Archive for the ‘THINK TANKS’ Category

Some belated catch up posting, this time something for my institutional home RUSI. Was inspired by the terrible rhetoric that we continue to be seeing deployed in the wake of terrorist incidents by political leaders, and the particularly horrible incidents attacks we saw in the US ahead of the mid-term elections. There is something brewing on the far right which while not totally new, has the potential to cause some major societal damage. On top of the fact of how our public discourse has now shifted, it seems deeply unwise for certain rhetoric to be deployed. Unfortunately, little evidence on the horizon that anything is going to change.

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Lone Actor Terrorists and Extreme Right Wing Violence

Recent attacks perpetrated by extreme right wing terrorists in the US are undoubtedly linked to the upcoming mid-term elections, reflecting the reality that the country’s charged political scene may be pushing would-be terrorists into action.

 

There can be little doubt that there is a correlation of some sort between the spate of mail bombs dispatched around the US last week, the murderous shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue and next week’s mid-term elections. The poisonous rhetoric deployed in political discourse will rile people up and stir anger, which a few individuals will take to its natural extreme conclusion. This in turn is exacerbating a growing shift towards lone actor terrorism as the principal expression of extremist violence in Europe and North America, something that we see acknowledged in the spate of incidents in the US and the news that MI5 is to take on a greater leadership role in fighting the extreme right wing (XRW) in the UK.

The sorts of attacks seen in the US over the past week can, on the surface, appear to be the sort that are almost impossible to prevent. An isolated individual who decides to take matters into his own hands, using objects which are relatively accessible to the general public might set off very few tripwires for authorities. In fact, what is usually discovered in the wake of such incidents is that the individuals involved were in fact quite indiscrete in their behaviour. In the case of both Cesar Sayoc (the mail pipe bomber) and Robert Bowers (the Pittsburgh shooter), there was ample evidence of their vile views in their online activity. In Sayoc’s case, he was also vocal about his extreme views among people he knew and in public. Bowers was quieter in person, but foreshadowed his intent on a social media platform called Gab prior to launching his attack.

None of this behaviour is surprising for lone actor terrorists. In a study undertaken by a RUSI-led research consortium in 2016 focused on lone actor terrorism in Europe, from a pool of 120 cases between 2000 and 2014 across the ideological spectrum, perpetrators exhibited ‘leakage’ of some sort in at least 46% of cases. This ‘leakage’ took various forms, with some individuals changing behaviour in front of their families, while others made far clearer statements of intent which almost exactly described the acts they later committed. While there were considerable similarities among the various ideological groups in the dataset, there was a noticeable difference between the XRW and religiously inspired terrorists (the two biggest groups in the dataset), with XRW terrorists being far more likely to post telling indicators online. One perpetrator identified by researchers posted on an XRW website, ‘watch television on Sunday, I will be a the star … Death to zog [Zionist Occupation Government], 88!’. ‘88’ represents ‘Heil Hitler’, as H is the eighth letter of the alphabet. There is some similarity between this commentary and Bowers’s final post on Gab, ‘I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in’. Given the data for the study was largely drawn from what was available in the public domain, and with some cases being drawing on sparse information, researchers suspected that the actual number might be higher than 46%.

From current understanding, Sayoc does not appear to have signalled his intent as explicitly, but he seems to have had a deep appreciation for US President Donald Trump’s more extreme narratives and this appears to have shaped his choice of targets. Aiming at a wide range of prominent figures and institutions which have arrayed themselves against Trump politically, in public reporting Sayoc appears to have expressed his extreme pro-Trump views to several people in his immediate surroundings, having driven a van emblazoned with his support.

This appears to be in stark contrast to Bowers, who seemingly moved through his immediate community ‘like a ghost’. His in-person behaviour was apparently different from his crude, violently anti-Semitic and anti-Trump online persona.

While divergent in outward appearance, neither of these patterns are atypical to XRW lone attackers, where socially awkward individuals will externalise their behaviour abruptly and dramatically, often with some clear indicators beforehand that are unfortunately often only comprehensible in the aftermath of an attack. Even Bowers’s apparently obvious online vitriol is depressingly indistinguishable from the torrent of hatred that can be found on some XRW websites.

What is clear, however, is that the increasingly poisonous political rhetoric seen around the world is in part to blame for such incidents. In much the same way that the anger stirred up around the 2016 EU referendum was likely, in part, to blame for the murder of MP Jo Cox, it seems likely that the political winds stirring in the US in part compelled these two men to act. The sense of great political confrontation at hand and the language used in the mainstream likely accelerated the behaviour of already undoubtedly troubled individuals.

But what is most worrying is the fact that aside from the violence that is visible through these individual acts, there is a growing organisation and structure to the XRW in the UK. While the US scene has long been populated by a mix of groups and isolated individuals, the UK scene was, until relatively recently, largely the domain of isolated individuals, with organised violent groups a limited part of the XRW picture. This has been changing of late, with the emergence of groups like National Action, whose intent on murdering politicians and organising attacks in the UK has led to them becoming a growing focus to the UK’s intelligence services.

It is still difficult to make absolute comparisons between the XRW and violent Islamist terrorism in the UK. While there is a growing organisational structure and menace in the XRW in the UK, the shadow of violent Islamists’ aspirations remains far more dangerous. But the XRW draws from more mainstream political narratives, meaning the damage to society’s fabric can be more substantial. There have also been catastrophic XRW attacks in Europe in recent memory – specifically, Anders Behring Breivik’s 2010 massacre in Norway. The XRW has the potential to cause mass innocent death, and feeds off a broader political discourse which is already deeply troubled. There is a link between what is happening in the world more generally, and society’s violent political edge. And unless attention is paid, one will make the other worse.

BANNER IMAGE: Smoke rises over Oslo following the detonation of a car bomb near the executive government quarter of Norway, 22 July 2011. Right wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik’s attack remains one of the most catastrophic extreme right wing attacks in Europe in recent memory. Courtesy of Wikimedia. 

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.

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A piece from late last week as part of a short dossier ahead of the Afghan election done for a new outlet of an excellent Italian think tank called Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI). My contribution focused on China’s role in Afghanistan, a common theme which there should be more work on later in the year.

In addition, spoke to Norwegian paper Morgenbladet about Anjem Choudary’s release and the Sun about ISIS in Syria.

18 October 2018

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Afghanistan remains an awkward fit within China’s Belt and Road Initiative concept. Look at most maps of Xi Jinping’s keynote foreign policy concept cutting a route across Eurasia, and they tend to go tidily around Afghanistan. But this masks China’s genuine stake in the country, the gradual shift that is visible in Beijing’s activity and finally, the potential importance of the country to China’s broader push across Eurasia.

Starting with national security, China has increasingly sought to harden its security presence in Afghanistan. But this has been focused for the most part on Chinese national interests, rather than providing broader security support to the country. Beijing has provided funding, equipment and training for Afghan forces in Badakhshan, in Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan, and helped build border bases for Tajik forces on their side of the border in Badakhshan. At a strategic level, China has fostered the creation of the Quadrilateral Coordination and Cooperation Mechanism(QCCM) which brings together the Chiefs of Army Staff for China, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan. The focus of the grouping the border region around the Wakhan Corridor which all three of them share.

The key to understand this is that China is not seeking to displace the United States or NATO as a key security provider for Afghanistan’s armed forces. The country is focusing on bolstering its links and the capability of the various armed forces that touch upon its border with AfghanistanThis posture focused on Chinese national security concerns can be seen in China’s previous security engagements with Afghanistan which have for the most part focused on building relations with local groups to ensure that China’s security equities – either its nationals and investments or its concerns about Uighur militants using the territory to plan attacks in China – are covered. 

Having said this, there is an equally noticeable gradual increase in China’s activity in Afghanistan. From largely seeing the country as a graveyard of Empires from which it prefers to keep a discrete distance, China has increasingly stepped forwards to play a role in the country. Chinese firms have won some large extractive projects – in the north CNPC won an oil concession in Amu Darya, while MCC and Jiangxi Copper famously won the Mes Aynak Copper mine in Logar. Construction firms like Xinjiang Beixin, CBRC and Gezhouba have all worked on major infrastructure projects in the country. And at the smaller end of the scale, Chinese traders have sought to exploit the gemstones in Afghanistan, while Afghan shuttle traders are a feature of the thriving community of developing world merchants in Yiwu.

And Beijing has actively sought tomend the previous omission of Afghanistan from the broader Belt and Road, hosting conferences in Kabul and Beijing on the topic. At the same time, China has used a multiplicity of regional groupings to bring different regional configurations together on Afghanistan. Large multilaterals like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), and the Heart of Asia (or Istanbul) Process have all seen Chinese leadership try to push different parts of them towards playing a role in Afghanistan. At a mini-lateral level, Beijing has brought together the Afghan and Pakistani Foreign Ministers, and engaged, separately, with the US, India, UK and Germany on Afghanistan.

All of this is a step change from earlier years when Beijing largely kept on the sidelines of any discussion around Afghanistan. To some degree this was part of a general reticence by Beijing to become too involved in any major international entanglements, but it was also a product of China’s habit of abrogating its Afghanistan policy to Islamabad. While Beijing continues to be responsive to Pakistan’s concerns in Afghanistan, it has increasingly struck out its own path. The key turning point can likely be seen in 2014 when Beijing realized that American-led NATO efforts in Afghanistan had a shelf life and were not likely to result in a tidy resolution in Kabul. And while Islamabad could provide some support to advance Beijing’s goals, it did not have total control. The United States instead, was not a continental power. It could eventually up and leave – as a physical neighbour, Beijing was a hostage of geography.

At the same time, the main running narrative from Beijing was one of Belt and Road. There was a gradual build up to this through Xi Jinping’s early years – with a major foreign policy work conference on peripheral diplomacy, a refocusing on Xinjiang and China’s border regions, some major foreign travel to South Asia by leadership figures (including in May 2013 the signing of the MoU that laid the foundation for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor), and finally in September and October 2013 the respective announcements of the Silk Road Economic Belt (in Astana, Kazakhstan) and the 21stCentury Maritime Silk Road (in Jakarta, Indonesia). In 2014, China decided to create a position of Special Envoy for Afghan Affairs, appointing seasoned diplomat and Afghanistan watcher Sun Yuxi to the role.

Yet while the appointment was a clear signal of focus by Beijing, it was made in a manner which seemed to suggest it was adjacent to the broader Belt and Road Initiative. At the time, the concept was still working itself out, so in some ways this was not surprising, but the net result was to create a sense of BRI not necessarily being something which encompassed Afghanistan.

The appointment of Ambassador Sun, however, did demonstrate a level of seriousness by Beijing in terms of trying to understand how to engage with Afghanistan at a more sophisticated level than just engaging with Kabul. The difficulty with a country like Afghanistan for a power like China which is still developing its civil service cadre, is to find individuals who are able to understand countries from the inside and figure out which levers deliver results. In a tribal country like Afghanistan, this problem is multiplied, with local power brokers as significant to guarantee success of projects as the central government. As an Ambassador who had served in the country for some time, Ambassador Sun had a good understanding of these dynamics and good relations across the board on the ground. He was also instrumental in getting Beijing’s efforts are helping try to broker negotiations between the Taliban, Islamabad and Kabul together – playing an important role in the creation of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) bringing together China, USA, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This was not unfortunately always the case with Chinese investments in the country. When CNPC embarked on its project in the Amu Darya region, they did it with a company which was not linked to the local power brokers, causing issues when their engineers deployed into the region to deliver the actual project. 

Over time, Beijing has learned these lessons, and is increasingly seeking opportunities to engage with Afghanistan in new formats and play a slightly more forward role. It has ensured that it has developed a range of relationships within the country amongst all the different factions, but at the same time ensured that it has prioritized strengthening its specific border with Afghanistan to make sure China is protected from overspill of security problems. Currently the focus is largely on bolstering capacity in neighbouring weaker countries (in Central Asia, or parts of Pakistan), while also continuing to show a willingness to talk about playing a positive role in Afghanistan. Beijing’s broader caution, however, remains and the country continues to refuse to take a clear leadership role with Kabul. A posture which is likely to continue until China sees with greater clarity what exact role the United States sees for itself in the longer run.

 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)

Been delinquent in posting stuff, doing some bigger writing and catching up with things takes time. First up, posting a piece for my institutional home RUSI’s Newsbrief publication looking at the extreme right wing and violent Islamist threat in the UK, through the lens of a few recent cases.

A Tale of Two Terrors: The British Extreme Right Organises While Islamists Scatter

Raffaello Pantucci
Newsbrief31 July 2018
UK Counter-terrorismTackling ExtremismInternational Security StudiesTerrorismUKDomestic SecurityRadicalisation and Countering Violent ExtremismIntelligenceNational SecurityTerrorism

Once again, the dividing lines that distinguish between variations of violent extremism in the UK have morphed, but addressing the similarities and differences between the extreme right and violent Islamists should help to ensure that the UK’s counter-terror strategy as synchronised as possible with the current threat picture.

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Two contrasting terror trials were recently concluded in the UK. The separate convictions of Naa’imur Rahman and Mohammed Imran, and the sentencings of Christopher Lythgoe and Matthew Hankinson brought together two sides of the terrorist threat facing the UK. With one linked to Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS) and the other to the extreme right wing (XRW), the two cases highlighted the shifting nature of the two ends of the threat spectrum, with the XRW rallying around the threat of violent Islamists, while Islamists point to the XRW as evidence of the clash of civilisations they perceive as being at the heart of, but also the similarities that exist between these two threat sources. Given that both have been prioritised in the latest iteration of the UK’s counter-terror CONTEST strategy, it is unlikely that this is the last time we will see a similar temporal coincidence of the two types of cases.

Ostensibly, the two cases are very different. The Lythgoe and Hankinson convictions are part of a larger case linked to the proscribed XRW terrorist group National Action (NA). The first time in decades a right-wing organisation has been made illegal in the UK, the network they created was one of the first instances of an organised effort on the part of the British XRW. Illustrating their aspiration in a message to the group’s community on the communications app Mumble shortly before the group was formally proscribed by the Home Office, Lythgoe told the leadership to pass messages of sustenance along to ‘people further down the NA hierarchy’ to:

Make sure they understand that the SUBSTANCE of NA is the people, our talents, the bonds between us, our ideas, and our sustained force of will. All of that will continue into the future. We’re just shedding one skin for another. All genuinely revolutionary movements in the past have needed to exist partly underground. These are exciting times.

In stark contrast, the case against Rahman and Imran was a clear articulation of the chaotic and increasingly diffuse threat posed by violent Islamist extremism, where isolated individuals advancing the ideology have tenuous or limited links to the sharp end of the threat. Rahman claims that his uncle, who was killed in an American drone strike while fighting in Syria, was pushing him to launch an attack. Imran was eager to go fight abroad himself. Both were connected to each other through a variety of social media applications and had some links to fighters abroad – although it later emerged that some of these contacts were in fact undercover law-enforcement agents posing as Daesh supporters. The men believed that they were operating as part of a wider network but were in fact quite isolated. This is very much an articulation of the sort of disorganised terrorist threat that is opposite to what has been expressed in the more organised NA plot, with both Rahman and Imran being fairly detached from the extremist community but seeking to advance its ideology through individual action.

Looking back on the history of the XRW and violent Islamist threats in the UK, these plots show an almost complete role reversal between the two. During the mid to late 2000s, the XRW threat was characterised by isolated individuals like Neil LewingtonMartyn Gilleard or Terence Gavan, who accumulated massive amounts of weaponry, indulged in anti-social behaviour, or sought paedophilic material – all the while showing clear sympathies to the XRW cause – but who were largely loners. When attempted plots were uncovered, they were seen as shambolic at best. The exception to this was the Aryan Strike Force (ASF), disrupted in 2009, which boasted a global online network of around 350 individuals. Led by administrators in the UK, the group was largely an online community, although police uncovered evidence of limited training camps in Cumbria and that one member managed to make a substantial amount of the poison Ricin. But even then, the ASF was mostly an online network, while the NA group was more politically active both on and offline.

In contrast, the violent Islamist terror threat of the same period was characterised by sophisticated networks linked to Al-Qa’ida affiliates around the world. Leaders in distant countries provided training and direction to plotters in the UK and throughout the West. There were isolated loners that latched onto violent Islamist ideology to try to launch attacks, but this was the exception rather than the norm. Compare this to today: while Rahman and Imran had some links, these were distant and there is limited evidence of clear direction from foreign-based leaders.

This divergence is reflected in some ways by the men’s commitment to their plots. Jack Renshaw of NA, who had separately pled guilty, wanted to attack MP Rosie Cooper and a police officer who had angered him; he seemed fairly consistent in his commitment to this particular act. In contrast, from available evidence, Rahman was fairly scattered in his plotting. While the chief plot for which he was convicted – of wanting to detonate an explosive device in Downing Street and decapitate the prime minister – continually emerged in his planning, he had numerous other plots in mind. At one point he considered using a drone to attack the Wimbledon tennis tournament, while at other times he discussed going to fight abroad. Rahman had the idea of driving a truck into a crowd, or using one as a bomb and then using guns to shoot people in a hybrid active shooter plot. He was, however, unable to drive and did not know how to shoot (or source) guns.

But while the threat may have gone in divergent directions, there are a surprising number of similarities as well. Both plots targeted prominent political figures: Rahman had an ambitious plan to storm Downing Street and murder the prime minister, while Renshaw wanted to murder an MP and a police officer. At one point he considered the Home Secretary, but ultimately deemed this too difficult a target. This shows a collective anger against the political class and a desire to punish them on both sides of the XRW versus violent Islamist ideological spectrum.

Both plots were inspited in part by other attacks and would have served as revenge for personal attacks perceived to have been made against the individuals. In the case of Rahman, he saw the attempted Parsons Green bombing from earlier in 2017 as ‘the start’ and was impressed by the Manchester Arena bombing. He saw his attack in part as vindication for his uncle’s death in Syria at the hands of the International Coalition Against ISIL. Similarly, the NA cluster was inspired by the 2016 murder of MP Jo Cox and saw Zack Davies’ racially inspired attempted murder of a dentist in a Tesco supermarket as a precedent. Renshaw’s desire to target a particular police officer stemmed from an earlier arrest and a specific officer whom he blamed for his troubles. He hoped to murder her alongside MP Rosie Cooper. Both cases demonstrate clear inspiration from other attacks, highlighting the longer-term consequences to the threat picture of a successful attack, as well as an underlying desire for revenge in their intent.

Another curious similarity is the evidence of predatory sexual behaviour in both cases. Rahman first came onto the radars of the security services when authorities investigated him for sending indecent images to underage girls. In Renshaw’s case, after an initial detention on other charges linked to NA activity, his phone was downloaded and searched, at which point police allegedly found evidence of child sex offences. These alleged perversions are surprisingly common among offenders on both sides of the ideological spectrum and suggest a potential investigation point for security officials.

There are additional comparisons to be made between the investigations of the two cells. In both cases, undercover agents were key for securing convictions. Robbie Mullen, himself a member of the NA cell, turned against the group to work with Hope not Hate, a charity dedicated to fighting the group’s ideology. For Rahman and Imran, the two men believed that they were part of a Daesh network, yet it was largely made up of intelligence agents. The disruption of the Daesh network in particular is notable in this regard, as it reflects an approach by UK security forces that is reminiscent of the behaviour of US authorities, which some UK security officials have previously thought to be inappropriate. Given the broader chaos in Rahman’s life – he was homeless and unemployed at the time of his arrest, seemingly living out a deadly fantasy life through his Daesh-inspired activity and being incapable of doing many of the acts he said he wanted to do – it is an open question whether he would have been able to achieve his goals had he not been apprehended by the network of undercover intelligence agents around him.

Yet, his successful conviction shows that this methodology of securing a case against a perpetrator can work. It has been seen in other recent plots as well, as in the case of Safaa Boular, a young woman convicted of planning an attack on the British Museum who believed she was talking to extremists in Syria online, for example, and will likely be used again. With Renshaw, the fact that Mullen defected to a charity rather than turning himself into the police demonstrates the importance of such community organisations in countering terrorist threats.

The latest version of CONTEST highlighted that ‘Islamist terrorism is the foremost terrorist threat to the UK. Extreme right-wing terrorism is a growing threat’. These two cases show what these menaces look like in practice, and what similarities exist between the two. CONTEST pledged an increase in the volume of resources for targeting the XRW, while the broader violent Islamist threat is now characterised as a series of discrete and seemingly random terrorist plots. The tools needed to counter this sort of threat are included within the new Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, which necessitates longer sentences for terrorism offence convictions and gives authorities the tools needed to disrupt plots earlier on. There is of course a danger in this approach, as individuals may receive heavy sentences for relatively limited activity or involvement, but given the current threat picture, police and security services clearly feel a need to bolster their capabilities in this regard.

There are broader points to consider about the growth of these two threats. First, the rise of a more organised XRW is in many ways a reflection of the increased polarisation of political discourse in the UK. As far-right narratives increasingly creep into the mainstream conversation, the more extreme fringes become empowered, anticipating that the tide of debate is moving in their direction. Second, the problem of a more diffuse and complicated threat picture is not exclusively a problem with violent Islamists. Soon after the conclusion of these two terror trials, another member of NA, Jack Coulson, was sentenced to four years for downloading terrorist manuals. This was his second offence, with the first linked to building pipe bombs as a minor. There was little evidence provided that he coordinated his action with others in the NA group, illustrating how direction and coordination within the XRW is also quite loose.

Last year highlighted how the terrorist threat in the UK remains persistent and can abruptly catch security forces off guard. It may now be typified by more low-tech efforts using basic weaponry, but the ideological background has amplified and is only likely to become more complicated as time goes on. The new iteration of CONTEST reflects this threat picture, but it is important to consider how much the terrorist menace in the UK has evolved since CONTEST was first devised, and to raise the question of whether a more dramatic overhauling of the structure is required. The threat picture has progressed, from one characterised by an external threat touching the UK’s shores and using UK nationals, to one of homegrown actors focused on UK interests, to today’s threat picture driven by multiple ideologies with competing networks, and a broad footprint of isolated adherents conducting attacks without clear direction. Evidently, we are still at the stage of managing a threat rather than eradicating a problem, which is potentially all that will ever be achieved, emphasising the need to evaluate and adapt to a threat picture that does not stand still.

Raffaello Pantucci
Raffaello is the Director of International Security Studies at RUSI.

BANNER IMAGE: The April 2017 ‘London March Against Terrorism’ was organised by far-right groups Britain First and the English Defence League in response to the attack on Westminster that occured days before. Countering the threat of violent Islamists is a key rallying point for the British far-right. Courtesy of PA Images.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.

Another one for RUSI, this time looking at how the UK should respond to the Belt and Road Initiative. Rather repeats points from previous pieces, but still need to be made. More on this topic in the form of a more substantial piece soon hopefully.

Also, catching up on some other things – this report Understanding the Factors Contributing to Radicalisation Among Central Asian Labour Migrants in Russia which was the product of a longer project we worked on at RUSI finally emerged. It looks at the phenomenon of radicalisation amongst Central Asian labour migrants in Russia. Was the product of a lot of effort, and the final drafting of the paper is heavily owned by my RUSI colleague Mo who took the lead, and Sarah and Nadine who both contributed substantially to both working on the project and drafting bits. Thank you all! Off the back of this, did a Majilis podcast with the excellent Bruce and Muhammad for RFE/RL.

And on the other side of my substantive equation, spoke to the Intercept about the far right terror menace in the UK, and to Voice of America about the Liege terror attack today.

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China’s Belt and Road Initiative: A Call for Pragmatism

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary22 May 2018
ChinaInternational Security Studies

China’s Belt and Road Initiative requires a logical response, one based on an assessment of realities rather than rhetoric, and reciprocity, rather than outright confrontation.

There has been little clarity of the UK’s approach to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) since the prime minister’s visit to Beijing in January. The key message to emerge from the visit seemed contradictory: the UK claimed to be ‘a natural partner’ for the BRI, but at the same time, Prime Minister Theresa May refused to sign a memorandum of understanding for the initiative presented by Chinese leaders. But this is a comprehensible paradox. The UK is facing the same conundrum posed to most countries: Chinese investment is attractive, but the norms and political pressure that may follow in the wake of this grand initiative are not.

The key to properly responding to Beijing’s economic statecraft under the BRI is clarity. The foreign policy concept advanced by Chinese President Xi Jinping is the latest expression of China’s ‘going out’ policy; it provides the overarching logic for Chinese external investment. The BRI narrative is one that has grown over time to overwhelm Chinese foreign policy; almost any external engagement that China engages in can be captured in some way under the BRI.

The first point worth remembering is that just because China talks of the BRI in grandiose uniform terms, this does not mean other countries need to be engaged with it as a single project. For European powers, for example, it is abundantly clear that there is a vast difference between Chinese projects in Europe, and projects in faraway parts of Asia. The BRI concept is an overarching foreign policy idea best understood as a series of distinct projects. And, as with any large set of projects (or foreign policy goals laid out by a foreign power), some elements have a natural logic of cooperation to them, while others do not.

Secondly, it is essential to understand what is actually happening on the ground, since there is much rhetoric and sometimes little action when it comes to the BRI. There are numerous examples of mismatched expectations throughout Central and Eastern Europe. The much vaunted 16+1 format (China plus the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe) has delivered little in terms of solid investment; the Czech Republic has found itself facing a sudden massive loss of prospective investment as Chinese energy conglomerate CEFC withdrew abruptly from its push into the Czech market. By contrast, Pakistan is abuzz with activity, as Chinese companies build new infrastructure up and down the country.

The moral of these contrasting episodes is, therefore, to focus on what is happening, not on what is being merely discussed or announced. For, while this is an obvious point, it remains far too easy to get caught up in the noise around Chinese projects and miss what is actually going on. It is also too easy to fall for the other stories that such mega-projects generate. Some stories – such as allegations that Chinese prison labour is being used to implement infrastructure projects – are untrue, while others – such as claims that some countries are taking on onerous debt burdens alongside Chinese projects – are true. But even then, the debt burden story is nuanced. For example, the terms offered by the Export–Import Bank of China or the China Development Bank are sometimes favourable, but there are also genuine questions about the financial liabilities of some projects once they are up and running: see, for instance, the controversy over the sizeable obligations that the government of Pakistan has assumed in guaranteeing revenue for the many Chinese-financed and executed electricity generating projects in the country.

Finally, there is the broader ideological question posed by the BRI. As Western values of prosperity through democracy are being increasingly questioned by Western publics, and governments themselves, Beijing is offering an alternative worldview underpinned by norms and standards that do not necessarily conform with Western outlooks. Yet even on this point, the debate needs to be focused on a case by case basis. The relatively new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that elicited such a great controversy in the West was in part a response to a perception among countries of the global south that the dominant international financial institutions did not represent their interests or give them a voice. The AIIB is a product of these considerations as well as an attempt by Beijing to try its own hand at operating international structures that are not Western-invented. In sum, far from being a parallel or disruptive player, the AIIB could be seen as representing a positive Chinese-led contribution to the international order.

In contrast, China’s push to advance its version of the internet to strengthen models of state control, or its attempts to use its economic weight as a coercive tool, remain to be contested. But the key to any such response is strengthening alliances to confront patterns of behaviour from Beijing – either under the auspices of the BRI or otherwise – that are against national interests or those shared throughout the West. Beijing may resist, seeking ways to circumvent such opposition, but this is the natural push-and-pull of international affairs. The key to guiding a response is to offer alternatives and to think about what could address the issues on the ground that Beijing is seeking to resolve through its investments. In other words: if the UK is concerned with a project being undertaken by a developing country under the BRI, they should find ways of engaging with that country to either agree upon alternative sources of investment or to ensure that the Chinese project is delivered to an acceptable standard and that it will deliver maximum local benefit.

This lesson is broadly applicable. The West should focus on engaging with segments of the BRI that are empirically underway, and should engage with local partners to ensure they gain real benefits. The idea that the BRI could be a source of massive profit for UK companies based globally is a view that needs tempering. UK companies in Beijing are already making money accompanying their long-standing Chinese partners as they pursue the BRI. The broader profit is more likely to come from taking advantage of the infrastructure investment that is taking place, and finding ways of ensuring that the countries receiving BRI investment are able to grow in its wake.

The key point to remember within all of this is that the Chinese companies and banks making deals under the BRI are focusing on their own interests; they will expect everyone else to do the same thing.

Been delinquent in updating this site. A few to catch up on, starting with one for my institutional home RUSI which looks specifically at Central Asia and tries to offer some ideas for how Europe in particular might try to focus its efforts there. My hope is to encourage these ideas through various projects that we are working on, but for the moment float them here. There is something important going on in Central Asia, and it would be good to see greater engagement with it as frustrated opportunity will never end well.

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Europe’s Pivot to Central Asia

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary2 May 2018
International Security StudiesCentral and South Asia

Central Asia has started to assert its interests and identity. European powers should seize the initiative and bolster these trends.

The catalyst for change in Central Asia has been the death of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. The change in Tashkent has brought Shavkat Mirzioyoev to power, a former regime apparatchik who has shown an impressive ability to stimulate change and transformation throughout the Uzbek system.

Regionally, it has led to dramatic changes as well. Longstanding regional blockages have opened a bit, and while there are still some complicated bilateral issues to be resolved, there has been more movement on regional relations in the past year than in the past couple of decades.

Tashkent’s decision to host a conference on Afghanistan, play a greater role in Afghan reconstruction and economic development and more generally be willing to be proactive in multilateral formats there has re-opened a new forum for engagement on the long-beleaguered country.

However, it is equally important to note the growing international role played by Kazakhstan. It was where President Xi Jinping first announced his broader Belt and Road Initiative concept, as well as a founding member of the Eurasian Economic Union, and Astana has for some time placed itself at the heart of Eurasian dynamics.

It has also sought an increasing role on the international stage as a mediator in the conflict in Syria, as well as working to help the international effort to manage the Iranian nuclear confrontation.

Most recently, it reaffirmed its independence by refusing to support a Russian-sponsored UN Security Council resolution condemning US-led airstrikes on the Syrian regime’s forces after the gassing of civilians in Douma.

Both Astana and Tashkent are demonstrating the potential that middle-ranking powers can have when they focus their efforts and attention on specific issues. So, the EU has started to take note and High Representative for Foreign Policy Frederica Mogherini has visited the region twice in the past six months.

To build on the current good relations between Europe and Central Asia, engagement should focus on: connecting ideas; countering violent extremism; and creating an environment conducive for economic development through small and medium-sized enterprises.

Connecting Ideas: A New Silk Road Think Tank

One ‘soft power’ initiative that would be an easy win and would provide a forum for a proper Eurasian discussion about connectivity would be the establishment of a regional connectivity think tank. This institution could draw on expertise from across the region to work together on some of the fundamental problems which still exist at the heart of Eurasia, such as regional economy and security.

It would also help to strengthen civil society across the region, as well as assist education and research needs. It would be able to help develop a data-driven research base that would help to support the work of international financial institutions that seek to give money and develop projects regionally, such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the European Investment Bank, the Asian Development Bank, or even the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Leading on Counter-Radicalisation Efforts 

This think tank should not focus solely on understanding the difficult economic and trade questions (including those that are generated by China’s – or other external powers – investment in the region). It should also to focus on some of the difficult security questions of the day, such as violent extremism and the fall-out from the many radicalised Central Asians who fought alongside jihadists in Syria and Iraq.

There are many reasons why people join overseas extremist groups. They are in some cases – as recent RUSI research has shown – a product of people’s experiences as labour migrants in Russia, but they are also in part a result of people’s experiences in Central Asia.

Many training programmes are already underway in the region through various institutions, but the EU should explore whether there are ideas and projects that have been attempted in the region which might be interesting in a European context.

And vice versa: Establishing a platform for greater engagement between countering violent extremism practitioners in Europe and Central Asia – potentially through a platform such as the European Commission’s Radicalisation Awareness Network – would strengthen the connective tissue between our two regions. There is already some connectivity in this regard but improving it and potentially focusing on what joint research projects could be undertaken could help to provide answers to some of the most difficult questions troubling both of our societies.

Boosting Investment and Economic Opportunities

Finally, more needs to be done to encourage private sector development in Central Asia. Regional economies are currently dominated by state-owned enterprises or firms controlled by key tribes or leaders, a pattern which foreign investors – China, Russia, major international energy or mining firms ­– tend to strengthen.

Serious problems still exist in the investment environment. Fears of expropriation, problems with corruption and difficulties in repatriating profits remain key obstacles to foreign investors, and particularly small or medium-sized European firms that cannot afford such risks.

Addressing this problem will require time and will not be easy. Entrenched economic interests will resist change, but a focused European effort that sought to engage with outside powers such as China, Turkey or Russia on questions surrounding transparent governance, an independent judiciary and accountable governance could help deliver change. This would help to improve the business environment in the region and make it more attractive to European investors as well as nurturing a genuine local small and medium-sized enterprises.

The EIB, EBRD or other European investment tools like national development agencies (as well as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or the Asian Development Bank where a number of European powers play an important role) could be used to target investments focused on SME development and which do so through projects designed to incentivise local governments to establish more accountable practices.

This is not, in itself, a new approach, but some of the answers and ideas for these targeted investments could draw on research commissioned from the new Silk Road think tank. The multilateral regional data driven perspective offered might offer some new ideas for how to manage long-standing regional problems.

The key to success lies in Central Asia showing interest in working with Europe, and the latter maintaining a consistent level of attention. Unlike the past when the region was largely seen as a playground for great powers, Central Asia is increasingly attempting to to write its own story.

Progress on this has been halting, but the Kazakh-Uzbek Central Asian ‘motor’ is currently pulling in a positive direction, and Europe should take notice and make a more concerted effort to encourage and nurture this process.

With limited investment which can deliver an outsized result, the EU’s image as the dominant normative power on the Eurasian supercontinent could be strengthened. Or, to paraphrase Halford Mackinder a century ago, Europe can once again reclaim the narrative in the Eurasian heartland.

And more catch-up posting, this a short piece ahead of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s visit to China for my institutional home RUSI.

Theresa May in China: The Essence of a Working Relationship

ximay

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary30 January 2018
ChinaUK

Prime Minister Theresa May undertakes her long-awaited visit to Beijing tomorrow. It gives London an opportunity to define and shape its relationship with China, and move it beyond behind-the-scenes sniping and grandiose public rhetoric.

 

Prime Minister Theresa May travels to Beijing tomorrow hoping to shore up trade deals post-Brexit with the world’s second-largest economy amid reports of tensions surrounding the UK’s willingness to formally sign up to China’s flagship Belt and Road initiative (BRI).

Despite May’s reluctance to sign up to the BRI, the UK is already deeply intertwined with the multibillion dollar project.

The UK was the first G7 power to join the Chinese-instigated Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB), a platform aimed to support China’s outward infrastructure push; a report from 2015 by the China-Britain Business Council and Tsinghua University showed how UK companies were already doing projects worth around $27bn with Chinese firms in BRI locations. In addition, any British company worth its mettle with deep interests in China has had an established BRI strategy for some time.

And, as Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond stated at last year’s Belt and Road summit in Beijing, ‘As China drives forward the Belt and Road initiative from the East we in Britain are a natural partner in the West’.

In sum, the UK is already playing a role in the initiative, although questions persist about how the UK can connect with President Xi Jinping’s globe-spanning vision. There are four elements that should guide Britain in this debate.

First, build on existing connections. There is often a public misconception that the BRI is a large aid project. Indeed, the initiative amounts to a vision for improving connectivity across the Eurasian landmass, through underdeveloped countries that need infrastructure development, but it does this using Chinese funds and enterprises. Often projects are financed using linked loans provided to countries with stipulations of using Chinese contractors.

The entry point into this business chain for non-Chinese companies has, therefore to be an existing link with a Chinese firm or bank, rather than necessarily waiting for contracts to be pushed out into the open market.

Foreign companies that can develop such arrangements are  likely to be those already connected to Chinese firms or Banks and have a longstanding presence in Beijing, a deep history in the target market or those with specific technical know-how that is required in delivery of the ultimate project which the Chinese firm is lacking.

Second, British corporate actors should focus on foreign markets where the UK has an edge. Chinese banks and enterprises will often not have the necessary history or expertise in a target market and this provides an opportunity for British corporations or policymakers.

Certain niche opportunities include, for example, Pakistan, where the legal system is largely modelled on Britain, Kazakhstan whose major firms are listed on UK stock exchanges and, until recently, the UK was Kenya’s largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI). All three of these countries are identified as key BRI states, and all are where the UK has deep experience which can be leveraged, together with Chinese companies penetrating that market.

Third, British planners and commercial actors must remember that Chinese infrastructure investment in many countries will potentially create opportunities for a next wave of investments. The BRI is about building trade and economics corridors, often starting with much-needed infrastructure.

However, for this to provide benefits to locals, and generate a sustainable future, it will need to be developed into a broader economy. Something that will require many ancillary projects and construction.

Targeting this next wave of projects which build on the initial Chinese-dominated infrastructure wave is going to be key in ensuring the long-term viability of the BRI.

Government departments, such as the Department for International Development and the Department for International Trade, should, therefore, concentrate on this potential next wave, seeking both the trade opportunities, but also separately ensuring that poverty alleviation, environmental and sustainable development goals are advanced in relevant locations. In other words, BRI should be piggybacked by outside powers like the UK.

Beyond the BRI, the UK must establish a more coherent and considered security relationship with China. This includes considering the many key UK security relationships that may clash with Beijing’s view of the world. However, it needs to recognise that, as one of the world’s major economies, China will have an international security footprint.

Engaging with this footprint, cooperating where useful (in counterterrorism, in countries where we have shared interests such as Afghanistan, in military operations other than conflict like rescuing nationals or alleviating humanitarian disasters), while not shying away from criticising when relevant remain key ingredients.

Drawing ‘red lines’ while continuing to engage remains the only practical way to manage such an emergent security power. The reality is that a global interconnected world is one that currently favours China and one that Beijing wants to maintain.

Finally, the UK needs to focus on continuing to push China to open its markets further. Among European economies, the UK is one of the most open and attractive to Chinese investors.

According to cumulative figures published by the Rhodium Group, the UK attracted some €23.6 billion in Chinese FDI between 2000–2016. Next closest was Germany at €18.8 billion.

Consequently, it is only proper that Britain should expect some reciprocation and should be willing to draw lines around investments that are made into the UK.

And this reciprocation has to be founded on improving the rule of law and accountability in China. And when this is not met, then clear lines need to be drawn in return about the degree to which China is allowed to invest in the UK.

It is also equally important for the UK to remember that Asia’s rise is not just a Chinese story. Beijing is the most prominent of several ascending Asian powers, and the UK needs to enhance its diplomatic and security engagement across the region.

This is something that the UK needs to do while at the same time continuing to enhance its engagement with Europe. As a power making an active choice to withdraw from one of the world’s most powerful economic and political blocs, the UK needs to engage in deft diplomacy around the world and demonstrate its continuing relevance as a major player on the world stage.

Prime Minister Theresa May meets Chinese President Xi Jinping at the State Guesthouse, on the second day of the 2016 G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China. Courtesy of PA Images

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution

Been a bit quiet of late, am focused on some larger writing projects which should be coming out over the next few months. We did, however, finally launch the Whitehall Paper authored with my colleague Sarah Lain which came out last year at an event at RUSI in London with Mark Field, MP, Minister for Asia at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and James Kynge of the Financial Times. Given it is behind a paywall, I cannot just post the paper here, but it can be found online and if you get in touch with me, I can see what I can do to help. Many thanks to the MacArthur Foundation for their generous support of this work, and as ever, to find more work on this topic, check out China in Central Asia.

Separately, spoke to Eurasianet about China’s rail activity in Central Asia, WikiTribune about ISIS, the Times quoted my book in an article about Hafiz Saeed, and the Financial Times about the Belt and Road.

China’s Eurasian Pivot: The Silk Road Economic Belt

WHP_Chinas Eurasian Pivot
Raffaello Pantucci and Sarah Lain
Whitehall Papers31 May 2017
ChinaNew Silk RoadInternational Security StudiesPacific
The modern Silk Road is a key component of China’s political and economic strategy in Eurasia.

China’s growing influence across its western and southern borders is one of the great geopolitical trends of the past decade. With the development of its western domestic regions, Beijing has been drawn into building trade and economic corridors in nearby Central and South Asian countries. Yet these states are home to security risks which China is only now beginning to address.

China’s Eurasian Pivot analyses the country’s growing regional footprint from an economic, security and political perspective. It offers a comprehensive overview of China’s relations with Central and South Asia, showing that the policies now shaped by the concept of the Belt and Road Initiative are ones that China has been implementing in the region for some time.

The paper concludes that China is still developing its approach to the region, which is increasingly being driven by events and external relations. Beijing has stressed that its policies must be successful – both within the region itself and in terms of the impact back home. This highlights the degree to which Beijing feels that it must not fail, and why its approach to the region will continue to be a driving national priority for the next few decades.

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