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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Another op-ed for the South China Morning Post, on a not dissimilar topic to the last two, focusing on the Belt and Road Initiative and its consequences on the ground. It has gotten a bit of attention on Twitter, and the point is to try to challenge the rather empty policy responses we hear about BRI for the most part.

Beyond this op-edding in the SCMP, have also been delinquent in updating media commentary. Since this was last done, I spoke to the Telegraph about a Pakistani Taliban video, the Independent about the fact that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s son was killed fighting in Syria, to the Telegraph again about the worrying set of arrests in Germany that included someone who had managed to make Ricin, to Huffington Post about the fact that al Shabaab issued an edict about banning plastic bags, and to the Independent again about ISIS telling its followers to beware of fake social media accounts. Beyond this, The Conversation posted a podcast which included a longer conversation I had had with them about lone actor terrorism as part of the preparation for making this comic strip about the phenomenon.

Why developing countries can’t resist joining China’s massive infrastructure plan

Raffaello Pantucci writes that Beijing’s offer of investment and a connection to a regional ‘balancing force’ is tough to pass up for poor nations with few options

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 July, 2018, 10:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 July, 2018, 10:05pm

More belated catch up posting from my occasional column in the South China Morning Post, this one published at the same time as the SCO Summit and G7 in Charlevoix.

From China to Central Asia, a regional security bloc’s long, slow march towards an alternative world order

The world’s attention was on Singapore and Charlevoix but the future may have been in the Chinese city of Qingdao

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 June, 2018, 8:45am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2018, 2:18pm

While the world was captivated this week by the globetrotting show of US President Donald Trump, another summit just days earlier suggested what an alternative world order might look like.

Various heads of state from member nations of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) met in the Chinese city of Qingdao for the bloc’s annual heads of state meeting.

The SCO’s activities have been limited in the decade and a half since it was formed but this year’s summit had some significant moments.

First and foremost was the presence of – and handshake between – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain. While the membership of the two regional rivals is likely to be a major block to future activity, the presence of their leaders showed some of the organisation’s potential. Modi’s attendance alone signalled that the world’s biggest democracy wanted to maintain strong links to this archetypal non-Western institution to make sure it had all of its international bases covered.

The event was also an opportunity for two of the West’s biggest pariahs, Iran and Russia, to grandstand.

In the past Beijing has sought to tamp down efforts by Iranian leaders to transform the summit into a chance to bash the West. Back in 2010, President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad was so disappointed by the SCO’s refusal to admit Iran over fears of antagonising the West that he skipped the summit in Tashkent and instead attended the Shanghai Expo. But in Qingdao, the group chose to unite to highlight their displeasure at renewed Western sanctions against Iran and the collapse of the Iran nuclear deal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has also regularly used high-profile summits in China to show disregard for Western sanctions and the optics around Putin’s attendance were similar to many other previous events, though this time are topped with a medal for his “friendship” with China.

On the sidelines of the summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that “no matter what fluctuations there are in the international situation, China and Russia have always firmly taken the development of relations as a priority”. On live television he then proceeded to give the Russian leader a gold medal lauding him as “my best, most intimate friend”.

Awkward phrasing aside, this is a clear signal that China is siding with Moscow in tensions between Russia and the West. While Beijing might not always approve of Moscow’s disruptive behaviour on the international stage, the reality is that the two powers will, under their existing leaderships, always stand together against the West.

And this signal by Beijing was the most notable point about this entire summit.

China has long treated the SCO with the reverence required of an institution that brings together the heads of state of a number of its allies and which it helped name, while at the same time disregarding it as a functional organisation. Beijing has been unable, for example, to realise some of its key ambitions with the group. China has sought to push the SCO towards greater economic integration and activity, something resisted by other members fearful of China’s further encroachment into their territories.

Moscow sees the SCO as a way to try to control Chinese efforts in Central Asia while the Central Asians broadly view it as a possible way to maintain a balanced conversation with their giant neighbours. Meanwhile, powers like Iran, India or Pakistan see it as an alternative international forum that they want to be involved in.

With the accession of India and Pakistan most observers in China fear that the organisation’s already limited ability to operate is going to be even further reduced.

Yet none of this detracts from the fact that for Beijing it is a forum which they are hosting which now brings together the leaders of over a third of the planet’s population. They are clearly the dominant player within it, and it is a forum in which Western powers cannot meddle.

This gives Beijing the perfect opportunity to show its stature on the world stage and its efforts to offer a more stable alternative world order to the chaotic one that is most vividly expressed by the Trump administration.

The SCO may have done remarkably little beyond hold big meetings and China’s activity in all of the SCO member states at a bilateral level is infinitely more significant than its efforts through the bloc.

But at the same time, this is a forum that has consistently met and only grown. Under its auspices, China has managed to slowly encroach on Russia’s military and political dominance in its own backyard, and has now persuaded the world’s biggest democracy that it is an important group to be involved in.

This slow march forwards stands in stark contrast to the imagery and disputes to emerge from the G7 summit in Charlevoix. And while the Western media may have largely ignored events in Qingdao for events in Canada and Singapore, the rest of the world is paying attention. An alternative order might be starting to crystallise, or at least one that has potential to deeply undermine the West’s capacity to determine the future of world affairs.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London

Have failed to keep up on posting working on longer things. Have a few longer pieces which will eventually land, but in the short run a few opinion pieces in the South China Morning Post, looking at the Belt and Road in various incarnations.  First, a piece about South Asia, intended to be in the wake of the Wuhan Summit meeting between President’s Xi and Modi.

How Beijing, Delhi and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor could reshape global foreign policy in Asia 

Raffaello Pantucci writes that a China-India symbiosis stemming from the infrastructure projects being built in Pakistan will force the West to rethink its South Asia strategy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 June, 2018, 8:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 June, 2018, 11:13pm
There is an air of possible change in South Asia. After a positive summit in Wuhan, presidents Modi and Xi both made it clear they wanted the event to be the opening gambit in a rapprochement between India and China.

The modest practical achievements presented from the meeting should be seen as positive, illustrating that both powers are aware of the tensions and limitations of their relationship.

Nevertheless, the decision to focus on Afghanistan as a possible source of Indo-Chinese cooperation highlights the leaders’ willingness to be ambitious in their thinking. In Islamabad, however, there is a sense of concern about Pakistan being the potential loser in this larger regional rapprochement.

This short-sighted logic is founded on the perennial tensions that exist between Delhi and Islamabad. Yet, it misses a few key elements. China is clearly committed to Pakistan. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is the flagship project of the broader “Belt and Road Initiative” concept that Xi Jinping has advanced.

The People’s Bank of China’s expansion of the currency swap between the countries highlights a doubling down of China’s willingness to continue to invest in Pakistan.

The imprimatur given to the project by President Xi highlights the degree to which this part of the broader concept has to be delivered on, notwithstanding the sometimes awkward economic logic that underpins some projects.

For China, the undertaking is an important one and tied not only to its domestic security and prosperity, but also to the strategic assets it receives from its interest in the Gwadar Port.

But the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor sometimes does frustrate and worry Beijing. While Chinese diplomacy is an exemplar of keeping disputes out of the public eye, there are some issues.

Workers have been murdered and various insurgent and terrorist groups around the country have made specific targets of Chinese nationals and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in an attempt to undermine the government.

That the Chinese consulate in Karachi had to issue a travel advisory to nationals earlier this year, dissuading them from travelling to Quetta, illustrates the security concerns China feels in the country.

That the minister responsible for managing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (who is also the interior minister) was injured by an assassin’s bullet does little to inspire confidence in Pakistan’s national security.

None of this is to talk about the awkward economics that exist around some of the corridor’s projects.

And China has proven willing in the past to side with Delhi on security problems. The statement after the BRICS summit last year in which China agreed to specifically single out some Pakistan-based groups for criticism, as well as Beijing’s regular efforts to get Delhi and Islamabad to talk after incidents, highlight the Chinese government’s awareness of the problems that exist.

What Islamabad needs to bear in mind is that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is not the only part of the Belt and Road Initiative. It is one strand of Xi Jinping’s bigger foreign policy concept. It is not even the only South Asian corridor (the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor is another slow burning concept), but rather the first to be implemented with vigour.

The ability of China and India to hold a summit and discuss ideas for cooperation sensibly when hawkish administrations are in both Beijing and Delhi, reflects the underlying direction in which South Asia is moving.

For China and its companies, India is in many ways the bigger game to play. The growing number of tech purchases by Chinese firms in the Indian market highlights an awareness of India’s booming potential. And beyond India, China realises that a more interconnected, stable and cordial community of South Asian nations will ensure the prosperity that will help stabilise China’s immediate land peripheries.

Afghanistan needs stability to be prosperous and not export problems to Central Asia, Pakistan and, ultimately, China. From Beijing’s perspective, this will only work if the country is more connected to its region.

Wang Yi and other officials have talked about connecting the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan, but it is not clear how positively Islamabad views this idea. The corridor will only deliver the prosperity that will help Pakistan grow if it is a truly regional project, and this means it must connect better with its immediate neighbours as well as those in the Khunjerab Pass area.

This is the point Islamabad needs to keep in mind: China and India want to find ways to engage and tap each other’s economic opportunities.

India may be sceptical of the broader belt and road plan, but it remains keen to engage in some aspects of it, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the chance to bring Chinese investment into the country. A nation hungry for investment, Modi’s India is keen to find any way to grow to catch up with its richer Asian neighbour.

For Beijing, this is an opportunity in every direction: a prosperous India would be good for China. A prosperous and stable Pakistan would be a net boon. And a stable and secure Afghanistan would achieve a long-awaited goal for the entire region.

While Beijing is still working out how it will manage to deliver on this vision, the direction of travel is clear – and should be appreciated, not just by the region but the world.

Notwithstanding the tensions that will undoubtedly create some bumps in the road, the ability to hold a summit and discuss ideas for cooperation sensibly when hawkish administrations are in both Beijing and Delhi, reflects the underlying direction in which South Asia is moving.

Islamabad needs to pay attention before casting all its chips in one basket; the West needs to focus on what South Asia’s course means for any attempts to use India as a counterbalance to China.

Ultimately, these Asian giants know their own backyard, and will focus on that over any global ideological confrontation.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Islamabad should not fear signs of Sino-Indian rapprochement

And finally this evening, a new piece for the Telegraph exploring how the terrorist threat has evolved and how government’s need to be careful in their responses to not make it worse.

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One year since the Manchester bombing, the West risks playing into terrorists’ hands

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

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

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

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

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary22 May 2018
ChinaInternational Security Studies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Europe’s Pivot to Central Asia

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary2 May 2018
International Security StudiesCentral and South Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connecting Ideas: A New Silk Road Think Tank

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

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

Leading on Counter-Radicalisation Efforts 

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

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

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

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

Boosting Investment and Economic Opportunities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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