Archive for the ‘Royal United Services Institute’ Category

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

Posting this as reports emerge of another atrocity in Nice, France (and maybe even potentially a further attempt in Avignon) start to emerge. A short piece for my UK home RUSI. Sadly, this problem seems not to be going away.

A Murder in Paris: France’s Grim Reminder of the Terrorism Threat

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary, 23 October 2020
FranceGlobal Security IssuesTerrorism

The threat of terrorism is not over, and neither are the factors which feed the violence.

The events in Paris a week ago have reminded us once again of the brutality of the terrorist threat that we face. While the world’s attention has shifted to other things like the threat from the extreme right or the continuing pandemic, the grim reality is that the problem of violent Islamist terrorism persists, with little evidence that the underlying issues driving it have gone away.

As new MI5 head Ken McCallum pointed out in his first public speech, his service focuses on three strands of terrorist ideology, none of them new. Dissident Irish republicanism, violent Islamism and the extreme right all continue to occupy his service’s time, with violent Islamism still identified as the biggest quantifiable threat. An absence of public attention has not made these problems go away, rather it has allowed them to fester.

The murder of Samuel Paty seems to be the product of an online hate campaign resulting from his decision to educate children about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that stirred such controversy when they were first published. The assailant was a young Chechen man reportedly inspired by the angry posts and calls to arms generated by parents of children at the school. He was reportedly in contact with fighters in Syria, and there are reports of parts of the extended families of the children having gone to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State. The assassin himself was not reportedly on security services radars, but came from a milieu rich in suspects. In the days after the attack, likely reflecting heightened tensions, two Arab women were attacked in a racist confrontation under the Eiffel Tower, while a group of Britons were arrested after reportedly trying to run over a policeman outside the Israeli Embassy in Paris.

The attacks take place against a larger backdrop. Just over two weeks ago, Paris was rocked by another assault on two journalists near Charlie Hebdo’s offices. A young Pakistani man struck just as the trial began of men connected to the terrorists who launched the 2015 attack on the satirical magazine’s headquarters. Both Samuel Paty’s murderer and the Charlie Hebdo attacker released messages on social media highlighting the reasons for their acts.

A Persistent Threat

These were the latest incidents in a long line of violent Islamist attacks in Europe with a particular focus on cultural icons. Dating back to the publication of The Satanic Verses in the late 1980s, there have been periodic incidents in the decades since of angry Islamists lashing out in this way. Salman Rushdie’s totemic book generated terrorist plots directed by Iran, self-starting attacks, as well as violent protests. The Danish cartoons crisis in the mid-2000s led to attacks on embassies, as well as terrorist attacks and plots across Europe targeting the newspaper that published the cartoons as well as the cartoonists themselves. On a smaller scale, there was the murder of film-maker Theo van Gogh in November 2004 in Amsterdam and the publication of The Jewel of Medina generated an attempted firebombing of the publisher’s house in London in 2008.

What is notable in many of these incidents is the lack of direction from international terrorist networks. No clear evidence has been presented that the attackers were directed to do what they did. In the current Parisian case, more information is emerging showing the young man may have had links to violent networks, but as of yet no evidence of direction has been presented. Like many Islamist terrorists, the attacker was violent, young, and keen to disseminate his brutal message on social media.

All of which reflects the grim reality of a chronic violent Islamist threat and its particular anger towards cultural insults. The news may be increasingly full of stories of extreme right violence, but as McCallum reported last week, his service still sees ‘tens of thousands of individuals’ who are committed to violent Islamist ideologies.

Enduring Causes, Enduring Threat

The problem is that none of the underlying issues that feed this ideology have gone away. Factors such as anger against real and perceived divisions in society, extremist preachers advancing polarising ideas and an unregulated online community where extremist networks can propagate ideas which are increasingly picked up by a younger, more troubled and isolated audience, all persist. This last problem is further sharpened by the coronavirus pandemic, as people spend more time online, going down algorithmically-generated rabbit holes. The conflict zones that provided shelter and training for extremist groups still exist, while numerous Europeans still sit in detention camps in Syria. All that has changed is the configuration of the terrorist groups on the ground, and the volumes of territory and people they control.

But there has been a notable change in the size and scope of attacks. Large-scale plots involving complicated networks and direction appear to be a thing of the past. Whether this is a product of lack of effort by terrorist groups or a more effective security shield is difficult to know. But the threat is still showing up, reflecting the fact that the underlying problems continue. A worrying aspect of the recent spate of attacks in France (as well as some recent plots in Germany) is that they have been carried out by first generation migrants. This reality is likely to sharpen extreme and far right narratives, leading to potential backlash against migrant communities, further stoking social tensions.

It has become passé to worry about violent Islamist terrorism. And to some degree maybe this is a healthier response. The absence of publicity helps starve terrorist groups of the oxygen they seek. But this does not mean the problem has gone away. It means that the threat can now only express itself through occasional incidents that shock in their randomness.

It is unclear how the pandemic will ultimately impact this threat picture, but it is not going to suppress or destroy it. Similarly, a rising extreme right is a growing problem, but it has still not achieved the scale and effective violence of the violent Islamist threat. This is not to say that it might not, but it is simply being added to a growing roster of problems rather than a shrinking one. Counterterrorism, unfortunately, is a long struggle which requires committed and consistent attention. 

As usual late posting, this time a piece for my London institutional home RUSI with the wonderful Veerle Nouwens looking at the UK’s strategy towards China in the wake of the latest Huawei decision. Things definitely heating up in this space and we are working together on another pair of China projects and papers which should be due out later in the year. In the meantime, you can enjoy this and an interview panel for Al Jazeera English’s Inside Story programme that I did on China posted below, and follow this link for a conversation with the Nepal Institute for International Cooperation and Engagement (NIICE) on UK engagement with China.

 

Huawei is No Way for British Strategy on China
Veerle Nouwens and Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary17 July 2020
ChinaInternational Security StudiesUKTechnology

The UK may escape serious Chinese retaliation for its decision to bar Huawei’s equipment. But that is no substitute for the elaboration of a coherent UK strategy towards China.

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It may be too early to predict China’s reaction to the UK’s decision to bar the Huawei telecommunications company from supplying equipment to the UK’s 5G infrastructure. Beijing’s bark may yet prove worse than its bite. However, the issue has highlighted a far bigger problem for the UK. London needs a more sophisticated debate, vision and plan for managing its relationship with China.

Chinese Ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming has claimed to be ‘disheartened’ by the decision, alleging that it reduces trust between the two countries, and asserting that the UK has now sent a signal to foreign companies that it is not open to their business. Chinese media outlets have largely reacted by blaming the US for the UK’s decision. Repercussions pointed out in Chinese media overwhelmingly revolve around the substandard 5G network that the UK will have without the inclusion of Huawei.

The discussion in China beyond this has largely been muted. Given the volume of noise that the debate had previously attracted, it would be surprising if there were no reaction from Beijing. China might choose to find a way of swiping at London that does not link necessarily to the Huawei decision itself, but paints it against a series of issues it is displeased with, such as the UK’s reaction to Hong Kong, re-examination of Chinese investment in the UK and declarations about the need to uphold freedom of navigation in Asian waters. The UK’s commercial relationship is a likely target. At a political level, a cooling of bilateral ties likewise would be unsurprising.

However, Beijing has not yet entirely written off the UK relationship, judging by media coverage which appeared to leave scope for future links. For, as was stated in an article published in the Global Times – the English-language tabloid of the official party People’s Daily – the UK should ‘stop moving in the wrong direction so that damaged bilateral ties can recover’. And another article in the same media outlet noted that while Beijing must respond in order to show it cannot be bullied, it is unnecessary to turn this into a China–UK confrontation.

The UK still represents an important market for potential flagship Chinese projects in Europe, whether in nuclear energy or high-speed rail. The all-important financial sector is one that Beijing would struggle to effectively target with sanctions. And, as the City of London is the leading hub (outside Greater China) for the Chinese renminbi, it would not be in Beijing’s interest to do so. Moreover, there are many other investments and commercial links between the UK and China beyond Huawei, and the biggest British champions in the financial sector have already gone on record to support China’s positions.

While Beijing may expect the upcoming investment-screening measures to more heavily scrutinise Chinese foreign direct investment into the UK’s critical national infrastructure, it will do itself few favours by tightening the screws on London. China-sceptic voices calling for a hardened approach will be amplified in Westminster and reverberate across Europe and other like-minded partners. The threat of an alliance against Chinese 5G tech dominance looms on the horizon. Europe does not just serve as a market for Chinese infrastructure investments, but also remains key in China’s access to technology for its own development. Unless Beijing would like to see more doors close – particularly as it remains on the road to post-pandemic economic recovery – it would be unwise to lash out too severely.

It is also worth remembering that while China has recently reacted with sanctions against some who have attracted its ire, these have been fairly toothless. Sanctioning Lockheed Martin for US military sales to Taiwan does little damage to the firm’s bottom line. Targeting US senators unlikely to travel or do business in China is not going to change their lives. And it has let the Huawei decision pass by in other cases. To little fanfare two weeks ago, Singapore’s two biggest telecommunications providers made the decision to not use Huawei in their 5G roll-out. The damage to Singapore–China relations was so limited that earlier this week President Xi called newly elected Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to congratulate him on his election victory. Japan made the decision against Huawei back in late 2018, and President Xi was still eager to travel to the country on a state visit earlier this year (the trip was only postponed because of the global pandemic). So, the current showdown with the UK does not need to be an unnecessarily politicised issue. Indeed, the same Global Times noted that the UK is not the US, Australia or Canada, a statement which is perhaps intended as a put-down, but may also indicate a differentiated reaction.

BUT THE FUTURE?

The question is what this means for the future of UK–China relations. The issue of Huawei seems to have been decided, but it is just a single point in a much larger picture. The UK has now been to-ing and fro-ing on Huawei for years, transforming what is a technical issue into a proxy for the UK’s debate about how to engage with China. This political conversation about Chinese investment in the UK’s national critical infrastructure is important, but there is a need for a clearer articulation of the UK relationship towards China.

To be sure, there are significant challenges in the relationship. Beijing has done little to endear itself of late. Its aggressive behaviour in every direction has been exacerbated by a hectoring tone from its diplomats who appear to be trying to outdo each other in their demonstrations of indignation and anger. China continues to detain Canadian researchers Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor on spurious charges as ransom for the detained Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou who is facing extradition proceedings in Canada. Atop this, while Beijing may believe that what it does to its own people is nobody else’s business, this goes against a fundamental belief in universal human rights to which many countries ascribe. It is also unclear why Beijing appears unable to understand, or unwilling to care, that people outside of China will interpret how it treats its own people as how it might ultimately treat them.

Yet not everything that China does has been disastrous. Putting aside the many questions that remain over coronavirus, Beijing has managed to by and large contain the situation within its own borders. Its economy is starting to pick up – though underlying structural problems still exist. And looking beyond the virus, whatever happens, China is still going to be there. With almost one sixth of the world’s population living within its borders, China will be a force on the planet (much like India will). Issues such as climate change will not get resolved by Western European powers alone. Future pandemics will not respect the artificial boundaries of alliances that we create. A globalised economy so bifurcated that the UK does not touch China in some way is likely impossible – or so expensive that it is unattainable.

The UK government may disagree and dislike the governing Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but the CCP shows little evidence of collapsing in the short or medium term (nor can we be certain we will like what might come in its wake). We must deal with the government we face, not the one we wish it to be. London and its partners are quickly catching up in bettering their understanding of Beijing. This knowledge should aid Whitehall in devising a comprehensive China strategy – one that identifies UK priorities, including human rights, the rule of law and the plight of those in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, as well as the Canadians who remain imprisoned in China.

This does not mean that the UK’s bilateral relationship with Beijing must be fundamentally antagonistic. China is an important partner in some of the biggest issues of our time. These are not yes or no questions, unlike the Huawei decision. And of course, Beijing must reciprocate engagement. Nevertheless, a UK strategy on China must remain firm on matters of UK core interests, but be prepared to cooperate effectively in others. This is a phrase that will ring familiar in Beijing.

Still catching up on myself. Got distracted with a few other things including the current chaos in real life and suddenly a wave of new short pieces landed. So will continue updating here. Have some longer ones still gently coming to the boil, but current events have confused everything. First up, a short commentary for my London institutional home RUSI.

Don’t Lose Sight of the Enduring Global Terrorist Threat

st_anns_square_floral_tribute_panorama_02

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary30 March 2020
UK Counter-terrorismTerrorismMiddle East and North Africa

As the world’s attention remains understandably concentrated on the Coronavirus pandemic, it is important to remember that other threats have not gone away.

Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS), has started to tell its adherents to take advantage of the chaos in the West caused by the coronavirus pandemic to launch attacks. Beyond this, a series of worrying trends point to an international terrorist movement developing greater coherence and strength in preparation for another bout of violence. Largely unnoticed amongst the flood of information and disinformation about the global pandemic, a series of actions illustrates the persistent and chronic nature of the threat of international terrorism that the world still faces.

Daesh’s recommendation for its followers to take advantage of this moment to launch attacks was a shift in its narrative around the coronavirus pandemic. Previously, it had largely been passing instructions to its followers not dissimilar to what the WHO and governments were suggesting: to be careful in certain countries and practice good hygiene. It had also enjoyed the fact that China and Iran had been so badly hit, considering it ‘divine retribution’ for China’s treatment of Uighurs and for Iran’s Shia ‘apostasy’. This message was echoed by other groups, most prominently the Uighurs fighting in Syria, who appeared eager to celebrate China’s ‘punishment’. But until recently there had been little comment around the option of launching attacks under the cover of the coronavirus crisis.

In fact, international jihadist terrorism has been a receding concern for Western governments for some time. The absence of large-scale successful attacks directed by Daesh or Al-Qa’ida has removed the threat from the top of world leaders’ in-trays. And this was reinforced by two additional trends: the growing capability of security services to disrupt and counter organised terrorist plots, and an increased focus by terrorist groups towards their local environments rather than the preparation of international plots. The danger is that whenever we have witnessed similar trends in the past, they provided a lull which concluded with new and more creative threats coming back to strike us.

A growing coherence amongst terrorist organisations

There is evidence of growing coherence amongst the global jihadist movement. Rather than disintegrating, they appear to be developing and strengthening their connections. This has been most visible in Africa, where reporting from the Sahel suggests that Al-Qa’ida- and Daesh-aligned groups on the ground are working together. This cooperation is not entirely surprising. Ultimately, the two groups offer an ideology that is very similar and it is not uncommon to see adherents initially drawn into their orbits through a mix of ideological material from both. Yet, at a strategic level, the two have been in competition for some time, something that appears now to have been overcome within the Sahel, where a growing violent insurgency is displacing and killing thousands.

A similar, though maybe less surprising, level of coherence is visible within Al-Qa’ida’s various African factions. Lately, the group’s East African affiliate, Al-Shabaab, its West African representative, Jama’at Nasr Al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), and its Yemeni affiliate Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have all been releasing messages praising each other, marking the death of AQAP’s leader Qasim Al-Raymi, the death of a senior Tunisian jihadist, and generally demonstrating a high level of interaction. This has been seen and praised by Al-Qa’ida’s senior leadership, which has issued messages congratulating them on their operations.

Al-Shabaab has emphasised its fealty by emphasising that its attacks are being conducted in accordance with senior Al-Qa’ida figures orders, demonstrating a desire to connect with Al-Qa’ida’s global ambitions rather than simply be Africa-focused. Al-Shabaab has also been demonstrating a growing capability and ambition – attacking Western forces on their bases in East Africacontinuing to aim at targets in Kenya and even reportedly looking at international aviation as a potential target once again. JNIM has not quite achieved the same level of success, but a more worrying potential development for Al-Qa’ida was the recent agreement signed between the Taliban and the US government, in which the Taliban appeared to specifically agree to ensure the group could not use Afghanistan as a base of operations once again. While on the one hand, this statement might be moot (there have long been suspicions about Al-Qa’ida hiding in Iran or Pakistan), it is also yet to be proven how assiduous the Taliban will be in going after them. Assessing that this was something that they could game in their favour, Al-Qa’ida was quick to put out a statement praising the agreement and painting it – much like the Taliban’s leadership have – as a victory for the Afghan organisation, showing once again its ability to defeat empires.

Al-Qa’ida’s calculation is likely based on the fact that the Afghan government and the Taliban already appear to be facing difficulty coming to the table for the next stage of the process to conclude Afghanistan’s decades-long conflict. This fact, and the Taliban’s persistent willingness to let Al-Qa’ida elements operate in their territory, suggest that it is unlikely that any resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan is on the immediate horizon, or that Al-Qa’ida will find itself under greater pressure as a result of the agreement.

Iran tensions not helping

All of these moves are taking place against a backdrop of escalating US–Iran tensions. The brief intake of breath that took place in the wake of the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani has been filled by more strikes and deaths of Western forces in Iraq caused by Iranian-backed militias. The coronavirus pandemic may be the major focus in Tehran at the moment, but the Iranians have not forgotten the US and seem to now have moved beyond their self-imposed cease-fire in the wake of the mistaken downing of the Ukraine Airlines plane over Tehran on 8 January.

This is relevant to the context of Al-Qa’ida and Daesh for two reasons. First, Iran has regularly shown itself to be an agile manipulator of jihadist elements, able to pragmatically engage with them when it suited Tehran’s objectives. And at the moment, these groups will prove both a useful and deniable tool in Iran’s growing showdown with the US. Second, Iran’s interest in crushing Daesh in Syria and Iraq is likely receding so, as long as the group does not focus on Iran, Tehran is likely to look the other way.

Given Daesh’s growing profile in Africa in particular, the organisation still has some power of attraction, notwithstanding the loss of its ‘caliphate’. This continues to make the organisation dangerous, and any successful effort to rebuild its territorial structures in the Levant will give it a major boost internationally.

The danger is that these shifts will produce a dramatic terrorist attack which will shock the West out of its current collective coronavirus focus. Daesh’s suggestion to its adherents represents a first indication that the terrorist organisation sees the West as distracted, and may seize the opportunity to launch a dramatic attack. The broader trends that have been visible with Al-Qa’ida date back to before the current crisis, but show a threat picture which is developing in directions that warrant close attention.

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Tomasz “odder” Kozlowski/commons.wikimedia.org

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

More catch up posting, this time for my old London base RUSI’s Newsbrief publication with an excellent colleague Shashi from my new Singapore base RSIS. It tries to offer some ideas from Singapore about how the UK might want to deal with some of the problems it is trying to manage at moment around radicalised offenders (though admittedly this problem has slipped from the front and center amidst the current COVID-19 mess).

The Singapore Model: A New Deradicalisation Approach for the UK?

masjid_sultan_0

Shashi Jayakumar and Raffaello Pantucci
RUSI Newsbrief13 March 2020
UK Counter-terrorismTackling ExtremismUKTerrorism

The UK is currently going through a process of re-evaluating and rethinking some of its key approaches to managing terrorism offenders. Looking at Singapore’s model would be a good start for policymakers.

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Recent terrorist attacks in the UK have highlighted key problems in the country’s counterterrorism systems and policies. Chief among them is the need to manage terrorism offenders for substantial periods of time, and what programmes need to be in place to ensure that society is protected. As the UK considers refreshing its strategy, some lessons from the Singaporean experience might be helpful. The contexts are different, but the long-term engagement model employed by Singapore might offer useful lessons for the UK.

One key piece of legislation is Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA) which facilitates detention orders. The ISA is in fact, with several modifications, a remnant of British colonialism, which was drawn up as part of emergency regulations when Singapore and Malaya were embroiled in a communist insurgency during the 1950s and 1960s. Despite periodic criticism by human rights organisations that the ISA is simply detention without trial, there are numerous safeguards – for example, a detention order must be reviewed by an independent ISA advisory board headed by a Supreme Court judge – and independent checks and routes of appeal that exist to protect its abuse by the government.

The first use of the ISA in the post-9/11 era in Singapore took place when a cell of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Al-Qa’ida’s chief affiliate in Southeast Asia, who were responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings, was discovered in Singapore in December 2001. All members of the cell came from the Singaporean Muslim community. One of the plots they had under development was the bombing of diplomatic missions in Singapore including the UK High Commission.

The government calculated that putting these individuals on trial would have been detrimental for ethnic relations in Singapore. Consequently, they instead chose to use the ISA to manage the offenders. The use of the ISA within this context is seen by detractors as punitive, but from the authorities’ point of view it is an effective way of managing rehabilitation in a controlled environment. As Singapore’s Home Affairs minister K Shanmugam has observed, ‘we have a clear process, detention, rehabilitate and release. You detain them and you don’t do anything else with them and you put them away, then their lives are not going to get better. And you’re not doing anything to deal with the situation really’.

The point is not to lock the door on people and throw the key away. Detainees are engaged and counselled one-on-one by Ustadz (Islamic scholars) in an intensive manner. In separate sessions, psychologists from the Home Affairs ministry regularly engage these individuals, with their assessments, as well as those by the Ustadz, forming a key part of the decision to eventually release detainees.

This programme, called the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), was developed and staffed by concerned and well-respected Ustadz in concert with the authorities. These religious leaders had realised after their initial interactions with the detainees that the vast majority had completely mistaken understandings of key concepts like ‘jihad’, ‘al-wala al-bara’ (loyalty and disavowal), ‘hijrah’ (migration), and living in ‘dar ul-kufr’ (non-Muslim land). Many, misled by the charismatic leaders of their cell, had come to believe that it was proscribed by Islamic law to live in a Westernised society like Singapore.

Throughout this process a path to release is open – should detainees show that they have been responsive to counselling, demonstrate genuine contrition and evince a change of perspective. Assessments of effectiveness are undertaken through repeated and continual engagement.

Social support is a critical element of the overall approach. Vocational training or job placements are given to detainees to facilitate social reintegration. In addition, during detention, families of offenders are given help as often the sole breadwinner is incarcerated. This aspect should not be underestimated as it plays a part in ensuring that the family is not radicalised; it may also alter the mindset of the detainee, seeing that their ‘enemy’ is offering support and help to their family, including, for example, school bursaries for children. A number of assistance schemes for the individual and family continue well after release. This ‘aftercare’ aspect, handled by the Inter-Agency Aftercare Group, which works closely with the RRG and the authorities, plays a role in keeping the recidivism rate low. Only two out of approximately 100 individuals who have been through the ISA’s preventive detention and RRG counselling have had to be detained again.

The RRG has gained acceptance from the Malay-Muslim community over time. This is partly to do with the fact that a large part of RRG efforts are organic and stand on their own, without funding from the state. The family and community support structures which have developed over time to deal with other social problems within the Malay-Muslim community, such as drugs, have been adapted to aid families affected by radicalisation.

Upon release, many individuals are, depending on the assessment of the authorities, kept on a Restriction Order (RO) for some time afterwards. This places restrictions on the movements of the individual. Other conditions of the RO might include needing approval prior to joining any organisation, or mandatory further religious counselling. Those who demonstrate further progress eventually (typically after a few years) have their RO lapse.

This approach delivered some success with the first wave of jihadists that Singapore faced post-9/11. For around 90% of the JI cases this meant eventual release. The remaining 10% (fewer than 10 individuals) were key influencers, or hardened radicals whose ideas are unlikely to change. They remain incarcerated. Engagement with them continues.

Things have changed since 2013 with the start of the war in Syria and the growth of the Islamic State. Rather than networked individuals, the threat picture has been made up of isolated individuals, often young ‘meaning seekers’ or those seeking diversion from their own personal problems, radicalised through online connections and in some cases seeking and succeeding to travel to Syria and Iraq.

The radicalisation process has also been compressed considerably. Whereas with the first cohort the time taken from initial contact with ideas to action was years, with the new cohort it is closer to nine months. The RRG’s success rate amongst this new cohort is nearer to 25 per cent at the moment.

The exact reasons for this are unclear. One possible explanation might be the changing salience of religious ideology. The Islamic State’s emphasis on online radicalisation creates a very different social environment around the individual where religion plays a changed role. Another crucial difference is that the Islamic State actually had a territorial ‘caliphate’ it controlled meaning the idea of hijrah was more important than in the previous phase of Singaporean extremists as they had a place to migrate to.

This new generation of Islamic State recruits seem to have a less thorough grounding in the core tenets of Islam than their JI predecessors. They learn about Islam from online sources – ‘Sheikh Google’ as it is known – and are partial to more radical preachers like Anwar Al-Awlaki or Abdullah el Faisal than classical preachers. Given this, RRG religious advisers may have less influence over the detainees.

The ‘Singapore model’ has concomitantly had to evolve. There are younger, more tech-savvy counsellors who are familiar with online vocabularies, and who can attempt to engage with younger individuals who self-educate online, but actually may know a lot less about their religion than the first batch of JI detainees. It appears Singaporean authorities are starting to refine their programme. A 17-year old boy was recently detained and assigned a mentor. This mentor will help him to focus on his rehabilitation, studies and family, and also guide him to develop ‘life skills’.

The pool of radicalised individuals has become more diverse. Aside from Islamic State recruits, several Singaporean citizens have travelled to Yemen to fight against the Houthi. Women have travelled to Syria from Singapore and married Islamic State fighters. In response, the RRG now has female counsellors to advise female detainees.

The key principle of the programme remains that no individual is released until the state has confidence they will not re-offend. This does not guarantee success, and as has been highlighted, there have been some cases of recidivism, but it does provide a measure of protection.

Looking at this experience from a UK perspective, there are some immediate similarities. First, offenders are more likely to be radicalised online. There is also a growing volume of individuals with mental health issues or autism spectrum disorders who are becoming embroiled in terrorist networks. This presents a very complicated problem to manage, both in terms of the direct threat and subsequent rehabilitation.

The UK has developed a number of programmes focused on trying to rehabilitate offenders. The Desistance and Disengagement Programme, seeks to engage with individuals using a range of psychological, theological and social supports to provide them with a new path. Similarly, programmes have been developed which seek to engage with offenders on an individual level to understand their specific path to radicalisation. One such programme, Operation Constrain, met considerable pushback when it emerged in the press. The UK also has an overworked probation service whose responsibility it is to engage with offenders when they are released and ensure that they do not slip back into their old ways.

But there are also significant differences from the Singaporean context. Much of the UK’s programming in this space was developed or co-opted by the government. While elements of the UK’s Muslim community engage with specific programmes to help with delivery – for example, counter-extremism programmes like Building a Stronger Britain Together – many organisations have become dependent on government support to survive. In fact, it is often contact with the government that creates problems for effective programmes as the link undermines the perceived independence of the programme. It is crucial to find ways of encouraging community leadership and be seen to maintain independence.

The UK also does not have indeterminate sentencing for terrorist offenders. However, in the past the UK had a system of imprisonment for public protection (IPP). In these cases, an individual served a specific sentence and then following that appeared regularly before a parole board who determined their suitability for release. The IPP system was first introduced in 2005 and then abolished in 2012. The key failing of the system was that there were not adequate rehabilitative programmes in place to help offenders make the appropriate behavioural changes needed for the parole board to permit their release.

Finally, a crucial distinction to draw between the two contexts is one of volume. While Singapore detained approximately 70 individuals from the JI and close to 30 self-radicalised individuals since 2001, with several dozen individuals judged to pose less of a threat if placed directly on RO, the UK has hundreds of cases. This places a much greater burden on the resources required for the intensive engagement that this rehabilitation method requires.

However, it must be remembered that only a small fraction of individuals convicted of terrorist offences go back to commit further terrorist offences. This highlights a key strength of the Singaporean model – long-term engagement with extremists. This may mean that with particularly hard cases long detention periods, with all the adequate judicial protections around it, are necessary. Given that UK courts are unlikely to permit the introduction of the detention orders permissible under Singapore’s ISA (and the even less likely situation that the government would be able to retroactively impose this on individuals currently in jail where most of the problem currently lies), what instead needs to be created is a more intensive probation system around certain offenders which focuses on continually trying to push them in the right direction while ensuring they do not revert to violence.

None of this will necessarily create a completely fullproof system. And it is one that will require constant adapting and updating. The problem of radicalisation does not have any easy or simple solutions. Numerous other countries have tried approaches which have shown some levels of success – Denmark for example, which uses a very different approach to Singapore. Taking inspiration from other countries might provide the UK with a more effective model to deal with radicalised individuals. But whatever the case, a key lesson is that in order to effectively manage the problem, a substantial long-term investment will be required.

Shashi Jayakumar
Shashi is a Senior Fellow and Head of Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

Raffaello Pantucci
Raffaello is a Senior Associate Fellow at RUSI and a Visiting Senior Fellow at RSIS.

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

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Terence Ong/Wikimedia Commons.