Archive for the ‘Straits Times’ Category

Still catching up posting material from around the September 11 anniversary. Will get around to a media round up soon, as did a lot on various topics over the past couple of months. Have a lot of work also in the pipeline which is going to be keeping me busy, but also a few bigger projects on the horizon which should be interesting. First though a piece with one of my excellent RSIS colleagues Shashi for our local paper the Straits Times, who runs a team focused on various national security threats and whom I have done some work on Singapore’s CVE strategy in the past.

Shape-shifting terrorism: The new challenge

Terrorism predated the 9/11 attacks and continues to evolve, posing new difficulties for those who seek to identify and counter its new protean form

New Zealand police officers outside a mall in Auckland where a man who stabbed six people in a supermarket was shot and killed last Friday. PHOTO: REUTERS

Two decades on from the atrocity of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks, terrorism continues to metastasise. Terrorist spectaculars like the brutal attack at Kabul’s international airport – claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – Khorasan (ISIS-K) – continue, as do attacks like those carried out by individuals inspired by ISIS ideology, the recent Auckland stabbings being a case in point.

But to properly understand and track terrorism’s future evolutions, it is important to consider where we have come from, and where new expressions of the terror threat emerge from. Going forward, they will matter just as much as existing ones.

LESSONS FROM THE PAST

The emergence of Al-Qaeda appeared to herald an age of more brutal but in some ways clear-cut terrorism. In the immediate wake of 9/11, some other groups were forced to reconsider their use of the tactic of terrorism, not least on account of the now unacceptable nature of violence as a legitimate means to further their cause.

There now seems a sharp division between those fighting on the side of the religiously motivated terrorists, and those against them. Around the world, parties to conflicts that had a vaguely Islamist flavour would suddenly associate themselves with the jihadist notions that Al-Qaeda espoused. Often this was done less for reasons of credo than to provide an animating recruiting and fund-raising tool.

For their part, experts, practitioners and policymakers invented an entire vocabulary in the years following 9/11 – home-grown, lone wolf, self-radicalised, CVE (countering violent extremism) and – the most problematic – “deradicalisation”, as they sought to grapple with Islamist terror. An entire clubby academic circuit developed around the issue that gave the appearance of deeply pondering these constructs largely of their own making.

Curiously, this vocabulary was not in evidence when it came to earlier waves of terrorists. These ranged from those driven by ethno-separatist concerns, like the Basque separatists of ETA or the republican or nationalist groups in Ireland.

Religion sometimes featured as well – for example, the Catholic/Protestant divide that separated the two Irelands. But more often, it was driven by narcissistic individuals advancing their own grandeur and glory, like Carlos the Jackal or Shoko Asahara, leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult that sought to poison Tokyo’s citizenry as they used their public transport system, or individuals who believed deeply in the extreme cause they had chosen and enjoyed the celebrity it gave them – German leftist Red Army Faction leaders Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader come to mind.

No one talked about deradicalising these individuals. The authorities then used an aggressive counter-terrorism approach focused on traditional methods. Some of the terrorists from this earlier age were killed. A largely hidden cohort became disillusioned by the violence (sometimes when confronted by the consequences of their actions). Some became disenchanted with their leaderships, and still others had time to reflect in prison. Others simply matured and began to ponder more deeply the risks involved in what they were doing. Many remained ideologically committed and were mentors for the next generation, while staying one step removed from the violence.

MEANING-SEEKING, SHAPE-SHIFTING

ISIS heralded a new moment in the narrative of global terror. While ISIS managed to trump Al-Qaeda in many ways – including in terms of building and holding a caliphate-shaped territory for some time – perhaps its most striking innovation was to effectively harness the phenomenon of lone actor terrorism, which moved centre stage from the fringe of violent extremism. Isolated individuals, in some cases directed, but often acting entirely independently, launched attacks – and ISIS perfected the narratives to inspire the individuals and claim such incidents.

In harnessing this methodology, the group was tapping into something deeper. Some of the most compelling recent academic research into extremism has shown the importance of the individual’s quest for significance. People are no longer necessarily committing acts of terrorism solely to advance a political or religious ideology. Some of this may still be present, but what stands out is young people in this social media-inflected age drawn towards extremist ideas or acts of performative violence to give their lives meaning and significance.

What might seem like a textbook case of “radicalisation”, or steps preparatory to an attack, is interpreted by analysts and by society in a specific way, providing meaning to an act that might in fact have more complex, multidimensional drivers with little to do with the ideology the individual is purporting to be acting on behalf of.

Our age will see an increasing number of these types of individuals, as well as individuals who shape-shift with mixed ideologies, grabbing from a selection of ideas that in some cases can even directly contradict each other. In the West, there have been individuals who espouse neo-Nazi thinking and then militant Islamist ideas (or vice versa). Some groups consciously adopt each other’s paraphernalia.

Examples can be found in some of the recent pro-ISIS youth cases in Singapore. Some of these individuals faced stressors in their lives. Many appeared to be less deeply versed in their religion, at least compared with an earlier generation of Singapore extremists from the Jemaah Islamiah.

Their infatuation with ISIS was in some ways a substitute activity that created new sources of satisfaction that distracted from the original stressor. For some of these individuals, involvement with ISIS ideology formed part of a coping mechanism that helped them avoid facing problems, such as those involving personal relationships, realistically.

These are the sorts of attacks increasingly seen in Western and Westernised societies – confused individuals (some, but not all, with mental health issues) latching on to ideas and demonstrative forms of violence as a way to excise personal issues, including alienation, anomie and disenfranchisement.

And it is no longer something that is exclusive to the violent Islamist side of the coin. Rather, ideologies become blended together in a confusing mix.

Our age will see an increasing number of these types of individuals, as well as individuals who shape-shift with mixed ideologies, grabbing from a selection of ideas that in some cases can even directly contradict each other. In the West, there have been individuals who espouse neo-Nazi thinking and then militant Islamist ideas (or vice versa). Some groups consciously adopt each other’s paraphernalia.

Far-right groups call for “White Jihad”, and adopt snazzy imagery (partly as a recruiting tool) that borrows from the visuals of ISIS propaganda. This mimicry is partly because ISIS was able to capture a greater share of public attention that these groups crave. This, alongside a skill in projecting narratives in bite-sized pieces that are highly attractive to a generation brought up with limited attention spans, created a highly toxic brew.

This new generation of terrorists or would-be terrorists is almost impossible to define and categorise. Crucially, it is not clear that ideology is the overriding factor defining the individual’s actions. Rather, the individual’s personality and psychology become the key factor.

Take, for example, the 16-year-old youth who was reportedly planning to attack two mosques in Singapore. Having imbibed right-wing ideology, and imagining himself as part of this community, he planned to murder Muslims in what was clearly an imitation of Brenton Tarrant’s 2019 Christchurch attacks. He was a Protestant, and to a degree felt the need to defend his religion from what he saw as an existential threat (Islam), but what seems to have been at least as important was his being motivated by a fascination with gore and violence, and ideas of the “Great Replacement”. The belief, associated with white supremacists that non-whites are taking over their homeland, appears to have been useful in giving him an outlet, but it is far from clear whether any one of these motivational strands should be privileged above others.

THE RESPONSE

Singapore’s Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) has done a sterling job of rehabilitating extremists who had misunderstood fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. But there is a noticeable falling off in success when it comes to self-radicalised individuals in the age of social media.

The issue now is how the relevant agencies go about creating a coherent structure around ideologies that mix and merge, and which might have inherent contradictions within them. Related to this is how to engage and deconstruct at a logical level individual ideologies that might exist within the same person, if the Western case studies are anything to go by – elements of far-right thought, far-left thinking (less prevalent, but still a concern) and, increasingly, misogynistic views.

Our future may well be one where all sorts of people will be radicalised.

Agencies in the West grappling with these issues are beginning to go upstream – in some cases, very far upstream, with a degree of success. Some of the most promising initiatives elsewhere are not about deradicalisation, but rather early intervention work – by schools, social workers, healthcare workers and, where needed, the security apparatus – building an ecosystem of diversion and off-ramps that seeks to address potential issues even before individuals have been radicalised.

It is likely that more attention should be paid to the psychological element that, in the Singapore model, has always been present alongside the religious aspect of rehabilitation.

Mentoring and teaching life skills will likely have to come into play in a bigger way. This approach helps to impart mental resilience that helps individuals cope with life stressors. Where it has been tried elsewhere in similar contexts, it has been able to help the vulnerable individual build faculties to understand shades of nuance. It holds promise as part of a larger toolkit against exclusivist, polarised or monochromatic thinking.

Some of this work already goes on, in a way, in Singapore. When it comes to the recent case of the right-wing youth who planned to murder Muslims here, it has been made known that a mentor will be assigned, with the aim of providing a positive influence and keeping the youth focused on pro-social goals.

The Internal Security Department also works with schools to hold workshops dealing with extremism. Other organisations work cooperatively in this space. The RRG also conducts outreach activities aimed at students.

These efforts aim at tackling the issue at its very wellsprings and, in the longer term, should be seen as an important complement to disengagement or deradicalisation, which will remain necessary when the individual has already proceeded down a negative trajectory.

THE NEW CHALLENGES

The challenge will be to keep this space relatively unsecuritised. If the intention is to stop angry teenagers who are reading violent but persuasive propaganda online, or catch fringe ideologies that are hard to detect or observe online, where do we draw the limits of where the security state can intrude into our lives? No one would deny the need to protect people from violence, but how far do we go in policing teenagers who might just be exploring ideas out of curiosity with no intention to act? And how to separate the angry person who might do something, from the one who is simply venting online’

There may well be setbacks along the way. Within the multi-agency triage, there will need to be acceptance that the “pattern” may well be that there is no pattern. What works for one individual, to alter his or her trajectory, may not work for another individual who in all respects seems to follow the same template.

In this type of future, it might seem that we lack clear answers about these and other related questions to eradicate the problem, but are instead stuck in a treadmill of management.

But progress would still be made if we aim now for the construction of a resilient, cohesive society that has within itself the elements of a counter-radicalisation strategy, including within agencies that traditionally have not considered themselves players in the security space.

Terrorism has transformed during these past two decades; we should ensure our response keeps up. But rather than overheatedly preparing for the next attack and assuming it will simply be like what we saw before, we should be ensuring we have properly tracked how things have evolved in order to understand where they are going next.

The threat from Al-Qaeda, ISIS and their affiliates will remain, but it is now supplemented by a series of even more complicated issues that we are likely to spend the next decade untangling.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

Dr Shashi Jayakumar is head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security and executive coordinator, future issues and technology at RSIS.

Still catching up on posting from the past few weeks, this one for my local paper here in Singapore the Straits Times, looking at what has been happening in Afghanistan through its regional lens. Given my interests in Central Asia and China’s impact across its western borders, this question is likely to be one that will bounce back again and again.

Taleban’s triumph rattles the neighbourhood

Afghanistan’s neighbours in Central Asia and Pakistan will be the first to be hit by the fallout but geography may also temper the Taleban’s radical ambitions

Taleban fighters patrol in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Aug 17, 2021.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

We tend to view the arc of history through the lens of great power politics. This and the chaos of the humanitarian catastrophe taking place in Kabul have dominated the international conversation around Afghanistan. Almost entirely missed is the impact on the country’s immediate neighbours in Central Asia as well as Pakistan.

Refugee flows into Iran and Pakistan have started to grow once again, while in Uzbekistan a new tent city has appeared near the border. In recent weeks, both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have had Afghan soldiers (and in Uzbekistan’s case pilots of military airplanes) cross into their territory seeking sanctuary from the Taleban. In Turkmenistan, the shelling across its border got to the point that the country had to send in negotiators to talk to the Taleban to ask it to restrain itself.

What happens in Afghanistan is first and foremost going to affect its immediate neighbours. While China’s presence within this group tends to draw the focus of the Taleban triumph into the wider debate about the implications of the Sino-US clash, this slightly irrelevant focus misses the more significant immediate fallout on the country’s front-line neighbours.

The global lens is understandable. The initial American decision to go into Afghanistan was a response to the terrorist atrocities of Sept 11, 2001, directed by Al-Qaeda from camps in Taleban-controlled territory. As a result, one of the primary concerns people are now worried about is the possibility that this could happen again despite the Taleban’s assurances about not exporting terrorism.

BROKEN PROMISES

There are good reasons for this trepidation. The Taleban made similar promises pre-Sept 11, 2001. China, in particular, through its Pakistani allies, reached out to the Taleban government asking it to do something about groups of Uighur militants that were using bases in Afghanistan to plan attacks against China. While it is not clear how many attacks actually resulted from these camps, there is little evidence that the Taleban actually did much about trying to move the Uighur militants gathered there. Similarly, the Taleban was said to have told Al-Qaeda to refrain from causing trouble – a message that was clearly not heeded.

Second, the logic behind this concern about the gap between the Taleban’s words and actions is fairly clear – from the Taleban’s perspective, groups like Al-Qaeda are fellow ideological travellers. While their specific goals may sometimes vary, they are all fighting for what they believe to be God’s greater glory and a similarly warped interpretation of their religion. Not only is it difficult to imagine the Taleban turning on fellow believers, but it is also even harder to imagine it will do so after it has fought alongside them for 20 years in a war that culminated in a glorious victory against the world’s main superpower.

However, the US pullout does not mean that Muslim radical groups would immediately launch attacks in the West. While there is no doubt that a warm wind of victory is blowing through the global militant movement – as seen, for example, in videos of Hayat Tahrir al Sham fighters in Syria giving out sweets to celebrate the Taleban victory – the most immediate impact is likely to happen in Afghanistan’s immediate neighbourhood. These two regions north and south of Afghanistan are the ones that have most substantially suffered from terrorist activities emanating from the country in the past.

MILITANT MOVEMENTS

In the decade prior to Sept 11, 2001, Tajikistan had faced a brutal civil war which involved cross-border insurgent groups using Afghanistan as a base. In the summers of 1999 and 2000, southern Kyrgyzstan was invaded by groups of militants with links and bases in Afghanistan. And in February 1999, a series of bombs went off in downtown Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, that were linked to terrorist networks operating from Afghanistan.

While accurate information is hard to come by, there are reports that Tajik militants have been seen taking over border posts or establishing encampments across the Tajikistan border in Badakhshan. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has long fought alongside the Taleban and is believed to be re-grouping in the north.

The Taleban and Al-Qaeda United Nations Monitoring Group reports suggest that there has been a flow of Central Asian militants from Syria back to Afghanistan. And Kyrgyz security officials have voiced concern about the return home of nationals who once fought in Afghanistan.

It is also notable that some elements of the former Afghan government have moved to Central Asia. The Afghan Embassy in Tajikistan appears to have decided to resist the Taleban takeover by declaring a former first vice-president the country’s new president. It is also trying to issue an Interpol Red Notice for former president Ashraf Ghani, now in the United Arab Emirates, for stealing from the Treasury.

Unconfirmed reports suggest that northern Afghan warlords Rashid Dostum and Muhammad Atta Noor have both fled into Uzbekistan. Central Asia is increasingly looking like a haven for deposed Afghan officials and leaders, a development that could lead to future friction with the new leadership in Kabul.

Even more grim is the roster of incidents that have taken place in Pakistan. As violence and militancy in Afghanistan have escalated, we have seen similar growth in Pakistan. Militant groups like the Tehrik-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP) with links across the border have emerged in Pakistan, fighting against the state. In December 2014, heavily armed TTP fighters stormed a Pakistan army-run school in Peshawar, killing 150 people, most of them schoolchildren.

Groups that have traditionally had links to the Pakistani state, like Lashkar-e-Toiba (infamous for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai) or Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a brutal sectarian organisation, have long had bases in Afghanistan, fighting alongside the Taleban. While elements in the Pakistan security establishment have developed links with these groups to provide them with “strategic depth” against India, they have also been linked to attacks within Pakistan. It is never entirely clear how much Islamabad or Rawalpindi, where Pakistan’s army is centred, actually control these groups.

Shia Iran too has cause for concern. In the late 1990s, the Taleban was responsible for the massacre of a group of Iranian diplomats that it captured.

REASON FOR MODERATION

But in much the same way that it is in Afghanistan’s neighbourhood that we are most likely to see trouble, it is from these countries that the longer-term answer to Afghanistan’s instability is going to come. An entirely landlocked state, Afghanistan is reliant on roads, rail and routes through its neighbours to get to international markets. And broadly speaking, the neighbourhood recognises that it offers the best chance for Afghanistan’s future development.

Uzbekistan has taken the lead in trying to bring Afghanistan into the Central Asian space, hosting most recently a large conference in Tashkent, shortly before the collapse of the Ghani government, which brought together officials from around the world to discuss South and Central Asian connectivity.

Afghanistan is clearly the lynchpin that ties this all together. This is an idea that the United States and international financial institutions like the World Bank have long championed. In 2011, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even spoke of establishing a New Silk Road linking Afghanistan to its neighbours. Beijing blanched at the American use of the name but little resource was put behind the idea which largely withered on the vine.

The World Bank and Asian Development Bank have invested vast amounts in regional connectivity, with large parts of it focused on tying historically underdeveloped Afghanistan back into its neighbourhood.

Projects like the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline and the CASA1000 scheme to bring Tajik hydropower to electricity-poor Afghanistan and Pakistan have started though progress has been slow.

And the most practical move to advance China’s Belt and Road Initiative push with Afghanistan is not going to come through mining concessions, but from linking Chinese investments in Pakistan, being done under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, to Afghanistan. As the communities and local economies across that border are already deeply interlinked, it would make sense for the infrastructure to catch up.

None of the Central Asians (or Chinese) are entirely happy with the Taleban takeover. They have seen trouble emanate from this kind of regime before, and are always fearful of the inspiration (and physical succour in the form of training camps) it might provide extremists within their own communities.

Pakistan may appear happier about the Taleban’s return to power, believing it controls the situation through its longstanding links to the Taleban, but the Pakistanis have a habit of miscalculating their level of control. The TTP is a perfect example of this, and even the militants in Pakistan that the government does have some sway over have little long-term affection for the corrupt and ideologically corrupt institutions they engage with in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

Iran has made no pretence of being happy that a violent Sunni organisation has taken power in Kabul. But crucially, all of these neighbours have accepted the reality of the situation and all will have to live with the consequences. We should not mistake engagement for happiness. It is purely pragmatic.

With the Americans out of the picture, the geopolitical conversation around Afghanistan takes on a different perspective. It is its immediate neighbourhood that is going to feel the most dramatic fallout, and it is similarly from there that the long-term answer to Afghanistan’s stability will come, with or without the Taleban in power.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and has a forthcoming book looking at China’s relations with Central Asia.

I seem to be on a particular China over its western borders scribbling jag at the moment. Here is my latest, again circling around the twentieth birthday of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), this time for the Straits Times. Have another piece on a related topic which has just landed and will post later, but for the time being enjoy this. For those more interested in terrorism, there are a few bigger pieces on that topic lined up, just been focused quite a bit on China of late as the book goes through another wave of effort ahead of publication next year.

What does China see in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation?

Nato soldiers conducting an inspection near the site of an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, in March last year. PHOTO: REUTERS

While the world’s attention was on the G-7, Nato and Europe, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) turned 20 last week. Bringing together China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan, and built around counter-terrorism cooperation, the SCO is sometimes described as Nato of the East.

But this misses the bigger impact it has had in terms of providing China a vehicle through which to shape the Eurasian heartland.

As it quietly breaches its second decade, the SCO has given China an ever-deepening foothold in the heart of the planet’s super continent.

We mostly think of Chinese connectivity through the lens of belts and roads. Since President Xi Jinping’s pair of speeches in 2013 that launched his foreign policy vision that has now been enshrined in Chinese Communist Party doctrine, we tend to see that as the starting point for China’s concepts of connectivity.

But contemporary Chinese thinking on these issues goes back further than this.

The roots can be found in the end of the Cold War as China suddenly found itself having to abruptly adjust to the reality of going from having a single neighbour (the Soviet Union), to four new countries with which it shared borders and communities.

Out at Xinjiang’s northern and western borders, the concept of nationhood is still developing.

Central Asian communities – from Uighurs, to Kyrgyzs, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Dungans and more – are all now bound in national borders, but have familial links back and forth across the region.

This reality made it important for China to establish strong connections there early to be able to manage its own communities and security concerns, as well as to try to help Xinjiang develop.

This is the starting point for China’s interest in fostering greater webs of connectivity around it.

THE LINKS WITH THE BELT AND ROAD INITIATIVE

In 1994, then Premier Li Peng carved a path in trying to establish these links across China’s western border. On a visit to all of the Central Asian capitals except Tajikistan (which was in the midst of a grim civil war), he championed the idea of a new Silk Road across the region.

In 1996, then President Jiang Zemin created the Shanghai Five grouping, bringing together the leaders of China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan to discuss border delineation and demilitarisation.

When in 2001 they welcomed Uzbekistan into this group and transformed it into the SCO, they married up these two strands on security and prosperity, describing it as the “Shanghai Spirit”. The idea was that they would all peacefully move forward and engage without treading on one another’s toes – an articulation which is an echo of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is about using connectivity with the world through economic engagement on the premise of joint prosperity.

The resonance is important as it helps us understand better China’s longer-term vision through the SCO, and more generally its aims for the Eurasian heartland.

For China, the SCO is a vehicle to strengthen bonds and normalise its position as the pre-eminent power. The SCO has developed from a high-level organisation into an institution that has annual meetings of ministers from the member states. It has created a post-graduate university exchange scheme which offers opportunities for students from member states to do a year at a school in another member state.

It has working groups that bring together officials, businessmen and institutions at every level.

It has a secretariat in Beijing, a counter-terrorism centre in Tashkent, an interior and border ministry training centre in Shanghai, and an economic development centre in Qingdao.

It has helped harmonise security approaches, legislation and standards across the region – mostly in a Chinese direction.

A recent report by the United States think-tank, the Rand Corporation, concluded that China’s international leadership would be focused on “exercising a partial global hegemony centred principally on Eurasia, the Middle East and Africa”. Such leadership would be characterised by “a reliance on finance, diplomatic engagement and security assistance to exercise influence while maintaining a modest overseas military presence”.

The SCO is the perfect vehicle to achieve this, offering a broad range of links which fit as a tidy parallel to the more specific projects offered under the BRI.

But at their core, both of these are interwoven into the broader goal of placing China as an ever more significant actor across the Eurasian landmass.

THE AFGHAN PROBLEM

China’s dilemma with this, however, is that with great influence comes great responsibility. And it is assuming leadership in an unstable neighbourhood.

As the SCO turned 20, Nato was discussing its plans for withdrawing from Afghanistan, a country sitting on China’s border where it increasingly looks likely that a government controlled or heavily influenced by the Taleban is going to take over.

While Beijing seems surprisingly comfortable with this outcome, some of Afghanistan’s other neighbours are less so.

Shi’ite Iran is worried about the prospect of a return of Sunni hardliners to Kabul. Under the previous Taleban administration, Iran saw its diplomats murdered and religious minorities targeted. The likely waves of poor migrants that are also likely to cross into Iran will put a strain on the already fragile Iranian economy.

Prior to the American-led invasion of Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan suffered a number of large-scale border incursions with links to Afghanistan, while Uzbekistan saw a series of massive car bomb attacks in its capital.

The Tajik civil war of the mid-1990s was fuelled by camps in Afghanistan. And even Pakistan with its strong connections to militant groups in Afghanistan is concerned about a too-powerful Taleban taking control of the country, worrying about the consequences for the violent Islamist groups within its borders (and the potential exodus of migrants).

The one thing that all of these border countries with Afghanistan share is a link (through membership or participation) to the SCO, suggesting that it might be a good vehicle to try to bring some resolution to the country’s longer-term problems. And yet, much like China, the SCO has done nothing to really advance peace and stability in Afghanistan.

This is not for want of trying. Chinese leaders repeatedly try to get the SCO to do something about Afghanistan. This was hammered home again recently at a summit meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his five Central Asian counterparts. A key takeaway from the summit (the first China has hosted since the pandemic) was that they would do something on Afghanistan.

Yet, few hold much hope for that happening, with the statements of intent joining a long list of such declarations over the past years.

But this is the central problem for the SCO which China is going to have to address at some point. Not only the realities of having a Taleban-dominated leadership in Kabul at the heart of the SCO’s territory, but also the fact that Beijing has been building all of this influence and connectivity with little evidence of wanting to step in to fill the security vacuums that are likely to emerge as the West withdraws from this region.

The famous British geographer Halford Mackinder once described Central Asia as the geographical pivot of what he termed the “world island”, comprising the Eurasian landmass. As he put it, “who rules the heartland commands the world-island; who rules the world-island commands the world”. Through the SCO, Beijing can make a compelling case of laying the foundations to trying to control the “world island”; the dilemma China has yet to come to grips with is to acknowledge the responsibilities that are likely to go alongside this influence.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and has a forthcoming book looking at China’s relations with Central Asia.

A week and a bit later, finally posting my most recent piece for local paper Straits Times. This one explores the Digital Silk Road, something I have been looking at a growing amount for this larger RUSI project I have been working on which has a specific cyber and digital strand to it. In other words more on this to come, though more likely from the policy angle than the technical one which I am continually learning about.

Bumps on the Digital Silk Road

Chinese tech giants are superb builders but feared for their prowess and government links. But what if the greater risk lies in these firms themselves?

A potentially bigger problem the Digital Silk Road faces comes from within China.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

At the height of the Sino-Indian Himalayan border clash last year, New Delhi suddenly slapped a ban on dozens of Chinese mobile phone apps on security grounds. Most prominent among them was TikTok, the video-sharing app which has taken the world’s teenagers by storm.

The Indian ban came amid a wider wave of pushback against China’s digital and technology companies, led by the United States but taking effect globally in different ways, creating bumps in the building of China’s Digital Silk Road (DSR).

India has always been a major point of interest for Chinese technology firms. With a market size potentially the same as China’s, it offers an opportunity for exponential growth right next door. For TikTok, before the abrupt cut-off, India was its biggest market outside China with some 200 million people on its platform and proof that a Chinese company could take on America’s Big Tech in new markets.

Hardware companies such as Xiaomi and Huawei have long listed India as a major source of growth. In 2018, Huawei announced an “India first” policy and started to establish a growing volume of its manufacturing for the market in the country itself. In 2017, Xiaomi’s sales in India topped US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion), while in the first quarter of this year (notwithstanding political tensions and Covid-19 economic slowdowns) it shipped some 38 million units to Indian customers, accounting for 26 per cent of the smartphone market with an impressive 23 per cent year-on-year growth.

On the software side, Bytedance (TikTok’s parent company) had bet heavily on India prior to the banning, hoping to grow its user base with a local team of around 2,000 staff. Mr Jack Ma’s Alibaba is reported to have invested some US$2 billion in the Indian market since 2015.

This push into India was the realisation of the vision of the DSR, a concept first laid out by Beijing in a 2015 White Paper. At the time, the DSR was somewhat ignored except in specialist circles as it seemed to be the latest variant of the Silk Road nomenclature in the wake of President Xi Jinping’s 2013 Belt and Road speeches in Astana and Jakarta.

Yet this rather dismissive view belies the potential impact of the expansion of the DSR, which sees China, through its technology firms and state loans, helping recipient countries build their telco networks, e-commerce, mobile payment, smart city and other high-tech infrastructure. Chinese technology companies are paving parts of the world’s digital future.

In the global market, China’s technology firms are more than holding their own. Huawei and Xiaomi phones are affordable and of good quality. Huawei is increasingly the only firm that is manufacturing the infrastructure needed by countries to upgrade their next-generation Internet network. Huawei and ZTE are among the dominant providers of telecoms hardware in the countries surrounding China, while firms like Hikvision or Dahua are offering new technologies at accessible rates.

Chinese online payment applications and fintech are at the cutting edge, while across growing swathes of Asia, Alibaba, Taobao and JD.com online sales platforms are competing robustly against Amazon and other online marketplaces. The easy access to cheap Chinese products makes them very attractive.

An entire sub-economy has emerged of local entrepreneurs in countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Indonesia who create websites in local languages that provide people with access to the Chinese platforms. Across Asia (and more widely), these online middlemen set themselves up as interpreters of Chinese platforms to those who are unfamiliar with the language but want access to the bountiful and cheap products on offer.

In some ways, this is a classic win-win. The countries get affordable technology, investment and access to the Chinese market.

DATA SECURITY CONCERNS

Yet there is another side to it which India was trying to address with its abrupt closure of a whole raft of Chinese apps. Part punitive and part defensive, India’s pushback was amongst the sharpest that China had yet encountered as it paved its Digital Silk Road.

Concerns about privacy, access to data and espionage have increasingly dogged Chinese technology firms. Former president Donald Trump’s White House was aggressive in calling out the dangers of Chinese technology, though his scattershot approach did not always deliver the impact that was intended. Chinese firms and the government have repeatedly denied the accusations levelled against them.

Notwithstanding the Chinese denials, there are areas of concern. In 2017, Huawei removed a Wi-Fi module in a surveillance system sold to police in Lahore when it was discovered by locals. The discovery of the module, which provided an option for remote control that the company had not advertised, caused consternation in Islamabad. Not enough, however, to stop the Huawei chief executive from meeting Prime Minister Imran Khan in 2019 and signing a memorandum of understanding for the company to build a giant cloud data centre in Pakistan. And there have been repeated reports that Chinese-installed technology in the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa have been used to send information back to China.

Separately, TikTok has come under fire in various jurisdictions for censoring data, in part to adhere to Chinese government concerns. In Europe, the Italian government is suing the company for not having adequate protection for children’s data.

The biggest fear at the moment, however, is data collection and access. Driving this is the fear that the Chinese government could in theory demand that any Chinese company hand over whatever data it might have on foreign nationals using its application.

The reality, however, is far more complicated than this. In response to different data protection requirements of the countries they operate in, Chinese tech companies have built data centres around the world to store client information. Singapore, for example, is a particular beneficiary of this trend in Asia, offering a secure location outside China in the heart of Asia. Such centres should be beyond the Chinese government’s reach, though, of course, it can be difficult to monitor this.

But this is not the most interesting aspect of this data collection. Far more important is the volume of information this provides Chinese firms to hone their technical capabilities.

The current rush in new technology is to develop new artificial intelligence tools. In order to train these tools, you need massive amounts of data for them to learn from – something these Chinese behemoths are increasingly gathering in vast volume from around the world and particularly in Asia.

For countries leery of China’s ambitions, this advantage makes the growth of Chinese tech companies not only a potential national security threat, but also an economic threat that could stymie if not kill off rival plans to develop similar tools.

Given all of these concerns, it is not surprising that India decided to block Chinese penetration of its market. For India and others, the worry is not just the DSR burrowing too deeply into their local economies but also the longer-term risk of taking over their digital futures and exposing them to unknown future problems.

VULNERABLE GIANTS

For all that, a less discussed but potentially bigger problem the Digital Silk Road faces comes from within China. The abrupt defenestration of China’s most famous tech entrepreneur, Mr Ma, after he had carried Beijing’s flag for tech growth and innovation around the world, highlighted how vulnerable Chinese private companies really are. Not even China’s biggest tech company, Alibaba, is immune to political censure and punishment.

So far, it appears a chastened Mr Ma is having his wings clipped for challenging China’s domestic lenders too brazenly. His future remains unclear, but the slapdown halted what would have been the world’s largest-ever initial public offering of Alibaba’s payments off-shoot, Ant Financial.

While the scenarios are speculative at this stage, some questions about the relationship between the central government and Chinese tech companies need looking at. What are the implications for contracts or activities run by these companies should they fall foul of the government? What if the Chinese government was to abruptly nationalise or take over parts of Alibaba’s global empire? Countries could find themselves suddenly facing a situation where their entire online payments system was in fact owned by a foreign government.

In other words, the Digital Silk Road’s greatest dangers may not necessarily lie in the possibility of Chinese firms secretly accessing private data or the Chinese state using the infrastructure to hack people around the world, but the political vulnerabilities these firms face back home. If they are less stable than they appear and given the world’s growing reliance on digital economies and infrastructure, the unravelling of key parts of this silk road is a far graver threat than meets the eye.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and has a forthcoming book looking at China’s relations with Central Asia.

Another piece on China in Central Asia, this time for the Straits Times looking at the question of competitive vaccine diplomacy in competition with Russia. All of this is teeing up the book, and a few more bigger pieces due out at some point during the year. Am also maybe hoping to revive the website, though that is going to take some work.

Wooing Central Asia, over Covid

Russia deployed vaccine diplomacy. China brought in not just vaccines, but equipment and medical aid. Who won?

ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Trapped between China and Russia, Central Asia has always found itself stuck between empires. In earlier times, it was conquerors from the region such as Tamerlane who built Eurasian empires, but increasingly the countries find themselves trying to thread a diplomatic needle between competing external powers.

Currently, it is medicine that is defining the struggle in the region, as both China and Russia compete for influence through their medical diplomacy.

While Beijing appears to have the upper hand in terms of volume, it is Moscow that appears to be winning over the hearts and minds.

As Kazakhstan embarks on a vaccination drive using Sputnik V, China could ask itself why its medical diplomacy in Central Asia has not worked as it hoped it might. Rather than turn the region towards Beijing, it appears to have simply exacerbated existing tensions and suspicions towards China. The region has benefited from China’s support and largess, but Central Asians still tend primarily towards Moscow.

First, a bit of history: Russian strategists tend to see the world through spheres of influence. From their view, Central Asia is seen as “theirs”. From before the Soviet Union, the nations of Central Asia were part of the wider Russian Empire. During the 1800s, Imperial Russia expanded up to Afghanistan, and the original Great Game was born between the competing English and Russian empires as they sought to keep each other at bay in distant Asia.

At the time, China was an inward-looking power. The Qing Dynasty was fighting wars against encroaching European empires, and Chinese Imperial expansion into Central Asia had stopped far earlier, after the Battle of Talas in 751AD. Xinjiang under the Qing was a far-flung corner of China which was far from the Emperor’s attentions.

BALANCING ACT CONTINUES

Today, the countries of Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – are independent states with their own governments and agency. This year, they celebrate their 30th independence anniversaries from under the Soviet yoke. But they remain landlocked and bound to their neighbours, stuck in an awkward balancing act between China and Russia.

Moscow is keen to stay influential. There is an economic and security interest. Human connections persist with millions of Central Asians working as low-wage labourers or workers in Russia. The remittances generated provide huge inflows of currency to Central Asian economies, while Russia gets the benefits of a cheap workforce. The region is also attractive to Russian companies that see opportunity in a region where they share a language and many cultural practices.

At the same time, Moscow also sees the region as a buffer from the violence and drugs that emanate from Afghanistan, investing considerable amounts in supporting security institutions across the region.

And Russia has sought to strengthen this connection through a constellation of post-Soviet multilateral institutions such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton called part of an attempt to re-Sovietise the region, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Commonwealth of Independent States. (The former grew out of the framework of the latter.)

Not all Central Asians are willing participants, though in the case of the EAEU, it was an idea which was proposed by Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev.

CHINA’S FOCUS: STABILITY

Modern China wants to expand into the region to protect itself from any threats that might emerge, as well as profit from the potential it offers.

Since then Premier Li Peng’s foundation-laying tour of the region in 1994 – which established the contours of the area’s contemporary relationship with China – the focus has been on economic links and trade corridors articulated under the phrasing of silk roads. This has sat alongside a persistent fear that Uighur groups might use the region to foment trouble within Xinjiang.

The answer, from China’s perspective, is a growing security footprint focused on its own interests and concerns, alongside a surge in economic links and investment which ultimately seek to improve stability and security in the region and Xinjiang. China is not really interested in conquering the region or creating a sphere of influence like Moscow, but rather it wants guarantees and stability to ultimately help foster stability and security at home.

And so far, China is playing a winning game. It is now the main trading partner with all the Central Asian powers, and has been increasing its investment.

Traditionally perceived as being focused on natural resources such as metals, oil and gas, Chinese companies are, in fact, increasingly present across Central Asian economies – from online traders like Alibaba or Taobao, to agriculture and food products, and infrastructure construction of every sort – from roads, rail, telecoms and more.

This flow of investment and trade is followed by a soft-power push in education and training, which is increasingly normalising China’s presence in and links with the region.

RUSSIA’S FOCUS: INFLUENCE

Russia continues to keep its hand active, though. China may be rewiring the region, literally as well as metaphorically, so all paths lead back to Beijing, but Moscow continues to be the first capital politicians will visit. And Russia remains the pre-eminent security partner in training, military sales and security ventures.

Technology is the one space where it is hard to see Russia competing with China, but Moscow has sought to find other ways of maintaining a significant role, including through influencing legislation.

But there is a tension between the two powers. Russia can see it is losing ground, but feels it is unable to do too much because it lacks China’s resources. It also prioritises a geostrategic relationship with Beijing over whatever happens in Central Asia.

There is little appetite in Russia for Central Asia to become an impediment or complicating factor to its relationship with China. Ultimately, Moscow is more interested in ensuring Beijing is onside in its greater confrontation with the West than the concerns Russia might have with Chinese encroachment into Central Asia. But there is a growing concern in Moscow that they might find Central Asia becoming the soft underbelly through which China can undermine Russia.

MEDICAL DIPLOMACY

This leads to pushback, the most recent expression of which can be seen in the vaccine diplomacy being deployed across the region.

Central Asia’s response to Covid-19 was spasmodic at best. Turkmenistan, for instance, has yet to admit it has suffered any cases, though foreign diplomats have perished from Covid-like diseases and the country has ordered vaccines. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have all suffered cases, but the numbers have been relatively low. At this point, the region does seem to have turned a corner in dealing with the coronavirus, in part due to the interventions from its two giant neighbours.

In the Russian case, it has been through the Sputnik V vaccine, while China has provided protective equipment, medical training courses and webinars as well as planeloads of aid from Chinese companies, regions and institutions. Additionally, Chinese vaccine producers have used Uzbekistan as a site for phase three testing, while deliveries of their vaccines have started to arrive in the region.

But this Chinese dominance has not translated into popularity. According to data from the Central Asian Barometer, when asked which country would be most likely to help them manage Covid-19, 52 per cent of Kazakhs, 58 per cent of Uzbeks and 76 per cent of Kyrgyz surveyed said Russia was most likely to be able to help. Only 20 per cent of Kazakhs, 14 per cent of Uzbeks and 8 per cent of Kyrgyz believed the same of China.

These numbers echo surveys done pre-Covid-19 which showed that across the region Russia was most popular, with China and the United States competing for second place.

For all its efforts, China’s medical diplomacy and growing investments do not appear to have delivered popular success in the heartland of Eurasia.

Bound still by linguistic, cultural and economic links, and a media which has great penetration throughout the region, Russia remains the more dominant actor within Central Asia. The region’s population still looks primarily towards Russia for its external support, something left over in part from history, but also out of a growing sense of concern about the meteoric rise of China around the world and in their immediate neighbourhood.

This will ultimately be reassuring to Moscow, as it realises it has a few cards that it can play against Beijing. For now, medical diplomacy is one of those cards as clearly Central Asians look more favourably on medical care from a bear than a dragon.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and has a forthcoming book looking at China’s relations with Central Asia.

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

The rising costs of China’s Pakistan project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOCAL MILITANT ATTACKS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUNK COSTS, RISING DEBTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

INDIA, U.S. AND THE UIGHURS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BALUCHISTAN SEPARATISTS

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

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

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

TALEBAN PROMISES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reasons for the Rise and Rise of QAnon

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

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

QAnon seems an improbable platform for political office.

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

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

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

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

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

QAnon’s success comes from a strangely modern brew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problematically, QAnon’s leader is the ether.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bit late posting my latest for the Straits Times, this time digging into the question of nationalism and the problems it causes countries using the lens of the Wolf Warrior mentality in Beijing as the entry point. Still crashing to finish some bigger projects, hoping to have more time for other writing soon!

Beware the spirit of the Wolf Warrior
Summoning the forces of nationalism anywhere in the world invites the risk of a bite-back

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The film Wolf Warrior 2 has managed that special feat of entering the lexicon.

Wolf Warrior has become the byword for a mood in Beijing that sees little reason to stand down before adversaries. Its primary audience is domestic, showing the Chinese public they are living in a strong country built by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But this sort of narrative is also dominant globally, where political leaders are stoking nationalist and nativist fires at home to bolster themselves.

Such narratives rarely stop at borders, however, and usually create friction abroad. This can constrain government options as they seek to please domestic audiences. Nowhere is this clearer than in the current stand-off between New Delhi and Beijing where cool heads are struggling to maintain control.

Wolf Warrior 2’s key message was clearly stamped in its final scene, where against a backdrop of a Chinese passport, words appeared saying: “To citizens of the People’s Republic of China, when you find yourself in danger in a foreign country, do not give up hope. Please remember, behind your back, will be a strong and powerful motherland.”

This film is aimed at a Chinese audience – something that is important to remember when considering what the point of the so-called Wolf Warrior diplomacy is. It is not something aimed at the rest of the world, but at Chinese citizens to show them their motherland’s strength.

The specific phrase “Wolf Warrior diplomacy” appears to have been coined in July last year, in a BBC Chinese article that explored a Twitter spat between then charge d’affaires at the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad, Mr Zhao Lijian, and former US national security adviser Susan Rice.

Now a senior spokesman with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr Zhao at the time ran one of the most prominent and prolific Chinese government official Twitter accounts. He was at the forefront of a growing mood in Beijing that the film seemed to encapsulate – of a China that was no longer hiding and biding its time, in Deng Xiaoping’s phrase, but was rather standing tall and thrusting itself into prominence on the international stage.

The aggressive posture Mr Zhao encapsulated was intended to show that China was no longer being pliant, but was taking the rhetorical fight to the enemy.

Chinese people will often receive a mixed message at home – on the one hand, they see their country getting rich and leaders talking of national rejuvenation, but then abroad they see they are treated as a second-tier power with anger directed at them.

The extraordinary growth at home and hostility abroad do not seem to fit together, and actually undermine the CCP’s messaging to its own people about how well things are going. Stoking nationalist fires helps strengthen the public’s positive feelings towards their government.

This is a global problem. In the United States, President Donald Trump has made a domestic virtue out of attacking allies. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s spending, decoupling from China, withdrawing the US from international agreements – these are all policy decisions that he has championed to his voter base, heedless of the impact or appeal to allies.

In London, the entire Brexit conversation was predicated on the fact that Europe was a millstone to British ambition. Similar narratives can be found in almost every European capital. Leaders pandering to their political bases have long blamed a distant and abstract Brussels as the source of domestic problems. Yet, in a world of superpower confrontation, the idea of walking away from what could be one of the most powerful alliances on the planet seems absurd.

And in Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has harnessed Indian and Hindu nationalism to win resounding election victories. Globally, however, it has brought him condemnation with concerns about human rights of minorities in the country and the troubles in Kashmir.

Stoking these fires can be dangerous after a certain point. By getting people worked up at home about mendacious or evil foreigners, you create a context not only for racism to thrive at home, but also for your citizenry to pick fights for you abroad.

In Kazakhstan, China is having to deal with the fallout. In mid-April, a series of articles emerged on the Chinese Internet that suggested many of China’s neighbours wanted to “return” to China. The implication was that they were all so envious of China’s success that they wanted to renounce their own nationhood to become part of greater China. Produced by a click-bait farm in Xi’an, they appeared to be an attempt to monetise the nationalist mood at home.

When one article referring to Kazakhstan came to the attention of Kazakh netizens, however, it created an uproar, surfacing as it did against a backdrop of growing concern about Chinese influence in their country. The public anger that followed led to its Ministry of Foreign Affairs hauling China’s ambassador in to give him a dressing down. The ambassador in turn expressed anger at the stories, claiming that the entire event was being stirred up by Western media – all done on Facebook, blocked in China.

In Ladakh, we might now be seeing the apotheosis of this problem. With strong nationalist sentiment stirred up at both ends, China and India are facing off at a moment when the popular sentiments in both countries are being agitated by strongman national leaders against each other.

In this light, an admission of large loss of life in conflict is something that neither side wants to accept without consequences. The public has been brought up on narratives of how strong they are and how weak the other is. There is a danger domestically if this does not fit with what they see. Both sides are constrained in their choices as a result. They have to keep the public happy, yet at the same time are concerned about escalating into a larger conflict.

The danger is in some ways best captured by the experience of Wu Jing, the director and star of the Wolf Warrior movies.

In the wake of the runaway success of the second movie, he became a talking point on Chinese social media. Among the many stories that circulated was the rumour that he was from Hong Kong, and that his wife was an American green card holder and his son had United Kingdom citizenship – somewhat contradictory, given the nationalist tone of his blockbuster. In an echo of the “birther” scandal in America around President Barack Obama’s right to contest the presidency, Wu’s mother had to post on Weibo photos of their Chinese passports. The nationalist fires that his film had fanned ultimately circled back to burn him. This is the danger that such nationalistic narratives can create. Uncontrollable anger at home which limits your options abroad.

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