Archive for the ‘THINK TANKS’ Category

Back on my China in Eurasia theme, this time a piece timed to land at my institutional home RUSI to coincide with the big Belt and Road Forum taking place in Beijing. Lots more on this topic to come, and if you want more have a look at the China in Central Asia site.

Separately, spoke to the Times about returning foreign fighters to the UK from Syria, to Politico about Brexit and counter-terrorism, and the Mail on Sunday about Khalid Ali, the arrested Westminster terror plotter.

China: Understanding Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative

A great deal of rhetoric is expended over China’s gigantic investment initiatives. Still, many of the economic projects are real, and Western governments will be well advised to understand their purpose.

The Middle Kingdom is asserting its centrality in global affairs by hosting the Silk Road summit this weekend. Aimed at showcasing President Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ vision, the conference will bring together leaders, officials and experts from around the world.

Apart from the signing of some large deals and some affirmations about China’s eagerness towards free trade, the summit’s real importance is in the message it sends about China’s place in the world.

First announced in 2013 in a set of speeches in Astana and Jakarta, the One Belt, One Road (now renamed the Belt and Road Initiative) is at its root about putting a new name on a series of initiatives that built on existing Chinese investment and trade relationships.

The decision to first focus the initiative on Central Asia was a reflection of the fact that the region served as a conduit for China’s decades-long approach to investment around the world.

With a model of building infrastructure using Chinese firms deployed to deliver on loans provided by the country’s financial institutions to open up trade and markets, Beijing’s investments in Central Asia since the end of the Cold War provide a model for the globalised Belt and Road Initiative.

For countries along the routes, there is the difficulty of understanding and connecting with the Chinese investments in a manner that is useful to them, so that they are not simply roads passing through their territories.

For outside powers, such as the UK, there is the challenge of comprehending where they sit in the broader vision, as well as how they can connect with these projects along the routes.

To understand these issues better, there are three key aspects to remember. First, the concept is not a monolith. Each of the strands of the Belt and Road are different; at different stages of development, advanced to differing degrees and of variable importance.

In some cases, China is building on a long history of investment, while in others China is starting from a very low base of investment. It is important to distinguish between the rhetoric and the reality in each case.

Second, it is important to remember that this is not a giant aid project; China is making commercial investments in many cases. In some, the loans have been offered at reasonable rates and the implementing partner is contractually obliged to be Chinese. Looking at the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank projects, they are in fact put out to open tender.

It is only in very few cases that the investment being offered acts as pure aid. China is still developing its aid profile, and this is key in understanding what China is doing under the Belt and Road.

The ultimate aim is to develop a series of trade and economic corridors using Chinese companies (thereby helping them go out into the world) to help China develop domestically. This is fundamentally a selfish vision aimed at advancing Chinese interests.

Third, it is important to think of the vision with a longer horizon that we are used to considering. At the moment, there is little economic logic to placing goods on trains from China to go to Europe: the route is far more expensive than going by sea and the highest value goods that need to get across land quicker need to travel by air.

Consequently, the much-vaunted trains which are travelling across the Eurasian landmass bringing goods between Europe and China are for the most part going full one way and empty back.

Furthermore, they are being subsidised by Beijing or the regional governments from where they depart. They do not currently make economic sense.

But it is possible that this is looking at them on too short a timeline. Seen from Beijing, the idea is to lay these tracks and develop these routes so that once China’s western regions become more developed and productive, they can take advantage of these routes.

Over time, what seems a short-term loss may turn into a longer-term artery of international trade. The point is that it is possible that the horizon with which the Belt and Road is currently considered is too limited.

In fact, it is something with a much longer timeline and is fundamentally, seen from Beijing, about re-establishing China as the centre of a global network of trade and economic routes that will help re-wire international trade.

These three elements are essential to bear in mind when outside powers are seeking to connect with the vision. It is important to understand each corridor in detail, to focus on the commercial opportunities that the corridors will create and to think with a longer horizon that most governments usually consider.

Once this learning has been absorbed and considered, it will be easier to understand how to connect with China’s vision – something that is as relevant to countries such as the UK at one end of the route as those that are along the routes.

For the Chinese investments are happening, notwithstanding the hyperbole that will be on display this weekend; money is being spent, and ground is being broken.

Banner image: The first goods train service from China to the UK arrives at DB Cargo’s rail freight terminal in Barking, East London. Courtesy of PA Images

And another piece, this time for my institutional home RUSI after the Westminster atrocity. Also to catch up on a few conversations with the media, spoke to Financial Times, New York Times, The Times, Wall Street JournalLa Repubblica, Politico, Daily Record, NBC, Irish Times, L’Espresso, and Daily Mail amongst others about the incident. Separately, spoke to Voice of America, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post about ISIS released a video featuring Uighurs. Finally, to the Mail on Sunday about a British jihadi who was able to get in and out of the country, and to the Guardian about the laptop ban on planes and Brexit and the security negotiations.

London: The Latest Victim of Terrorism in Europe

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary24 March 2017
EuropeUKUK Counter-terrorismDomestic SecurityTerrorism

The security services face an enormous challenge in preventing these types of terrorist attacks.

The wave of terrorism that has been striking Europe has reached Britain’s shores as a single attacker tried on Wednesday to storm the British Parliament in the centre of London.

Dartford-born Khalid Masood, né Adrian Russell Ajao – killed four people when he rammed his car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and fatally stabbed police officer PC Keith Palmer. At least 50 other people were injured, some critically.

The choice of target and the method used to conduct the attack suggest, at the very least, political intent. Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that Masood was ‘a soldier of the Islamic state’.

The incident might also be linked to the wave of Daesh and Daesh-inspired plots seen in mainland Europe. However, the degree to which this reveals a substantial connection or not has yet to be uncovered.

Security forces have been preparing for such an attack for some time. Some of the 13 plots authorities stated having disrupted in the past three years showed evidence of plotting in the same direction.

It is also one that is increasingly hard to eradicate even with well-developed national surveillance and intelligence capabilities.

Protecting Open Democracy

The decision to strike at the heart of British democracy is a seemingly obvious choice: groups have long sought to strike public institutions and the Houses of Parliament are an international symbol.

The ease of striking at parliamentarians was illustrated last year with the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox at her Batley and Spen, Yorkshire, constituency surgery by right wing extremist Thomas Mair.

It was not the first time a parliamentarian had been attacked in this way – in May 2010 there was the stabbing of Labour’s East Ham MP Stephen Timms by Roshonara Choudhry in an Islamist-inspired attack. Timms was severely wounded, and Choudhry was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Democracy, by its nature, is open and its representatives accessible to the public. Yet, such openness can complicate protecting those representatives or institutions.

Nevertheless, there are some security measures that may be tightened as a result of the current events in London. The fact that the vehicle was able to mount the pavement in the areas around Parliament will raise questions about whether the protective bollards and barriers that surround the area should be further extended.

Indeed, the fact that the individual was able to get inside the parliamentary estate will undoubtedly raise questions about whether the sanitised zone needs to be extended further and more barriers erected in the vicinity.

It is also clear that authorities have discovered that Masood had featured historically in investigations. This will raise questions about why he was not prioritised for investigation and what decisions were made in other directions.

Making the Tough Choices

This is an equally difficult task. For the security services, the problem is in identifying the individual as a priority at this specific moment. It is possible that he should have been due to indicators that were missed. However, security forces are facing a complicated situation involving thousands of persons of interest while lacking the staff numbers to deal with them all.

Choices will have to made about who needs to be prioritised for deeper investigation. This necessitates more attention to some and less to others involving a process of carefully calibrated choice.

The nature of the attack also makes it hard to prevent. Attacks involving cars and knives make use of everyday tools, a tactic which in itself limits the opportunities for the security services to detect plots in advance.

This is not only a reflection of the relative difficulty of launching more sophisticated attacks, but also the fact that terrorist groups have lowered the methodology of a successful attack to this level.

Not only are the tools hard to identify prior to attack (unlike guns or explosives), but preparation time is very limited and can be hard to discern from someone’s ordinary pattern of behaviour.

Beware of an Exaggerated Response

Ultimately, it is the reaction to the carnage which ‘makes’ the attack. An exaggerated response will increase the impact of the incident and give it undue importance. On the other hand, suppressing discussion may feed a frenzy of speculation which is also harmful.

More on the attack will be heard in the days to come, shedding light on the lessons that need to be learned. The answer – as is often the case – is to step back and review processes, ensure societal resilience and brace for the potential for further incidents.

Banner image: Armed police on Victoria Embankment in London after Wednesday’s terror attack on Westminister Bridge and Parliament. Courtesy of Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images.

Going to catch up on a batch of belated posting today, starting with a piece for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s (ASPI) annual counter-terrorism yearbook looking in particular at what China has been up to in 2016.

China’s Terrorism Threat and Response in 2016

Raffaello Pantucci

Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute

In August 2016, China experienced what appears to have been the first targeted terrorist attack against one of its embassies.1 A Uygur suicide bomber drove a car into China’s diplomatic compound in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, exploding it outside the ambassador’s residence; the attacker was the only fatality, but three Kyrgyz employees were injured. While Kyrgyz authorities were quick to link the attack to a Syrian-based network—although publicly available evidence to date has been limited—for Beijing the attack was the manifestation of an increased threat from Uygur groups, which had now spread beyond China to threaten Chinese interests abroad. Clear and substantial connections between Uygur groups and international terrorist networks were also confirmed in 2016.

During the year, China increased its external security presence to mitigate these threats, while attempting to balance this against its longstanding practice of non-interference. At home, it has continued a hardline approach to managing the Uygur issue in Xinjiang, and 2016 marked a new level of regional control in the region, including an almost complete halt to media reporting of security-related incidents.

China’s terrorist threat comes primarily from the divisions in China’s westernmost region of Xinjiang, where a Uygur minority resents rule from Beijing.2 That resentment has expressed itself through social tensions, an exodus of Uygurs from the country and violence against the state. Beijing has taken a two-pronged approach to dealing with the problem. In the rst instance, it has invested heavily in the region economically (including the‘Silk Road Economic Belt’, which has opened Xinjiang to regional trading markets), but at the same time launching regular ‘strike hard’ campaigns deploying heavy security measures to control the region and enacting new regional and national CT legislation.

Beijing’s focus on terrorism is primarily concerned with Chinese Uygurs, something that has attracted some international and human rights concern as potentially unfairly dealing with its own minority citizens.3 The national CT legislation has similarly attracted criticism for not balancing strong CT measures with transparent and fair judicial process, as well as for a broad de nition of terrorism that may be at odds with international law standards for free speech, freedom of religion and peaceful protest.

Reported terrorist incidents within China decreased in 2016, and then-regional Communist Party chief Zhang Chunxian stated in March that ‘violent terrorist incidents have dropped signi cantly.’4 Indeed, only one incident was reported: an attack on 29 December in Moyu (or Karakax) County in southern Xinjiang, where a group drove explosive-laden cars into a local Communist Party office. Reporting on casualties was mixed, although o cial sources reported that three attackers, one security official and one bystander were killed.5 The explosives, while rudimentary, appeared to demonstrate an increased level of sophistication for attacks in the region.

While this incident capped an otherwise quiet year, non-state sources suggest that more was going on but not being publicly reported. The day after the incident in Moyu/Karakax County, a report published by the Hong Kong-based advocacy group, the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, claimed that more than 1,000 violent incidents in Xinjiang in the past year weren’t reported in the press.6 The precipitous drop in reported incidents is indeed surprising, given previous levels of violence, which had been variously estimated at between a few hundred and 2,000 fatalities per year since 2013, but is difficult to evaluate due to the difficulties of undertaking independent research in the region.7

The reported decrease in incidents may be a product of a more aggressive government security posture in the region. In August, the regional government passed CT legislation supplementing national legislation passed earlier in the year. The local legislation was seen as far more wide-ranging than the national laws, focusing in particular on recruitment and radicalisation, the dissemination of extremist material (the definition of which was also expanded) and the deradicalisation of prisoners.8 Soon after its passage, a large CT exercise was undertaken in southern Xinjiang—the part of the region that remains majority Uygur—involving around 3,000 personnel and testing 21 new types of ‘high-tech equipment, including drones, assault rotorcraft and all-terrain assault vehicles’.9

The security approach was further sharpened during the year through changes to the regional party leadership. Leader Zhang Chunxian was moved to the post of Deputy Leader of the Leading Group for Party Building and replaced by Chen Quanguo, the former party chief in Tibet. Upon arriving in the region, Chen immediately introduced hardline policies re ecting those used in Tibet, including establishing a region-wide network of ‘convenience’ police stations, providing increased state presence and surveillance. Recruiting drives for security officers were launched in Xinjiang and neighbouring regions to increase the number available for deployment.10 The importance Chen attaches to shows of strength was demonstrated in the wake of the Moyu/Karakax County attack, when he hosted a large public oath-taking ceremony and CT exercise in Urumqi.11 Nevertheless, this heavy approach to security appears to be unable to completely address the region’s problems, and the attack at the end of the year showed that local anger can still erupt into violence that gets to public attention despite the government crackdown.

Outside China, Beijing has also faced an increasingly worrying threat picture. The August attack in Bishkek followed a growing number of worrying indicators that Uygur militant groups outside the country were gaining strength.

The Syria and Iraq battlefields have also provided opportunities for anti-Chinese groups to link with Islamist terrorist groups. The Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) is the main Uygur terrorist group.

TIP’s close link with al-Qaeda was confirmed earlier in the year through a series of videos released by the two groups. In May, the leader of TIP, Abdul Haq, who had previously been believed killed, re-emerged and released an audio message in which he attacked ISIS, praised al-Qaeda, and highlighted TIP’s proximity to the latter.12 In July, al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a video as part of a bigger series called ‘Islamic Spring’ in which he specifically praised the Uygur contribution to the jihad in Afghanistan and beyond and elevated leaders from the group into the pantheon of senior jihadi leaders.13 Both videos carried threats for China, but in many ways the most worrying aspect for Beijing was the clearly warm and public embrace shared by the two groups.

Al-Qaeda has historically had close links with Uygur militants (Abdul Haq was identified as a member of al-Qaeda’s shura, or leadership council, as early as 2005 14) but has shown little interest in dedicating resources to the Uygur cause. The videos suggested the possibility of a change.

In Syria, TIP ghts mainly alongside Jabhat al-Nusrah / Jabhat Fateh al-Sham groups and regularly publishes videos showing large numbers of well-armed ghters engaged in combat across Syria, as well as releasing messages condemning Islamic State (IS) activity. While the main body of TIP fighters is engaged in ghting in Syria, Beijing considers that Abdul Haq is hiding in northern Afghanistan. The South Asian wing of the group appears to have moved into Afghanistan in response to the Pakistani Government’s Zarb-e-Azb push that ejected them from their previous base in Pakistan’s badlands.

Evidence from the Middle East shows that a substantial number of Uygurs have joined IS. Leaked IS documents indicate between 118 and 167 IS ghters are identifiably Chinese or Uygur. Additionally, Uygurs appear to have been picked up by Turkish authorities as part of the investigation into the New Year’s Eve attack in Istanbul. Yet while IS has added China to its list of enemies, it hasn’t dedicated many resources to attacking it.

The patterns of TIP and other militant Uygur activity in Afghanistan and Syria go some way to explaining increased Chinese security activity in both countries. On 14 August, People’s Liberation Army Navy Rear Admiral Guan Youfei met Russian and Syrian security o cials in Damascus, where he pledged China’s training support to Syrian medical staff.15 In Afghanistan, building on a long history of engagement, China sought to establish a new regional security subgrouping, bringing together the army chiefs of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and China to discuss border security and regional terrorist groups. Tajikistan has additionally publicly confirmed that China is helping to construct border posts between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.16

Beyond warzones, Uygur militants have demonstrated increased contact with Southeast Asian terrorist groups. In August 2016, Indonesian authorities shot and killed a Uygur linked to the East Indonesia Mujahidin, one of the main terrorist groups in Indonesia, led by Santoso.17 This was the tenth Uygur killed alongside the group. The Uygur group was allegedly seeking training with the East Indonesia Mujahidin before returning to China. In November, Nur Muhammet Abdullah al Faris was jailed in Indonesia for his involvement with a network planning a series of terrorist attacks in the region. The network was also reportedly involved in people smuggling to help Uygurs flee China and in some cases receive terrorist training. Some reports indicate that the group received money from TIP (or, as it was identified in the reports, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement), which it was using to advance its own goals as well as to support terrorist training for Uygurs.18

These developments indicate increasingly deep and substantial connections between militant Uygur groups and international terrorist networks. This menacing picture for China underscores the increased need for China to act against the networks externally. The 2016 national CT law recognised this, providing a broader mandate for Chinese security forces to act outside national territory to disrupt terrorist networks. And, as discussed above, China is also increasing the substance and visibility of its security forces beyond its national territory.

The question that remains, however, is the extent to which China’s actions may be exacerbating the very threat that it seeks to mitigate. China’s Uygurs see themselves as a persecuted minority that’s subject to restrictive legislation not imposed on any other groups in China, including other Muslim minorities.19 While there’s been substantial economic investment into Xinjiang, it’s unclear whether the benefits are filtering down to the Uygur community or remaining primarily with the politically and economically dominant Han community. And the lack of information coming out of the region means that it’s impossible to independently evaluate whether the ‘strike hard’ campaign has delivered results.

Certainly, the move of Zhang Chunxian from Xinjiang to Beijing and his replacement by former Tibet party leader Chen Quanguo suggests that the central leadership had mixed feelings about Zhang’s tenure in the region, although it’s hard to discern whether his move was related to failed policies in Xinjiang or his factional connections. Within Xinjiang, it appears that a hard line is taken against officials for failure in areas where attacks occur. A recent report indicated that the party chief in Moyu/Karakax County and the party secretary of Hotan Prefecture (where Moyu/Karakax is located) were both under investigation by the Discipline Inspection Committee for corruption and dereliction of duty, seemingly linking these investigations to the security failures associated with the 29 December incident.20

China’s terrorist problem continues to grow. Last year marked a new point with the attack on the Bishkek Embassy, and the broader threat indicators are not positive. As China continues to advance its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, its nationals and companies are increasingly going to dangerous countries and potentially finding themselves in the cross-hairs of terrorist groups.21 Also, whereas previously China was able to shield itself from attack somewhat because terrorist groups saw the US and the broader West as their targets, this will change as Uygurs rise up the ranks of international terrorist networks and China assumes a more prominent role in international affairs.

Another side to China’s growing outward push reflects the country’s increasing desire to assert itself internationally and become a more normalised security actor in international affairs. While this is reflected in continuing assertiveness in China’s maritime relationships, on land it’s often seen through the lens of CT, on which China finds a more accommodating international consensus. For Beijing, CT offers a more acceptable way to test the limits of its ability to assert its security interests abroad. But the complicated domestic nature of China’s Uygur issue has led to some calls of concern from members of the international community. At the same time, however, Beijing finds an increasingly worrying international terrorism threat picture connected with its domestic concerns, requiring a more assertive posture. In future, it’s likely that these trends mean that Beijing will continue to crack down at home while expanding its efforts abroad.

Notes

  1. Chinese compounds have previously been struck by terrorist or insurgent networks, but the strikes have typically been incidental to being in a warzone and not speci cally targeted, or have been small-scale individual attacks, as seen in Bishkek in 2009.
  2. China has also faced a number of other incidents that have a terroristic aspect to them, including mass stabbings, occasional bombings and shootings, although for the most part those incidents have tended to be linked to individuals’ complaints against the state.
  3. See, for example, Javier C Hernandez, ‘China says 5 killed in attack on Communist Party o ce in Xinjiang’, New York Times, 29 December 2016, online.
  4. ‘“Violent terrorism” in China’s Xinjiang has dropped: party official’, Reuters, 8 March 2016.
  5. Cui Jia, ‘Terrorists strike, but progress made,’ China Daily, 30 December 2016.
  6. Kenji Kawase, ‘More than 1,000 violent clashes in restive Xinjiang this year’, Nikkei Asian Review, 30 December 2016.
  7. See, for example, reporting in Richard Finney: ‘As many as 700 died in Xinjiang violence in last two years, rights group says,’ Radio Free Asia, 3 March 2015, online and ‘“At least 2,000 Uyghurs killed” in Yarkand violence: exile leader’, Radio Free Asia, 5 August 2014.
  8. Chong Koh Ping, ‘Xinjiang gets tough on terrorism’, Straits Times, 5 August 2016; ‘Xinjiang issues China’s rst local counterterrorism law’, Xinhua, 5 August 2016.
  9. ‘China’s armed police hold anti-terror exercise in Xinjiang’, Xinhua, 15 August 2016.
  10. James Leibold, Adrian Zenz, ‘Beijing’s eyes and ears grow sharper in Xinjiang’, Foreign A airs, 23 December 2016.
  11. Eva Li, ‘Show of force in Xinjiang sends hardline message’, South China Morning Post, 3 January 2017.
  12. Thomas Joscelyn, Bill Roggio, ‘Turkistan Islamic Party leader criticizes the Islamic State’s “illegitimate” caliphate’, Long War Journal, 11 June 2016.
  13. Thomas Joscelyn, ‘Zawahiri praises Uighur jihadists in ninth episode of “Islamic Spring” series’, Long War Journal, 7 July 2016.
  14. UN Security Council Subsidiary Organs,‘QDi.268 Abdul Haq, reasons for listing’, UN Security Council Committee Pursuant to Resolutions 1267 (1999) 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) Concerning ISIL (Da’esh) Al-Qaida and Associated Individuals Groups Undertakings and Entities, summary published 13 August 2009, online.
  15. Christopher Bodeen, ‘Chinese admiral visits Syria in show of support’, Associated Press, 18 August 2016.
  16. ‘China to build outposts for Tajik guards on Tajikistan–Afghanistan border,’ Reuters, 26 September 2016.
  17. Ruslan Sangadji, ‘Last Uighur of MIT shot dead’, Jakarta Post, 18 August 2016.
  18. Nivell Rayda, ‘Uighur terrorists sent funds to Indonesia,’ The Australian, 6 September 2016.
  19. Alice Su, ‘China doesn’t mind Islamic extremists’, Foreign Policy, 16 December 2016.
  20. Jun Mai, ‘China probes senior Xinjiang party o cials days after deadly bomb attack’, South China Morning Post, 5 January 2017.
  21. The Belt and Road Initiative, also called ‘One Belt, One Road’, is China’s broad-ranging economic development and trade initiative, aiming to increase prosperity through developing land and maritime trading links. A feature of the initiative relevant to terrorism and CT is infrastructure development across areas in China and neighbouring Central Asia.

Slightly delayed posting of a new piece for my institutional home RUSI looking at how the UK should connect with Asia in the new Trumpian world. It struck me as interesting that while the US elected a President who spoke of isolation and scrapping treaties, the Chinese Premier tracked the new Silk Roads in China’s ongoing burst of international connectivity. Separately, spoke to the Guardian about the latest possible death of Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

Britain and Asia in a Trumpian World: Only Connect

As the US appears set to limit its global involvement under President-elect Donald Trump and China intensifies its engagements across the world, an opportunity has arisen for Britain. It is one the UK government should seize.
hammond-xi
The contrast could hardly be greater: as the US voted in a president who has not committed himself to free trade and is keen on closed borders, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang crossed the new Silk Road from China to Europe through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Latvia, promoting precisely the opposite ideas.

And with concrete results. In Gwadar, Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif watched as the first load of products to make the journey down the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor from western China leave for the seas. As America closes in on itself, Eurasia is opening up ever more. And the British government, which has not missed these trends, needs to develop a more strategic approach if it is going to effectively position itself to take advantage of them.

In stark contrast to the apocalyptic vision of international relations which seems to be associated with US President-elect Donald Trump, China’s economy is pushing itself ever-more aggressively into the world. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ concept has become an all-encompassing foreign policy vision, espousing trade and connectivity with talk of the ‘revival of silk roads’ and ‘connectivity’. Nowhere is this clearer than in Eurasia, where China is re-drawing the economic and geopolitical map, as it steers money, companies and people into re-establishing Eurasian continental links.

Li’s tour in many ways mirrored Xi’s in June, when he travelled to Serbia, Poland and then Uzbekistan. And while the announcement of the first load of trucks making it from Kashgar in western China to the coast in Baluchistan was actually far more symbolic than economically significant, it did show how ‘Belt and Road’ connectivity rhetoric was producing results.

It is on this divergence of global attitudes between a retreating US and a thrusting China that UK and other middle powers would do well to focus. A simplification, perhaps, but clearly something is fundamentally shifting and in a world of growing giants, the UK needs to focus on how it can best position itself against these shifting tectonic plates.

The answer for London is a need for greater and closer engagement. With the US, it is likely too early to decide on how to deal with a Trumpian America. However, with China, the answer is to find ways to connect with this surge of Eurasian connectivity. At the same time, London has also to find ways of engaging more seriously with other Asian partners by taking advantage of the broader global shift taking place. Asia is a story of multiple rising giants, and the UK is well regarded by many of them. Britain has long under-performed in its engagement in Asian strategic and security affairs and now is the moment to take a more substantial posture on the issues that preoccupy its partners there.

The current British government has already started to make noises in this direction: while Li was crossing the continent and the US was voting for Trump, Prime Minister Theresa May was in India and Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond hosted the latest Economic and Financial Dialogue with China in London. These moves need to be matched by a more serious engagement in regional strategic and security affairs.

Both China and India realise their growing weight in international affairs and want to engage with the UK as a serious power, but are often concerned that London does not take their strategic concerns seriously. This is likely less true for China than India. However, at the same time, the fact the UK has such an enhanced and visible engagement with China is having a detrimental knock-on effect on other Asian partners for whom China is a competitor and antagonist.

There are two important aspects from this for the UK to note. First, London needs to establish a more comprehensive and strategic dialogue with Asia. This means not just paying lip service to regional security questions, but playing a more forward role in engaging and understanding them. British diplomatic, analysis and security personnel across Asia and in government offices in London need to be enhanced and bolstered so that policymakers have a more substantial understanding of Asian dynamics and a demonstrable desire to engage in them.

Second, the UK needs to move forwards into playing a more engaged strategic role. Rather than continuing as a passive observer of regional dynamics, the UK should move into a position where it can build on its existing relationships to play the role of regional peace-broker.

To focus on Eurasia in particular: the current Chinese-driven surge of connectivity has the potential to be a collective net boon, but at the moment it is only partially working. Hiccups such as regional neighbours refusing to let products travel across their borders, or China being unable to resolve long-standing historical tensions, have hindered the smooth progress of the Belt and Road concept. If London stepped in to find a unique role as broker and diplomat between regional powers, it could help to encourage the aspiration of connectivity which serves a broader group of nations than just China.

Looking at South Asia, the UK’s relationships with both India and Pakistan place it in a unique position to try to lower tensions. Admittedly not an easy task, and one that has been attempted in fits and starts for some time, but a more focused effort on both sides of the border might help show a level of strategic seriousness that the UK is accused of missing in its current pursuit of trade deals.

By stepping forward to play this role – a position that may become vacant if Trump’s isolationist America happens – the UK will be able to carve a new role for itself in the world, one which benefits more from Asian growth without being too openly mercantilist.

The UK has been somewhat rudderless strategically since the referendum in June to leave the EU.

The election of Trump has further accentuated this perception, and there is a palpable concern about what might comes next. But the world has kept turning, and Chinese-driven Eurasian connectivity continues its inexorable surge. If the UK wants to truly benefit from this shifting world order, it needs to rapidly define where exactly it will sit and what it will bring to the table. Engaging more seriously and substantially in Asian strategic affairs would be an important place to start.

 

 

A late posting of a recent piece for my institutional home RUSI exploring the question of al Qaeda versus ISIS/Daesh/ISIL and the degree to which they are able to advance the lone actor strategy. Lots of longer form writing going on at the moment which is keeping me busy and will eventually land.

Why is Daesh Able to Inspire More Attacks Than Al-Qa’ida?

The fact that there are more and more Daesh-inspired lone-actor terrorist attacks may be the product of technological changes, rather than a different approach to terror.
vigil_of_solidarity_in_the_wake_of_the_orlando_pulse_shooting_27027482763

Daesh appears to have intensified its efforts to encourage individuals to carry out lone-actor terrorist attacks, as events over the weekend in the US indicate. But this trend has been observed for quite some time, and it may be the product of technological changes, rather than a different approach to terror.

The US was rocked this weekend by a series of terrorist attacks. While Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS or IS) claimed responsibility for the stabbing spree in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the New York and New Jersey explosions have not yet been claimed by any terrorist group. Given the uncertainties at this stage in the investigation, it is unclear if there is any deeper meaning to this distinction, but the speed with which Daesh claimed responsibility for one terrorist attack and not the other suggests a rationale. The Minneapolis attack was an example of the lone-actor methodology that Daesh has managed to appropriate from Al-Qa’ida with a high degree of success. A key unanswered question is this: why has Daesh has proven so much more effective at delivering this sort of attack than Al-Qa’ida?

The first thing to note is that the approach which Daesh appears to be so good at promoting is not novel. Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Inspire magazine used to advocate a similar methodological approach. It aped various prominent mainstream advertising campaigns – including Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ campaign – and offered easily accessible attack methodologies for aspirant warriors. And there was some evidence that it worked, with the bomb recipe offered in the magazine repeatedly showing up in terrorist plots. From the limited available evidence at the moment, the latest New York bombs seem to emulate a recipe in Inspire.

Yet it was never clear that the group was able to instigate and steer such attacks. Numerous Al-Qa’ida leaders spoke of the lone-actor methodology as one that adherents in the West should copy, but very few terrorist attacks seem to have actually taken place as a result. Occasional plots seemed to hint in this direction, but it was almost impossible to draw a direct causal link between Al-Qa’ida and these attacks. And, according to one letter found in his lair in Abbottabad, Osama Bin Laden did not entirely approve of all of the various random mass murder methodologies Inspire used to offer its readers.

Fast-forward to today, and we see repeated attacks using small bombs, knives, guns and other weapons to attack innocent citizens in the West, with Daesh regularly claiming responsibility for them. And while some appear to be over-eager claims by the group – like the case of Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people in a mass shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in June – in a growing number of cases there appears to be clear evidence of some sort of connection with Daesh.

Three factors appear to have changed since the heyday of Inspire magazine that may help explain Daesh’s effectiveness in inspiring lone-actor terrorist attacks.

First, the ideology that Daesh espouses comes in the wake of Al-Qa’ida and it is louder, brasher and more attractive, projecting an image of power and control of territory; markedly different to Al-Qa’ida’s image of a secretive menacing organisation.

Second, the definition of ‘terrorist attack’ has been diluted, with the range of actions that are considered terrorist attacks now broader. Whereas in the past only large-scale bomb or plane attacks would be considered terrorist attacks, now using a vehicle or knives against other citizens can constitute a terrorist attack. Furthermore, the targets have now become diffuse – cafés, churches, people’s houses,  among others, are all in the crosshairs. This means that a terror attack is no longer the complicated large-scale endeavour that it used to be. And if it is easier to carry out a terrorist attack, then there are a wider range of attacks for Daesh to be able to claim. This lower threshold is something that Daesh has eagerly embraced, in contrast to Al-Qa’ida, which has allegedly had reservations about this approach.

Third, it turns out that a number of these attacks are not actually as lone or detached as they seem prima facie. After an investigation, the German authorities uncovered clear evidence of contact with Daesh in an axe attack on a train in Wuerzburg and an attempted bombing in Ansbach in July this year. The June murder of a police officer and his girlfriend at their home in Magnaville, 55 km west of Paris, and the subsequent July murder of a priest in Rouen, as well as the attempted car bombing in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, were all linked back to the same French Daesh leader: Rachid Kassim. Previously, a network of British plotters in the Syrian city of Raqqa – Junaid Hussain, Reeyad Khan and Sally Jones – were talking and instigating various attempted attackers in the West.

In many of these cases, it was subsequently discovered that the plotters on the ground were involved in quite intense conversations with Daesh handlers or directors. Apparently using apps such as WhatsApp, Kik or Telegram, the attackers were communicating with their Daesh handlers. The Ansbach bomber, for example, was quite literally directed in his attack by his handler outside Germany. So, although the perpetrators may seem to have been alone in their actions, they both had some backing and plenty of connections.

In some ways, this is likely a product of the way we communicate these days. Daesh, therefore, appears to be in part a product of its time; the communication apps that are now available were not accessible to Al-Qa’ida when it was promoting a similar message, and Daesh’s more contemporary audience is simply using the tools in everyday life. The phenomenon also builds on what came before it: Al-Qa’ida had already started to sketch out the path of lone-actor attacks that Daesh has so eagerly embraced. And in part it is a product of a leadership in Daesh that sees value and strategy in low-grade random attacks, in contrast to Al-Qa’ida, which appears fixated on more large-scale, dramatic attacks.

Daesh has not invented a new strategy of launching attacks; what we are witnessing instead seems to be an attempt on the part of Daesh to increase the incidence of a particular form of terrorism, lone-actor terrorism, an upward trajectory that was most likely to happen anyway. Daesh’s attacks seem a product of their times, rather than a completely novel strategic approach.

And now a longer report with Sarah for our institutional home RUSI looking at the Tbilisi Silk Road Forum a conference we attended last year and are keen to try to engage with more. It sketches out some of the ideas to emerge from the event, and some ideas about how to take the project forwards. More on this general topic to be found on China in Central Asia. Finally, I also co-edited with Aniseh, this longer report looking at Iran’s relations with Syria for RUSI, as seen from a number of different angles. Am not re-posting it in its entirety here, as it was largely authored by others. But I would encourage everyone to read my colleagues excellent work!

Tbilisi Silk Road Forum: Next Steps for Georgia and the Silk Road

Raffaello Pantucci and Sarah Lain

RUSI Publications, 2 August 2016

baku-tbilisi_railways

This workshop report provides a number of recommendations which aim to capitalise on the success of the Tbilisi Silk Road Forum and place Georgia at the heart of Eurasian connectivity

The Tbilisi Silk Road Forum which took place 15–16 October 2015 – co-hosted by the Georgian and Chinese governments – was a clear endorsement by Georgia of China’s proposed Belt and Road policy. It also provided an opportunity to showcase Georgia’s position at the heart of a changing Eurasia. At a time when Iran is opening up, there is a surge of Chinese investment following the Belt and Road vision; numerous other proposals for Eurasian connectivity are being advanced by outside powers. As a country with strong connections to the east and west, Georgia is well placed to benefit from this web of connectivity and to offer examples of best practice to those nations that are still formulating their own responses to this regional development. This report details the key findings that emerged from the two-day conference, suggests ways in which it can move beyond being a one-off event and outlines some ideas for how Georgia can establish itself as one of the key hubs of Eurasian trade and commerce.

Another new piece for my institute’s in-house magazine, RUSI Newsbrief, this time looking at China-Pakistan and some of the problems that China has been experiencing in trying to implement its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. As ever, more on this topic to come and found on the China in Central Asia site.

China-Pakistan: With Great Investment Comes Some Responsibility

chinese_and_pakistani_guards

Raffaello Pantucci

China has invested millions into Pakistani infrastructure, but will internal political conflict in Pakistan prove to be the bane of the CPEC’s existence?

The China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has become one of the emblematic foreign policy initiatives of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s broader ‘Belt and Road’ vision. An ambitious and wide-ranging investment project, the CPEC offers Pakistan a way through a number of its biggest problems – including domestic power supply, lack of infrastructure, and parts of the country that are underdeveloped – while giving China strategic port access to the Indian Ocean and creating a corridor to external markets for the underdeveloped southern part of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

Yet earlier this year, the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad was put in the awkward position of having to formally distance itself from acrimonious internal political wrangling within Pakistan around the CPEC. In a pattern that is likely to repeat itself elsewhere as China continues to try to turn the ‘Belt and Road’ concept into a reality, Beijing is finding that it is unable to simply sidestep local entanglements and plead non-interference. Pakistan may prove to be a testing ground to see whether China can avoid local entanglements as the Xi administration seeks to advance its vision for a network of global trade corridors under the ‘Belt and Road’ rubric.

Although it was first announced in May 2013 during the visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to Pakistan, the CPEC was the culmination of many years of steady Chinese investment in Pakistan. A month later, during his inaugural visit to Beijing, Pakistan’s newly elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, signed a Memorandum of Understanding formalising the CPEC project. Two years later, it was given a reported injection of $46 billion when President Xi made a reciprocal visit to Pakistan in April 2015.

While relations between Beijing and Islamabad had always been close, it was mostly based on deep and reactive security co-operation – either in terms of Pakistan responding to China’s concerns about terrorism, or China backing Pakistan in its disputes with India. The announcement of the CPEC changed the relationship: it became supercharged as CPEC was presented as the answer to some of Pakistan’s most pressing problems. For example, the focus on the port of Gwadar in Pakistan’s restive Baluchistan offered the potential to economically revitalise one of the country’s long-troubled regions. At the same time, the emphasis on energy programmes (with investment worth almost $34.4 billion, according to Pakistan’s Ministry of Planning, Development and Reform, which would double Pakistan’s generating capacity) promised to address the country’s biggest shortages. This potential goes some way to explaining the often hyperbolic narratives surrounding CPEC in Pakistan.

Given these excessively high expectations, it might therefore be unsurprising that the project has not been plain sailing. This was not entirely unexpected, with senior officials in China openly expressing their concerns about security and the viability of the overall project from the very beginning. During a meeting in Beijing in August 2013, Lin Dajian, vice director-general of the Department of International Cooperation at the National Development and Reform Commission, the governmental body within China that is steering the CPEC, highlighted ‘the security issues and challenges that could impede the speed of [the] project’. What appears to have surprised China, however, is the degree of pushback and difficulty encountered within Pakistan at a political level.

This came to a head in January, when problems in two provincial Pakistani governments made headlines that even managed to drag in the local Chinese Embassy. The government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) issued a threat through its chief minister, Pervez Khattak, who warned that ‘if the federal government does not address the reservations of KP about the [CPEC] project, then we will take an extreme step.’ Khattak’s concern appears to be that the KP government will not receive its fair share of the CPEC project.

At around the same time, stories emerged in the press that the government in Islamabad was exploring the possibility of changing the constitutional status of its northernmost province of Gilgit-Baltistan in response to Chinese concerns about its ability to build some CPEC routes through the disputed region – since China does not want to find itself spending money and sending people to work in areas whose ownership is legally unclear and therefore subject to aggressive contention or dispute. Claimed by India as part of Jammu and Kashmir, the region was traditionally referred to as ‘Northern Areas’ and controlled directly by Islamabad. In 2009, as part of a measure to turn it into a full province by Pakistan, the name was formally changed to ‘Gilgit-Baltistan’ and a legislative assembly was established. In January 2016 the government in Islamabad started to make noises again about taking this process further by recognising the region in the constitution and going some way towards integrating it into the country.

At present, Gilgit-Baltistan has an opaque status similar to that of other parts of the Kashmir region claimed by Pakistan. Islamabad continues to state that the parts of Kashmir it controls are in fact semi-autonomous and are therefore not formally integrated into the country; this is in line with its position that a referendum should be carried out across the entire region. By taking this step, however, Pakistan risked incurring anger in India as well as in Kashmir itself.

From the perspective of the neighbouring province of Azad Jammu Kashmir (AJK), the fear was that recognising as a separate province a region that had hitherto been treated as part of AJK might lead to India changing its position on the disputed territories. In addition, officials in Gilgit-Baltistan had their own concerns. They were worried that they were going to miss out on their piece of the CPEC pie.

These fierce regional rivalries were also rooted in Pakistani party politics. In KP, the provincial government is ruled by the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), while in AJK the government is controlled by the largest opposition party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Pakistani commentators have long argued that both parties want to see the CPEC fail: if it succeeds on schedule, it will likely be a strong vote puller for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party. This is because the early parts of the CPEC will likely be most beneficial to the PML-N stronghold of Punjab province. Indeed, in November 2015 the leader of the PPP in the National Assembly, Syed Khursheed Shah, wrote to Sharif expressing concern that the project appeared too ‘Punjab-centric’.

All of these opposition parties, however, have been very careful not to alienate China through their complaints to the central government in Islamabad. They all praise China and the CPEC’s potential to change the country positively. In order to reinforce this point, in the wake of the public airing of the KP complaints, a senior delegation from PTI led by former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi visited the Chinese Embassy. The delegation’s stated aim was to give ‘an assurance to the ambassador that we don’t have any issue with China and we are in favour of the CPEC.’ He went on to say:

‘We also assured [the Chinese authorities] that we will not do any politics on this project and will support its completion … [but] we have reasonable doubts about the federal government. The PML-N government is not taking us into confidence on many issues.’

This led to the embassy issuing an unprecedented statement in which China distanced itself from the problems while calling for unity: ‘China hopes that the relevant parties in Pakistan could strengthen communication and coordination on the CPEC to create favourable conditions for the project.’ This message was reinforced at the regular Ministry of Foreign Affairs briefings in Beijing, where ministry spokesman Hong Lei insisted that ‘we stand ready to work with Pakistan to complete the projects under construction and make long-term plans to keep advancing the building of the Corridor.’

The escalation of these domestic political disputes to the halls of power in Beijing highlights how complicated negotiations around the CPEC have become. While Pakistani officials at every level seek to distance themselves from negative comments about China, it is nonetheless the case that Chinese activity in the country has been the immediate source of these problems. And these are not the only problems that China faces in Pakistan. Apart from militancy, either from violent Islamists or separatists, China has to confront the problems of its workers being kidnapped and its nationals becoming embroiled in local criminal networks.

Whilst unsurprising to most observers of Pakistan, these problems nonetheless illustrate a larger problem that China will increasingly face as it pushes its ‘Belt and Road’ vision out across the Eurasian continent. Making considerable financial investments and importing large numbers of Chinese nationals into a region does not eliminate tensions on the ground. In fact, large investments can exacerbate tensions. They can increase inequality, or, as appears to be the case in Pakistan, they can cause local political tensions. This undermines the argument that appears to underpin Chinese investment policy in both the third world and at home – that development will bring with it political stability.

In Pakistan in particular, China is increasingly going to find itself in difficult situations. China is investing in security in Pakistan at a number of different levels. Not only is it helping the country build its big ticket weapons systems such as aircraft and submarines, but it is also helping police forces to improve security on the ground. It is unclear whether these expenditures are included in the approximately $46 billion associated with the CPEC project, but China will find that the expenses on Pakistani police and army will be constant, and China may find itself having to foot the bill for as long as Pakistan continues to face instability at home.

The CPEC has the potential to be game-changing for Pakistan, but it is unlikely to solve all of the country’s ills or to be completed any time soon. For observers of the ‘Belt and Road’ vision, China’s experiences in Pakistan may offer a taster of what it will encounter elsewhere in the world as it seeks to implement President Xi’s ambitious foreign policy vision, a vision that he hopes will be his legacy.