Archive for the ‘Financial Times’ Category

Have had a few pieces emerge over the past few days and weeks looking at the anniversary of September 11, 2001. Amidst the surfeit of material that is going to emerge, I worry about saying something new, but I guess that will be for readers to decide. In any case, first up, catching up on posting an article for the Financial Times a week or so ago now which tried to sketch out the point that it does not look like the Taliban government is going to make for a safer environment or one that is hostile to jihadists. Later pieces will explore in more detail what this is actually likely to look like in practice.

Jihadis will remain a threat under the Taliban government

Neighbouring countries are the most at risk in the short term, but western states should not be complacent

A man looks at the aftermath of the Kabul airport suicide bombing. A surge in high-quality weaponry and suddenly idle militants could lead to more violence in the region © Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty

The writer is a Senior Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore

The attack on Kabul airport by Isis Afghan affiliate Isis-K provided a grim bookend for the west’s involvement in Afghanistan. An intervention that started in response to the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks ended with a massacre of Americans and Afghans alike. It also highlighted the complexity of the terrorist threat in south Asia. From being driven principally by al-Qaeda, it now involves a range of different organisations posing threats that are likely to stay regional in the short to medium term but will undoubtedly create instability affecting the west in the longer term. 

In many ways, the threat from al-Qaeda was fairly coherent. Osama bin Laden’s organisation used its money and resources to support the Taliban. This enabled it to establish terrorist infrastructure in Afghanistan which it then used in its holy war against the west and its “apostate” supporters in the Muslim world. Other groups operating from Afghanistan’s territory focused on alternative adversaries, but operated on the same principle. 

There is concern that this could happen again. It is an open question whether the Taliban will turn on organisations such as al-Qaeda that have fought and bled alongside them in their two-decade struggle against the US. But even if we assume that they find a way of containing them, this is no longer the only threat that might emerge.

While there is a certain level of hysteria around Isis-K, it has proved to be resilient and is the local affiliate of an organisation that still commands considerable sway among the global jihadist community. Whispers can be found in online chatter that people may be leaving the Levant to go to Afghanistan now that it offers itself as a propitious environment for jihad. Taken to its extreme, this could mean Isis dedicating more resources to establishing a mini-caliphate in part of Afghanistan. Or simply using violence in the region to rebuild its tarnished global brand.

However, these threats need to be kept in perspective. Security forces in the west have become much better at detecting activity that could mature into attacks on home ground. The bigger danger is regional. Pakistan in particular is likely to find its domestic problems exacerbated as local extremists draw inspiration from what the Taliban has achieved. A surge in high-quality weaponry and suddenly idle militants could lead to more violence in the country (and possibly in India, with knock-on effects for Islamabad). 

Central Asia also has reason to worry. The 1990s and early 2000s saw a number of incidents in the region linked to groups in Afghanistan. Iran appears to be pragmatically bolstering its relations with the Taliban, but there is little love lost between Tehran and Kabul. China and Russia may be revelling in western humiliation, but recognise they are much closer to the potential threats that might spill over. Groups targeting these countries are likely to try to take advantage of the Taliban’s control (or lack thereof) and re-establish some sort of presence in Afghanistan.

The west is less at risk. This is not to dismiss the potential threat. The UK in particular has deep links to south Asia that have left it exposed to terrorist violence in the past, something that probably helps explain the MI6 chief’s recent visit to Pakistan. There are hints that terrorist groups are rebuilding their capabilities, with reports of jihadis looking to move from Syria to Afghanistan. Possible links to the UK can be found in stories of British voices being overheard on Taliban radio intercepts. But in the short to medium term the sort of atrocity New Zealand has just faced is a more likely threat: lone, undirected extremists attacking fellow citizens.

The most immediate threat from Afghanistan will be local. Be it Isis-K spreading its wings regionally, extremists using Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks in neighbouring countries, or groups being inspired by the Taliban’s victory to have a go at toppling their own local superpower. This poses a very different and less immediate set of threats to western security planners at a moment when interest and focus on terrorist threats is reducing. 

But therein lies the key lesson that needs to be learned from the 20-year engagement in Afghanistan. If governments are not paying attention, problems can fester and suddenly strike. This happened in Iraq, when the American withdrawal in the late 2000s left behind an environment which helped brew Isis. And while it is unlikely that exactly the same narrative will play out in Afghanistan, the context is there for a terrorist problem to develop. The US and its allies may have left Afghanistan, but they cannot disengage from it. 

Been a busy period for short pieces. Some longer ones are still working their way through the pipeline, and been doing more work on the new book, but all of that still to come, but watch this space. Returning to the present, a new piece for the Financial Times which is a rather morose contribution to the current conversation about Afghanistan looking at it from the perspective of the global jihadist movement. The problem may be reduced, but it certainly does not look like it has gone away. There is some more thinking that needs doing into why it is we are unable to ever resolve conflicts against such groups, and whether the problem is our fear of underestimating them. But that is for another day.

We might be done with jihadis but they are not done with us

Taliban fighters and villagers celebrate the peace deal in Laghman Province, in March last year © Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty

There is a wind of optimism sweeping through the global jihadist community. A narrative of victory is gaining momentum just as the west tries to turn the page and focus on great power conflict with China and Russia. 

Scanning the horizon, they see victories in Afghanistan and Mali as western forces announce their withdrawal. In north-western Nigeria and Mozambique, Isis-affiliated groups are gaining ground. And in north-eastern Syria, an al-Qaeda linked group is rebranding itself as an acceptable government. 

The decision to withdraw from Afghanistan has been made as the Taliban are ascendant on the battlefield. The deadline of September 11 this year only seems to highlight the inconclusive nature of what the west has tried to do there. In the wake of the attacks on the US in 2001, President Bush lumped the Taliban in with the responsible al-Qaeda terrorists they were hosting. He warned: “They [the Taliban] will hand over the terrorists or they will share in their fate.” Yet two decades later, the Taliban have not handed over any terrorists, broken with al-Qaeda or shared their fate. 

Al-Qaeda has suffered setbacks. A decade after 9/11, Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, by the US. His successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is in hiding and there is speculation of his demise. In contrast, Taliban leader Mullah Omar is believed to have died of natural causes. His successors are still fighting and their narrative is that they are going to take power in Kabul. Al-Qaeda’s media has praised the Taliban’s “historic” victory. 

This sense of success is bolstered by France announcing its withdrawal from Mali and Isis affiliates taking territory in Nigeria and Mozambique. In Idlib, Syria, al-Qaeda spawned Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is rebranding itself as a government willing to negotiate with the west. In an interview with US television, its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, presented himself as a politician who is simply trying to govern.

Yet none of these groups have given any indication that they have changed their views. Seen from the perspective of the jihadist community, the overall trajectory looks positive. Very few of the problems that created the groups in the first place — bad governance, inequality or ethnic tensions — have been addressed. Arguably, they have multiplied. Jihadist terrorism is erupting in more places than before. Prior to 2001, it was not a concern in some parts of Africa, where it now thrives. A 2018 report by US think-tank CSIS showed the number of groups have almost tripled since 2001. And the chaos following the announcement of withdrawal from Afghanistan raises questions about what has been achieved with 20 years of conflict. 

All of this is likely to rejuvenate the global jihadist movement. With creative reporting, it can portray itself as ascendant, with the US withdrawal giving it tangible evidence of success. This will motivate individuals and groups elsewhere around the world, who will see that their struggle is winnable if they just stick at it for long enough. 

While this may lead to suffering on the ground, it will not necessarily result in an immediate upsurge in terrorism in the west. The world is far more attentive to these threats, and Afghanistan is not the country it was pre-9/11. But in contexts where we see jihadist groups, a sense of triumph may animate them and push them forwards. 

Over time, this will probably evolve in ways that will surprise us. No one expected Isis to rise so abruptly from the ashes of Iraq’s insurgency. Violent Islamist terrorism in Africa has also spread in ways that were not immediately predictable. Few would have expected the growth of Isis affiliates in Congo or Mozambique. But all of these groups have a perspective and outlook which is anathema to the west, and support Isis’ global aims.

The threat is festering rather than going away. We may have tired of the groups and narratives of the war on terror — but those we are fighting have not. They will take this moment and savour what they see as their success. In the longer term they will present a new kind of problem that we will have to address. They will find a way of violently capturing our attention with dramatic attacks against western targets in unexpected places or new battlefields that draw in foreigners.

Whitehall and Washington may want to focus on China but jihadist conflicts are still very much with us. Given that we seem unable to resolve the issues that animate these movements, we are obliged to simply manage them. But handing them rhetorical victories is not helpful.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore.

Into a new month, and a few things left over from the last one to publish. First up a short letter for the Financial Times which got a surprising amount of resonance, which reflects the fact that size is not everything I suppose!

Am also using this moment to do a media catch up which I have not done in a while. At the bottom of this post am putting a podcast I did with Veerle as part of a project I have been working on with RUSI (and partnering with Chatham House) which looks at trying to develop an agenda for a Transatlantic Dialogue on China.

This aside, spoke to RFE/RL about China in Afghanistan and separately about the Belt and Road; to the South China Morning Post about what the withdrawal from Afghanistan means to China, how China characterises its counter-terrorism program in Xinjiang, why ISIS has not talked much about China, what China is doing in Afghanistan, and China-Japan; to CNN about the China policy that Biden inherited; to the Mail on Sunday about Jack Ma; and on the other side of my work, to the Telegraph about 10 years on since bin Laden’s death; to The National about UK air strikes on ISIS in Syria; and, finally, to Australian ABC about the excellent work of the Unity Initiative.

Letter: West needs ‘grey zones’ not red lines in Ukraine and Taiwan

From Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Associate Fellow, Royal United Services Institute, London SW1, UK

A Russian navy ship is seen during navy drills in the Black Sea on April 14, 2021. © AP

Gideon Rachman (“Why China and Russia will now test Biden”, Opinion, April 20) is right to identify Taiwan and Ukraine as places where the US (and its allies) will find themselves tested by China and Russia.

Setting red lines, however, is not necessarily the answer. It might instead create a series of tests which Beijing and Moscow feel compelled to probe in creative ways.

The challenge of setting red lines is that people will tend to run towards them. Knowing exactly where the lines in the sand are drawn provides adversaries with a target. And once they have reached the line, they explore ways in which they can softly undermine it — using the very “grey zone tactics” that Rachman identifies as being key weapons in Beijing and Moscow’s toolboxes.

The net result is further confusion. If they have not clearly crossed the line by using deniable cyber tactics or proxies, what is to be done?

It may take time to clarify. But for the moment, the discussion will be about whether they crossed the line or not — with the mere debate about it suggesting they did and the west did nothing about it. No good comes of this beyond seeming to undermine western commitments.

The question is not are China and Russia adversaries in these situations. They clearly see themselves as such and continue to act as though they are. Rather it is a question of whether the west is committed to helping Ukraine and Taiwan. So far, the west has remained resolute in its support for both countries — President Joe Biden is sending delegations of close allies to Taipei while his most recent round of sanctions suggests a willingness to confront Russian behaviour. Both countries continue to be recipients of US military aid.

The only additional benefit a clear red line would contribute would be to suggest the throwing down of a gauntlet after which presumably the west will have to reply with harder force.

Far better to keep a deniable grey zone on the west’s side as well, which keeps adversaries wondering how we might respond and how far they can go. A jockeying may seem to leave things open for miscalculation, but is also likely to be the best we can hope for, short of open warfare in a geopolitical context of great power conflict.

Raffaello Pantucci
Senior Associate Fellow
Royal United Services Institute

And now for some links to other media outputs which are online that have popped up in the past period. First up is the podcast referenced above which is part of the bigger Transatlantic Dialogue on China project Veerle and myself are working on at RUSI.

Next up a panel discussion with Turkish TRT Television looking at what Biden’s pledges towards NATO mean for Europe and international security in particular, with former NATO policy planner Dr Jamie Shea CMG and Dr Thomas Sutton from Baldwin College.

And finally, another panel with TRT, this time looking at what the UK’s new Integrated Review means with the Evening Standard’s Defence correspondent Robert Fox and former Foreign Office Permanent Under Secretary Sir Simon Fraser.

A short op-ed for the Financial Times in response to President Trump’s ill-advised Tweet threat to proscribe the anti-facist grouping antifa. Have a few bigger projects on terrorism in the pipeline, including a bigger existential one in the longer-term future. The big question am keen to try to understand is how terrorism ideologies and current technology will intersect going forwards.

Drifting definitions of terrorism endanger us all

Donald Trump’s threat to outlaw antifa could lead to the criminalising of dissent

There is a distinction to be drawn between protests and terrorism

There is a distinction to be drawn between protests and terrorism © AFP via Getty Images

The writer is a visiting senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies

It is tempting to ignore US president Donald Trump’s tweets. But his recent declaration that he intends to proscribe antifa as a terrorist organisation will empower those around the world inclined to see any threat to their power as terrorist.

The US previously designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp as terrorists leading to the assassination of a top Iranian general. If America starts considering an anti-fascist idea to be a terrorist group, it would be leaning in a direction that can be interpreted as criminalising dissent. When America leads, others will follow.

There is a distinction to be drawn between protests and terrorism. The sometimes violent American demonstrations after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd are not terrorism. Nor are the violent acts that have been troubling Hong Kong. This does not mean that some individuals are not using the protests as a cover to try to commit terrorist acts. But the overall movements are not terrorists in the same way that al-Qaeda is. Terrorists use violence, but not all public violence is terrorism.

The distinction is confusing when we look beyond rioting. Like his predecessors, Mr Trump has explored proscribing Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organisations. Yet, they are motivated by money not ideology, and theoretically their supporters include millions of US narcotics consumers.

There is also a growing enthusiasm for proscribing online subcultures as terrorist organisations because of the ideological motivation that the individuals draw from being part of an online chatroom. Yet, there is little evidence of coherent structures, rather these are violent online subcultures that reflect the times in which we live.

The danger in the US letting definitions drift is that others push the boundaries in their own anti-terrorist legislation. The Philippines’ new law expands police power to detain and conduct investigations and demand data from telecoms companies, while removing punishment for wrongful investigation. Activists and the opposition worry that the legislation will be used against them.

Europe is struggling with a definitional problem around the extreme right. How you define far-right political versus extreme right terrorist varies by country. Some states have parties in or near power whose ideological pronouncements are close to those considered terrorist groups in others. This causes practical problems and also raises issues about the way different security forces categorise and respond to extreme rightwing groups.

It is difficult to define a terrorist. The old cliché that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter is not useful. Some of the ideologies or individuals who emerge in terrorist garb move into the mainstream and our own definitions shift over time. The now-ruling African National Congress in South Africa is an example of the former. Afghanistan’s Taliban remains a proscribed organisation committing atrocious acts of violence even though a number of states are negotiating with them to find a way to take some political power in Kabul.

Adding an inchoate idea like antifa — a loose constellation of anarchists whose only clear connecting ideology is a revulsion towards fascists — to the roster of terrorist groups whilst ignoring some of the extreme right groups active in the US further clouds this picture. But Mr Trump’s threats are giving global authoritarians carte blanche to go after groups they consider dangerous.

Terrorism is useful as a legal term that describes non-state actors using violence against civilians to a coherent political goal. Using it too liberally allows it to be exploited to the detriment of not only free speech and open societies, but also those who are seeking to right genuine wrongs in the world. Violence must be prosecuted but separated from angry dissent.

Not quite a new article, but a short letter in the Financial Times, restating a point I made in an earlier article for the Straits Times. Generally feeling quite pessimistic at the moment and suspect that it is coming through in my writing.

Lessons of Covid-19 for defence spending have still to be learnt

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Helen Warrell’s point about the defence industry facing a shrunken environment in the wake of Covid-19 is unfortunately likely but reflects an over-optimistic assessment of the international security environment (Opinion, May 6). While government budgets will undoubtedly shrink in general, the threats that are faced have not gotten any smaller.

Arguably, they are getting worse. The US-China confrontation is taking an ever more bellicose tone, while the Iran-US showdown is escalating. Russia continues to be an armed irritant buzzing UK shores and neighbours’ armed forces, showing no interest in backing down from its persistent confrontation with the west. And the confusion around Kim Jong Un’s disappearance highlights a nuclear confrontation that has yet to be resolved. At the other end of the scale, militant groups are spotting an opportunity and pushing forwards as governments look elsewhere at home to manage their healthcare problems.

We are entering a world of ever more great power confrontation. The answer will unfortunately be to increase defence spending, as illogical as it might be in the face of a realisation that there are far more dangerous things to us than conflict between states. Assessments of risk before Covid-19 pointed to a pandemic virus being the most likely and most disruptive threat that we might face and we failed to prepare. There is little reason to think we have learnt that lesson yet.

Raffaello Pantucci
Senior Associate Fellow,
Royal United Services Institute,
London SW1, UK

A new piece for the Financial Times Beyond BRICS site, looking at the wake of Secretary Pompeo’s trip to Central Asia. Covers ground that I have trodden a bit before, but also sets up some of the ideas in an upcoming much bigger book project. This aside, an earlier Foreign Policy piece on the UK’s response to the new terrorist threat was picked up in the I newspaper in the UK.

US unlikely to change minds by shouting at China’s neighbours
Washington needs more sophisticated narrative to break central Asia’s pragmatic ties to Beijing
February 24 2020

Workers outside the perimeter fence of what is officially an education centre in Xinjiang, China

Workers outside what is officially an education centre in Xinjiang, China. The plight of the Uighurs is not the only plank of Washington’s push against Beijing in the region © REUTERS

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to central Asia was the latest stop on his global push against China. It comes amid visits to Africa, Latin America and Europe where China featured high on the agenda.

As the confrontation with Beijing slowly spills into every facet of relations — from trade and technology to social media, scientific exchange and business of every sort — China has become a top talking point everywhere US officials go.

The problem is that this uniform and loud hostility will work to different degrees around the world. And nowhere is it likely to be less effective than among China’s neighbours, which are bound by geography to have a relationship with Beijing.

Mr Pompeo’s visit to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan followed a session on the fringes of the UN General Assembly meeting last year when he pressed those countries on their relationship with China and zeroed in on China’s mistreatment of its Uighur minority as an issue of common concern.

While the central Asians made the right noises, none of them was willing to be as forward in their criticism of China as Mr Pompeo. This was repeated on his visit to central Asia, when the secretary of state had a meeting with families of people with relations caught up in Xinjiang’s grim detention camp system. While he kept pushing for condemnation by local authorities, he was met with silence.

The plight of the Uighurs was not the only plank of Mr Pompeo’s push against China in the region. He also spoke of the dangers of Chinese investment, railing against the Belt and Road Initiative concept in particular. This is a tune which his colleague Alice Wells, the principal deputy assistant secretary for the region, has been pushing in south Asia, most prominently in comments before a congressional committee on Afghanistan and during a think-tank event in Washington.

Talking of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as “debt trap” diplomacy, and complaining about the lack of Chinese economic support in Afghanistan, Ms Wells has been replicating in south Asia her secretary’s push in central Asia.

Partners across China’s western flank are being told off by senior US officials for their relations with Beijing, and increasingly being pressured into confronting China more aggressively. The problem is that while these countries may respect the raw power Washington represents, they are also neighbours of China with strong economic and human ties.

These human ties are particularly relevant when it comes to what is happening in Xinjiang where there is evidence that central and south Asian family members are getting caught up in the camp system. But while countries feel some level of concern about their people, they are sensitive to the fact that this is taking place within China to Chinese nationals.

From their perspective, Beijing has not meddled in their affairs, so why should they violate this and meddle in those of Beijing? The central Asians in particular share with China a broadly similar assessment of what constitutes terrorism and extremism, and they are almost all bound together through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. They have little incentive to pick a fight with Beijing over what is happening.

In fact, the central Asia-China relationship is one with many layers. There is very little love lost between the peoples of the two regions at a public level — in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan there has been a noticeable increase in the past year of protests and clashes between Chinese populations and locals.

However, at a security level, they are getting closer. In economic terms — where almost all the attention is — their relationship is growing. The US is largely an irrelevance in trade terms for the region. Foreign direct investment is a similar story, though the US is more represented through international financial institutions. Nevertheless, none of these countries see their economic future as realistically bound up with Washington.

And the US has shown itself to be relatively uninterested in the region more generally. Mr Pompeo’s visit was the first by a senior US official since secretary of state John Kerry visited in 2015.

Aside from China (and Russia and Iran to a lesser degree), Washington’s principal preoccupation with the region appears to be to exit Afghanistan. creating a potentially major security issue on the borders of some central Asian states.

The US is also locked in an increasingly aggressive conflict with another of their neighbours, Iran, and has passed sanctions against another, Russia, as well. Living in this neighbourhood means the central Asians have to take a more pragmatic view.

The US continues to have a deep wellspring of admirers around the globe. They are increasingly finding this affection tested by the lectures about China. Nowhere is this more so than among China’s neighbours — all of whom are concerned about China’s rise but see that as an opportunity and a challenge they have to engage with rather than cut off from.

Washington needs to develop a more sophisticated and consistent narrative if it is to persuade them to work with it more closely.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a UK think-tank

Belatedly posting a piece for the Financial Times excellent Beyond BRICS blog which focuses on the reality of the Chinese relationship with Iran and Russia. More complicated than is often assumed. A topic that I would like to focus on more in the future, both in terms of the reality and complexity of China’s relations with Iran and Russia, as well as broader Eurasian geopolitics. On that particular note, please check back into the China in Central Asia website which  I am hoping to awaken soon.

Separately, spoke to the Guardian about the UK’s disengagement and desistance programme, to the BBC about the extreme right wing, to the LA Times about a Uighur fighting extradition from Turkey, to De Trouw about the role of mainstream political discourse in dragging the extreme right forwards, to AFP about ISIS (which was translated into Spanish), to the Independent about a plot that was uncovered to target Europe by some Sunday Times reporters, and finally a Press Association interview was used in the MetroDaily Star, and Al Banaba. Beyond this, my recent Observer piece was picked up and translated in digest into Spanish by El Mundo.

Russia and Iran cannot always count on China

In response to US sanctions, Beijing’s own interests come first

Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping at a friendly ice hockey match between Russian and Chinese youth teams in Taijin last year © Getty

Beijing is seen by some as the financial backstop that countries can call on to bail them out when they fall foul of US displeasure and face sanctions. Yet a close examination of the cases of Russia and Iran instead shows that China is reactive to US sanctions policy, to the detriment of its supposed strategic allies.

This reflects the attractiveness of the US market, the reach of extraterritorial sanctions and the independence of some Chinese institutions from Beijing’s geopolitical interests.

It also highlights the existence of fissures between powers that are often painted as members of an anti-western alliance. They may talk with the rhetoric of allies, but their relationships are more complicated. Understanding how this will play out will be key for policymakers seeking to navigate today’s dangerous waters.

At a geostrategic level, China, Russia and Iran appear to be in lockstep. Yet notwithstanding their proximity, expressed in public shows of affection between their leaders (in particular between presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin), the reality is that there are deep tensions in Beijing’s bilateral relationships with Moscow and Tehran. Nowhere are these expressed more substantially than in the economic sphere, where Russia and Iran have consistently been disappointed by the willingness of Chinese entities and institutions to invest in their countries.

Most recently, China has been hesitant in its support of Russia’s de-dollarisation policy, through a cross-border system of bilateral settlements, for fear of angering the US. The two powers failed to conclude an agreement as planned by the end of last year, with one Russian source close to the talks telling Kommersant: “From Washington’s standpoint, China’s agreement with Russia would look like it was helping Moscow evade sanctions.”

This came after reports that Moscow was ready to bet heavily on China, diversifying its foreign reserves so that 15 per cent ($67bn) were held in renminbi, leaving the Russian central bank with a quarter of the world’s renminbi holdings. This was after it had sold about $100bn of its US dollar reserves while purchasing $44bn worth of renminbi in the second quarter of 2018.

The two countries already settle 14 per cent of bilateral payments in renminbi and 7 to 8 per cent in roubles, but were seeking to increase this, and to enshrine cross-border use of the Chinese Union Pay and Russian Mir credit card systems in each other’s countries.

A similar story can be seen in Tehran, where eagerness by authorities to use Beijing to circumvent a newly hardening US sanctions policy has been met with hesitation by Chinese institutions.

This was most publicly expressed in December, when it emerged that Kunlun Bank, which is majority owned by China National Petroleum Corp, was only going to clear Iranian payments, in full compliance with US sanctions policy, until the end of April, when China’s “significant reduction exemption” for the import of Iranian oil expires. Cutting this major lifeline for the Iranian economy was believed to be the product of CNPC’s concerns about the impact of its Iranian activities on its interests in the US.

Tehran has also seen a drop in imports from China, with an analysis by Bourse & Bazaar suggesting a 70 per cent drop from October to December last year after two months of tightened US sanctions. Like Moscow, Tehran has sought to increase the volume of transactions in local currencies but its central bank does not publish the composition of its foreign reserves, so it is not clear whether this has changed.

Frustration can also be seen in the supposed benefits that Russia and Iran have sought through investments under the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s global infrastructure programme.

When Total, the French oil company, withdrew from Iran’s South Pars gasfield in response to President Donald Trump’s overturning of the agreement to lift sanctions on Iran, CNPC initially stepped forward. But it has not developed the field it at the pace Tehran had hoped, and reports this year suggested CNPC may have suspended its activities. The Financial Times has reported that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are ready to take its place.

Similarly, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, expressed concern that Chinese developers were taking their time in redesigning the Arak heavy water reactor according to the terms laid out in the 2015 nuclear deal. He attributed this to fears of US sanctions.

While it is hard to draw a straight line between US sanctions and Chinese reticence, it is also clear that Moscow does not always find Beijing a useful infrastructure partner. In reported comments in December about the Moscow-Kazan High Speed Rail (HSR) train line, Anton Siluanov, deputy prime minister and finance minister, said he did not see the line’s economic benefits and questioned its viability. The project was proposed and signed in 2015 when China was on a global HSR push, and questions always hung over its practicability (and indeed of other HSR projects around the world). Its seeming jettisoning reflects the reality that not all Chinese infrastructure projects work out, even in countries that are supposedly strategic allies of Beijing.

There are a number of explanations for these trends. First; Chinese banks, companies and other institutions may sometimes act in ways that contradict Beijing’s view, driven by specific concerns of their own. The assumption that all of China works in lockstep to advance Beijing’s geopolitical world view does not always match up with facts on the ground. It may be hard to divine whether a Chinese institution is responding to sanctions pressure, fear of losing access to the US market or some central Beijing command, but their behaviour does not always match policy declarations.

Second, Chinese institutions drive hard bargains. In the context of Iran and Russia, China is the funder and their local counterparts the supplicants. This puts Chinese institutions in the driving seat — something they are aware of and will exploit. Commenting on Beijing’s reticence to sign a bilateral memorandum with Moscow, one source told Kommersant that in addition to concerns about the US, “China needs time to tweak the final document more to its benefit”.

Third, countries like Iran and Russia are fearful of becoming overly dependent on Beijing. They realise that opening too much to China risks flooding local markets and potentially curtailing their own development.

In Tehran, the government has gone further, with reports of authorities advising against buying Chinese goods because it amounted to “exporting jobs”.

It is clear that China’s alliance with Russia and Iran is more complicated than sometimes realised. It is also clear that US sanctions continue to have a deterrent effect on Chinese institutions.

Yet it is hard to project such complications into the future. While Beijing may have tensions with Moscow and Tehran, the three continue to be willing to support each other at a geopolitical level. If the aggression with which US economic sanctions are employed continues, alternative global economic structures will develop.

Their beginnings are already visible. Moscow is taking the firmest steps in this direction through its de-dollarisation policy. Tehran may find itself obliged to follow if it is unable to find a way out of its current impasse.

While it is clear that US sanctions may have an effect on their economies, it is not clear that they are generating the change in behaviour that Washington desires. In this context, Beijing will sense an opportunity.

This article has been modified since publication to correct the statement on Iran’s imports from China, previously stated as exports to China.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi)

A new format for a publication have contributed to before, the Financial Times, this time a book review of Walter Laqueur’s last book (co-authored with Christopher Wall) in a title that seems appropriate for the end of the year. It is a good short primer on the topic of terrorism which is widely available and worth reading. In addition, spoke to Neue Zürcher Zeitung about Syria and France 24 about the recent attack in Egypt.

The Future of Terrorism by Walter Laqueur and Christopher Wall

An account of the persistent allure of political violence to ‘purify society’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Got a bit of catch-up posting to do, and now another atrocity in Barcelona. Here is something from yesterday’s Financial Times taking a longer view of the terrorist threat in general.

Terrorism will always be with us

Once we have dealt with the Islamist strain, it will morph into a new form


AUGUST 15, 2017

by: Raffaello Pantucci

Most organised human societies are plagued by terrorism. Within any structured system there will be a political spectrum, and at the ends of this spectrum there will be extremes populated by people who feel the rest of the society is not hearing a political message they need to be awoken to.

Last week, Jonathan Evans, the former head of the UK security service MI5, said he believes that Britain will have to confront Islamist terrorism for at least another 20 years. And the reality is that once we have dealt with that strain of the virus, it will simply morph into a new form.

To get to the origins of violent Islamist terrorism, one has to go back far beyond the spectacular attacks on the US on September 11 2001 to 1979, a year that rocked the Muslim world. The Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the siege at the Grand Mosque in Mecca by a group of fanatics all showed the violent force of fundamentalist ideas and their power to upend the established order. These three events showed how violent political movements inspired by Islamic theology could threaten superpowers. This was the lesson drawn by the architects of al-Qaeda’s confrontation with the west that culminated on 9/11. Isis is in many ways simply an evolution from that.

The attacks on New York and Washington DC almost 16 years ago were not the first time that terrorism had been visited on the west, of course. Before 9/11, Europe had endured successive waves of terrorist violence. Those responsible included right and leftwing groupuscules, separatist outfits such as the IRA and Eta, Middle Eastern networks often linked to the intelligence services of hostile states, and (in the case of France in particular) violent Islamists linked to Algeria and the conflict in Bosnia.

The US, for its part, saw numerous violent groups active throughout the postwar period — from white supremacists through leftist organisations such as the Weather Underground to the rightwing “patriot” movement to which the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh had connections.

But all this was superseded by the 9/11 attacks. They transformed our understanding of terrorist violence. Overnight, Islamist terrorism became the main concern of western security services. And with good reason — al-Qaeda’s organisational effectiveness and ambition, demonstrated by the 9/11 attacks, was like nothing that had been seen before.

Previously active movements appeared to fade away or retreat, their activity dwarfed by the magnitude of what al-Qaeda had done. But they did not disappear. While some turned to the negotiating table, very few gave up. Leftwing groups continue to wage letter-bombing campaigns in parts of Europe, while the extreme right is enjoying a renaissance across the west. Eta and the IRA have for the most part given up violence, but Irish-related terrorism remains a major concern for British security services. And many other groups continue to exist in reduced but still active forms. Terrorism, it seems, never quite goes away.

More salient, the individuals involved do not go away. Some die fighting, some move on and some are incarcerated, but others stay free and continue the struggle even as they grow older. The recent attack at London Bridge showed how a specific group, al-Muhajiroun, continues to pose problems over 20 years after it was launched in the UK.

Older preachers talk to younger acolytes, creating a self-supporting structure in which followers eventually become leaders and in turn find their own recruits. This self-generating cycle means that eradicating these groups is a lengthy process that only really comes to an end when one ideological wave is overtaken by another.

For that to happen, an ideology must first wear itself out. But there are no signs of that happening with the current wave of violent Islamism. Al-Qaeda is reconstituting itself on the battlefield in Syria, while its affiliates in north Africa, Yemen and east Africa continue to thrive. Isis may be losing its capitals in Syria and Iraq but, as continued attacks around the world show, it retains some potency.

Terrorism did not start with Isis or al-Qaeda. Nor will it end with them. The current reigning Islamist ideology and groups may be overtaken by events, but they will undoubtedly be replaced by others. And, as Mr Evans pointed out, the long tail left by generations of followers means that security services will be watching people warily for some time yet.

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