy that does not simply boil it down to “yes” or “no” choices.

The Huawei debate has for too long occluded a serious conversation about China’s place in the world and how the UK should respond. This debate needs to take place at a public as well as a political level. Until it does, we will continue to find ourselves buffeted by the winds of geopolitical hard power, rather than steering our way through these choppy waters.

 

Once again a bit late posting, but here is a short piece for the Telegraph in the wake of the London Bridge incident with Usman Khan. While on the topic, spoke to the Observer, Financial Times, Independent about the incident, to the Irish Times about the complexity of prosecuting returnees and the Guardian about the current state of the terror threat. Separately, also spoke to Global Finance magazine and the South China Morning Post about China-Russia, and Suddeutsche Zeitung about Xinjiang.

Politicians don’t understand the true nature of the terror threat

TELEMMGLPICT000217870839_trans_NvBQzQNjv4BqpVlberWd9EgFPZtcLiMQfyf2A9a6I9YchsjMeADBa08

The almost immediate political spat that arose from the London Bridge incident has occluded some of the bigger lessons to be drawn from the attack. The focus on prisons, probation and who exactly passed the legislation responsible for the terrorist’s release has ignored the wider points raised by this case.

Perhaps the most important is the longer-term question of how exactly we plan to manage an ever-growing cohort of people who, in some cases, appear to decide to re-engage with extremist activity almost a decade after they first encountered it.

As a society we have to face a chronic threat which includes Syria-Iraq returnees, the growing mainstreaming of extremist narratives, and the possibility of an abrupt drop off in our intelligence and security cooperation with key European partners. This is where the focus of the discussion around terrorism should be.

After almost two decades of facing a domestic extremist Islamist community, we have an ever-growing cohort of young men and women who have been attracted to these ideas and in some cases appear not to shake them. This number only grows over time, and given the fact that often people start to engage in their teenage years, the tail of this problem is one that is going to stretch far into the future.

It is not the case that all of these individuals are going to pose a persistent threat. Some people do grow out of these ideas which they adopt in their early adulthood and move on. Lives change, partners are met, new jobs are taken; people move on. In some cases, intense engagement with deradicalisation programmes or mentors help move them into a different space mentally, encouraging them to leave behind the extremist ideas.

But some only do this half-heartedly, never really shake the idea or find that the alternative to the extremist ideology is not a particularly exciting world. Their lives might never move forwards (or not to the level they were expecting), or other things happen around them which mean they do not leave the radical milieu.

In some extreme cases, the individuals seem to enjoy the violence. Some of these can be diverted through intense activity which channels their energy, but this requires a constant level of engagement.

The difficulty is understanding how each case is going to play out. In retrospect cases that go bad can appear obvious but this is not always so at the time. And given the easy terrorist methodologies deployed at the moment (cars and knives), it has become almost impossible for security forces to effectively and completely police this group.

Clearly more resource will help manage this problem, but it is unlikely to get rid of it. It is also key to remember that this is not a short-term investment. The London Bridge attacker first got involved in extremist activity in his late teens and then turned to violence a decade later.

When this timeline is put against the case of 2017’s 52-year-old Westminster attacker, this means you have a potential window of more than 30 years in which the state needs to potentially monitor extremists. And that resource requirement needs to be placed against the many other issues which call upon the public purse.

Ultimately, this is a problem which is going to require a long-term engagement and investment. And eradication is unlikely to succeed.

This is not a call for despair, just an acknowledgement of the reality that until some of the bigger perceptions and cases of injustice around the world are eliminated, we will continue to see some people drawn to using violence to try to rectify these issues.

In the short-term what we can do is tackle some of the immediate problems, such as dealing with the British nationals in Turkish, Iraqi or Kurdish custody. They require repatriation, detention and rehabilitation (or longer-term conviction if the legal case is met).

We also need to check the habit of mainstream politicians feeding and supporting extremist narratives. This is either through their unhelpful demonisation of others, pandering to baser narratives in the public discourse, or more simply politicising issues that should be handled more carefully.

Finally, there is a need to ensure that whoever enters government ensures that the information links that we share with European security partners are maintained. Given the increasingly diffuse, multi-ideology and international threat that we face, sharing data and information amongst our security forces is going to be a crucial tool.

It is unsurprising that the London Bridge attack has generated the sort of political debate we have seen. Coming during a tense election campaign it has immediately tapped into bigger tensions. Yet we need to be careful that we learn the right lessons and ensure that any ensuing policy change is dealing with the actual problem rather than the hysteria around it.

This is the only way to maintain the resilience of our society to dealing with the long-term problem that terrorists and extremists pose.

Raffaello Pantucci is Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

And now back up to date with writing as far as can tell, my most recent late last week on Baghdadi’s death trying to look further to the future about what is happening with terrorism more broadly for the Wall Street Journal. Some bigger ideas in here that need greater exploration in the future, but here is a short start.

Beyond this, spoke to various news outlets over the past month since last providing an update. Starting most recently with the Baghdadi death with the Financial Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Guardian about its impact on the UK threat picture (which was also picked up by an outlet called Go Tech, the Mirror and Sputnik) and this Norwegian site Klasse Kampen seems to have picked up my comments about the defunct terrorist leader from somewhere. Subsequent to his death, spoke to the Independent about his successor. Earlier, spoke to the Financial Times about Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria and its impact on ISIS, to the Sun about Syria returnees in the UK, and to the Independent about the shooting in Halle, Germany and the broader threat from XRW. On the other side of the coin, spoke to Foreign Policy/Newsweek about China-Russia, to Asia Times about China-Iran, and to Bloomberg about Russian pipeline politics.

After Baghdadi, Terrorism Without Ideology

ISIS provided a template for attacks. Now isolated people reproduce them as meaningless spectacle.

Raffaello Pantucci
Oct. 30, 2019 6:44 pm ET

 

French soldiers stand guard after a knife attack in Paris, Oct. 3. PHOTO: GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead, a few weeks after Europe was racked by four separate incidents classified as terrorism: a truck-ramming in Limburg, Germany; a series of stabbings at a police station in Paris; a shooting at a synagogue in Halle, Germany; and another set of stabbings at a shopping mall in Manchester, England. While the investigations are still under way, at this stage it doesn’t appear that any of these attacks had any structured link to a terrorist group like Baghdadi’s Islamic State. Most of the perpetrators displayed some awareness of an extremist ideology, but we don’t know that any of them were directed to do what they did.

What relevance does the death of Baghdadi have to any of these attackers, or to the terror threat at large? There is little historical evidence that decapitating terrorist groups destroys them. Leaders have networks around them built on personal contacts, and their deaths change those dynamics. Some particularly charismatic leaders drive groups forward by force of personality or personal narrative. Their removal can weaken the aura around their organizations, but it can’t promise eradication.

When leaders are abruptly lopped off, terror groups tend to fragment and become more radical. Pretenders to the throne or anointed successors want to establish their own brands and often use a spectacular attack to do it. One can look to Afghanistan, where repeated strikes against the Taliban’s leadership have only made the group more violent, or to the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, attacked in 2013 by a rising al-Shabaab terrorist leader stamping his imprint on the world. Earlier that year, an attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria followed a similar pattern. Different factions often will forge their own paths away from the core organization, seizing the opportunity to change directions and employ new tactics.

But this tells us only about the classical terror threat—the large-scale plot, often directed from abroad. Such conspiracies still exist, and authorities are fighting them with success. Where they have found more difficulty, however, is in stopping the smaller incidents, in which attacks appear in sync with terrorist ideologies while lacking clear links to the groups propagating them. ISIS honed the art of directing lost individual acolytes around the globe to launch attacks in their immediate environments with whatever tools were at their disposal. This group was supplemented by a further cadre who launched attacks drawing on the ISIS methodology and interpreting its ideology without ever establishing contact with the organization.

Then there is the terrorist without an ideology, such as Salih Khater. On Aug. 14, 2018, he drove his car into pedestrians outside the Houses of Parliament. Coming more than a year after Khalid Masood launched a similar attack near the same location, the attack set London on edge again.

In sentencing Mr. Khater, Justice Maura McGowan concluded that he had committed a terrorist act, but she couldn’t identify a clear ideology he was advancing: “You replicated the acts of others who undoubtedly have acted with terrorist motives. You deliberately copied those others. . . . You have never explained your actions and have not given any account, before or today, that is capable of dissuading me from drawing the conclusion that this offending had a terrorist connection.”

In a growing number of terrorism cases, ideology is at best an appendage to an act of planned, performative violence. These terrorists are people driven by personal demons or interactions on chat forums or online communities, people with social disorders or mental-health issues, or people with a desire to make statements in a world on which they have failed to make an impression.

Where was Baghdadi in Mr. Khater’s attempted car-ramming attack and others like it? In this new age of terror, ISIS provided only the background idea by popularizing the method of driving cars into pedestrians. The group generated the meme, or at least helped it become viral, making it easy for others to replicate.

It is too early to dismiss the structured terror of groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS. Undoubtedly other groups, leaders and followers will emerge. But the West is moving into an age of isolated and even meaningless terrorism, an age when leaders contribute more conceptually than tactically. Before long, we may look back through rose-tinted glasses to the time when terrorism was made up of easily comprehensible networks and leaders.

Mr. Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.

 

 

More catching up, this one a bit more recently after Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s death over the weekend for the Telegraph.

The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi could make a fragmented Isil more dangerous

Baghdadi

Notwithstanding President Trump’s declarations, Islamic State (Isil) has not been destroyed by the death of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Like most terrorist groups, the organisation is more than its leader.

There are three key questions to consider when considering his death and what it means for Isil and terrorist threats more broadly.

The most immediate concern will be the army of fanboys that exist around the group and its ideology across the world. For some of these isolated individuals, his death might read as the moment at which they should leap into action to conduct a terrorist atrocity.

The group will undoubtedly claim these attacks as planned revenge, when in reality they are at best opportunistic. But given the growing preponderance of copycat incidents after major terrorist events, it is going to be a major preoccupation of security forces around the world.

For Isil, the question will be whether the group can continue to maintain its coherence in the absence of its iconic leader who led them at their most totemic moment. He may not have had the same personal charisma and back story as Osama bin Laden, but he was the significant figure when the group was at its apex.

This kept the group coherent under him. In his absence there will be a question about whether his successor can maintain this narrative.

The danger will be fragmentation among the regional affiliates who may decide to now re-prioritise their local concerns over the group’s globalist agenda.

But a greater question might exist between the group’s Syrian and Iraqi followers.  Isil is a group made up of Iraqis who took advantage of the conflict in Syria to grow and expand. As they grew in Syria, more locals flocked to their cause.

Over time this will have created two groups who were driven together by the joint cause of building a Levantine (and global) caliphate led by Baghdadi, their longstanding leader. His removal might precipitate a clash between the two groups which might lead it to fragment as the Syrian or Iraqi factions disagree over where they should focus their attention.

This fragmentation might make it more dangerous. Historically, the removal of terrorist leaders gives rise to eager pretenders who use dramatic violence to announce their arrival and eclipse their predecessor. It can also lead to in-fighting which can have a knock on effect on their environment.

At the same time, his removal might raise some interesting questions about Isil more broadly and its historical conflicts with al-Qaeda and other groups in Syria.

Some early commentary by jihadist groups who were against Isil on the ground in Syria suggests they are dancing on his grave and mocking his group. But cooler heads might prevail at a strategic level and try to use this as an opportunity to forge a rapprochement between the two groups in some way.

Lots of death and bad blood between Isil and al-Qaeda stands between this potential outcome, but the death of a significant leader like this does potentially change the dynamic in such a way that might create an opportunity for a renewed alliance or agreement between the two groups.

Whatever the case, Baghdadi’s death is undoubtedly a victory for the West. It may be cliché to say that it does not mean the end of Isil, but it is certainly a successful strike and further evidence of the importance of maintaining a strong war of attrition against such groups.

And finally in this catch-up blast, a longer op-ed for the South China Morning Post looking at some of the recent machinations between China and Iran. Had a few comments back that this was an obvious point to make, but it feels like it needs to be all considered against the broader backdrop of China’s growing influence and power in its own backyard. More on this topic to come.

All of these posts aside, spoke to the Sunday Times about Chinese investment and influence in Ireland, spoke to CNBC about China-Russia (which was translated into Hungarian), The National about the far right in Germany, to Samaa TV about ISIS in Khorasan, to The National again about bounties being put on ISIS leaders heads, an old interview was used again in this fantastic Portuguese piece in Sabato by Nuno Tiago Pinto about important Portuguese foreign fighter Nero Saraiva who lived for a while in the UK, an earlier comment to the Telegraph about Hamza bin Laden’s death was picked up again, and another earlier piece in the Sunday Times was picked up by VoA.

Why Iran has got China wrong: Beijing will follow its own playbook in countering the US-led West

  • While regional players like Iran seek to bring China into the conversation as an ally, Beijing continues to rely on the rhetoric of non-interference
  • China is focused single-mindedly on its own interests and set to get stronger as a result

e6fbd108-dea1-11e9-94c8-f27aa1da2f45_image_hires_140148

The first-ever Chinese goods train to Iran arrives in Tehran on February 15, 2016, after a 14-day journey hailed as a revival of the Silk Raod under China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China is emerging as the central power in its immediate and expanding neighbourhood, while the West tears at itself and old alliances. Photo: EPA

Buried among last week’s news of confrontation with Iran was a story that China was on the cusp of investing US$400 billion into the country’s hydrocarbon industry. This was followed late in the week by the news that Iran was going to be joining China and Russia in new naval exercises, an announcement that came a week after the Iranian Armed Forces Chief of Staff, Major General Mohammad Baqeri, visited a naval base in Shanghai.

The clear suggestion was that Iran was showing it had a strong ally in Beijing. The axis of convenience against the West was bringing Tehran firmly into its bosom.

Yet, in the face of all of this noise from Iran, Beijing was largely silent. A foreign ministry spokesman denied any knowledge when confronted with a question about the investment during a regular press briefing. The Chinese commentariat seemed mostly focused on downplaying Iran’s role in the strike on the Abqaiq and Khurais facilities in Saudi Arabia, and President Xi Jinping had a phone call with King Salman.

Reported in similar terms by both the Saudi and Chinese state media (the Belt and Road was only mentioned in Xinhua’s read-out and the Saudi statement was far more aggressive), the phone call was a decorative effort highlighting the importance of the bilateral relationship and China’s desire for events not to escalate.

And, while Beijing seemed eager to not engage, Iranian sources appeared to deny the existence of the supersized investment. On Friday, an interview emerged with the head of money and capital markets at the Tehran Chamber of Commerce stating that he had not heard anything about it.

Furthermore, Iran’s oil minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh denied the rumours, bluntly saying, “I have not heard such a thing.” In fact, the discussion in Tehran at the moment around China is about how long the Bank of Kunlun will be able to continue to be a lifeline of sorts for the country.

Owned mostly by the China National Petroleum Corporation, the bank is a Xinjiang institution that has long served as a conduit for financial relations between China and Iran. As the rest of the world severed its links to Tehran, Kunlun has kept a connection going. The bank has faced some pressure, falling into the US Treasury Department’s sights, leading the bank to try to downplay its relations for fear of damaging repercussions for parent institution CNPC.

The result has been a paring back of financial relations between the bank and Iran, with the maintenance of only a few lines of credit focused specifically on non-sanctioned goods.

Rather, the Iranian announcements have the ring of similarity to previous announcements to have emerged from Moscow, as its relations with the West went downhill.

Back in 2014, as the West’s condemnation of Russia’s redrawing of Ukraine’s borders reached fever pitch, President Vladimir Putin headed to Shanghai where he oversaw the signing alongside President Xi of a US$400 billion energy deal between China and Russia. The deal was one which had been announced and signed a few times before, but it landed in Shanghai at a convenient moment for the Russian leader.

Again, this was not a moment without some irritation for Beijing. While China never condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine, it was not best pleased, keeping its comments sparse. China is not keen on major disruptions to international affairs, like the attack in Saudi Arabia, especially ones which might have repercussions for Beijing.

The precedent that Russia set in redrawing borders in Ukraine was not one that China wanted widely adopted –
fearing the loss of its own restive regions. And disruptions to international energy supplies result in higher prices, something China could do without.

The question, then, is whether China is hostage to disruptive powers like Iran and Russia, or whether Beijing is, in fact, gaining the upper hand.

To better understand this, it is important to note another event over the weekend that ties the three countries together – the Taliban negotiating team’s visit to Beijing after stops in Moscow and Tehran.

Organised after the dramatic failure of the American-led talks, the whistle-stop regional tour appears to be an effort by the Taliban to understand better where things now stand. With Afghan elections around the corner and the conflict showing little evidence of concluding, all three surrounding powers have begun to worry about how they will manage the long-term instability with which Afghanistan seems cursed.

From China’s perspective, however, this is all reflective of the fact that everyone appears to want to show that Beijing is on their side. In each of these situations, the regional players have all sought to bring China into the conversation and show that Beijing is backing them.

China is judicious in avoiding apportioning blame, and at best uses the opportunity to make digs at the United States. The net result is that China emerges as the central power in its immediate and expanding neighbourhood, while the West tears at itself and old alliances.

For Beijing, there is some danger in assuming this position. First, it reinforces the image of China as the central power in a new axis of convenience against the US-led West. And second, it places China in a position of potential responsibility between some of the world’s most intractable conflicts.

Yet, it is equally possible that Beijing has factored both of these realities in and is actually happy to bolster alliances against the US.

In terms of China’s unavoidable responsibilities, this is something that has been on the cards for some time, and yet Beijing has yet to really demonstrate a requirement to have to step in.

Instead, China continues to call on the rhetoric of non-interference to simply let things play themselves out, focused single-mindedly on its own interests. Rather than taking on the activist West at its own game, China appears to be crafting its own playbook.

And while Tehran may think that it is hustling Beijing into showing its hand in its favour, the reality is that it is China that is most likely to emerge strengthened from this geopolitical dance.

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

Re-posting a piece from this weekend’s Sunday Times, a slightly bigger picture piece looking at geopolitics and the decline of the west (to put it in grand terms). Have some more stuff like this in the pipeline.

Beyond this, spoke to the South China Morning Post about the Chinese government’s use of the word terrorism in the protests which was also picked up in Inkstone and the Hong Kong Post852, some old comments in the Independent on XRW terrorism were picked up in Pink News, my earlier piece on Kashmir and the impact to the UK for the Telegraph was picked up in the Hindustan Times, and you can hear me talking about daily security issues on Monocle’s briefing.

We no longer lead and all the world knows it

541bb5f0-e768-4ef4-a881-bac516f7349e

There is a danger that we in the west are becoming bystanders to the great events swirling around the globe. Our inability to articulate a clear response that generates a change in behaviour means a sense of impunity dominates. This shows the limits of power and the absence of leadership that exists at the moment.

Our responses to the current protests going on in Hong Kong and Moscow are the clearest articulations of this problem. Beijing and Moscow have largely behaved as they would like. From their perspective, the protests are dangerous expressions of public anger which might ultimately threaten their power. They are handling them in different ways — but this choice does not reflect their sense of concern about how the rest of world might view things but rather their own calculation of interests.

For China, the protests in Hong Kong are an irritant that merely illustrate to its own population (and large parts of the globe) the disruptive force public dissent can be. As far as Beijing is concerned, this is evidence of what happens when the firm hand of state is not allowed unfettered control. It would interpret the protests as evidence that in the ‘one country, two systems’ structure, its ‘system’ is the one that is able to deliver stability. This is a perspective largely shared in China and Asia, where the general sense is increasingly that the chaos is unsustainable.

It is not inconceivable that Beijing might decide to crack down in Hong Kong, but far more likely is that the leadership is happy to let events play themselves out. China would have a lot to lose if the world’s financial community were to conclude that Hong Kong had truly lost its special status. And the likely opprobrium after a crackdown would damage China. The constant rumble of rhetorical anger from Beijing and posturing across the border in Shenzhen is simply stoking nationalist flames at home which feed a narrative of China against the world and strengthens the leadership.

Moscow is unlikely to let things burn themselves out in the same way. We have already seen some crackdowns on protestors in Moscow and we are likely to see more. While there is lots of evidence of fracturing and tensions around Russia, there is little evidence that these protests are going to break the camel’s back. It is more likely that it will be added to the growing list of protests against President Vladimir Putin’s regime that he will ignore as he continues to rule the country as he sees fit.

In neither case is there much evidence of the west providing an ability to respond. Where we have seen response, it has been a measured one from London matched by a confusing one from Washington. The US administration’s decision to take an increasingly hard line on what China is doing to its Uighur population in Xinjiang is rather contrasted by Donald Trump’s comments that events in Hong Kong are not a concern to the United States. This reflects the president’s erratic general response to world events – where he bombastically scraps a deal with Iran and then talks about setting up a new one, where he raises expectations with North Korea and then loses interest (frustrating Chairman Kim Yong-un and leading him to carry out missile tests like a child seeking attention).

It may indeed be that these are situations in which we have few levers of power, but the stark illustration of this has wider consequences. Others are learning from this behaviour. India’s sudden move in Kashmir is one such incidence. Saudi Arabia’s more brazen pursuit of dissidents is another. Our main non-military tool of sanctions is being deployed in a manner which is not clearly delivering results – attempts by the US to target the Iranian Revolutionary Guard appear to have failed (but hurt the rest of the Iranian economy and unified the country against the west), and while tariffs are damaging China, they are also damaging the rest of the world and creating an environment in which economic warfare is now spilling over between allies.

There is of course a certain arrogance in western powers proffering the correct way for things to happen. But the current chaos has meant that moral leadership is almost inexistent and the world’s downtrodden are losing both effective spokesmen and protectors. A sad state of affairs which we seem only able to exacerbate. The likely slow collapse of protests in Hong Kong and Moscow will stand as a sad testament to this.

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