Archive for the ‘Royal United Services Institute’ Category

This report was a long time in the making and in fact completed initially prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but needed a lot of tidying up afterwards. Thanks to RUSI for publishing it, and to my excellent co-author Eleonora for bearing with the lengthy process to get it over the finish line. Am not going to republish it all here, as you can see it in its splendid PDF form for free online here.

Russian and Chinese influence in Italy

By examining political, security, economic and cultural ties, this paper explores Russian and Chinese influence in Italy.

Italy has been one of the leading advocates in the EU of dialogue and cooperation with both Russia and China, and its longstanding political tradition of ‘trying to sit in the middle’ sometimes faces other EU states’ criticism. This paper seeks to explore the dynamics between Italy and Russia, and Italy and China, through an examination of political, security, economic and cultural ties. It also attempts to understand the degree to which Rome’s policy positions are shaped by external influences or internal choices.

While it is inherently difficult to demonstrate influence, this paper stresses Italy’s agency in driving the relationships forwards, though it is clear that interference attempts and the economic connections that exist between the three powers play a role in influencing Italian planning. Even if Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 is heavily impacting the relationship between Rome and Moscow, how this will play out in the longer term is hard to predict.

Some time ago, the UK’s Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) published a report which provided an evaluation drawing on intelligence community thoughts and assessments about the nature and scale of the extreme right-wing threat in the UK. Its main recommendation seemed to be the security services needed more capability to manage this threat, which seemed dissonant to me with the wider discourse about the threat at the moment. Inspired I wrote the following for my UK institutional home, RUSI.

Extreme Right-Wing Terrorism in the UK: How Concerned Should We Be?

Worrying trends: the scene of a terror attack near Finsbury Park Mosque, London on 19 Jun 2017. Image: WENN / Alamy

A recent report indicates some worrying trends in extreme right-wing terrorism in the UK, but also highlights how the threat can sometimes be a product of its response.

The extreme right-wing terrorism (ERWT) threat in the UK is difficult to gauge. Often referred to as the fastest rising threat, the number of actual attacks and casualties the UK has experienced over the past decade can mercifully be counted on one hand. While attacks are a poor indicator of threat, the recent Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) report on the ERWT threat in the UK shined a light on the problem and made the key recommendation that MI5 would need more resources to manage the threat. Yet it is not entirely clear what this resource growth should look like, or how acute the ERWT threat actually is.

Since April 2020, MI5 has taken on lead responsibility for managing the extreme right-wing terror threat (referred to now formally as ERWT as opposed to the previous XRW). The decision to transfer from the police was made in 2018 in the wake of reviews after the surge of terrorist attacks in 2017. While only one of these was linked to the ERWT (the murder of 51-year-old Makram Ali outside Finsbury Park Mosque on 19 June 2017), the attack came after the proscription of National Action and the murder of Jo Cox MP. The threat from ERWT seemed to be rising and required a stronger response.

According to the then independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Sir David Anderson QC, at the time, he found a ‘lingering attachment in parts of MI5 to the notion that XRW [Extreme Right-Wing] plotting does not engage their national security function in the same way as Islamist plotting does’. He disputed this assessment, and the security establishment largely agreed, leading to the transfer of responsibility for the threat to MI5.

Yet reading the ISC report, it does not seem as though the actual threat from ERWT has notably increased in security assessments. In July 2019, MI5 is reported as saying: ‘Whilst we assess the ERWT threat to the UK is on a gradual upwards trajectory, we have not observed a significant increase in specific mobilisation or radicalisation during this reporting period, and ERWT investigations continue to constitute a significant minority of MI5’s CT [counterterrorism] casework’. This ‘minority’ was clarified by MI5’s Director General recently, who told the media earlier this month that ‘around one in five terrorism investigations in Great Britain were linked to neo-Nazi, racist ideology or other related extremism’, a rate he was reported to have said remained steady.

But the ISC report suggests that this might be a calm before the storm. It highlights research that suggests the coronavirus pandemic has materially strengthened the ERWT threat. Looking at online material, there is no doubt that the far right has adopted and absorbed narratives related to the pandemic to a greater degree than violent Islamists. In continental Europe, there has been a worrying growth in attacks, networks and plotting quite directly linking ERWT and the pandemic – the cases of Jurgen Conings in Belgium in May 2021 and a German network called the Vereinte Patrioten (United Patriots) that was disrupted in April this year highlighted some worrying trends. The involvement of serving armed forces members, the targeting of officials linked to healthcare, references to anti-vax narratives, and the wider networks around the plotters all indicated a problem that is moving in a dangerous direction. Europol’s latest annual report on the terrorist threat picture in Europe highlights how the number of attacks and plots in continental Europe has plateaued at around three per year, while the number of arrests continues to grow year-on-year.

But it is not clear how much this reflects what has been seen in the UK. There have been cases of serving police officers and soldiers being linked to ERWT groups, but these have been limited. The UK has not had to disband entire military units because of concerns about extreme right ideology as Germany has done, nor has the UK seen mobs linked in part to far-right groups attempt to storm or occupy public buildings (as seen in all other Five Eyes partners, to very different degrees). The UK has seen some hate crime and incidents such as 5G mast burnings which appear to be linked to online conspiracy theories, but these are not clear ERWT attacks.

Rather, the conclusion articulated by the ISC report, which seems to reflect the view of the wider security community, is that the threat in the UK from ERWT is for the most part dominated by Self-Initiated Terrorists (S-IT). While a number of ERWT groups have now been proscribed in the UK, only one attack has been linked to them. An interesting question raised by the ISC report is the degree to which the lone-actor threat and the ERWT threat might in fact be the same thing – or whether the ERWT threat is in large part an articulation of the lone-actor threat.

The report also highlights the significance of youth, autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and mental health issues among the ERWT caseload. While there is some internal dispute about these issues, the Homeland Security Group within the Home Office is quoted as highlighting how frontline services have reported an increase in ASD among their caseload, with a particular link to ERWT. The youth question is more obvious, with it becoming regular for very young teenagers to be arrested for ERWT offences (including most recently a 15-year-old boy from the Isle of Wight).

This poses a curious dissonance for authorities, who on the one hand have only seen actual ERWT attacks conducted by middle-aged men, while on the other hand teenagers increasingly dominate the arrest load. The question which was most recently alluded to by the Independent Terror Watchdog Jonathan Hall QC is whether these individuals are in fact simply ‘keyboard warriors’. Given most of their links and activity take place online, with few maturing to real-world plots, there is a question about the nature of the actual threat they pose – and by default, the wider threat ERWT poses if this is the majority of the arrests that are being seen.

There are also some curious aspects of the threat that are downplayed in the ISC paper, though it is difficult to draw too many conclusions on its threat assessments given the volume of redactions. Specifically, there are questions around the degree to which Russia and more recently the war in Ukraine have impacted the UK’s ERWT threat. Within the ISC report, suggestions are made about the far-right group Britain First’s connections to Moscow, but there are more worrying links out there. The Base, a proscribed organisation with deep roots across English-speaking countries, seems to be directed by an American based in Russia, while pro-Russian narratives are increasingly common among the ERWT community globally. This is interesting, as previously, ERWT individuals seeking training tended to go and fight alongside the far-right inclined Ukrainian Azov Battalion – though its current active support by Western authorities has confused things. It is not clear how many UK ERWT actors have actually gone to fight in the current conflict, and whether (if they have been fighting alongside Azov) they would actually pose a threat. How many (if any) have gone to fight on the Russian side is equally unclear.

The final point to consider and which the ISC paper alludes to is the degree to which this threat may be a product of its response. Early on, the report quotes MI5 as saying ‘it is difficult to establish an accurate historical trajectory of the ERWT threat on the grounds that the recent increase in focus by HMG and heightened public awareness of the ERWT threat has contributed to an increase in referrals and investigations’.

This raises the complicated interplay of threat and response. In the absence of attacks, terrorist threats are often defined by the response to them. Consequently, the ERWT threat in the UK is defined by the number of arrests, the volume of officials focused on it, and the proportion of capability that is being dedicated to looking at it. But none of these are objective metrics of the actual threat; rather, they are a reflection of the response. Were MI5 or the Police to dedicate more people to looking at the threat, doubtless they would find more things to look at. This is not to accuse them of artificially inflating the threat; it is simply that more resource would lower the general threshold for investigation.

This becomes relevant when looking at the wider threat picture and trying to objectively assess the degree of menace that is posed. It has been some time since the UK courts have seen any major terrorist case presented before them of the scale and ambition that used to be directed towards the country by al-Qa’ida or later Islamic State. There have not been any large-scale networks of the extreme right launching sophisticated and ambitious plots. National Action was stamped on by authorities before it could really mature, and before that one has to go back to the Aryan Strike Force, which in 2010 had mobilised people and one of its members had managed to produce ricinPatriotic Alternative may yet mature into a future threat, but as of yet it has not. The current threat picture that is seen consists of isolated individuals, shrinking numbers of arrests, and an ERWT threat that seems dominated by (though is not exclusive to) the very young.

The point is that it is not clear how much of a menace the ERWT threat actually is – or more generally how much it is a reflection of the attention it is getting rather than an increased threat. Most indicators suggest the UK’s general terror threat is down, and what plots are disrupted appear to be isolated lone actors often inspired by material they find or people they talk to online.

This is not to say that the threats from both violent Islamists or ERWT might not develop once again – the kindling is certainly in place at home and abroad. Nor is it to underplay the damage ERWT can do to the societal fabric in a way that a seemingly external threat like violent Islamists cannot. But it is to instead ask the question of whether the growing focus on an ERWT threat in the UK is appropriate. It has not yet matured to the state-level national security threat that it could have, but it is not clear if this is because of the security response to it, because the problem is decreasing, or because it is in fact a product of other societal issues which are now less linked to ERWT ideas than before (a possible explanation for the questions around ASD, mental health and youth). Finally, this comes back to the key recommendation made by the ISC for MI5 to receive more resources to deal with the ERWT threat. Is this a proportionate response to the threat, or might it actually have the counterproductive effect of highlighting or accentuating a more limited problem?

Still catching up on myself, this time a paper I had the pleasure of co-authoring with the excellent Veerle Nouwens, Pepijn Bergsen and Antony Froggatt. Part of a longer project we had been working on together which sought to explore the Transatlantic relationship towards China and ended up looking in some detail at the various problems that exist.

China and the transatlantic relationship

Obstacles to deeper European–US cooperation

Image — European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a joint press conference with US president Joe Biden in Brussels on 25 March 2022. Photo credit: European Commission/Pool/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

The rise of China is one of the greatest challenges for the transatlantic relationship. European countries and the US have similar concerns over China, but fundamental obstacles hinder a more joined-up approach.

Although no longer aiming for decoupling as under the Trump administration, the US under President Joe Biden still sees itself in ‘strategic competition’ with China, while the European Commission has identified China as a ‘systemic rival’. However, differences remain between Europe and US on the scale of the challenge, and also within the EU over the desired level of economic and political engagement with China and over policy responses on the national, bilateral and global levels.

This paper presents results from a two-year joint research project by Chatham House and the Royal United Services Institute on a Transatlantic Dialogue on China. The project examined the transatlantic relationship in the context of the China challenge by looking at four different policy areas – trade and investment, digital technology, climate change and the global commons.

Introduction

China is among the most complex strategic challenges confronting the transatlantic partners at this moment. Great power competition (or ‘strategic competition’ as the US is now suggesting) is not of course restricted to China. But the China challenge cuts through so many issues across domains both internal and external that it is perhaps more complex than any other.1

There are additional tensions between Europe and the US, with Washington frustrated by the European Union (EU)’s inaction on China and at times by its quest for greater strategic autonomy – a phrase that is often interpreted as meaning autonomy from the US. Notwithstanding these frictions and the systemic rivalry between Europe and the US on one side and China on the other, each side of the Atlantic is deeply intertwined with China.

From China’s perspective, the US is the principal adversary and China often tries to detach individual European countries from a transatlantic alignment. It has encouraged notions of European strategic autonomy, recognizing their potential to damage transatlantic relations, as well as finding other ways of amplifying intra-European tensions.

This briefing paper presents results from a two-year joint research project by Chatham House and the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) on a Transatlantic Dialogue on China. The project examined the transatlantic relationship in the context of the China challenge by looking at four different policy areas – trade and investment, digital technology, climate change and the global commons.2

Although it is by no means the only player on the European side of the transatlantic relationship, the EU’s leading role in many of the policy areas studied made it the main focus of the project. Underlying this choice was the acceptance that, on China, non-EU European powers (including the UK) tend towards policies that either complement the EU’s approach or align closely with the US. Where there were specific divergences or tensions (for example, around the AUKUS defence and security partnership), these were addressed in the analysis.

This paper not only brings perspectives on different but related policy challenges, it highlights several commonalities running across these areas that characterize the overall challenge for the transatlantic relationship. Given the weight and significance of China, Europe and the US, it is critical to understand how they intersect in these domains at this moment of fluidity in international relations.

The purpose of this paper is to provide analysis and conclusions from the research into these four areas within the context of European relations with China, but also with regard to how these fit into the wider transatlantic picture. The hope is that it will contribute to a better understanding of the challenges faced by the transatlantic partners.

Context

Although the challenges in the four policy areas tend to differ, they all exist within the same context – one in which China is often seen as the West’s major adversary. This is still the case despite recent events in Ukraine, which have refocused Western attention on Russia. This sense of competition with China has been growing for some time, starting during the presidency of Barack Obama but accelerating under the administration of Donald Trump, with China (and, to a certain degree, Russia) becoming the central concern of national security policy under his presidency. In March 2019 a joint communication from the European Commission on EU–China relations identified China as a ‘systemic rival’, followed two years later by the UK’s Integrated Review, which referred to China as a ‘systemic competitor’.3

This sharpening of the discourse around China reflects two views in the West. First, the shedding of the notion that China might move towards Western norms as it becomes more prosperous and economically liberal. Rather, China under Xi Jinping is now seen as an increasingly disruptive and assertive power in international affairs, while the space for political discourse within China is closing. Second, the sense that China increasingly sees the world in a purely competitive light, focusing on becoming the dominant power in its region and eventually further afield. Chinese political visions like Made in China 2025, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or the China Dream all articulate a notion of Chinese supremacy and centrality in the global system, or, at the very least, a sense of China as a strong and independent power. Even Western voices that articulate a more nuanced view on Chinese power projection see a strong sense of competition underpinning Beijing’s thinking.

The current US administration of President Joe Biden has retained a broadly antagonistic approach to China in almost all policy areas, while placing a greater emphasis on working together with allies than its predecessor. EU–China relations have deteriorated at the same time. An example of this has been the failure to move forward the ratification of the so-called Comprehensive Agreement on Investment between the EU and China, signed in late 2020 and seen initially as a snub by the EU towards the incoming Biden administration. Mutual imposition of sanctions has stalled the agreement’s ratification by the European Parliament. European powers had already expressed concern about human rights abuses in Xinjiang and restrictions on political freedoms in Hong Kong, leading to strong support for US sanctions against China. Beijing reacted with counter-sanctions, including some targeting members of the European Parliament and academics based in Europe. Policy on all sides – including in China – is, if not explicitly pushing towards a complex and costly decoupling, shifting towards greater economic self-reliance. Bifurcation in technology (and other) standards will further exacerbate the development of separate international blocs.

China is also increasingly seen as an aggressive military power. China’s military development has accelerated as it tries to live up to the demand by President Xi that the People’s Liberation Army be able to fight and win wars. This is not necessarily a statement of aggression, but a clear articulation of a need to improve capabilities. At the same time, confrontations with India, incursions into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ), a growing external military presence, increasingly aggressive action at sea and dual capabilities in outer space all point to a China that seeks to present itself as a significant global military power. The US has long confronted Beijing militarily, but European powers are now increasingly eager to deploy their seafaring capabilities in Asian waters. This stance is a demonstration of both support for allies in the region (including the US) and of a growing willingness to confront China.

This is the wider geopolitical and geo-economic context in which Europe, the US and China currently operate, setting up a complicated triangular relationship between the three powers. Geopolitical trends are pushing Europe and the US closer together, in large part due to a growing disconnect and divergence of worldviews with China. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has further complicated the situation, with likely ramifications for all the policy areas considered in this paper. The EU and the US responded rapidly and largely in unison through coordinated sanctions on Russia and broadly similar approaches. Meanwhile, China has so far remained equivocal and, at times, has appeared to support Russia.4

However, there are areas in which cooperation is not only possible but essential. Climate change is recognized as one of the greatest challenges facing humanity. Without joint action and cooperation, it will be impossible to avoid the potentially catastrophic warming of the planet. Similarly, global pandemics will be hard to manage in a decoupled world, and a divided global economy is likely to be a less prosperous one overall.

Transatlantic divergence and convergence

In this wider context, there are numerous structural issues which create tensions across the Atlantic and complicate efforts to develop a coherent perspective on China. At the same time, there are several areas of clear convergence – most obviously the long-standing close security links (exemplified by NATO), and the deep economic interlinkage. But there are also divergences, often driven by internal policy disputes within Europe and the US. There is an overarching assumption that Europe and the US – as close liberal and democratic partners in contrast with autocratic China – should have the same strategic and geopolitical ambitions, and should seek close cooperation to that end. However, transatlantic divergence and convergence on China are visible across the four policy areas examined in this paper. The nature of great power or strategic competition has meant that Beijing and Washington’s view of one another has had a greater impact on their policy direction than transatlantic coordination. In Europe, the China challenge remains further down the agenda than in the US, and responses are often hindered by a lack of agreement within the EU.

Trade and investment

Significant differences in perspective remain between Europe and the US, and also within Europe, when it comes to economic policymaking in response to the rise of China. The variations in economic exposure to China (see Figure 1, which shows European countries’ goods trade with China before COVID-19-related disruption) go some way to explaining these differences, particularly among EU member states. While all EU countries import significant quantities of goods from China, some member states have more at stake than others in terms of exports and investments. Germany is the bloc’s largest and most powerful member state, and also the most economically interwoven with China, both in absolute and relative terms. This complicates the EU decision-making process. Furthermore, interest in courting inward investment from China varies strongly between EU member states. While most Western European member states have become increasingly sceptical of Chinese investment – as this is seen to be driven in part by China’s desire to gain access to critical technologies – some Eastern European member states have continued to court inward investment from China, often with disappointing results.5

Figure 1. European countries’ goods trade with China, 2019

– Sources: UN Comtrade (2021), ‘UN Comtrade Database’ (accessed 11 Jun. 2021), https://comtrade.un.org; World Bank (2021), ‘World Development Indicators’ (accessed 17 Feb. 2021), https://databank.worldbank.org/reports.aspx?source=2&series=NY.

Some of the resulting dynamics have been seen recently in the spat between Lithuania and China over Lithuania’s recognition of the Taiwanese representation in Vilnius.6 China retaliated with economic measures, and threatened others doing business with Lithuania. Although the EU did file a case against China at the World Trade Organization (WTO), the initial response from the German business lobby was to put pressure on Lithuania to reconsider its actions.

There are also clear differences within countries. Those EU member states that are most deeply integrated with the Chinese economy, like Germany, remain hesitant to take a more confrontational approach.7 While the US approach generally has been confrontational, including under President Biden, the American financial sector is one of the main examples of an industry actually increasing its exposure to China.8 The market opportunity in China remains large enough to create divisions between those in Europe and the US seeking to profit from it and those looking to push back for either economic or political reasons. Often this is seemingly strategically driven by Chinese policy, as the Chinese government in recent years both opened its financial sector for US firms and reduced joint-venture requirements in the automotive sector; the latter with the intent of attracting German carmakers to invest even more in China.9

In the realm of economic policy, and the economic challenge posed by China, the differences between the transatlantic partners are in the perceived scale of that challenge but also in how Europe sees itself in relation to both China and the US. Although the EU has begun talking about China as a ‘systemic rival’ as relations with China have moved up the agenda, it has mainly responded with a series of relatively small policy interventions, aimed at reducing or removing distortions to the level playing field in its single market. These measures have included, for example, investment screening mechanisms, rules on public procurement, a stronger focus on industrial policy and pursuing concessions from China on reciprocal market access. In contrast, for the US, the rivalry with China has become almost a defining feature of its policymaking. Although economic decoupling has become a less overt objective under Biden, policy has not changed to any significant degree compared with the Trump administration.

Differing attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic towards the future of the global economic governance system form another major obstacle to a more coordinated transatlantic response to the economic challenge from a rising China. While the EU has sought to sustain the global multilateral trading system, the US has put it under pressure by undermining the WTO’s dispute settlement system.10 A similar split has been visible over how to engage with China through multilateral financial institutions and the extent to which both the EU and the US have been willing to engage with new, often China-led institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The BRI has also proved contentious, with some European countries – mainly in Central and Eastern Europe – actively engaged with the initiative. In contrast, the US has sought to engage European partners in its own competing initiatives, such as the soon to be rebranded Build Back Better World (B3W) Partnership.11

Transatlantic cooperation in many of these areas is as difficult to achieve as a broader European strategy. This is because European thinking is often defined as aiming to achieve economic sovereignty not just in relation to China, but also the US. In many ways, this stance is not dissimilar to US policies aimed at bolstering ‘America First’, but within Europe internal competition between member states adds a further layer of complexity.

Beyond being significantly closer to each other in terms of values, Europe and the US are also more deeply economically interlinked than China is with either party. Although both the US and the EU import significant amounts of goods from China, other measures of economic interconnection show a much stronger transatlantic bond. For instance, despite a significant increase in Chinese investment in Europe during the past decade, the amount of inward investment in the continent from China is still dwarfed by that from the US (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Sources of foreign direct investment stock in Europe, 2019

– Sources: OECD (2021), ‘Inward FDI stocks by partner country (indicator)’ (accessed 15 Jun. 2021), https://doi.org/10.1787/9a523b18-en; Statistics Finland (2021), ‘Foreign direct investment by immediate target and investor country’ (accessed 15 Jun. 2021), https://pxnet2.stat.fi/PXWeb/pxweb/en/StatFin/StatFin__yri__ssij/statfin_ssij_pxt_12gu.px.

Companies and private sector representatives in both the US and EU have increasingly voiced frustration with Chinese economic practices such as forced technology transfers, intellectual property protections, unfair competition from Chinese state-owned firms and unreciprocated market access. However, the lure of the Chinese market, and even of cooperation with Chinese firms, remains strong enough for them to keep their criticism modest.

There are also similarities to be found in terms of policies enacted on both sides of the Atlantic. Policies enacted by the EU as part of its so-called toolbox, such as investment-screening, an anti-coercion instrument and export controls, are comparable to efforts in the US. These provide potential for transatlantic cooperation, through information-sharing or shared action. For example, one of the working groups within the EU-US Trade and Technology Council is on export controls.12 While this also suggests some cooperation on industrial policy – particularly with regard to the challenge from China in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI) and electric vehicles – there remains more competition in this area than cooperation. This is highlighted by the fierce competition between European and US firms to attract semiconductor manufacturing capacity in the wake of the global shortages in this sector since the COVID-19 pandemic.

The increasing realization of the scale of the China challenge in Europe and the much closer and historic interlinking of transatlantic economies, together with a decrease in transatlantic tensions under the new US administration, have led to more cooperation between the EU and US. This is, for example, apparent in the newly created EU–US Trade and Technology Council (TTC), an attempt to develop a structure for transatlantic coordination in the key area of technology. While the aim of the TTC is far wider than solely policy towards China, it speaks of encouraging ‘compatible standards and regulations based on our shared democratic values’. The TTC plans joint work and cooperation on norms in a series of important technological areas (such as AI). It should be noted that, despite all this work, the remit of the TTC is largely limited to coordination. A return to something like the failed negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – an attempted EU–US trade agreement in 2016 – remains highly unlikely.

The importance of the China challenge is also visible in the EU’s overt attempt to compete with the BRI through its Global Gateway plan.13 As with the US-led B3W initiative, it remains to be seen whether Global Gateway will be substantial enough to have any real economic or geopolitical impact, as no new resources have been made available for it. Closer cooperation between the EU and the US has also yet to lead to any significant shared efforts to boost the influence and effectiveness of multilateral economic and financial institutions; the US is often behind the increasing ineffectiveness of those institutions and presents a stumbling block to reforms that the EU would prefer to pursue, for instance in case of the WTO.14

Digital technology

There is a general agreement on both sides of the Atlantic about the importance of digital technology, as highlighted by the creation of the TTC. It remains to be seen to what degree the TTC achieves its goals, but its existence – as well as the desire to focus on technology and the continued veiled references to China and Chinese investment in its published materials15 – all highlight the desire of the EU and the US to at least focus discussions on the topic. It is also clear that, via purchases of Western technology firms and other overt or covert methods, China is strengthening its own capabilities – something that European powers are becoming increasingly aware of and are expressing concern about. There are, however, numerous fissures between the EU and US which suggest that the TTC will face challenges in trying to develop a coherent transatlantic approach towards China in the digital and technological domain.

The first issue is the way in which broader geopolitical tensions and relations affect internal European politics. Broadly speaking, Central and Eastern European countries view the relationship with the US as essential and as the key bulwark against Russian aggression – a fear that has become more acute in recent years and particularly amid the Russia–Ukraine conflict. This means that those countries are keen to pursue policies closer to those of Washington than to the views of either Brussels or larger member states. This divergence was most apparent during the Trump presidency, when Central and Eastern European countries were among the most supportive of the push from the US administration to remove Chinese technology from European digital infrastructure. This view was in contrast to that from Western European capitals such as Berlin, London or Paris, where there was a desire to constrain rather than to block Chinese technology. Larger member states have sought a balanced relationship with Beijing partly due to their economic interests, which echo through the digital and technology spaces, and partly to different geopolitical views.

Figure 3. Chinese technology projects in the EU, EFTA and UK

– Source: Compiled using publicly available data from Australian Strategic Policy Institute and International Cyber Policy Centre (undated), ‘Mapping China’s Tech Giants’, https://chinatechmap.aspi.org.au/#/homepage.

While France and Germany view the transatlantic security alliance as crucial to their security and prosperity, there is also a strong desire in those countries to emphasize European (or, rather, national) strategic autonomy from the US. At the same time, the view in Central and Eastern Europe is not universal, with some countries like Hungary placing a premium on the relationship with Beijing – a stance which, to some extent, is guided by the significant Chinese digital and technological investment in Hungary.16 This investment is also visible in the larger EU member states, which have welcomed Chinese participation in research and development as well as other key digital and technological domains (see Figure 3, which shows the number of individual Chinese technology projects in each European country). These countries are keen to retain such investments – in some cases because companies might go out of business if Chinese investment was not forthcoming and also because Western governments do not necessarily see a value in underwriting those companies. This desire to maintain inward investment flows creates a natural point of influence for China within Europe, but also counteracts attempts in Europe to present a more aggressive front against China on technology in particular.

Within the transatlantic alliance too, there is an inherent tension caused by competition and cooperation. Western governments may currently favour cooperation to confront the challenge posed by China, but this is not always the case among private companies, and each side of the Atlantic is likely to favour its own businesses. Ideas for joint US and European support for Western companies that can become ‘champions’ in technologies currently dominated by Chinese firms do not appear to have been taken forward.

Companies themselves do not always have the same interests as their host governments and tend to be more agnostic in their political views. Their desire to access large markets like China means they may be more inclined to seek engagement. Vast parts of tech supply chains are linked to China, while Western tech companies sell considerable volumes of goods in the Chinese market. This makes the technology space an inherently difficult one for Europe and the US to control and hinders any joint effort to force companies to comply with an anti-China stance.

This tension between private and public sector interests runs through the entire digital and technology space. Within China to some degree it is more coherent, though often the West underestimates the tensions within the Chinese system – most recently evidenced by the clampdown on social media and tech companies within China.17 This development reflects a desire by the Chinese government to bring the sector under tighter state control, in part due to many of the same concerns around data protection that exist elsewhere, but also out of concern over the immensely powerful structures being built in the Chinese private sector, which the state fears could supplant it in key sectors of the economy. At the same time, in the West, liberal market policies make it difficult for governments to develop industrial policies that do not undermine the free-market logic underpinning the European and American economies. Given the increasing centrality of technology in daily life around the world, this dynamic will be a difficult one to manage anywhere.

At the same time, the decision to focus transatlantic cooperation in a vehicle such as the TTC reflects both the importance for the area for future growth and its role in the competition with China. Within the technology domain, the public sector largely acts as a regulator, and is crucial in determining the rules within which companies operate. This impacts everything from development and ethics to income, economic viability, employment and tax burdens. Given the size and power of the transatlantic economy in this regard, coordination affords the EU and US considerable influence in determining international technological norms.

The public sector can also play a significant role in investing in the research and development that underpins the discoveries helping to develop the digital world – though, in this area, the public sector is most usefully able to play a supportive role. Once technologies have started to achieve a certain maturity, it becomes harder for the public sector to be involved as this can be seen as distorting the market. At earlier stages of development, government can provide the investment and support that can help ideas be tested and in some cases fail. Identifying which technologies to support, and how long to continue to support them, becomes a difficult balance for government, especially when market viability in certain key technologies may only be achievable through subsidy – for example, when a much cheaper Chinese technology is widely available.

Finally, there are also normative and conceptual disputes between Europe and the US in the area of digital technology; for example, on the subjects of data privacy and regulation of online discourse. In Europe, there is a greater willingness to seek to impose restrictions, while in the US a more libertarian approach is favoured. At the same time, European approaches to personal data protection have gone much further than the US – exemplified by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which entered into force in May 2018 and which places much greater emphasis on data managers to ensure citizens’ control of personal data. This directly contradicts the business model of numerous online firms, including that of large US social media platforms, and has caused a degree of transatlantic friction. In contrast, China has created its own legislation mirroring large parts of GDPR.

However, in terms of the openness of online discourse, and even in areas like protection of citizens’ data, Europe and the US are closer in perspective than either of those two partners are to China. In terms of developing the future infrastructure and standards of the global digital economy, Europe and the US also share more with each other than either does with China. This extends into the global institutions that shape our technological world, where there is a growing effort by both Europe and the US to coordinate efforts to counterbalance Chinese attempts to dominate and establish norms that reflect their own interests.

Climate change

China, the EU and the US are the world’s three largest emitters of greenhouse gases and therefore are fundamental to global efforts at achieving a stable climate. In the US, climate change is a party-political issue, with Democrats largely favouring both national and international action – for example, Democratic President Obama signed the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change18 – and the Republicans less committed – Obama’s Republican successor, Trump, withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement in 2020.19 To further demonstrate the partisan nature of climate change, one of the first acts by President Biden – a Democrat – after taking office in January 2021 was to rejoin the agreement. Therefore, all too often, the nature of the US’s international engagement changes every four to eight years with the election of a new president. Given the US’s importance to global efforts to combat climate change, this on/off approach creates significant difficulties for the EU and other like-minded partners, as they seek to build and maintain momentum towards more ambitious policies.

However, while the US’s international climate policy is led by the president, the ability of any administration to ratify international agreements is ultimately determined by the US Senate. This tension was demonstrated in the late 1990s when the Clinton administration signed the Kyoto Protocol20 – which was a legally binding treaty as opposed to the non-binding Paris Agreement – but never submitted it to the Senate for ratification. Efforts at international cooperation therefore face further uncertainty, as not only does the US climate position depend on whether a Democrat or Republican is in the White House, but also whether the executive and legislative branches of US government are politically aligned.

Climate change is considered an important issue by the incumbent Biden administration, as demonstrated by its hosting of the Climate Leaders Summit in April 2021.21 John Kerry, the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, has invested considerable time and effort into engaging with China, resulting in the signing of a joint declaration on enhancing climate action at the UN COP26 climate summit held in November 2021.22 While the declaration does not bind either party to new targets, it does provide a platform for further cooperation between the US and China.

China is important to global diplomacy on climate change, owing to the scale of its emissions and to its manufacturing capabilities, being the world’s largest producer of solar and wind equipment.2324 Furthermore, China has significant geopolitical and economic influence, particularly in developing countries and those countries that are signed up to BRI.

Individual EU member states have enacted their own climate mitigation plans, carbon-pricing and cooperation agreements with third countries. The EU has been consistently supportive of more ambitious climate action, although Central and Eastern European member states tend to be less enthusiastic. During negotiations between member states on the latest 2030 carbon reduction plans, Poland, alongside like-minded states, sought to ensure that the upcoming reform of the EU carbon market would increase financial resources dedicated to supporting the transition in Central and Eastern European member states. Despite these divisions, under the current presidency of Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission has made climate change a high priority, with increased funds and more ambitious emissions reduction targets. In the approach to COP26, the Commission raised the climate mitigation target to greenhouse gas emissions reductions of at least 55 per cent by 2030, up from 40 per cent as initially proposed in the Paris Agreement.25

Climate change is recognized as one of the most important – if not the most important – global challenges of our time. Emissions primarily from the burning of fossil fuels and land-use changes are increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides and fluorine gases) in the Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in a higher planetary temperature. If emissions continue to rise, then the consequences of the associated increasing global temperature will be catastrophic for humanity. The most recent IPCC report said that: ‘[i]t is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land’, which is ‘already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe’.26

Greenhouse gas emissions have the same impact regardless of where they are released. Therefore, without common action, it is impossible for any country or individual to be unaffected. Given the clear and uncontested view of the causes – and, increasingly, the impacts of climate change – global and coordinated action needs to follow.

There is no doubt that unless China and the US – and, to a lesser extent, the EU – take ambitious climate action, meeting agreed targets will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Joint actions will also both make the transition cheaper and more rapid and will remove much of the uncertainty about decarbonization. Therefore, an overarching cooperative approach to climate change is clearly not only mutually beneficial but essential. It demonstrates the necessity of a cooperative approach between China, the EU and the US, and also of common approaches between the G20 countries and with developing countries, emissions from which in many cases are rising rapidly.

The war on Ukraine and consequent economic sanctions imposed on Russia have affected global prices for fossil fuels, and have raised concerns in Europe particularly over energy security. The implications for climate change are unclear, as the EU seeks to accelerate the transition towards greater use of renewable energy and increased energy efficiency, in order to reduce its dependence on Russian-sourced coal, oil and gas. This may in turn lead to the export of more Russian fossil fuels to China. The US is also anticipating increased exports of its gas to the EU, further changing the geopolitics and financial flows of the global energy sector.

The global commons

In Europe, the EU and its member states (as well as most non-EU countries) have signed up to the major global regimes governing the seas and oceans, including those covering the Southern Ocean and its seabed and outer space. However, national economic interests, as well as intra-European political disputes, have led to a fractured European response on a range of issues that extend beyond the long-standing concern over China’s human rights record. These include, among others, technological cooperation with China on outer space and arbitration on disputes in the South China Sea. On the latter, for example, Greek and Hungarian objections to an EU statement in support of a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, against China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea, were criticized as being motivated by those countries’ dependence on Chinese inward investment.27 Croatia also reportedly raised concerns over the statement, owing to its own maritime boundary disagreement with Slovenia, for which the court ruling would have set a precedent.28

As in other areas of policymaking, intra-European governance structures hamper coordination. In the example of outer space, European policies have been overwhelmingly driven by individual member states and their national space agencies. To an extent, these agencies are brought together in the European Space Agency (ESA), but this organization itself is separate from the EU. While the EU has sought to streamline its space policy via the EU Space Programme for 2021–2027 and its new EU Agency for the Space Programme in order to be able to compete with China and the US, it remains unclear how these initiatives will reduce the influence of national interests in the decision-making process.29 Indeed, while the EU seeks to establish its own space industry and strategic position, France reiterated in March 2021 that it would continue to work with China bilaterally in outer-space exploration.30 Similarly, the ESA continues to support China’s space exploration programme.31 Media reports suggest that France and the ESA were exploring opportunities to work with China and Russia on their future lunar base, although it remains uncertain whether this was indeed the case and how Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine will affect long-term interest in such cooperation.32 Potential economic opportunities in the space industry have further driven European companies to cooperate with their Chinese counterparts, despite growing concerns of European governments over Chinese dual-use capabilities and strategic objectives in outer space. The private sector provides an example of the difficulty of building deeper transatlantic cooperation, despite pre-existing comprehensive links between Europe and the US and long-standing messaging from the US over its concerns regarding European space cooperation with China, in particular the sharing of sensitive technology.33 However, the commercial opportunities to advance European space technologies and companies, and to create security supply chains to help enable strategic autonomy, also drive a sense of competition with the US.34

The economic dimension of countering China’s challenges in the global commons can also be seen in the maritime sector. For example, in 2021, German sales of engines were reported to have helped to modernize the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy fleet, despite widespread concerns in Europe and the US over both Chinese military modernization in general and China’s assertiveness at sea in waters beyond its national maritime jurisdiction.35

However, there are also more deep-rooted challenges in the differing European and US interpretation of norms, particularly with regard to outer space. While the EU recognizes outer space as a global common, recent US administrations have mainly sought to protect American national interests in this new frontier. In 2015, the Obama administration enacted the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which included Title IV on Space Resource Exploration and Utilization to defend US investments in outer space resource-extraction.36 In 2020, Trump signed an executive order stating explicitly that outer space is not viewed by the US as a global common. Furthermore, the US has embarked on its own regime for conduct in outer space through the creation of the Artemis Accords, an initiative which so far has received the support of 19 other countries, including seven European states, with France becoming the 20th state to join the accords in June 2022.37

Despite their differences over governance of the global commons, there is also a great deal of alignment between Europe and the US. This is particularly evident in the maritime domain, despite the US’s continued refusal to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) due to long-standing domestic political opposition. Concerns cited by opponents include possible infringements on US sovereignty through restrictions on its access to marine resources and legal obligations to accept the jurisdiction of an international body over disputes concerning US resources and territory.38 However, the US has consistently abided by UNCLOS as a matter of customary international law.39 It is also worth noting that not all states that have ratified UNCLOS – including European states – share the same interpretation of its various rules, and that such differences have not obstructed their relations with other countries.40

Increasing interest in the Indo-Pacific from European states, as demonstrated by recent naval missions in the South China Sea, shows a shared concern over Beijing’s attempts to rewrite the rules of maritime law in its own region. In 2019, the E3 – France, Germany and the UK – issued a joint statement expressing support for UNCLOS and the 2016 PCA Final Ruling on the South China Sea, and noting their concern over destabilizing activities that were not in line with international maritime law. This was followed in 2020 by a note verbale to the UN.41 In 2021, France, Germany and the UK separately announced that they would send warships to the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific region in an effort to underscore the importance of international maritime law and the principle of free passage; the UK’s deployment of its Carrier Strike Group included a US ship and a Dutch ship, as well as US F-35 jets.42

Transatlantic cooperation in the governance of outer space is likewise moving forwards. A UK-led UN resolution on norms for conduct in outer space received support from both European states and the US. Cooperation is also being advanced through the ESA, plus government-to-government and commercial channels. While the Artemis Accords have not yet been fully subscribed by EU countries, the ESA and NASA have signed a bilateral memorandum of cooperation on joining ‘the first human outpost in lunar orbit’ by contributing service modules and affording ESA the opportunity to send European astronauts to the outpost.43 NATO is also considering the strategic use of space: in 2019, it adopted a new Space Policy and declared space an operational domain. In 2020, NATO established a dedicated space centre at Allied Air Command in Germany,44 and in 2021, it recognized that its members could invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty over attacks to, from or within space.45

Conclusion

While Europe remains closer to the US than it is to China, and while European countries and the US share concerns over China’s economic and geopolitical rise, the transatlantic relationship is far from settled when it comes to developing a coherent response to the challenges posed by China. Obstacles to closer cooperation are present across all four policy areas explored in this project. Although this paper is far from exhaustive, it presents some of the most significant barriers to more effective transatlantic cooperation on China in several policy domains.

Competition between Europe and the US holds back deeper transatlantic cooperation across all policy domains considered. For instance, discussions in Europe on attaining strategic autonomy are often held not so much with China in mind, but the US. Meanwhile, US policy remains broadly one of ‘America First’. This rivalry continues to drive competition in trade and technology, with impacts on normative behaviour in the global commons.

Furthermore, the fractured nature of internal policymaking in the governance structures in both Brussels and Washington remains a hurdle across all of the policy domains studied. While the narrative of the past years has been a growing political consensus in numerous Western countries with regards to China, the reality is that many institutions and sectors in those countries retain different interests – whether they are in the private sector, public sector or are non-governmental in nature. For example, US tech companies continue to depend heavily on Chinese contractors and suppliers, while German automotive firms remain reliant on demand from the Chinese market. On both sides of the Atlantic, influential constituencies believe in a more moderate approach to China, would prefer engagement over confrontation, want economics to be prioritized over human rights or can see the benefits of continued engagement in such areas as environmental protection and resource scarcity.

Paralysis in policymaking is a long-standing complaint about the European and US governing structures. This does indeed place the transatlantic alliance at a disadvantage when facing China’s more top-down decision-making process. While varying perspectives can be found in the Chinese system, the central command structure is more focused and has become stronger during Xi Jinping’s presidency. For example, while European and US authorities struggle to regulate their digital sectors, there has been a dramatic regulatory clampdown on technology companies in China recently. Beijing clearly has greater capacity to bring companies to heel, compared with Western governments. Even if US and European authorities were able to agree a course of action, it is not clear that their private sectors would necessarily follow.

It is worth observing that the transatlantic partnership was able to rapidly mobilize and respond to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, suggesting that it is not impossible for Western countries to overcome internal disagreements to impose strong and punitive sanctions on an adversary. But it is not clear that China would undertake such a bellicose action as Russia’s to prompt a similar response. It is equally true that Russia’s links with the global economy are not the same as China’s. While there is still deep interdependence between Europe and Russia in certain sectors (for example, in energy), the direction in Europe at the moment is to break this dependence. Nevertheless, the key lesson here is that, in the face of extreme action, Europe and the US can mobilize rapidly, and are willing to accept damage to their own interests in advance of a common goal against an adversarial power.

Across the four policy areas, there is a significant difference in adherence to the existing global multilateral order between the transatlantic partners, as both the US and China have undermined this at certain times. This has led the EU to seek a mediating or leadership role in the policy areas of trade, digital and tech, climate change and global governance. European powers regard themselves as both beneficiaries and champions of the international order and its institutions. They also see the EU as an independent strategic actor and would rather move towards greater autonomy from the US than increase dependence. This sentiment might be stronger under some US administrations than others. But the main lesson for Europe from the Trump presidency was that the US might not always be a reliable actor and partner in international affairs. Even under the Biden presidency, the AUKUS partnership and the chaotic withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan against European wishes appear to have confirmed the sense among certain EU countries that they lack influence over decision-making in Washington.

It is further important to consider third-party countries in all policy areas – both in Asia and elsewhere. These powers have considerable agency over the issues considered in this paper, and have their own perspectives on the China challenge. For example, Taiwan is crucial to the production of semiconductors, while Japanese and South Korean firms are at the cutting edge of many new technologies. Meanwhile, much of the developing world continues to rely on Chinese suppliers of goods due to their relatively low prices and rapid delivery – which Western companies struggle (or do not want) to compete with.

A solely transatlantic response to China will therefore leave gaps, which will make it impossible to achieve desired outcomes. Cooperation with third countries is already happening in some areas as the transatlantic partners engage more deeply with security issues in the Indo-Pacific region. But even in this case, they do not always take the wider region into account, except China and a small number of large players like India and Japan.

The current lack of trust within the international system makes good-faith engagement difficult. But it is imperative to include China in the global conversation if these problems are to be overcome. China is a now a major part of the global system and this is unlikely to change fundamentally in the medium-term.

Whether the issue is establishing rules on international technology standards, mitigating the next pandemic or governing the global commons, some level of engagement with China will be necessary. On climate change in particular, no comprehensive solution is possible without China. It may prove difficult for Western policymakers to achieve such engagement. But finding a balance between engagement, competing views within the transatlantic alliance and an increasingly assertive China will be the West’s most significant challenge for the next decade or more.

A shift away from book promotion (briefly!), to touch on the case of the murder of Sir David Amess, MP, who was brutally murdered by an ISIS acolyte in the most recent terrorist attack in the United Kingdom. As seems to be de rigeur, the case attracted a lot of attention to Prevent which has a long awaited review due out at some point. The piece was published by my British institutional home RUSI, thanks as ever to Jonathan for helping shepherd it through.

An MP’s Murder: The Failure of the Prevent Programme?

29 April 2022

The UK’s counterterrorism programme Prevent is once again under the spotlight. But can the programme ever really be expected to eradicate terrorism?


Main Image Credit Courtesy of Maureen McLean / Alamy Stock Photo

The conviction of Sir David Amess’s murderer has reignited the debate on counterterrorism practice in the UK. Much has been made of the fact that the MP’s murderer was someone who had been referred in his late teens to the government’s counterterrorism Prevent programme. It was the latest in a number of people referred to Prevent who have subsequently gone on to launch attacks, and comes as a major review of the programme is underway.

Prevent has consistently been the most publicly discussed aspect of the UK’s counterterrorism strategy, yet in budgetary terms it consumes the smallest amount of money of all of the ‘four Ps’ that make up the strategy (the other three are Pursue, Protect and Prepare). The other ‘Ps’ are focused on responding to events and pursuing networks, protecting targets and preparing the public, while Prevent is about stopping the terrorist threat from ever emerging. Within Prevent, there are a range of activities that take place, from preventative work to steer people off the path to radicalisation, to the work that is instead focused on trying to rehabilitate or de-radicalise people who have been convicted of terrorist activity.

Some of it is contentious work. While in principle, few would disagree with the notion of trying to stop people being drawn towards terrorist ideas and action, in practice this means engaging with people through the lens of a counterterrorist programme before they have actually committed any terrorist act. It can feel like people are being seen through a criminal lens before any criminal act has actually taken place. The film Minority Report with its Department of Pre-Crime is often invoked as a dystopian comparison.

In practice, Prevent is made up of thousands of referrals every year – made by police, educators, health workers and concerned citizens – to Prevent officers, who will then examine the case and determine whether it requires greater engagement. In the majority of instances, they will dismiss the case, concluding that the referral is incorrect. To give a sense of numbers, in the year ending 31 March 2021 there were 4,915 referrals, of which 1,333 were discussed at a Channel panel, and 688 were taken on as cases. The year before, there were 6,287 referrals, with 1,424 discussed at Channel and 697 taken on. While the proportions are not always identical, they are similar, and the key point is that in the overwhelming majority of cases a Prevent referral does not result in deeper investigation.

It is difficult to know why this is the case. It is possible that people are over-referring out of a lack of understanding of extremist ideas or out a sense of needing to be seen to be doing something. This is a possible impact of the Prevent duty which was brought in through legislation in 2015 which obligates educators in particular to play a role in preventing people from being drawn into terrorism (alongside the police they are the biggest source of referrals). It is possible that the system is misidentifying which of the referrals are genuine cases or not.

It is not clear exactly where in this process the recently identified failed cases were. But it is equally clear that they are outliers. While even one failure in this context is too many, it is notable that we have seen a decrease in the volume of overall terrorist arrests, and a drop in coordinated terrorist plots. The overwhelming majority of those that are currently disrupted are instead lone actors who seem to be inspired by groups, but have no real link to them. Police and intelligence services say the violent Islamist threat is the biggest terrorist problem they face. However, this does not appear to be translating into arrests or Prevent referrals, which instead suggest the growing threat of the extreme right wing. While the Home Office does not report ideology on arrest, the number in prisons identified as extreme right wing in prison is growing. In addition to this, there is a rise in cases that are identified as not having any clear ideological foundation. Whether any of this decrease in threats from Islamists is related to Prevent is difficult to know – a programme based around stopping things from happening is always going to struggle to prove its effectiveness.

The bigger question in some ways is a more existential one about Prevent. The initial concept of the UK’s counterterrorism strategy was to try to develop a programme which would seek to stop people from being drawn towards terrorist ideas and groups in the first place. It was an attempt to get ahead of the problem, rather than continually managing it – which is largely the role of the other three Ps in the strategy.

Yet, this pre-emptive approach was something that had never really been tried before. The UK had developed robust approaches to countering terrorism and defending targets to counter the threats of Irish-related terrorism and the various Middle Eastern factions that had launched attacks in the 1970s. But none of these sought to stop people from being drawn towards extremist ideas. It was more a case of disrupting networks and stopping people. De-radicalisation was also not something that had been tried with great vigour. In other forms of criminal behaviour, work had been done (and is being done) to try to stop people from choosing paths of crime and to rehabilitate them afterwards. But with terrorism, such an approach was new.

Two decades on from its inception, there are people who have abandoned extremist ideas, though in many cases they have done this as a result of their own choice and agency – sometimes prodded along by Prevent programmes. It is also likely that Prevent has steered some people away from bad choices, or that contact with the programme alone has scared them off the path they were on. Talk to people who have been engaged with by Prevent in communities, and you often find far more positive stories than media reporting would suggest. Surveys suggest attitudes in the broader public (amongst Muslim communities as well as the general public) are more positive than is suggested by the few voices that tend to dominate the public conversation. But it sometimes feels like another branch of social services, rather than a specific programme that is trying to stop terrorist incidents.

The problem Prevent is trying to deal with is a complex one. As we are learning with Sir David Amess’s murderer, in some cases, perpetrators stew in their ideas for some time, lashing out years after their first curiosity in extremist ideas arose. In many ways, this case is typical of a cohort that appeared around the fringes of the Syria traveller phenomenon – young men who often became radicalised alone (or started down the path alone), connected with others in person and online, and then sought to go to Syria. And in some cases – like this one – they failed to make it.

There were consistent warnings expressed by authorities at the time that the frustrated traveller community was of high concern. These were individuals who were radicalised enough to want to go and join Islamic State, but who were stumped by often quite simple hurdles in getting there. Their radicalisation did not decrease as a result of the failed journey (and might actually have gotten stronger), and they continued to be drawn to a group which would shout about people doing things at home if they could not come and join them in the Levant. It appears in this case that it took the perpetrator almost five years to decide to move towards action.

It is not entirely clear that Prevent would have been an effective vehicle to stop a culprit like this. Effective Prevent interventions require some agency and engagement by the individual. If they have no interest in being de-radicalised, then it is difficult to get them to move on from extremist ideas – imagine someone pressuring you to reject a strong belief you hold. In this case, the man was so committed that he kept the ideas to himself and launched an action years after he had first explored them. It is possible that consistent engagement by authorities during this time might have shifted him from this path – but it may have been difficult to tell whether he was someone who could be moved by this consistent level of engagement or if this would have been an appropriate use of potentially considerable public funds (or how many other cases might on paper look like this one but never materialise into an attack).

As with any major public incident, there is an eagerness to understand what went wrong and what needs to be changed as a result. The murder of an MP is a mercifully rare event, and merits attention to understand what went wrong. But it is equally clear that we need to think a bit harder about what our expectations are with Prevent, and some thought needs to go into whether it can ever be entirely foolproof in protecting society from terrorists. The answer to dealing with the reality of extremist tendencies might lie in some fundamental changes to our society. It is unclear that Prevent will be able to address this.

A piece for my UK institutional home RUSI, exploring China’s relations, links and role to the current conflict in Ukraine. Suspect going to be an issue which is going to come up increasingly over the next few months, but the overriding China-Russia relationship does not feel like it is going to change much.

China’s Soft Shoe on Ukraine

Hard geopolitics dominates China’s view of Russian action in Ukraine.

Main Image Credit Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pictured in 2016. Courtesy of Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In the West, China’s views on Ukraine have largely been seen through the lenses that people want to interpret China’s actions. Some fear Beijing will use the opportunity to do something in Taiwan, while others instead suggest that this will lead to a fissure between China and Russia as Moscow tests the international order, recognises breakaway states and causes economic chaos – all things that logically irritate Beijing. Yet all of this stands apart from the fairly blank and often confusing response we have actually seen, where Chinese officialdom initially made statements which lacked internal coherence and seemed aimed at pleasing everybody, and then latterly took a posture of blaming the US. Beijing has aligned itself with Russia from the outset, though it has repeatedly softened its line to reflect a genuine concern about a potential catastrophic escalation, a desire to appear to be trying to do the right thing, and a likely genuine wish not to actively encourage Russian adventurism.

Go back in time to 2014, and Chinese commentators were more circumspect in their response towards Russian action in Crimea. While they did not leap up to praise and support, they did not condemn, and instead offered commentary that seemed to suggest that they at least understood Moscow’s underlying concerns. From Beijing’s perspective, events in 2014 were an extension of the problem that Chinese (and Russian) officials refer to as ‘Colour Revolutions’, a refence to the toppling of authoritarian regimes by public uprisings that can be traced back to the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003. That event precipitated a similar uprising in Ukraine a year or so later (dubbed the Orange Revolution), and was followed by a similar government overthrow (dubbed the Tulip Revolution) in Kyrgyzstan in 2005. This chain of events then seemed to slow until 2011 and the Arab Spring, which brought a similar wave of public protest and authoritarian overthrow across the Arab world, and even touched on China’s shores in the very limited ‘Jasmine Revolution’.

While Beijing was not ecstatic about the redrawing of borders on the basis of ethnicity and the recognition of breakaway provinces (a precedent they always fear will be used against them), it could see where Moscow was coming from and worried about the wider consequences of the Euromaidan protests that culminated in Russia’s actions in Crimea. Additionally, it had little interest in condemning Russia, an important neighbour and ally whom it recognises has a very different view on how independent former Soviet countries actually are. Back in 2014, China was preoccupied with many other issues – including a domestic terrorist problem which appeared to be getting out of control – and saw little value in becoming entangled in a fundamentally European problem. In a comment which echoes precisely what is being said today, then Chinese UN Ambassador Liu Jieyi stated that Crimea posed a ‘complex intertwinement of historical and contemporary factors’.

This stood in stark contrast to 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia and recognised the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. At that time, Beijing was irritated that Moscow had chosen to launch its incursion right when Beijing was hosting the Olympic Games (by contrast, the 2022 Winter Games had notably ended at around the time Putin decided to take action against Ukraine, suggesting at the very least a sense of diplomatic timing by Moscow), and actively worked to block Russian attempts to get the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to support what Moscow as doing. Led by the unassuming and consensus-driven Hu Jintao, China was a power that still framed itself as rising and eager not to make waves. In what could be read as a thunderous rebuke by the then usually mute Beijing, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) expressed ‘concern’ about Russia’s recognition of the two states.

Cut forward to today and Beijing seems much more willing to rhetorically champion Moscow’s perspectives. In earlier statements, it appears to have tried to maintain a line which avoided praising Russia, acknowledged some legitimacy in its concerns and at the same time upheld the UN charter and its calls for the protection of national territorial integrity (a nod to Ukraine’s perspective). But in fact, Beijing said very little. Echoing 2014, MFA spokesman Wang Wenbin stated that from Beijing’s perspective there was ‘a complex historical context and complicated factors at play on this issue’.

But things sharpened rapidly. While these same narratives remain present, a more aggressive tone towards the US came in when spokeswoman Hua Chunying took over the regular MFA briefings. ‘A key question here is what role the US, the culprit of current tensions surrounding Ukraine, has played. If someone keeps pouring oil on the flame while accusing others of not doing their best to put out the fire, such kind of behaviour is clearly irresponsible and immoral’, she said. Foreign Minister Wang Yi has made explicit reference to Russian concerns about NATO expansion, suggesting it as an explanation for the conflict.

While it is no longer surprising to hear such fiery rhetoric from the formerly staid MFA, it is a clear step further than Beijing was willing to go last time. What has changed is not the partnership with Russia, which has remained a constant and strengthened during the past decade and a half, but rather the relationship with the US, which is the principal vector through which Beijing views international affairs.

Viewed in this light, the response to Ukraine becomes shaped by the wider geopolitical context that Beijing sees. There is a substantial economic relationship between Ukraine and China, with China overtaking Russia as the country’s biggest trading partner in 2019. But it is not something that is irreplaceable from China’s perspective, and there is nothing to say that China will not be able to pick up quickly in economic terms after the Russian invasion, no matter who is left in charge. Reflecting China’s willingness to accept a relatively high risk threshold in Ukraine, PowerChina agreed in late 2020 to undertake the construction of the largest wind farm in Europe at a cost of around $1 billion in the divided Donetsk region of Ukraine, near where separatist rebels controlled territory (and presumably now at the heart of the conflict). This highlights Beijing’s willingness to undertake difficult investments, which doubtless the government in Kyiv would have appreciated. It is notable that while India’s tacit tolerance of Russia has generated anger from Kyiv, there has been less comment about Beijing’s very similar messaging, although it is reported to have generated some anger towards China on the ground.

But it is highly doubtful that China will prioritise bilateral trade and investment with Ukraine over its relationship with Russia. It is equally unlikely that Beijing will decide to join the West in a chorus of condemnation towards Moscow. The wider negative geopolitical consequences fly in the face of the grand joint communique issued by Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin when they met at the opening of the Winter Games in Beijing. While it is the source of great speculation whether Putin informed Xi when they met of what was being planned, the idea that China now feels played in some way seems unlikely. That the vast Chinese commentariat (and Ministry of Foreign Affairs) were unaware of what the leadership knew is unlikely to be a reflection of a systemic lack of knowledge, but rather suggests a closed centre around Xi that chose not to share information. Xi may have calculated that the Russian conflict would be brief, that it was not really his problem to worry about, and that it was not his place to judge what Putin saw as simply a ‘domestic’ issue.

China may not appreciate the chaos that Russia’s actions engender, but it will also conclude that there is little it can gain from trying to rein Moscow in, except to lose a partner in its confrontation with the US. In fact, there is every chance Beijing will benefit from this situation, gaining a stronger hand over its bilateral relationship with Moscow as Putin alienates large portions of the globe and sees Russia cut out of the international system. And in some parts of Chinese considerations, there may even be some thought given to the benefits that Russia’s actions might bring in terms of creating a wider distraction, exposing fissures between Western allies, providing lessons for future confrontations and more broadly creating an opportunity for China to look like a more stable actor on the international stage in contrast to Russia.

None of this is to say Beijing is pleased with being associated with a bellicose pariah, and there is no doubt that China’s calls for a peaceful resolution to the conflict are genuine. Doubtless, there is some concern about the Chinese students who appear to be stuck in Ukraine. But it is also clear that hard geopolitics is prominent in China’s thinking, and its willingness to support Russia trumps such concerns. Moreover, Beijing, like Moscow, believes that things blow over. In what is almost a complete turnaround from 2008, in December last year an image emerged of the Ambassador to Syria for the breakaway Georgian Republic of Abkhazia meeting with the Chinese Ambassador to Damascus, Feng Biao. The full content of the encounter is not clear, but it was a source of friction between Tbilisi and Beijing. Reflecting continued Chinese curiosity in the region, a Shanghai news outlet recently had a reporter visit, something that was reported in light of the recent Russian recognitions in Ukraine.

A final point to note is that there is little reason why Beijing would feel it is being isolated on the international stage alongside Moscow at the moment. Watch the UN meetings in the run-up to Russia’s invasion, and India’s statements echo China’s refusal to condemn Moscow. Both voted the same way (alongside the UAE), choosing to abstain on the UN resolution condemning Russian action, while Indian finance officials are reported to be examining ways they can circumvent Western sanctions to continue to trade with Russia. Chinese banks have also been exploring ways of limiting their exposure, but the larger food, finance, technology and energy deals signed during Putin’s visit to Beijing earlier in the year highlight a deep economic relationship that is unlikely to change. Neither Beijing nor New Delhi appear eager to follow Western sanctions, although China is more forthright in condemning the use of the tactic. New Delhi may have subsequently done more to try to reach out to the Ukrainian side, but it has continued to avoid any sense of condemnation towards Moscow.

China and India may in other contexts be in violent conflict with each other, but they appear unified in being unwilling to jettison their relationship with Moscow in favour of Ukrainian or Western appeals. And given their collective representation of over a third of the planet’s population, this provides all three countries with adequate cover to wait and see how things develop, while keeping a cold eye on realist geopolitics.

With this piece I finally catch up to current events in my writing on Central Asia. I realize have been writing a lot about it late last year, and thus far don’t think events have vastly disproved what I wrote. Certainly, did not predict things, but then no-one really did. This short piece for my UK institutional home RUSI in the wake of events in Kazakhstan has I think stood reasonably well so far, but it remains still to be seen what the longer-term impact of events in Kazakhstan at the end of the year might be.

Kazakhstan in Crisis: It’s About the Country, Not Big Power Politics

The true significance of current events in Central Asia’s biggest country remains domestic.

Protests in the Kazakh city of Aktobe, 4 January 2022. Courtesy of Esetok / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The sudden and chaotic start to the year in Kazakhstan has taken even the most seasoned Central Asia watchers by surprise. The extreme and widespread violence and protests have been made even more shocking by the extraordinary decision of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to request the deployment of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to help bring stability back to the country. Given wider global tensions with Russia, the prospect of a Russian-led military deployment in the country has been interpreted through the lens of Russian geopolitics and President Vladimir Putin’s aspirations, but this misses the degree to which this is about events in Kazakhstan.

Well-Concealed Cracks

For years, Kazakhstan has been considered among the most stable and prosperous of the belt of countries surrounding modern Russia. Endowed with enormous mineral wealth, the country seemed to be tacking a very different path. Autocratic and ruled largely by the same group who had been in power at the end of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan’s elites had also used their wealth to foster a growing middle class, which included large numbers of smart young Kazakhs whose education was paid for to help the country develop. Glittering events and buildings showcased the country to the world as a very different sort of post-Soviet state.

Yet, cracks existed beneath this façade. The ruling class was dogged by tales of massive corruption. Protests would periodically emerge, a sign of deep unhappiness in parts of the country that had not benefitted in the same way as the capital city. But the country was also home to a thriving NGO community and an active (if controlled) media, and was considered a place where a certain degree of openness was permitted. The government would tolerate some dissent, but would ensure that it never challenged its authority.

This generally positive trajectory clearly masked a more brittle structure than was generally thought. While regional watchers were unsurprised by the violence that marred Kyrgyzstan’s elections in October 2020 – the latest in a sadly long history of such violence – the sudden and widespread protests and subsequent violence in Kazakhstan have come as a shock. While it remains to be seen how organised any of it has been, there seems little doubt that underpinning it all is a deep well of local anger.

Botched Handling of Crisis

Part of this can be seen in the government’s initial reaction. Recognising what was happening needed a dramatic response. President Tokayev initially responded by removing from power the cadre of officials linked to the country’s founding President Nursultan Nazarbayev who were blamed for much of the corruption and inequality in the country. The father of the nation who had shepherded his country out of the Russian-Soviet yoke, Nazarbayev had formally stepped down as president in January 2019, handing over the reins of power to Tokayev – a longstanding member of his close cabinet. President Nazarbayev retained his influence, however, including as Chairman of the powerful National Security Council. His family and allies continued to control key parts of the country’s wealth and hold great power. The smooth transfer to Tokayev, however, was praised, although it was never entirely clear how much had actually changed.

Yet Tokayev’s sop to the protestors did not work. Pictures emerged from around the country of police putting down their weapons and joining the protestors. The decision to remove Karim Massimov, a close ally of Nazarbayev, from his role as head of the National Security Council showed how little faith Tokayev had in his own security forces, while also firmly cementing the removal of Nazarbayev’s cadre from the central leadership.

Pulling Out All the Stops

Hence, the decision to call in the CSTO. Fearing that the chaos in the country was escalating out of control and that his own security forces would not hold muster, it is clear that Tokayev felt he needed an external hand to help steady the ship. Russia initially seemed to dismiss the issues in Kazakhstan, with presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling the media ‘we are convinced that our Kazakh friends can independently solve their internal problems’. The Kremlin also warned others not to interfere in Kazakhstan, while various Russian commentators took this one step further and accused the US of being involved in instigating the trouble in Kazakhstan.

While the subsequent Russian action in sending its forces into Kazakhstan as part of the CSTO mission seems to entirely contradict these Kremlin statements, it is a response to events on the ground and requests from Kazakh authorities. This is not an informal invasion, or a way for Russia to firmly embed itself in Kazakhstan to draw the country back under Moscow’s sway. The truth is that Kazakhstan will always likely be tied to Moscow, no matter who is in charge. The country is bound through treaties, geography, infrastructure and population to Russia. Whoever is in power in Nursultan will have to have a good working relationship with Moscow. And while there has undoubtedly been a growth in anti-Russian sentiment in the country over the past few years as the government has sought to develop its own national identity and pride, Moscow is still an important partner (and locals tend to be even more sceptical of other partners like the US or China).

And even if Kazakhstan were to choose a different path, it would likely be towards China. In fact, both Nazarbayev and Tokayev have sought instead to strike a path between Russia and China, leveraging Kazakhstan’s natural wealth to foster an independent, ‘multi-vector’ foreign policy which attempts to stay somewhere in between the two (and even close to the West, where possible – Europe and the US are important economic partners for Kazakhstan).

Implications

Clearly, the credibility of this narrative is now in question. But this should not be interpreted as the success of Russian adventurism. Rather, it should be seen as a reflection of realities on the ground in a country whose government clearly did not appreciate the depth of its people’s unhappiness, which was playing out some complicated internal politics and which was always likely to rely on its traditional security partner, Russia, to play a supportive role in extremis.

The world should not be confused by the tweeting of Russian commentators in the West and meddlesome pro-Kremlin commentators in Moscow – echoed by parts of the Chinese state media – who suggest a larger plot which encompasses Ukraine and Belarus and falls into the geopolitical confrontation between Russia/China and the West. These events are about Kazakhstan.

This is not mere sophistry. For, if the events are seen only through the lens of confrontation between the West and Russia, then current developments could lead Kazakhstan to turn away from the Western direction it has kept trying to steer itself towards. If, however, the emphasis is placed on the issues underpinning the violence in the first place and efforts are focused on persuading the government to try to actually address those problems, it is possible that a better outcome can be found.

Of course, this will be hugely complicated by the presence of Russian forces under the CSTO banner. And it is possible that we will discover the levels of violence that took place over the past few days will fundamentally change things on the ground. But Kazakhstan is a country whose natural wealth and confidence does give it options – even if, at least for the moment, it seems to have taken the wrong ones.

Still catching up on myself after a very busy period, this a quick policy note for RUSI picking up on some comments by the UK Foreign Secretary about the need to have to cooperate with China and Russia in Afghanistan. The idea of cooperating with China in particular in Afghanistan is something that lots of people have done over the years, and for those who may have been reading my stuff for a while will know I have done projects on since 2014 (looking at China-India cooperation), again in greater depth in 2016 and most recently last year between the UK and China. As Afghanistan’s wealthiest, and going forwards likely most influential, neighbour, it strikes that China is going to be playing a role or should be taking a more positive role. It makes sense to try to ensure some sort of cooperation can be maintained, while the larger relationships will continue to be incredibly challenging and confrontational. Of course all of this push towards engagement is something that only works if Beijing and Moscow also contribute, something that they have hesitated to do so far (in particular in China’s case).

Enlisting China and Russia in Managing Afghanistan

The UK foreign secretary is the first to raise what will soon become an imperative: engaging with China and Russia in containing the fallout from Afghanistan.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen leaves after a news conference in Moscow, 9 July 2021. Courtesy of Reuters / Alamy Stock Photo.

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s recent comments about enlisting the support of China and Russia to act as moderating influences in Afghanistan amounts to a sober admission of reality: the long-term answer to stability in Afghanistan is going to come from its immediate region. The snag with this assessment is that Afghanistan is a state entirely surrounded by countries that are in one way or another sanctioned by the West. It is this adversarial relationship with much of Afghanistan’s neighbourhood that makes it difficult for a power like the UK to influence events, especially when it comes to engaging Moscow and Beijing on something as sensitive as Afghanistan. So, what exactly can the West in general, and the UK in particular, expect in requesting support from China and Russia in the context of Afghanistan?

Not Exactly Enthused

The first fact to note is that, notwithstanding rhetoric, neither Beijing nor Moscow are pleased with the ultimate outcome of an unstable Afghanistan. They may enjoy the West’s perceived failure and ignominious departure, but an Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban is not an outcome they welcome with excitement. Violent Islamists imbued with a sense of victory present a potential inspiration to extreme groups within China and Russia. It is worth remembering that the Taliban has previously provided space from which militants targeting these countries could operate. Furthermore, any short- or medium-term terrorist threat that could emanate from Afghanistan is most likely to appear in its immediate region rather than further afield.

Neither are Beijing or Moscow attracted to an unstable Afghanistan with a weak or internally divided government without the stabilising force of US power. Such a situation would be an irritant which sits near their borders and could have other consequences for their broader spheres of influence and interests across the Eurasian heartland. Beijing and Moscow would rather have a Taliban government that found a way of creating a stable environment, most preferably through some political agreement. There is likely a divergence in views between London, Beijing and Moscow on what the specific composition of this government might look like, but there is probably an underlying agreement about the broad structure.

Keep it Simple, Keep it Focused

While this suggests a restriction to the degree to which China and Russia will cooperate on Afghan politics, it also indicates a certain alignment with Beijing and Moscow, as their goal is similar to that pursued by the UK. All three want stability. But, rather than expend political capital on precise deliverables that may be unattainable, the focus should be kept on larger goals.

A priority must be to apply whatever pressure is possible to get Beijing and Moscow to encourage the Taliban to facilitate a positive outcome to the current humanitarian crisis at Kabul airport. In the medium term, the UK should impress upon Beijing and Moscow the need to increase their humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and its neighbours. China has considerable wealth and influence in Pakistan, where numerous Afghan refugees are already flowing. Providing greater aid and support for this community, while also continuing the provision of coronavirus pandemic-related aid to Afghanistan, should be a priority. Similarly, Iran is experiencing a refugee influx it can ill afford to manage as it continues to suffer from the effects of the pandemic. Beijing and Tehran have recently started to strengthen their engagement, opening discussions on Afghanistan in particular.

Moscow has already demonstrated a desire to restrict US options in Central Asia, but Russia can still be pushed to step up its humanitarian support to help the countries of the region manage the humanitarian fallout. Before the fall of Kabul, Moscow was offering itself as a valued security bolster to the Central Asian powers, and it should be encouraged to build on this with greater humanitarian aid.

In order to help foster greater cooperation, a key plank of engagement is the joint concerns all three powers have about terrorist threats. Pressure needs to be maintained on the Taliban to ensure their territory is not used by militant groups to launch external attacks. The reality is that both China and Russia (through Central Asia) are under a greater threat than the West from such a development. The UK faces a clear risk through Pakistan, and the deep human links the two countries share, which unfortunately extends to South Asian militancy and extremism. Here, discussion between the UK, China and Russia should be easier. All three already agree in broad terms on the shape of the violent Islamist threat (though domestic assessments and counterterrorism approaches vary wildly). A dialogue with Beijing on the topic would be easier for the UK in particular, given it has not, unlike the US, removed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement from its roster of proscribed terrorist organisations, considering it another name for the Turkestan Islamic Party.

Looking to the future, both China and Russia should be encouraged to live up to their various promises of support for Afghanistan, from trying to work in a more collective and coordinated fashion to help impede the flow of narcotics to boosting cross-border trade and low-level economic activity.

At the moment, much of the discussion around the Afghan economy tends to focus on overly ambitious, long-term and frankly unviable economic visions for the country, be these China’s Belt and Road concept or the opportunity to mine Afghanistan’s potential mineral wealth. The reality is that none of this wealth was extracted during the relative stability of the past 20 years of US-led intervention, when there was a government that had the ability and knowledge necessary to help deliver complicated extractive projects. It is difficult to comprehend why this situation would now be improved or the country seem more appealing, even to more risk-tolerant Chinese firms. Furthermore, such projects take years to see benefits, and the people of Afghanistan need assistance now.

And Less of the ‘Great Game’

It would be useful for the UK to do everything it can to ensure that Afghanistan does not get caught in the grinding tectonic plates of international geopolitics once again. Beijing has already started to identify the country as a potential point of conflict with the US and India, and efforts should focus on disentangling these threads to try to encourage cooperation again. Afghanistan used to shine as a place where adversaries like the US, China and India could cooperate, even if only to a limited extent.

At this stage, any engagement on Afghanistan with other powers must be done with great care. The situation on the ground remains highly unstable and the tussles for power are febrile. Regardless of who ultimately takes and maintains control in Kabul, however, Beijing and Moscow will be highly influential players. Engaging with them in some form will be hard to avoid; the key objective is to do so meaningfully.

Another piece on Afghanistan, this time for RUSI looking through the lens of Central Asia to understand better how the region is worrying about what is going on and trying to engage with major powers to mitigate its risks. Been doing quite a bit on Afghanistan in its region of late, and a few more short pieces to come, as well as (hopefully!) some longer ones. All of this of course helps tee things up for the book early next year. As ever, comments, thoughts, criticisms, and more welcome!

Central Asia and Afghanistan: Old Fears, Old Actors, New Games

The countries of Central Asia have reason to be concerned about Afghanistan in the wake of the Western withdrawal. Yet it remains unclear how they will mitigate the security risks, and what major power support to do this might look like.

Leaders attending the 18th Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Qingdao, China in June 2018 pose for a group photo. Courtesy of Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo


Just over 20 years ago, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) was founded, with mitigating risks from Afghanistan as one of its key objectives. In his opening comments at the first session, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan characterised the country as ‘the cradle of terrorism, separatism and extremism’. Two decades later, security concerns around Afghanistan remain alive and well in Central Asia. This was evident recently in Tashkent, as Uzbekistan hosted a major summit focused on Central and South Asian connectivity. One of the first large-scale international events since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, much of its focus was on Afghanistan, a country which ties the two regions together.

Traditionally, international attention towards Afghanistan has tended to focus on its southern border, given the Taliban’s deep links with Pakistan, as well as the Pashtun communities that tie the two countries together across the still ill-defined border. The attacks of 11 September 2001 brought the focus of international terrorism concerns to Afghanistan. Yet long before 2001, Central Asia had many reasons to worry about security threats emanating from Afghanistan.

The five-year Tajik Civil War which raged during the 1990s was in part fuelled by groups operating out of bases in Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan was invaded by militants linked to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the summer of 1999 and 2000. And in February 1999, a series of six car bombs in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent killed 13 people. All of the networks and groups behind these incidents had links to Afghanistan, highlighting President Nazarbayev’s concern over the country, and providing an animating issue for the SCO to group around.

Yet, despite the SCO being created as a vehicle which could – among other things – help coordinate a response to the problems emanating from Afghanistan, the organisation did nothing. In fact, following the September 11 attacks and the abrupt US return to the region, the Central Asian members quite rapidly pivoted to support the renewed US push into Afghanistan. US bases were welcomed into the region, to veiled scepticism in Beijing and Moscow. And for two decades, the SCO did very little practically in support of Afghanistan.

China’s Stake

This was not for want of China trying. Beijing sought to push the SCO to do more in Afghanistan, bringing the country into the organisation as an observer member and fostering the creation of an SCO–Afghanistan Contact Group. But these efforts achieved little. Ultimately, Beijing lost its patience and ended up doing more bilaterally with various partners around Afghanistan than through the SCO.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent tour of the region again served to highlight this approach. He attended an SCO summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, stopped off in Tashkent for a regional security conference organised by the Uzbeks, and completed his tour in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. At each stop he held high-level bilateral engagements and talked about working together on Afghanistan in vague terms, focusing on border security, cooperation and working towards an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned solution. No clear or new answers were proffered within or outside the SCO format.

US Involvement

At the same time, the US has participated in a series of engagements in the region. On the fringes of the Tashkent conference, the US held the latest C5+1 format session, bringing together the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian countries and the senior US representative attending the conference. The final statement emerging from the meeting focused heavily on Afghanistan, highlighting a desire to encourage trade links, improve regional connectivity with Afghanistan, and ensure that the country would not be a threat to the C5+1 or others.

Eager to highlight its particular brand of diplomatic nous, Uzbekistan also managed to work with the US to establish a new regional Quad grouping of Afghanistan–Pakistan–US–Uzbekistan to support an ‘Afghanistan-Peace Process and Post Settlement’. What this all means in practical terms, however, remains unclear, with many of the statements repeating what has been seen and heard before. The US is a major investor in Central Asia, but it demonstrates little committed strategic attention in a region where high-level geopolitics is the order of the day.

… And Russia

Not to be left behind, Russia has also stepped into the game, generously offering to let the US have access to its bases in the region – a move that highlights Moscow’s habit of forgetting that the Central Asian states are now independent. But at the same time, Russia announced military drills with Uzbek and Tajik forces near the two states’ respective borders with Afghanistan, something the Central Asians have welcomed. They have deep historical links to Russian security forces, and Tajikistan hosts a base, Kyrgyzstan an airfield and Kyrgyzstan a missile testing range used by Russian forces. In the wake of the recent escalation in fighting in Afghanistan, Tajikistan called on the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – a Russian construct which seeks to retain some of the security links that existed during Soviet times – to come to its aid. While it is not clear whether the entity itself will respond, Moscow has demonstrated a willingness to come to Dushanbe’s aid, boosting its capabilities in particular at its military base in the country near the border with Afghanistan.

Rising Concerns

As the fighting in Afghanistan gradually moves closer to its neighbours’ borders, Central Asian concerns are increasing. In early July, hundreds of Afghan soldiers and some civilians fled across the border into Tajikistan. The Tajiks let them in, though they ultimately repatriated some of them. In Uzbekistan a similar scene played out, though the Uzbeks were much faster in turning border-crossers around. In Turkmenistan, fighting at the border became so bad that shells started to land in Turkmen territory, leading senior Turkmen officials to reach out to the Taliban to try to bring an end to the fighting.

Prior to this, the region had been somewhat unclear in its response to the unfolding situation in Afghanistan. It had sought to engage with both the Taliban and the government in Kabul, though with varying degrees of publicity. The Tajik government has played a major diplomatic role this past year, hosting high-level sessions of the SCO, the CSTO and the Heart of Asia/Istanbul process – a Turkish-Afghan initiative seeking to focus on Afghanistan’s regional connections as the answer to its long-term problems. Meanwhile, the recent summit in Tashkent is the latest effort by the new government in Uzbekistan to try to tie Afghanistan closer to Central Asia, and Kazakhstan has sought to initiate other regional diplomatic engagements as well. But through all of this, it is not clear that the region has developed a firm plan for how it will manage the potential chaos in Afghanistan in the future.

While all the Central Asian countries now seem to agree that Afghanistan is a key part of their region, they do not seem quite as clear on how to deal with it collectively. Their continuing need and desire to engage with large outside powers as part of their response, however, highlights a concern about being left to cope with this responsibility alone. What is striking is that among the big powers, Russia remains the only one that continues to offer practical answers to the problems Afghanistan might present to Central Asia.

While China has been far more active in its engagement recently across the board in Afghanistan, it is still not clear that Beijing has much intention of stepping in to fill the vacuum left by the US. Rather, it seems that Beijing is eager to soothe regional concerns, while Washington is merely talking about them; only Moscow is stepping in to actually do something. The key unanswerable question at this stage is the degree to which Beijing and Moscow are coordinating their activities, and whether this is the solution that Central Asia actually wants. It is, however, likely to be what it will get.

My final piece in this most recent blast, this time for my London base RUSI looking at UK terrorist threats and matching up what the UK threat picture looks like with the growing focus the UK is placing on counter-terrorism deployments in parts of Africa. The point was really to raise questions about whether these deployments are going in the right places. Am aware the balance is always a complicated one between threats, capabilities and cost, but it does seem an odd set of choices to make at the moment. I think this is a set of questions I want to explore in more detail going forwards, but at the moment a bit overcommitted with other pieces which should be landing over the next few months.

One Down, Many More Challenges: The UK and Threats of African Terrorism

The UK is shifting its counterterrorism capability to Africa. Yet while the threat picture in Africa appears to be worsening, it remains unclear how outwardly menacing it actually is. The key question Whitehall needs to ask is whether the new deployments to Mali and Somalia appropriately reflect the global terrorist threat picture the UK faces.

For the ninth or tenth time, the leader of the Boko Haram terrorist group, Abubakar Shekau, has been reported killed. His death comes at a moment of growing attention towards terrorism in Africa. While last year saw a broader fall in terrorist violence around the world, in Africa it actually rose.

All of this comes as the UK appears to be increasing its counterterrorism focus on the continent. The prime minister has announced a deployment to Somalia to help address terrorist threats there, and the UK’s force in Mali has started to conduct operations on the ground. This suggests a shift in where the UK judges its main foreign terrorist threats to be coming from, as it follows the US out of the door in Afghanistan. The key question is whether this accurately reflects the threat picture to the UK and its interests.

Ironically enough, having been the target of authorities for many years, Shekau’s ultimate demise is reported to have come at his own hand while fighting the local Islamic State affiliate. An exceptionally violent man, Shekau led a brutal fighting force whose indiscriminate violence was considered too much even for Islamic State, leading to infighting among the jihadist groups on the ground. During his final stand, reports on the ground suggest that large numbers of his followers joined Islamic State rather than fight alongside him.

The death of terrorist leaders can often lead to fragmentation and greater levels of violence. However, Shekau’s death may actually accelerate a process of unification among the various violent groups in Nigeria under the Islamic State banner. This in turn could make the specific threat from Islamic State in the region worse.

What is less likely is that his death will particularly change the threat picture to the UK. As a global power with interests across Africa, the UK has an interest in stability in the region. But when looking at this region through a rigid counterterrorism lens, the threat appears far more local than international. And this is where questions might be asked about the current UK deployments to Mali and Somalia.

The threat picture in Somalia is one that has had direct links to the UK. We have just marked the eight-year anniversary of the death of Fusilier Lee Rigby. His murder was undertaken by individuals with links to terrorist networks in Somalia and their allies across the Gulf on the Arabian Peninsula. The current leader of Islamic State in Somalia is a former longstanding UK resident. There are fewer links to Mali, and no active plots that have been uncovered. Moreover, it has been a while since an active plot was prosecuted in the UK that had links to Somalia. Terrorism with links to networks in Africa that has affected the UK has tended to be connected to Libya – as we are discovering in some detail through the Manchester Arena bombing inquiry – as well as Tunisia, where some 30 UK holidaymakers were massacred in 2015.

There is no doubt that terrorist groups in Africa do have some connections to international networks, but they are not necessarily all connected in the same way. Nor is it entirely clear that they are all a threat to the UK or its interests equally – or that they pose the same level of menace as the groups that will continue to exist in Afghanistan.

While the UK has not seen a terrorist plot with direct links to South Asia for some time, a court in Germany is currently trying a network of Tajiks who are alleged to have been directed in part by Islamic State in Afghanistan. And the UK’s deep human connections with South Asia will always ensure that some echoes of tensions there will be felt in the UK.

But the UK is following the US’s decision on Afghanistan, and while some residual UK force will likely remain to support the more limited NATO mission on the ground, this is clearly not going to be a UK military focus. The key question, then, is whether the new UK mini-deployments to Africa are being targeted in the right places, and whether they are large enough to actually effect some change on the ground. So far, the reported numbers in both Somalia and Mali are in the low hundreds – certainly not enough to overturn longstanding jihadist threats or insurgencies that have been going on in some cases for generations.

This suggests the deployments are more demonstrative or focused on supporting limited kinetic counterterrorism goals rather than the long-term efforts that are needed to materially change the situation on the ground. This in turn highlights how the core of the UK’s security approach towards Africa in this regard still relies heavily on local forces.

Yet this has repeatedly been shown to be a fragile policy. One need only look at the fact that, at the same time as Shekau was dying fighting Islamic State, the Nigerian Army Chief died in a helicopter crash – or that just a month earlier, Chadian President Idriss Déby died fighting insurgents in his country – in order to see how fleeting African security arrangements can be. And this is before one factors in the latest coup d’état in Mali.

There is a growing terrorist threat in Africa. As the coronavirus pandemic afflicted the world last year, Africa was among the only places where violence associated with terrorist groups went up. And events in Mozambique earlier this year highlighted what a terrorist crisis in Africa could look like at its worst. Shekau’s death is likely to precipitate more violence in Nigeria. But it is not clear what kind of an outward-facing aspect these threats currently have.

By deploying small numbers of troops to Mali and Somalia, the UK is playing its part in tackling the broader regional issue. But the problems around terrorism in Africa are infinitely more complicated than these deployments suggest, and come at the same time as cuts in aid budgets to the same regions. If this light footprint reflects the fact that the threat picture to the UK is seen as limited, then questions should be asked as to whether scarce resources are being deployed optimally. The potential terrorist threat to the UK is still more likely to emanate from Libya, the Middle East or South Asia.

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

BANNER IMAGE: UK forces in Mali. Courtesy of Ministry of Defence/OGLv3.0

Happy holidays to everyone out there who is celebrating! Have a few pieces that have landed during this period and will post them over the next few days. A few longer pieces due out in January which with hope will set the pace for what will be a busy and interesting year. As ever, appreciate comments, criticisms, or whatever else you feel the need to share (though abuse is never particularly pleasant). This is a short policy recommendation piece for RUSI in London which joins the flood of material being pumped in the general direction of the incoming administration in Washington, this time focusing on the extreme right wing.

Cooperating in Tackling Extreme Right-Wing Ideologies and Terrorism

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary, 18 December 2020
United StatesTackling ExtremismUKTerrorism

Europe and the Biden administration in the US should be ready to expand their cooperation on combating right-wing violent movements.

Recent international counterterrorism cooperation has for the most part focused on dealing with threats from violent Islamist groups such as the Islamic State or Al-Qa’ida. And this will likely remain a priority for security officials on both sides of the Atlantic. Looking forward, however, the transatlantic alliance should focus in a more considered way on the growing menace from the extreme right wing. This threat has been rising on both sides of the Atlantic for the past few years, has growing international connections and is a problem which was difficult to address during the Trump administration, as the president often appeared to prevaricate on far-right extremist activity in the US and re-tweeted Britain First (a UK extreme right group) material. Focusing on it in a Biden administration would provide an excellent springboard into cooperation in an area of clear joint concern and help to strengthen security bonds that may have weakened during the turbulent Trump years.

Different Roots

The roots of extreme right-wing ideologies in Europe and North America are traditionally different. The extreme right in the US is a mix of classic white supremacists and neo-Nazis, alongside survivalists and extreme libertarians with a deep resentment directed towards the Federal government. In Europe, the movement is characterised by deep xenophobia and anti-immigrant feeling, which has most recently coalesced around the idea of Muslim ‘hordes’ replacing settled European white communities. The exact interpretation of this supposedly apocalyptic shift varies depending on where you are in Europe. The modern extreme right (reflecting a pattern visible across extremist ideologies – from the far left, to violent Islamists, and others, ideologies are increasingly fusions which draw on multiple different sources) is a confusing kaleidoscope of ideas, including anti-globalists, misogynists, societal rejectionists, and conspiracy theorists. Yet what broadly unifies the extreme right on both sides of the Atlantic is a sense that their supposed (and often racially defined) ‘supremacy’ in their country is being challenged.

This is reflected in an increasingly shared ideology, networks and activity across the Atlantic and around Europe. The UK has already seen extreme right-wing incidents with links to Poland and Ukraine, while some Americans (as well as numerous individuals from around Europe) have gone and fought in Ukraine. Imagery, ideas and texts are widely shared on chat groups that are run from around Europe or the US with members from across the transatlantic community and beyond. Groups like The Base or the Order of the Nine Angels cast a net with members across Europe and North America, online groups like Feuerkrieg or Atomwaffen Division boast members around the world. Meanwhile, organisations like the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) have provided physical training camps for extreme right adherents from across Europe and even North America.

Links to Russia

The repeated appearance of links to Russia are a notable feature of the growing contemporary extreme right wing. Earlier this year the US proscribed the RIM for its links to active terrorist networks, while the leader of The Base is reportedly an American living in St Petersburg. And the number of foreigners that went to fight in Ukraine provides another point of connection with Russian-supported groups on the ground. Exact numbers and volume of flow are unclear, but the expulsion from Ukraine in October of two American members of Atomwaffen Division shows it is ongoing. Finally, Russian interference campaigns have regularly focused on seeking to exacerbate societal tensions in the West – including focusing on racial tensions, feeding an underlying rhetoric that sustains the extreme right wing.

Transatlantic Cooperation

All of this points to a common problem that would benefit from greater transatlantic cooperation. Furthermore, the shared networks and ideologies and the implications of the links to Russia add a further dimension to the already challenging relationship with Moscow.

This aspect in particular is something that a Biden administration will find easier to address than a Trump one. President Trump’s hesitant relationship towards Russia, his retweeting of UK far right ideologues’ material, and his refusal during presidential debates (and before) to bluntly condemn white supremacist groups and, when pressured, his ambivalent corrections, made him an awkward partner in such a fight.

However, his departure from office will not address the broader issue of ideological overlap between the extreme right and narratives that are often raised by mainstream politicians in both Europe and North America. In some parts of Europe, for example, the anti-immigrant rhetoric used by mainstream politicians is not far off the same narratives advanced by extreme right groups in others. This ideological overspill is visible in other ways as well. Both the UK and Germany, for instance, have recently undertaken major investigations after uncovering adherents of extreme right ideologies within the ranks of their security forces.

None of this will be easy to unpick, but it is clearly a subject of growing importance on both sides of the Atlantic which should provide a basis for closer security cooperation. The growing networking of the different parts of the movement and individuals across the Atlantic provides a direct point of engagement for intelligence and security officials at every level, while the links to Russia tie into a broader threat narrative of confrontation with state actors.

Finally, the larger problem of trying to deal with the overlap between the extreme right, far right and mainstream politics is going to be very difficult to address. Managing rhetoric in this space will immediately start to tread on issues of freedom of speech. The issues and where the ideological bleed takes place, are clearly different on both sides of the Atlantic, but the complex mix of legislation and enforcement that will be needed to deal with it would benefit from transatlantic coordination and engagement. Disrupting these networks provides a platform to rebuild a transatlantic security relationship and reverse some of the damage of the Trump years.

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

BANNER IMAGE: A neo-nazi rally. Courtesy of ARNO BURGI/DPA/PA Images