Very belatedly a review for RUSI Journal of Christine Fair’s recent book on Lashkar-e-Toiba. Well worth a read for those interested in the group.

Also taking this opportunity to catch up on media appearances as it has been a while. On the terrorism side of the equation spoke to the Independent about extreme right wing proscriptions in the UK, NBC about the growing right wing problem in Europe, and Matt Feldman cited some of my earlier work in this very interesting piece on the radical right and lone actors. On the China and the world side of the equation spoke to CNN about UK-China relations, to the Austrian Der Kurier about 5G, China and Europe, the Daily Express picked up an earlier piece for the Sunday Times about China/Russia geopolitics, Asia Times quoted some earlier work on China and Central Asia, while spoke to RFE/RL at some length for this bigger piece about China-Central Asia.

In Their Own Words: Understanding Lashkar-e-Tayyaba

Fair-NEW-WEB-REVISED

C Christine Fair Hurst, 2019

Considered by some to be one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) emerged from the ‘fag end’ (p. 57) of the Afghan Civil War that more famously produced Al-Qa’ida. Responsible for the 2008 attacks on Mumbai, arguably the most audacious terrorist attacks since 9/11 and likely one of the key inspirations for the November 2015 attacks by the Islamic State on Paris, LeT is in fact one of the most sophisticated terrorist groups around. As C Christine Fair points out in In Their Own Words: Understanding Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, an impressive and detailed history of the group, the organisation has long since moved from being a simple terrorist organisation to becoming a political party, charity and branch of the Pakistani deep state (Pakistan’s solid and consistent ruling structures formed mostly from its security structures) that continues to be a factor in regional politics. Given the centrality to local and international security affairs of its host country, Pakistan, this gives the group an outsized relevance on the international stage. Being a potential spark between two nuclear powers that have long been at each other’s throats gives weight to LeT’s actions.

The group’s link to the UK has always been complex. Back in the 1990s, its senior leadership would openly visit the UK to raise money for its cause from the large Kashmiri diaspora. Its narrative of being at the forefront of the fight to liberate Kashmir appealed to much of the UK’s Kashmiri-Pakistani community. Some British citizens went to fight alongside the group, leading to the first trial against a Muslim imam in the UK in 1997, when then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw sought to deport an Oldham-based Ahl-e-Hadith (the sect which provides LeT’s ideological basis) preacher who was assessed by MI5 as raising money, recruiting and facilitating travel of young Britons to fight alongside LeT in Kashmir. The path to liberate Kashmir that the preacher was accused of fostering was the same one along which the 7 July 2005 London bombers started their journey to infamy. Written from an American perspective, Fair’s book tends to see the Mumbai attacks as the moment when US officialdom really started to focus attention on the ground – the UK was already deeply concerned about the group long before this. Fair also shows the importance of the UK, partition and post-colonialism in the group’s mythology (p. 21). A heavily Punjabi organisation, LeT recruits in the part of Pakistan which was most badly impacted following partition (p. 115).

Fair is a well-established scholar of LeT and Pakistan, and an author of numerous books and academic texts on the country and the terrorist groups within it. Her mastery of the languages, and social and political dynamics of the region, is on clear display in this book, which uses LeT’s own texts to explain the group. Through this, she opens up a number of interesting new aspects.

One particular phenomenon she highlights using these texts is the role of women within LeT, and their importance in the group’s dynamic. This stands in contrast to other Kashmiri-focused jihadi groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed (p. 135) and is what helps strengthen the organisation as a national institution. ‘LeT is the only jihadiorganization in Pakistan that has an active women’s wing that issues its own publications’ (p. 135). This is significant given the large number of jihadi organisations in the country. In the various LeT texts Fair cites, she quotes stories about women’s support for the group, their pride in their sons or husbands fighting and dying for the group – calling on their menfolk’s ‘brothers’ to not ‘let his Kalashnikov fall’ (p. 144). She also identifies how the group goes out of its way to permit and encourage female support at its events, including creating a separate section where they can gather at public events. The fact the group does this at some monetary cost reflects the importance it assigns to women’s participation. Most recruitment Fair identifies takes place among family and friends (p. 125). While she does not explicitly identify any countermeasures that might deal with the role of women as radicalisers for the group, she does propose the idea of women being a vector for future countering violent extremism engagements. Fair is clearly interested in the role of women in the group, and sees some value in looking in the future into understanding how they might be used to help deradicalise cadres.

The book is also persuasive in illustrating the importance of Kashmir to the overall Pakistani national mythology and its centrality to the Pakistani security state. She quotes Chief of Army Staff (often referred to as the most important figure in the country given the dominance of the army in national affairs) Raheel Sharif who during his Martyr’s Day speech in 2014 ‘explained that Kashmir is Pakistan’s sheh rag, or jugular vein … Kashmir is “nothing less than a struggle for [the] very existence of Pakistan as a viable nation-state”’ (p. 36). Within this context, LeT, one of the key foot soldiers in the struggle for Kashmir, is characterised as a central institution of Pakistan’s deep state. The emergence of a political branch (the Milli Muslim League, MML), its emphasis on charity and support in disaster-stricken areas (in particular during the 2005 earthquake, though Fair points out how the Pakistani state has sought to exaggerate its role (p.190)), as well as its well-funded and effective security apparatus, make it a very useful and deniable proxy in the ongoing tensions between Pakistan and India.

In contrast to the many other proxies that the Pakistani state is accused of supporting, in the book LeT is shown to be one that the state supports both practically and ideologically in many different ways. For example, it refrains from launching attacks within the country, it has refused to stir up the sectarianism that is popular within Pakistan against the Ahmadiyya community (a minority Muslim sect that is believed by many to be apostate) and it tells its followers that they are not permitted to overthrow Muslim leaders. This is something the group finds itself talking about a lot as followers ask why the organisation is so fixated on fighting enemies of Islam abroad when the government in Pakistan is hurting Muslims through its corrupt behaviour. The group’s line is that such leaders do not deserve to be overthrown, but rather to be persuaded through active proselytisation. In her book, Fair cites a number of LeT thinkers who say ‘violence is never a legitimate response with which to contend with an illegitimate Muslim leader no matter how dissolute he may be’ (p. 172). As with many things, the LeT thinkers see ‘any argument for jihad in Pakistan as a conspiracy, fostered by India or other enemies of Pakistan’ (p. 172).

A detailed and academic text, Fair’s book is written in the form of chapters which can each stand alone. While this might impede narrative flow across the book as a whole, it does make for a rich text which draws on an impressive array of primary texts including a number of LeT’s own magazines, books and reports to paint a detailed picture of the group. Given LeT’s continuing importance, such insightful work is to be welcomed and shows the complex and diverse array of extremist groups that the world continues to face.

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.

Have not posted for a while. Delivered a book project which should ultimately emerge sometime next year, which kept me busy. But have been writing, including this piece for Prospect magazine in the UK on the fifteen year anniversary of the July 7, 2005 bombing which was the big lynchpin event of my earlier book.

Also have numerous projects in motion at the moment pulling me in lots of directions at the same time. Going to do a media catch up in the next post, but for the time being here is a video of a webinar with my Singaporean hosts RSIS looking at the evolution of the UK threat picture.

 

 

Fifteen years on from 7/7, terrorism has changed but the jihadist threat persists

Ideologies have fragmented and dangers become more difficult to track
by Raffaello Pantucci / July 7, 2020

Court artist sketch by Elizabeth Cook of Safiyya Amira Shaikh, 37, of Hayes, West London, who pleaded guilty to preparation of terrorist acts Picture: Elizabeth Cook/PA Wire/PA Images:
Court artist sketch of Safiyya Amira Shaikh, 37, of Hayes, West London, who pleaded guilty to preparation of terrorist acts Picture: Elizabeth Cook/PA Wire/PA Images

It often feels like we have moved into a new era of terrorist threats. Gone are the days when we faced large organised plots involving networks linking the UK to dark corners of faraway lands: now terrorist attacks are made up of random mass stabbings in public places like the attack near London Bridge in 2017. The terrorists being processed through our courts are former drug addicts with troubled pasts, like convert Safiyya Shaikh who was jailed recently for plotting to blow up St Paul’s.

At the ideological end it is equally confusing, with violent Islamists seemingly replaced by a gaggle of extreme right wingers, involuntary celibates (Incels) and individuals whose ideological leaning is so confused the Home Office brackets them together as “mixed, unstable or unclear.” Yet there is more consistency than you might expect. Terrorist threats come in ebbs and flows, sometimes receding but rarely disappearing. Instead, they tend to morph and create new problems. What is constant, however, is our inability to learn from the mistakes of the past.

The most talked about threat on the rise is the extreme right wing. But it is not clear how much of a threat it actually poses. Prior to the 7th July bombings 15 years ago, the most lethal non-Irish related terrorist attack the UK had faced was David Copeland’s one-man bombing campaign targeting London’s minority communities in 1999. Leaving devices in locations targeting London’s black, South Asian and gay communities, his homemade bombs murdered three and injured 140. While Copeland seemed to plan and execute his campaign by himself, he was part of the extreme right in the UK (albeit on the fringes), and a former member of the British National Party, the National Socialist Movement and even the neo-Nazi Combat 18 group.

For years the extreme right was largely the remit of the police, but in the late 1990s it was also coming into MI5’s crosshairs. As Jonathan Evans, a former director-general of MI5, told me earlier this year: “the service worked closely with police to undertake some disruptions in the late 1990s of Combat 18 associated individuals who were consorting with people of a similar cast of mind in eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc. These groups had explicitly decided that terrorism was part of the way forward in order to try to destabilise what they characterised as the Zionist Organised Government (ZOG).” The attacks were disrupted, and soon after MI5 ended up getting almost completely overwhelmed focusing on the violent Islamist terror threat that erupted so violently in 2001.

But the extreme right never went away, and in some ways went mainstream with a rise in far-right parties across Europe. At the terrorist end of the scale, throughout the 2000s police were disrupting extreme right-wing plots. While the majority were fairly shambolic, some more organised ones would occasionally emerge. The Aryan Strike Force (ASF) was a group built around a father and son core who were bent on race war, were running training camps in Cumbria and managed to make enough ricin to kill nine people. But for the most part, they were, as Evans put it to me, “zoological” curiosities who were distinguishing mostly in their oddness.

The emergence of the English Defence League (EDL) and subsequently National Action (NA) changed the picture. From being a scattered group of individuals who were as likely to be involved in child pornography as they were extreme right-wing terrorism, these two groups instead spoke to something more organised coming together. It was also confusing ideologically, with both groups quite explicitly reacting against the violent Islamist groups that dominated public attention, yet also clearly using their tactics and language. National Action speaks of launching a “white jihad” while the EDL was born in reaction to now banned Islamist group Al Muhajiroun’s presence in Luton. And while there is a clear white supremacist tone to both groups, the EDL promoted non-white members.

More explicitly, political far-right group Britain First provided another wrinkle within this fabric, espousing a white supremacist ideology using Christian iconography. There is a palpable religious overtone to their narratives which feels more reminiscent of the violent Islamist threat that brought together religion and totalitarian views about society. This mix of ideas helped give them a strong base of support in parts of eastern Europe.

This confusing ideological background has been matched by the emergence of online ideologies drawing on fears of the “Great Replacement” of white communities. This has become the backdrop against which a whole range of ideologies have developed, spinning the extreme right in numerous different directions: ideas like the Incels movement, made up of young men who feel themselves rejected sexually. The QAnon movement, which has not only appeared at Trump rallies but now also appears to have three adherents among American congressional candidates, is made up of conspiracy theorists drawing on the vast information pool now available online to concoct narratives about controlling deep states, the dangers of 5G technology and stories of powerful paedophiles. And in one of the stranger threats to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, a growth in groups fearing the increased role of the state. Groups like the Sovereign Citizen movement have become more influential as some fear the virus response is simply an excuse to expand the power of the state to ultimately oppress them.

But notwithstanding this increasingly baffling threat picture, it has still not eclipsed the violent Islamist threat in the UK. In a recent interview, the UK’s top counter-terrorism police officer Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said that the extreme right wing took up about 10 per cent of his officers’ time. While it is, as he put it, the “fastest-growing” aspect of the threat picture, and cases have managed to rise to the very top of the terrorist “matrix” that MI5 uses to prioritise its threat picture, it is not the majority yet. The biggest threats continue to come from those inspired or linked to groups like al-Qaeda or Islamic State (IS).

This is something you hear consistently from security officials. Yes, the extreme right is a growing concern, but the violent Islamist threat persists and there is little evidence that the pool of problems that created it have gone away. They point to foreign battlefields like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq or parts of north, west or east Africa, where al-Qaeda- and IS-linked groups continue to thrive. These are the sorts of environments that produced the 7/7 attacks. Just last month, security officials in Germany disrupted a plot in which a group of Tajiks stand accused of being directed by IS networks in Syria and Afghanistan to launch an attack in Europe.

In the UK it has been a while since we have had a major public disruption like this. Instead, incidents like last year’s attack at Fishmongers’ Hall or the attempted stabbing in Streatham—when a recently released terrorist convict launched a one-man attack—are the norm. In these and other more recent cases still winding their way through the courts, isolated individuals, sometimes with links to violent Islamist networks, and usually with histories that have brought them to MI5’s attention at some point, launch one-man campaigns with no outside direction and weapons such as knives found in every household. A growing proportion of them have serious mental health or social problems, making them deeply volatile and unpredictable people. This makes them almost impossible to stop, but nevertheless results in a vast outpouring of noise from politicians and the public demanding that something must be done.

It is never a good idea to legislate in the immediate wake of a disaster. Objectivity will go out of the window, leading to ill-considered choices. We saw this in the wake of the 7/7 attacks—when the shock to the country led to a surge in focus and attention on the UK’s Muslim community. Politicians’ rhetoric sharpened, demanding they “do something.” A money spigot was opened which gave the security services more resources to manage the problem—including developing community profiling tools like Project Rich Picture, which aimed to develop a detailed understanding of the UK’s Muslim community, identifying them as the source of the threat. Self-appointed leaders (or “professional Muslims” as one colleague once sarcastically put it) popped up everywhere speaking for no one but themselves, but nevertheless able to garner grants from the government to bolster their so-called community work. Some did positive work. Others it was less clear.

All this did little to improve Muslim community relations and instead created a sense among many Muslims that they were being unfairly targeted. Paradoxically, it also created animosity among white communities who were angered by the austerity and economic marginalisation they were facing in contrast to this visible push in support to Muslim communities. We have not seen a similar outpouring of money or attention towards deprived white communities in the wake of the growing rise of the extreme right.

A decade and a half since July 2005, we seem not to have learned some of these lessons. Politicians appear unwilling to acknowledge that part of the problem of the resurgent extreme right is a product of the racially-tinged politics that have been stoked by mainstream voices in the past few years, while the growing presence of seriously troubled individuals at the sharp end of the terror threat as lone actors reflects years of under-investment in mental health services, probation and social services. The recently convicted Safiyya Shaikh, formerly Michelle Ramsden, in some ways fits this mould perfectly—a deeply troubled woman whose online life developed into her becoming a webmaster and coordinator for IS-supporting groups and plots across Europe.

We have gone from networks directing plots against our public transport to lone actors lashing out at people going about their daily lives. The underlying ideologies remain the same, though their expression has become more confusing. In many ways little has changed except for the volume of people affected and our security services’ capability to manage terrorist threats (one of the biggest reasons why we have not seen anything larger than a lone actor attack in a while). But our politicians seem unable to grasp the difficult nettles that are required to deal with these issues in a sophisticated fashion. Either we learn to live with the problem or focus on the real underlying issues.

 

A new piece for a place have been contributing to increasingly of late, the Indian Observer Research Foundation (ORF), this time a piece on the extreme right wing in Europe with RSIS colleague Kyler.

Going to start catching up on other media or webinar appearances as well, including a new format I have not used before which is the embedded YouTube feature. Here below is a video of the webinar that I did with Marlene and her Central Asia Program on China and Central Asia during COVID-19, which drew on a paper of mine they kindly published.

 

From fringe to mainstream: The extreme rightwing in Europe

This ideological confusion between violence and politics has become even more opaque with the growth of ideologically overlapping subcultures online.

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Europe has long suffered from far-right politics and extreme right terrorism. Over the past decade, however, the terrorism associated with the ideology has grown in influence and potency. The increasing mainstreaming of racist narratives which hold non-whites culpable for the current dire state of affairs has brought fringe views into broader public view. At the same time, Europe has seen a growth in an increasingly networked and armed extreme rightwing, showing a threat picture evolving in worrying directions.

Mainstreaming far-right narratives

In Europe, just as in some other parts of the world, governments’ bid to contain the spread of COVID-19 brought rightwing extremists to the forefront of anti-lockdown protests. In Germany, for instance, extremists have attended rallies organised by a mainstream far-right political party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), and leveraged the pandemic to spread anti-semitic and racist conspiracy theories. Many of these theories have attributed Jews as the source of the crisis and reason for lockdown, and blamed migrants for being the original carriers of the virus.

Separately, the killing of a Black American man, George Floyd, on 25 May 2020 by a police officer in Minnesota, has ignited anti-racist protests and counter-protests globally. Rightwing extremists in Europe are exploiting the chaos to conduct counter-protests against “white racism” in Paris, the tearing down of national monuments linked to slavery and colonialism in London, and ultimately to incite violence.

This trend of the extreme right taking advantage of the chaos generated during COVID-19 and the race protests is not surprising. But it comes after a general trend in European politics of the mainstreaming of far-right voices. Be it France’s Front Nationale, Germany’s AFD, UKIP in the UK, Italy’s Lega Nord, Spain’s Vox or Victor Orban in Hungary, there has been a growing trend across Europe in the past decade or more of parties mainstreaming far-right narratives. Mostly focused on immigration, they tap into racist sentiment dressing it up as nationalism to move closer to power. In some cases, they have achieved their goal and won political office, but in others they have served to simply drag the existing mainstream right deeper towards their narratives as they attempt to reclaim the political territory.

The net result of this shift is previously fringe narratives and parties being brought closer to the center. In turn, this means the extreme right is also brought in, empowering those on the hard edges who see the winds blowing in their direction and an opportunity to capitalise. In Germany, this link has been quite explicit, with the radical wing of AfD (known as Der Flügel) placed under surveillance by German domestic intelligence. The growing mainstreaming of nativism is also not exclusive to the rightwing, and is visible at the other end of the political spectrum as well. Some leftist parties are fighting to “bring back” populist votes by championing “ours first” policies in their electoral campaigns. This is visible in the Danish Social Democrats or Italy’s leftist Five Star movement which has been willing to enter into coalition with far-right parties to get into power.

A European Union of hate

Somewhat paradoxically given their tendency to oppose the European Union, these far-right political groups have found themselves networking across the continent. Drawing on each other’s successes, they have held rallies together, spoken admiringly of each other as a way of highlighting the substance to their movement across the Continent, and even formed political blocs in the Union. This connectivity is something that is equally visible on the extreme right, where groups like the English Defence League (EDL) have been emulated across Europe. And on the even harder edge, we can see how terrorist groups or individuals are linking up across the continent. Anders Behring Breivik, a man who presented himself as the forefront of a movement with his attack in Norway in 2011 and has subsequently become something of an icon to parts of the extreme right, reported contacts with extremists in the Balkans, as well as attended EDL marches in the UK.

In the UK, the case of Pavlo Lapshyn, a Ukrainian student who moved to Birmingham in 2013 and launched a one-man terror campaign against the West Midlands Muslim community, was an early indicator of what could come. Britain First, the fringe far-right group, has found support in Eastern Europe with its leadership going to rallies in Poland, posting materials in Polish and hosting Poles in London. Some of their Polish followers have launched attacks in the UK. This link draws on the 1990s when UK far right extremists made connections with their counterparts in Eastern Europe. Networks of extremists from Germany, Eastern Europe and Nordic countries have long formed sub-cultures around the white power music scene. This has provided a backdrop for networks of extreme right-wing terrorists like the Nationalist Socialist Underground (NSU) in Germany.

Further multiplying concerns has been the growth in links to battlefields and training camps. Rightwing extremists in Europe have travelled and developed relations with individuals and networks within and outside of the continent, and vice versa. White supremacist groups originating from the United States, such as The Base, also have presence in Europe. The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has turned it into a battlefield pitting pro-Russian separatist against ultra-nationalist groups, and turning it into a transnational hub attracting foreign fighters to join both sides. The Azov Battalion is known to have conducted recruitment outside of Ukraine and trained white supremacists who have travelled to Ukraine. Fighters from across Europe have shown up, with a number tracing links to far-right groups back home.

 rightwing extremism, far-right politics, extreme right terrorism, white racism, fringe narratives, political spectrum, right terrorism, English Defence League, Britain First, ideological strands, fringe ideologies, white supremacism, ideological construction, Great Replacement, indigenous European population, extreme right ideologies, radicalisation, anti-semitic, rightwing terrorism in Europe

The growing cooperation is not only restricted to Ukraine. The Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), a Russian ultra-nationalist, quasi-paramilitary organisation, has hosted training camps that have attracted Swedish, Finnish and German extremists. Some went to Ukraine, but others returned home. German neo-Nazis, particularly the youth wings of two neo-Nazi German political parties, the National Democratic Party and The Third Path, attended camps before returning home to promulgate far-right ideas. Two Swedish members of the Nordic Resistance Movement who trained with RIM went on to construct explosive devices which they used to target sites in Sweden associated with migrants in 2016 and 2017. The US has recently designated RIM as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) entity, partly for its role in these attacks.

Ideological twist and shout

There is also a growing confusion at the ideological end of the spectrum. The nexus between far-right political ideologies and extreme rightwing, non-affiliated lone terrorists, is murky and has in some cases led to acts of extremism and terrorism perpetrated by lone terrorists being politicised. Germany’s AfD was initially blamed for Tobias Rathjen’s 19 February shootings at a series of shisha bars in Hanau, though there was no evidence of a link and ultimately questions were raised around Rathjen’s mental state. Similarly, the murder of UK MP Jo Cox by Thomas Mair was initially associated with the group Britain First, given his past involvement with the group and reports of him shouting the group’s name during his attack. The link was ultimately revealed to be unclear and denied by the group.

This ideological confusion between violence and politics has become even more opaque with the growth of ideologically overlapping subcultures online. While the classic extreme right of neo-Nazi’s, skinheads and hooligans still exist, they are now joined by fringe ideologies such as “incel” (which is shorthand for “involuntary celibate,” an adherent who believes that attractive women and men are to be blamed for their inability to find a romantic or sexual partner), anti-government movements such as Sovereign Citizens (which already has sizable membership in Europe), QAnon or conspiracy theorists focused on the dangers of 5G technology. These ideas, ideologies, online sub-cultures all merge together and have produced terrorist attacks. A growing number of European cases draw on a range of these ideologies, with a strong extreme right undertone tying them together. Philip Manshaus (August 2019 Bærum mosque attack), Stephan Balliet (attempted October 2019 Halle synagogue attack), and Tobias Rathjen (February 2020 shisha bars attack), were all triggered by their hatred for immigrants, but showed incel refrains in their manifestos. Even if the fringe ideology may not have been the main driver to the act of terror, the convergence of rightwing extremist ideologies (e.g., white supremacism), inceldom and conspiracy theory driven movements is increasing.

At the other end of the ideological construction there is a problem of reciprocal radicalisation where elements of the extreme right draw their motivation from ideological adversaries on the far-left or violent Islamists. But there has also been a growth of groups subsuming ideological strands or messaging from opposing groups into their own ideologies — in part out of acknowledgement of success others have had in projecting their messages. For example, the UK’s National Action talked of white jihad, used tactics and imagery aping ISIS, while stirring up neo-Nazi messaging and using the direct-action political activism reminiscent of al-Muhajiroun.

Overall, however, an underlying narrative that tends to drive the extreme right in Europe is the “Great Replacement” theory, which promulgates that “indigenous European population is replaced by non-European migrants.” Anders Brevik and Tobias Rathjen have cited the incipient threat of white genocide in their manifestos as reasons for taking up arms to fight against the colonisation of western civilisation. This is a narrative also popular amongst some far-right and libertarian politicians across Europe.

What the future holds

Extreme rightwing terrorism in Europe has contributed an increased share of total terrorist attacks in the last five years (in some years, it even represented the largest threat). According to Europol’s figures, notwithstanding reporting issues (member states have a habit of reporting in different ways), there has been a consistent increase in reported arrests on the extreme right since 2015 (coinciding with the migrant crisis), and these numbers have more than doubled between 2017 and 2018, potentially demonstrating heightened counter-terrorism efforts. Just in June this year, the German Interior Ministry placed a ban on the anti-semitic rightwing extremist group, Nordadler. In the same month, the Belgian government reported that some 20 of its citizens have participated in paramilitary training camps in Eastern Europe in recent years. As reciprocal radicalisation, lone actor attacks drawing on a mixture of warped extreme right ideologies, and mainstreaming of far-right ideas continue to grow, the problem is not going away. With violent Islamist threat appearing to retreat, rightwing extremism and terrorism remain amongst the most dangerous ideologies on the continent, and a growing force to be reckoned with.

A bit late posting my latest for the Straits Times, this time digging into the question of nationalism and the problems it causes countries using the lens of the Wolf Warrior mentality in Beijing as the entry point. Still crashing to finish some bigger projects, hoping to have more time for other writing soon!

Beware the spirit of the Wolf Warrior
Summoning the forces of nationalism anywhere in the world invites the risk of a bite-back

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The film Wolf Warrior 2 has managed that special feat of entering the lexicon.

Wolf Warrior has become the byword for a mood in Beijing that sees little reason to stand down before adversaries. Its primary audience is domestic, showing the Chinese public they are living in a strong country built by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But this sort of narrative is also dominant globally, where political leaders are stoking nationalist and nativist fires at home to bolster themselves.

Such narratives rarely stop at borders, however, and usually create friction abroad. This can constrain government options as they seek to please domestic audiences. Nowhere is this clearer than in the current stand-off between New Delhi and Beijing where cool heads are struggling to maintain control.

Wolf Warrior 2’s key message was clearly stamped in its final scene, where against a backdrop of a Chinese passport, words appeared saying: “To citizens of the People’s Republic of China, when you find yourself in danger in a foreign country, do not give up hope. Please remember, behind your back, will be a strong and powerful motherland.”

This film is aimed at a Chinese audience – something that is important to remember when considering what the point of the so-called Wolf Warrior diplomacy is. It is not something aimed at the rest of the world, but at Chinese citizens to show them their motherland’s strength.

The specific phrase “Wolf Warrior diplomacy” appears to have been coined in July last year, in a BBC Chinese article that explored a Twitter spat between then charge d’affaires at the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad, Mr Zhao Lijian, and former US national security adviser Susan Rice.

Now a senior spokesman with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr Zhao at the time ran one of the most prominent and prolific Chinese government official Twitter accounts. He was at the forefront of a growing mood in Beijing that the film seemed to encapsulate – of a China that was no longer hiding and biding its time, in Deng Xiaoping’s phrase, but was rather standing tall and thrusting itself into prominence on the international stage.

The aggressive posture Mr Zhao encapsulated was intended to show that China was no longer being pliant, but was taking the rhetorical fight to the enemy.

Chinese people will often receive a mixed message at home – on the one hand, they see their country getting rich and leaders talking of national rejuvenation, but then abroad they see they are treated as a second-tier power with anger directed at them.

The extraordinary growth at home and hostility abroad do not seem to fit together, and actually undermine the CCP’s messaging to its own people about how well things are going. Stoking nationalist fires helps strengthen the public’s positive feelings towards their government.

This is a global problem. In the United States, President Donald Trump has made a domestic virtue out of attacking allies. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s spending, decoupling from China, withdrawing the US from international agreements – these are all policy decisions that he has championed to his voter base, heedless of the impact or appeal to allies.

In London, the entire Brexit conversation was predicated on the fact that Europe was a millstone to British ambition. Similar narratives can be found in almost every European capital. Leaders pandering to their political bases have long blamed a distant and abstract Brussels as the source of domestic problems. Yet, in a world of superpower confrontation, the idea of walking away from what could be one of the most powerful alliances on the planet seems absurd.

And in Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has harnessed Indian and Hindu nationalism to win resounding election victories. Globally, however, it has brought him condemnation with concerns about human rights of minorities in the country and the troubles in Kashmir.

Stoking these fires can be dangerous after a certain point. By getting people worked up at home about mendacious or evil foreigners, you create a context not only for racism to thrive at home, but also for your citizenry to pick fights for you abroad.

In Kazakhstan, China is having to deal with the fallout. In mid-April, a series of articles emerged on the Chinese Internet that suggested many of China’s neighbours wanted to “return” to China. The implication was that they were all so envious of China’s success that they wanted to renounce their own nationhood to become part of greater China. Produced by a click-bait farm in Xi’an, they appeared to be an attempt to monetise the nationalist mood at home.

When one article referring to Kazakhstan came to the attention of Kazakh netizens, however, it created an uproar, surfacing as it did against a backdrop of growing concern about Chinese influence in their country. The public anger that followed led to its Ministry of Foreign Affairs hauling China’s ambassador in to give him a dressing down. The ambassador in turn expressed anger at the stories, claiming that the entire event was being stirred up by Western media – all done on Facebook, blocked in China.

In Ladakh, we might now be seeing the apotheosis of this problem. With strong nationalist sentiment stirred up at both ends, China and India are facing off at a moment when the popular sentiments in both countries are being agitated by strongman national leaders against each other.

In this light, an admission of large loss of life in conflict is something that neither side wants to accept without consequences. The public has been brought up on narratives of how strong they are and how weak the other is. There is a danger domestically if this does not fit with what they see. Both sides are constrained in their choices as a result. They have to keep the public happy, yet at the same time are concerned about escalating into a larger conflict.

The danger is in some ways best captured by the experience of Wu Jing, the director and star of the Wolf Warrior movies.

In the wake of the runaway success of the second movie, he became a talking point on Chinese social media. Among the many stories that circulated was the rumour that he was from Hong Kong, and that his wife was an American green card holder and his son had United Kingdom citizenship – somewhat contradictory, given the nationalist tone of his blockbuster. In an echo of the “birther” scandal in America around President Barack Obama’s right to contest the presidency, Wu’s mother had to post on Weibo photos of their Chinese passports. The nationalist fires that his film had fanned ultimately circled back to burn him. This is the danger that such nationalistic narratives can create. Uncontrollable anger at home which limits your options abroad.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior visiting fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Have been delinquent again in posting, but been very busy with a big deadline that is now upon me. In the meantime, have had a few pieces emerge in various places. Will post here as soon as find time. Wanted to flag one up sooner rather than later though as am doing a webinar today about it. It is a short paper for the wonderful Central Asia Program at George Washington University, run by the excellent Dr Marlene Laruelle. Many thanks to her and Jennet for all their work on this paper. It tries to look at how China’s relationship with Central Asia has developed in light of COVID-19, and offers some thoughts on the longer-term impact. The webinar is taking place at 9PM Washington, DC time today, and am sure late signer-uppers can still sneak in – follow this link to get to it.

Beijing Binds: COVID-19 and the China-Central Asia Relationship

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Washington’s intensely negative perspective on China has obscured the ability to look in detail at what is going on around the world. While it is true that many are concerned about China’s assertive rise and how COVID-19 has been handled, the story is not universally negative. In Central Asia, where countries are increasingly dependent on China economically and are likely to become more so in a post-COVID-19 world, the narrative is a complicated one. Previous tensions have been exacerbated by the virus, while at the same time China has strengthened its presence and relationships. The net result is likely to be an even closer binding between China and Central Asia, notwithstanding the persistent tensions that exist between them.

Patient Zero and Sinophobia

Given their physical proximity, it is interesting to note that none of the Central Asian powers have pointed to China as the source of their initial infections. The one that comes closest to pointing an accusing finger is Turkmenistan, which on February 1 saw a flight from Beijing to Ashgabat redirected to Turkmenabat after a woman on board was taken sick. She was discharged from the plane and placed in quarantine in a tuberculosis sanatorium. However, Turkmenistan has not yet had any officially confirmed cases (and this story was not reported in official media).1 In contrast, Kazakhstan identified their first cases as coming from Germany on March 9 and 12,2 Kyrgyzstan from Saudi Arabia entering on March 123 and Uzbekistan from France on March 15.4 Tajikistan only admitted official cases in late April after there had been repeated reports of people falling sick from pneumonia type diseases, making public tracing of patient zero within the country impossible.5 Rumours had circulated for some time prior to these official confirmations about cases, and it is interesting that all appear to have announced their first cases at around the same time.

This relatively late link did not, however, stop a wave of Sinophobia sweeping through the region in January and February as people went down the route of attacking ethnic Chinese they saw in the markets. Whilst early rumours that violence in early February in Masanchi, south Kazakhstan between Dungan (ethnically Han but religiously Sunni peoples who have lived in the region for over a hundred years) and Kazakhs was related to COVID19 inspired Sinophobia proved false,6 there were reports of violence against Chinese in markets in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan7 and Tajikistan.8 In Bishkek, Parliamentary Deputy Kamchybek Zholdoshbaev made a speech in Parliament about how Kyrgyz should avoid contact with Chinese citizens and all those in the country should be forced to wear masks.9 On January 29, a train in the south of Kazakhstan was stopped and two Chinese nationals on board booted off when a panic set in that they might have the virus. They tested negative.10

Reflecting a broader anger against China in the country, in mid-February the announcement was made to cancel the At-Bashi logistics center in Kyrgyzstan. The US$280 million project was signed during a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping the year before and had faced massive protests.11 It was not entirely clear from reporting whether the Kyrgyz government or company withdrew the project, but it was obvious that it was the volume of local protestors that drove the decision. Described as an articulation of fear of Chinese landgrab, the project’s collapse is a net loss to Kyrgyzstan as it would have helped restore some of the country’s role as a regional trade hub. There is no evident link between the project’s cancellation and COVID-19, but doubtless it played into the background of protestors views.

Medical Aid Flows Both Ways

Sinophobia was not, however, the pervasive view amongst government across the region, with the Uzbek,12 Kazakh13 and Kyrgyz14 governments all sending various volumes of medical aid to China during the first half of February. The Turkmen government sold one million masks to China at around the same time.15 In late January early February, they all gradually severed their physical connections with China, closing direct borders, air routes and setting bans on arrivals from China. These measures were imposed as much of the world was severing its contacts with the Middle Kingdom as the full measure of the COVID-19 outbreak across China became clear.

It did not take very long for the tables to turn. By mid-March, the Central Asians were facing their own outbreaks and started to seek support and aid from China. The Kyrgyz Security Council met and decided to request support from Beijing.16 Beijing quickly reciprocated the donations, with aid starting to arrive by the end of the month. In the first instance it was mostly to Kazakhstan17, Kyrgyzstan18 and Uzbekistan19 (the three countries that had admitted they were suffering from the disease), but testing kits and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) were also handed over on March 30 (a full month before Dushanbe reported cases) by Chinese officials to their Tajik counterparts at the Karasu (or Kulma) border post.20 Turkmenistan remains a black hole of information.

And this munificence has continued, with repeated flights of aid from both regional authorities across China (Xinjiang seems a natural leader, but lots of other regions have provided support as well) as well as the business community. The Jack Ma foundation followed up on an earlier promise of support to Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) members by sending planeloads of aid to all Central Asian members.21 Companies with large footprints in the region like Huaxin, Sany, Sinopec, China Construction, China Road and Bridge Company (CRBC) and many more, provided money or PPE (often through the local embassy). One shipment to Uzbekistan was sent by a group of mostly Chinese defence companies using Uzbek military aircraft to distribute PPE to security officials and front line medical staff.22 In late April, the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek handed over PPE and medical aid to the State Border Guard Service.23 By mid-May, the PLA got into the action, sending supplies to their counterparts in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.24 The Uzbek colonel receiving the aid in Tashkent noted that this was the first medical aid from abroad that the Uzbek Armed Forces had received.25

Even before the aid (some of which was sold rather than gifted, though from open reporting more seems given than purchased), Chinese doctors were heading to the region or providing regular video conferences with their local counterparts to share their experiences. For example, a group from Xinjiang did a 15-day tour of Kazakhstan in early April.26 The Ministry of Public Security (MPS) representative in Tashkent met with his local counterparts to discuss how China had implemented its lockdowns.27 The China Petroleum University, who is responsible for the Confucius Institute in Khujand, Tajikistan, launched the translation in Russian of a manual to help deal with COVID-19.28 In Uzbekistan, a telemedicine system was set up between Jiangxi and Tashkent to help provide sharing of experiences.29 Similar exchange structures have been suggested in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The SCO has also played a growing role, interestingly beyond the security space with which it is most commonly associated. On March 22, SCO Secretary General Vladimir Norov wrote an effusive letter to remote learning firm Weidong Cloud Education. A company with a strong footprint through MoUs already around the region, Norov praised the firm’s contribution to member states’ ability to respond to COVID-19.30 In mid-May, the SCO co-hosted a seminar with Alibaba to connect Chinese doctors from the First Affiliated Hospital of Wenzhou Medical University with their SCO counterparts. Potentially reflecting language preferences, the session did not include Indian and Pakistani experts, but did include Observer member Belarus and Dialogue Partner Azerbaijan.31

Persistent Tensions

But all good news must come to an end, and amidst this flood of support and aid there has been a consistent pattern of bad news stories towards China as well. An early one relating directly to the virus was a diplomatic spat at Dushanbe airport in early February when Chinese diplomats returning to the country refused to be placed in mandatory quarantine.32 But most of the reported stories have focused on Kazakhstan, where the government has had to manage anger around an article that emerged mid-April in China which seemed to suggest that Kazakhstan wanted to “return” to China.33 Emanating from a clickbait farm in Xi’an, the article was one of many that were published written for a nationalist domestic audience in mind which suggested that most of China’s neighbours were eager to “come back” to China.34 Unsurprisingly, this was not well-received (though curiously did not attract the same sort of attention in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan about which similar articles were also written35), and led to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to haul the Ambassador in for a dressing down.36

The Embassy sought to dismiss the story as a Western concoction,37 but in early May the Ministry in Beijing caused the Ambassador a further headache when they launched a coordinated rhetorical attack with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on a series of U.S. supported biolabs across the former Soviet space.38 Established in the wake of the Cold War, the biolabs were part of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) initiative which sought to decommission safely the many weapons of mass destruction left over from the Soviet Army. The story that circulated was that in 2017 an American team working out of one of these labs in Kazakhstan was studying Coronavirus in bats as part of a U.S. Department of Defence funded programme.39 It takes little imagination to draw a conspiratorial line to the current day.

None of this played well in Kazakhstan, leading to news commentaries which in essence called a plague on both houses – saying Kazakhstan was unhappy with both China and the United States.40 This confirmed polling undertaken by a NSF-funded collaborative research project on “The Geopolitical Orientations of People in Borderland States,” which suggested that both the US and China are held in low regard, with Russia only slightly higher as a primus inter pares amongst big powers in the region as far as Kazakhs were concerned.41 It seems as though some of this tension also spilled over into the medical diplomacy China was providing, with Chinese and Kazakh doctors arguing over the amount of PPE they were using in hospital. The Chinese doctors thought all the staff at hospital should be using high levels of PPE for every patient they were handling, while the Kazakhs responded saying they were following World Health Organization’s guidelines which pointed to its use only in intensive care or patients known or suspected to be infected.42

Get Central Asia Moving Again

Tensions aside, the Central Asians are getting quite keen to get their economies moving once again. The Kyrgyz have asked to open their border posts with China,43 something which must have now happened given the fanfare that was attached to the announcement of a shipload of goods heading from Gansu to Tashkent via Irkeshtam in Kyrgyzstan.44 There is further evidence of Chinese agricultural products entering the region.45 The Kyrgyz have taken things even further, and sought to renegotiate their debt load with China – as part of a bigger push to re-negotiate their entire foreign debt burden. President Jeenbekov made a direct plea to Xi about this in a phone call.46 It is not clear that the Chinese have signed off on this, but given the general trend globally (and China’s statements through the G20 about debt relief47), it would be likely that China will extend the repayment schedule at the very least. Presumably, a similar discussion is ongoing with Tajikistan at the very least, though it has not been publicly reported.

The Uzbeks have taken a more pragmatic approach, and instead spoken about speeding up construction of the long-delayed train line between Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan-China. The Kyrgyz section has held things up, but the Uzbeks now consider it essential to help create a safe corridor for transport in a time of COVID-19.48 Reflecting the possibility that the Kyrgyz obstacle might still be in place, and showing further use of COVID-19 rhetoric for potentially political reasons, the Kyrgyz MP Kenjebek Bokoev said that the virus is a major obstacle to completing the line.49 He appears to have been overruled, however, as the Gansu train is reportedly travelling as far as Kashgar on rail, before shifting over to vehicles before picking up a train again at Osh. This demonstration is presumably a push to try to force the conclusion of the discussion with the Kyrgyz side.

A central dilemma to this problem, however, is who is going to do this construction. Many of the Chinese engineers who were working in the region had gone home for holidays before the virus took off, and simply never returned. In early March, officials in Kyrgyzstan were already expressing concern about who was going to complete various road projects around the country,50 while the Chinese Ambassador in Dushanbe pointed out that there might need to be delays to ongoing projects given absent staff.51

For Chinese workers that have stayed in the region the situation is not always a positive one. Chinese workers in Tajikistan lost their temper at local authorities, rioting at their mining site near the northern city of Khujand. Local authorities claimed it was a protest about the fact that they had not been paid in some time, but it seems more likely the men were fearful of their environment and demanding repatriation.52 As has been pointed out, it is possible that all of these stories are true as the experience of Chinese workers in Central Asia is a tough one in general,53 and shortly before the fight the Chinese Embassy had reported that the first Chinese national in the country had succumbed to COVID-19.54 Long before the government in Dushanbe had accepted its first COVID-19 cases, Chinese contacts in Tajikistan were reporting concerns about the spread of the disease within the country. All of which suggests likely local tensions.

The Central Asian economies had been suffering even before the virus hit them full bore. The crash in remittances from migrant labor in Russia has kicked out a major pillar of many of their economies, while the collapse in commodities prices has knocked out another. China made a coordinated request to Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan that they all lower the volume of gas that they are sending, part of a broader slowdown in the Chinese economy.55 It is also true that China appears to have increased its oil purchases from Kazakhstan (potentially taking advantage of low prices to fill strategic reserves – something that has been seen in their purchases from Russia as well56), this is one of few bright economic lights in the region.57 Chinese projects that had been suspended appear to be starting up again and reports are starting to trickle in of Chinese workers returning to complete projects across the region. No one in the region will be looking to Moscow to resolve the economic dilemma that COVID-19 has created, especially given Russia’s own difficult situation with the virus at home, as well as the continuing hit from rock bottom oil prices. Rather, the current situation and its fall-out is likely to push the Central Asians into even deeper economic binding with China, and in increasingly innovative ways.

Towards a Chinese e-future

Alibaba (Chinese Amazon.com equivalent) founder Jack Ma’s aid towards the region comes after a meeting mid-last year with SCO Secretary General Norov and other Central Asian leaders.58 Alibaba’s sites are amongst the most commonly used across the SCO space, with a majority of packages travelling into Central Asia and Russia from China emanating from the company in some way. In his meeting with Norov, Jack Ma spoke of creating some 100 million jobs in the next decade and many of these would be in SCO member states.59 They have also discussed using the platform’s payment tools like AliPay to help facilitate payments across the entire region, as well as finding ways of using the platform to open up Southeast Asian markets to Central Asian and Russian consumers.60

While this ambitious talk may be just that, it is in many ways the realization of something that Beijing has long sought to push through the SCO. Over the years, Chinese experts have repeatedly advanced ideas of creating an SCO Free Trade Area, an SCO Development Bank or other financial institutions. Beijing’s stated aim with the SCO was consistently to make it an economic structure rather than a security one. Yet they were consistently stymied by other members. Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan was particularly recalcitrant, and until relatively recently so was Moscow. Through Alibaba and the COVID-19 disaster, China might have found a vehicle to finally advance this goal.

And this is in many ways the story of China’s COVID19 experience in Central Asia. As with much of the world, the narrative is one of acceleration as a result of the virus and its fall-out. Existing trends supercharged as the world spirals into disorder and confrontation. China has long been re-wiring Central Asia into its own orbit. The virus has merely opened up new opportunities, or at least strengthened ones that were already moving in a certain direction. Economic dependence is becoming ever more real, while the underlying cultural tensions remain strong. China continues to have soft power problems in the region, but these are being subsumed by a web of economic and other links increasingly intertwining the region to China. Taking the example of how China’s response to COVID-19 has played out in cyber-space with links in e-medicine, e-commerce, e-payments, elearning and doubtless more shows how wideranging China’s contributions and links to the region are. In many cases, it might be building on efforts that existed pre-virus, but COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to show how helpful these can also be to the region and increase their uptake. Of course, Russia is still a dominant player (for example agreements across the region through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and common Russian telcos bound by SORM legislation at home means Moscow has great access to Central Asian data61), but the foundations are being deepened into Chinese digital technologies in a wide-ranging manner across society.

Central Asians of course see this with some concern, and would clearly be interested in diversifying their options. But in the absence of serious commitments which cover the broad gamut of their interests, they will find China an irresistible force. While Secretary Pompeo’s visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in early February as the drawbridges were being pulled up with China was actually quite comprehensive in the range of issues that was covered,62 all of the media attention pushed by the State Department was about confronting China.63 This push to get the region to more actively fight back against China is a losing battle given physical proximity and economic realities on the ground. Something especially the case when US engagement is done in such a spasmodic and occasional manner. And it has to be said that to some degree there is nothing wrong with the region having a strong relationship with China. It would be strange for the Central Asian powers to not have a relationship with such a powerful and rich neighbour. But the perennial problem is that the scales of control are not tipped in the region’s favour, and judging by how the COVID-19 crisis has played out so far, this is unlikely to change going forwards. Beijing will doubtless emerge from the current disaster with stronger links to the region as the Central Asians get sucked inexorably deeper into China’s orbit.

1“Passazhirku reĭsa, sledovavshego iz Pekina, pomestili v karantin v Turkmenabate,” hronikaturkmenistana.com, February 2, 2020.
2 “Dva sluchaia zarazheniia koronavirusom podtverzhdeny v Kazakhstane” Fergana.news, March 13, 2020.
3“V Kyrgyzstane zaregistrirovan pervyĭ sluchaĭ koronavirusa,” kabar.kg, March 18, 2020. 4“U grazhdanina Uzbekistana, vernuvshegosia iz Frantsii, vyiavlen koronavirus” kun.uz, March 15, 2020.
5“Tadzhikistan ofitsialno priznal nalichie koronavirusa covid-19 v strane” avesta.tj, April 30, 2020. 6“Death Toll In Ethnic Clashes In Kazakhstan’s South Rises To 11,” rferl.org, February 13, 2020. 7 “Call Tsenter: Na rynke djynhay prodavcy vygnali kitaycev iz ih konteynerov,” kaktus.media, March 2, 2020.
8 “Chem Torguyut v Kitaiskih Produktovih Magazinah Dushanbe,” asiaplustj.info, March 2, 2020. 9 “Kamchybek joldoshbaev o koronaviryse: nyjno izbegat kontakta s grajdanami kitaia” kaktus.media, January 29, 2020.
10“Dvuh grajdan kitaya podozreniem koronavirus snyali poezda,” Tengrinews.kz, January 29, 2020.
11 “China-led $280 Million Kyrgyzstan Project Abandoned After Protests,” Reuters.com, February 18, 2020.
12 “Uzbekistan Sending Medical Supplies to Virus-hit China,” rferl.org, February 12, 2020.
13 “Mid knr poblagodaril kazahstan za gumanitarnuyu pomosch v bor be s koronavirusom,” lenta.inform.kz, February 3, 2020.
14 “MCHS Kyrgyzstana peredalo 7 tonn gympomoshi Kitau,” kaktus.media, February 19, 2020.
15 “Kitaĭ zakupil v Turkmenistane 1 million zashchitnykh meditsinskikh masok”, turkmenistan.ru, February 16, 2020.
16 “Sovbez rekomendoval provesti peregovory y Kitaia poprosiat pomosh dlia Kyrgyzstana,” kaktus.media, March 16, 2020.
17 “Pervyy gumanitarnyy grus iz Kitaya pribyl v Almaty,” inform.kz, April 2, 2020.
18 “Dostavlena gympomosh ot Kitaia dlia medrabotnikov,” kaktus.media, March 26, 2020.
19 “Istinnoĭ druzhbe rasstoianie ne pomekha,” Uzdaily.uz, March 30, 2020.
20“Kitaj predostavil tadzhikistanu sredstva profilaktiki koronavirusa” avesta.tj, March 30, 2020.
21 Uzbekistan: “V Tashkent pribyl ocherednoĭ gumanitarnyĭ gruz, predostavlennyĭ kitaĭskimi partnerami,” uzdaily.uz, April 10, 2020;Kazakhstan: “Dzhek ma napravil v Kazakstan medicinskie sredstva zaschity,” lenta.inform.kz, April 11, 2020.; Kyrgyzstan: “V Kyrygyzstan pri byla pervaia partiia gryza predostavlennogo osno vatelem alibaba djekom ma,” kaktus.media, April 10, 2020.; Tajikistan– it is not clear from public reporting that any has been sent to Tajikistan, but it seems likely that some will have been sent.
22 “V Uzbekistan pribyl gumanitarnyĭ gruz iz Kitaia,” uzdaily.uz, March 30, 2020.
23 “Chinese Embassy hands over PPE to Kyrgyz Border Gaurds,” en.kabar.kg, April 24, 2020.
24 “Chinese PLA sends epidemic prevention supplies to militaries of 12 countries,” english.chinamil.com, May 17, 2020.
25 “Uzbekistan I kitay klyuchi ot budushchego/narodno osvoboditelnaya armiya kitaya peredala gumanitarnyy gruz dlya borby s koronavirusom vooruzhe”, podrobno.uz, May 13, 2020.
26“Pribyvshie v stolicu kitayskie vrachi posetili nacional nyy nauchnyy kardiohirurgicheskiy centr,” lenta.inform.kz, April 11, 2020.
27 “V GUVD g. Tashkenta obsudili opyt politsii Kitaia v period borʹby s pandemieĭ koronavirusa,” uzdaily.uz, April 6, 2020. 28 “Chinese universities compile the first new crown prevention manual for Tajikistan,” news.sciencenet.cn, April 15, 2020.
29 “China-Uzbekistan telemedicine system put into operation,” xinhuanet.com, April 25, 2020.
30 “Weidong Cloud Education together with SCO to fight COVID-19”,” wdecloud.com, March 27, 2020.
31 “With SCO support, the Alibaba Group hosted a workshop on countering the spread of the novel coronavirus infection,” eng.sectsco.org, May 14, 2020.
32 “Mocharoi Diplomati bo Diplomatchoi Chin Furudgochi Dushanbe,” akhbor.com, February 9, 2020.
33 “Kazakhstan summons Chinese ambassador in protest over article ,” reuters.com, April 14, 2020.
34 “Rising Nationalism Tests China’s uneasy partnerships in Central Asia,” eastasiaforum.org, May 29, 2020.
35 “WeChat responds to the article “Multi-country eager to return to China”: delete 227 articles, 153 titles,” thepaper.cn, April 16, 2020.
36 “Kazakhstan summons Chinese ambassador in protest over article ,” reuters.com, April 14, 2020.
37 “ChinaAmbassadorKazakhstan – Post April 17” Facebook.com, April 17, 2020.
38 “China, Russia can initiate probe of US bio-labs,” globaltimes.cn, May 14, 2020.
39 “Pentagon okruzhil rossiyu poyasom sekretnykh biolaboratoriy,” mk.ru, May 5, 2020.
40 “Kazakhstan okazalsya mezhdu molotom I nakovalnej v konflikte SSHA I Kitaya o voenno biologicheskih laboratoriyah,” ehonews.kz, May 12, 2020.
41“Kazakhs are wary neighbours bearing gifts,” opendemocracy.net, April 30, 2020.
42 “Almatinskie vrachi otvetili na kritiku kolleg iz Kitaya,” ehonews.kz, April 17, 2020.
43 “Kyrgyz, Chinese FMs discuss opening of border checkpoints,” akipress.com, May 27, 2020.
44 “Uzbekistan I Kitay klyuchi ot budushchego Kitay otkryl novyy transportnyy koridor v Uzbekistan v obkhod Kazakhstana,” podrobno.uz, June 6, 2020.
45 “Chinese business briefing working overtime,” Eurasianet.org, June 4, 2020. 46“Jeenbekov predlojil predsedatelu knr oblegchit ysloviia po vneshnemy dolgy,” kaktus.media, April 14, 2020.
47“China suspends debt repayment for 77 developing nations, regions,” globaltimes.cn, June 7, 2020.
48 “Uzbekistan I Kitay klyuchi ot budushchego, Uzbekistan predlozhil uskorit stroitelstvo zh d Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan I Kitay eto samyy bezopasnyy put’ v uslovnikh pandemii,” akipress.com, May 20, 2020.
49 “Coronavirus has become a big obstacle for China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railroad project: PM,” akipress.com, May 12, 2020. 50 “Premer:grajdane Kitaia pokidaut Kyrgyzstan. Kto teper bidet stroit dorogi,” kaktus.media, March 4, 2020.
51 “Kitaj Pobezhdaet koronavirus I gotov okazat pomoshh mirovomu soobshhestvu,” avesta.tj, March 20, 2020. 52 “Strel’ba v Zarnisore: Pochemu omon podavil protest Kitaiskiv rabochix?” akhbor.rus.com, May 21, 2020.
53 “Chinese business briefing working overtime,” Eurasianet.org, June 4, 2020. 54 “Notify the first case of new coronary pneumonia among Chinese citizens in Tajikistan,” Chineseembassy.org, May 10, 2020.
55 “Central Asian countries discussing shared cut in gas supplies to China Uzbekneftgaz,” spglobal.com, May 5, 2020.
56 “China buys record volume of Russian oil as European demand dives traders,” reuters.com, March 25, 2020.
57 “Kazakhstan to resume exports of its oil to China in March,” reuters.com, February 26, 2020.
58 “SCO Secretary-General Vladimir Norov, Alibaba Group CEO Jack Ma discuss intra-SCO IT cooperation,” eng.sectsco.org, August 29, 2019.
59 “Alibaba to create 100 million jobs, most of which in SCO countries,” marketscreener.com, August 30, 2020.
60 “China-Russia bilateral trade expand. Alibaba Russia e-commerce,” silkroadbriefing.com, October 9, 2019.
61 “Private Interests: Monitoring Central Asia,” privacyinternational.org, November 12, 2020.
62 “Secretary Pompeo’s Visit to Kazakhstan,” state.gov, February 1, 2020.; “Secretary Pompeo’s Visit to Uzbekistan,” state.gov, February 2, 2020.
63 “Pompeo, in Central Asia, Seeks to Counter China,” voanews.com, February 3, 2020.

A short op-ed for the Financial Times in response to President Trump’s ill-advised Tweet threat to proscribe the anti-facist grouping antifa. Have a few bigger projects on terrorism in the pipeline, including a bigger existential one in the longer-term future. The big question am keen to try to understand is how terrorism ideologies and current technology will intersect going forwards.

Drifting definitions of terrorism endanger us all

Donald Trump’s threat to outlaw antifa could lead to the criminalising of dissent

There is a distinction to be drawn between protests and terrorism

There is a distinction to be drawn between protests and terrorism © AFP via Getty Images

The writer is a visiting senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies

It is tempting to ignore US president Donald Trump’s tweets. But his recent declaration that he intends to proscribe antifa as a terrorist organisation will empower those around the world inclined to see any threat to their power as terrorist.

The US previously designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp as terrorists leading to the assassination of a top Iranian general. If America starts considering an anti-fascist idea to be a terrorist group, it would be leaning in a direction that can be interpreted as criminalising dissent. When America leads, others will follow.

There is a distinction to be drawn between protests and terrorism. The sometimes violent American demonstrations after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd are not terrorism. Nor are the violent acts that have been troubling Hong Kong. This does not mean that some individuals are not using the protests as a cover to try to commit terrorist acts. But the overall movements are not terrorists in the same way that al-Qaeda is. Terrorists use violence, but not all public violence is terrorism.

The distinction is confusing when we look beyond rioting. Like his predecessors, Mr Trump has explored proscribing Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organisations. Yet, they are motivated by money not ideology, and theoretically their supporters include millions of US narcotics consumers.

There is also a growing enthusiasm for proscribing online subcultures as terrorist organisations because of the ideological motivation that the individuals draw from being part of an online chatroom. Yet, there is little evidence of coherent structures, rather these are violent online subcultures that reflect the times in which we live.

The danger in the US letting definitions drift is that others push the boundaries in their own anti-terrorist legislation. The Philippines’ new law expands police power to detain and conduct investigations and demand data from telecoms companies, while removing punishment for wrongful investigation. Activists and the opposition worry that the legislation will be used against them.

Europe is struggling with a definitional problem around the extreme right. How you define far-right political versus extreme right terrorist varies by country. Some states have parties in or near power whose ideological pronouncements are close to those considered terrorist groups in others. This causes practical problems and also raises issues about the way different security forces categorise and respond to extreme rightwing groups.

It is difficult to define a terrorist. The old cliché that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter is not useful. Some of the ideologies or individuals who emerge in terrorist garb move into the mainstream and our own definitions shift over time. The now-ruling African National Congress in South Africa is an example of the former. Afghanistan’s Taliban remains a proscribed organisation committing atrocious acts of violence even though a number of states are negotiating with them to find a way to take some political power in Kabul.

Adding an inchoate idea like antifa — a loose constellation of anarchists whose only clear connecting ideology is a revulsion towards fascists — to the roster of terrorist groups whilst ignoring some of the extreme right groups active in the US further clouds this picture. But Mr Trump’s threats are giving global authoritarians carte blanche to go after groups they consider dangerous.

Terrorism is useful as a legal term that describes non-state actors using violence against civilians to a coherent political goal. Using it too liberally allows it to be exploited to the detriment of not only free speech and open societies, but also those who are seeking to right genuine wrongs in the world. Violence must be prosecuted but separated from angry dissent.

A new article for Prospect magazine in the UK which ran in the magazine with the slightly more apt title ‘Great Power Play at Himalayan Heights’. Continuing the spate of China related pieces have been working on, this looks at the current dust-up between China and India in Doklam. Have a few longer Central Asia pieces in the pipeline (as well as a Webinar or so which are being planned as I type), as well as some bigger terrorism pieces coming soon. As ever, welcome any feedback!

Could China and India be heading for war?

Flare ups at the border need to be handled with caution
by Raffaello Pantucci / June 11, 2020 / Leave a comment

Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, right, talks with Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi before their delegation-level meeting in New Delhi, India. Photo by Manish Swarup/AP/Shutterstock

In the late summer of 2017, I was sat in the sumptuous lobby of one of Beijing’s luxury hotels with a Chinese military contact, catching up about current events over tea and cakes. A dust-up between China and India over Doklam, a plateau high in the disputed mountain ranges that China shares with India and Bhutan, was winding down, with both Beijing and New Delhi eager to calm tensions. With a dismissive wave my Chinese colleague said it did not really matter anyway as “winter is coming and it will resolve the situation. The Indian soldiers are old, while our PLA [People’s Liberation Army] boys are young and fit.”

This image of a vigorous China and creaky India is one that Beijing loves. Both may be rising Asian powers, but China is leaps and bounds ahead of India economically. And it is hard not to form such an impression from a visit to the respective capital cities. Beijing is a booming metropolis where the old has been swept away for the new. Giant glass skyscrapers loom over a crowded web of concrete. In contrast, New Delhi is green and dusty, with unfinished or ageing construction linked by bumpy and poorly marked roads.

But it was India’s desire to improve its infrastructure that set off the latest flare up between the two nations in May. The construction of a road on the Indian side of the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) led to a Chinese reaction, with Chinese soldiers suddenly appearing to pick fights with their Indian counterparts at various points on the disputed border. Stones, sticks and punches were thrown with some reports suggesting that soldiers on both sides had to be evacuated due to their injuries.

The state-controlled Chinese press downplayed the incident, blaming the Indians for trying to change the situation on the ground. The more vibrant Indian media was full of chatter, with retired Indian officials competing with guesstimates as to how many Chinese soldiers had invaded Indian territory. A row over a road has now turned into the most serious flare-up between the two powers in years.

The question is, why? India and China are not natural allies, but both realise there are economic benefits to be had by working together. As Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi put it, “the Chinese ‘dragon’ and the Indian ‘elephant’ must not fight each other, but dance with each other. In that case, one plus one will equal not only two, but also eleven.”

The answer is likely to be found in the China that Xi Jinping has been building—a country that sees itself as a strong and leading power on the world stage; that no longer feels it needs to bow down to others and is able to stand up to the omnipotent United States. This helps explain China’s aggressive push out in every direction—menacing Taiwan, asserting itself over Hong Kong, strengthening maritime claims in the South China Sea—and the combative “wolf warrior” diplomacy that has captured international imagination.

Xi has telegraphed his intent a number of times. At an Army Day celebration in 2017, he told gathered military leaders: “Today, we are closer to the goal of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation than any other time in history, and we need to build a strong people’s military now more than any other time in history.”

The current standoff is the end product of this aggressive mood and a desire to lash out in the wake of Covid-19. What is perhaps most worrying is that it is not certain whether Beijing was aware of the details of the attack until it had happened. While it is unlikely that PLA commanders in China’s south would have the temerity to launch an attack against their neighbour without orders, it is possible they pushed further than their bosses may have initially intended. Given the low regard they have for Indian forces, a quick prod across a disputed border would both show Beijing they were doing their bit while also reminding the Indians of their dominance in the region.

The problem is the ill will that is generated. As Tanvi Madan, an expert at the Brookings Institution, put it, even before the current clash “anti-China sentiment has gone mainstream” in India. An app that promised to remove all Chinese apps from a smartphone was downloaded 4.7m times in just five days in India before it was banned by Google.

China has likely strengthened the hands of its enemies over its southwestern border. This is an entirely unnecessary outcome that is mostly the product of Beijing’s arrogance towards Delhi and the hubristic mood that President Xi has been fostering.

More on China in Central Asia, this time looking for the Lowy’s Interpreter, a site I have not contributed to for some time, looking at how the region is quite excited about trying to get the Belt and Road Initiative going once again to help save their economies. Been working on a few much bigger projects on the topic of China’s relations with Central Asia which will be landing over the next year or so, and need to revive the China in Central Asia site which has unfortunately been hijacked. If anybody knows how to help me get it back, please get in touch! Otherwise, will have to recreate it somewhere else.

This aside, been speaking to media about China, including to the National Public Radio and Nikkei Asian Review about the UK-China relationship, while excellent RSIS colleague James Dorsey was kind enough to mention my recent NBR paper in his regular column.

Central Asian nations want to kick-start the BRI – and China is happy

Raffaello Pantucci

Covid-19 has spurred rumours and local tensions, but economic fortunes of the region are increasingly bound to Beijing.

The fire service sprays disinfectant in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan last month during the Covid-19 lockdown (Turar Kazangapov/Asian Development Bank/Flickr)

The fire service sprays disinfectant in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan last month during the Covid-19 lockdown (Turar Kazangapov/Asian Development Bank/Flickr)

For China, the Covid-19 question is answered by more Belt and Road. As Foreign Minister Wang Yi put it at a press conference during the 13th National People’s Congress in Beijing last weekend:

The impact of Covid-19 on the Belt and Road cooperation is temporary and limited. The Covid-19 will only strengthen and re-energize Belt and Road cooperation and open up new possibilities.

Given the bad press China has been generating, it might be hard to see how Beijing can pull this off. But in places such as Central Asia, such promises resonate.

Central Asian countries have been making all the right noises about wanting to get Belt and Road Initiative–type projects and ideas moving once again. In some ways, they are already proving to be one of the first stepping stones of the Health Silk Road – the articulation of Covid-19 response under the BRI’s expansive umbrella. Having sent aid to China as the virus first emerged in Wuhan, the Central Asians are all now beneficiaries of Chinese aid, which has come in the form of repeated shipments of PPE, doctors, video conferences, aid to military and more. Conveniently, the Health Silk Road was first publicly mentioned by Xi Jinping during a 2016 speech in Uzbekistan.

Of course, China is not universally popular. While medical diplomacy has dominated, there have been considerable tensions, too. Ethnically Chinese people have been harassed in markets in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, with a Kyrgyz MP making a call in parliament for their isolation and for them to wear masks in public. In mid-February, relations in Kyrgyzstan boiled over to the point that a planned $280 million Chinese-built logistics centre project had to be suspended. In Kazakhstan, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs hauled in the local ambassador after an article appeared in the Chinese media saying that Kazakhstan wanted to return to China.

And last month, Chinese MFA spokesman Hua Chunying piled into a Russian-initiated conspiracy theory about how American funded bio-labs built to help former Soviet states manage their dangerous weapons after the collapse of the USSR were in fact the potential source of Covid-19. Kazakhstan hosts a number that were specifically name-checked in both Moscow and Beijing. The net result was articles in the Kazakh press saying that as far they were concerned, both the US and China should leave their country. Independent polling appeared to support this.

An art installation in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan during the Covid-19 lockdown (Turar Kazangapov/ Asian Development Bank/Flickr)

But what the Central Asians really want is for the Chinese economic monster to get moving once again. Wedged between China and Russia, the Central Asians have suffered the triple whack of a slump in commodities prices, a drop in remittances from migrant labourers usually in Russia (which is also suffering a major Covid-19 outbreak as well as slump in oil prices) and the economic slowdown in China. These are countries whose economic future is inevitably tied to China in some way. The tyranny of geography guarantees this no matter how hesitant they might sometimes feel.

The result has been a fertile terrain for seeking more BRI. At the front of the queue are the Kyrgyz whose leader President Jeenbekov has already reached out to Xi Jinping to seek to renegotiate their debt burden with China (amongst other international debtors) – debts that have been accumulated under the rubric of the BRI. He also sought to reopen Kyrgyzstan’s land borders with China as soon as possible to get trade moving once again. Irkeshtam and Torugart were closed in late January, and it is not yet clear they have been reopened.

Uzbekistan has also been eager to make things happen. During a conference call meeting on 19 May that the Uzbeks convened with Kyrgyz and Chinese counterparts, they sought to hurry the construction of a rail link connecting them all. From the Uzbek perspective, while understandable restrictions were placed on road transport during the Covid-19 crisis, this meant that “railway remains the safest and most reliable mode of transport.” It was also announced in May that China Development Bank was approving a loan of $309 million to allow Uzbekistan Airlines to purchase three Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners.

But the Central Asians are most keen on getting more income now. And while commodities prices may have slumped alongside demand, China has continued to increase its purchases of oil from Kazakhstan. Chinese purchasers also made a collective request to the Uzbek, Kazakh and Turkmen energy companies to collectively reduce their gas sales to China. While such a joint request is necessary to reflect the nature of regional infrastructure, it also highlighted how China’s infrastructure projects have bound the region together both in Beijing’s considerations and local economic fortunes.

This means more BRI is the answer to the downturn. An echo which resonates through the halls of the National People’s Congress in Beijing.

A new post in a mini-series of sorts have been doing across platforms on China-Central Asia during COVID-19. This time for the East Asia Forum, exploring the particular problem of nationalism across China’s borders into Central Asia at this fragile time.

Rising nationalism tests China’s uneasy partnerships in Central Asia
29 May 2020
Author: Raffaello Pantucci, RUSI

Relations between Central Asian powers and China are brittle at the best of times. While at an official level both sides are eager to highlight their closeness, among the public it does not take long to find friction.

China’s President Xi Jinping and Kyrgyzstan’s President Sooronbay Jeenbekov attend a welcoming ceremony ahead of their talks in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan 13 June 2019 (Reuters/Vladimir Pirogov).

This boils over into problems between states. The most recent manifestation of this has come via public comments by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying about a US-supported laboratory in Kazakhstan that was darkly alluded to within the context of the global health crisis, hinting it might have been part of the problem. This comes after earlier spats over nationalist online content from China and disagreements between Chinese and Kazakh doctors about how they were handling the crisis. As with many things around the world, COVID-19 has exacerbated existing issues, highlighting the tensions that bubble beneath the surface in Central Asia.

These disagreements in Kazakhstan come among other problems between the two in the region. In mid-February this year, protests against the construction of a free trade zone in At-Bashi, Kyrgyzstan led to the cancellation of the US$280 million project which was initially signed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit last year. It is not clear whether the Chinese firm withdrew or the Kyrgyz government annulled the contract, but the protests crystallised the decision to stop the project.

These public protests are driven by a long-standing fear that China will overwhelm the region. In this particular case, this fear might also be undermining Kyrgyzstan’s own interests, as the At-Bashi project would have been beneficial for Kyrgyzstan’s regional trade ambitions. But, the fear is in part built off the back of a series of bad experiences with individual projects or deals which have polluted or caused other problems, failed to employ people as the public expected or were largely subsumed by corrupt local figures. There is also an undercurrent of racism and Sinophobia to this anger, which has grown among some as people learn of the mistreatment of minorities in Xinjiang and more recently around the spread of COVID-19.

But the other unspoken element is a sense of humiliation that many in the region feel, a fear that they may lose their sense of national identity to China. Central Asia is made up of five young countries that only recently started to develop the identity of a nation-state. This desire to create a national identity encompasses a perceived need for one’s own language, airline, currency, national food and history.

From this perspective, giant China is a huge concern. Already still closely linked to Russia, Central Asians have little desire to let their national identity be subsumed by China. They did not leave the Soviet Union to simply fall into the thrall of another Communist power.

All of this helps explain a recent diplomatic clash between Kazakhstan and China. An article published by a private Chinese online media company recently seemed to suggest that Kazakhs were keen to be reabsorbed into China. The result in Kazakhstan was swift and negative — the Chinese Embassy received a call from the Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanding an explanation and the removal of the article.

The Kazakh reaction is in some ways excessive. While it is true that all media in China is to some degree state vetted, this does not necessarily mean that it is all created by the state. The article appears to be part of a series that emanated from a clickbait farm in Xi’an. It claimed that a number of countries wanted to ‘return to China’ including not only Kazakhstan, but also neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, among others. The Chinese media has claimed the article is ‘fake news’ generated by profit-seeking content providers.

It is hard to imagine that Beijing has much interest in stoking anger among the neighbours with whom it has a largely stable relationship. Certainly the Chinese Ambassador’s attempts to place the blame on Western media suggests the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not think the piece was a good idea. But the fact that content providers thought the article would generate positive interest within China suggests that there is a strongly nationalist domestic constituency that view China’s neighbours as lost provinces of their great country.

This sentiment arouses great concern in Central Asia, where there is palpable (if conspiratorial) fear that China’s infrastructure push is the first step towards some sort of an invasion.

But this does highlight a problem for Beijing: an elevated nationalism at home leads to problems abroad. This problem is exacerbated by the narratives that Beijing is advancing at home in response to COVID-19 — that China was not the source of the virus (and that it might be US-built laboratories in former Soviet countries like Kazakhstan), that China has defeated the virus, that China is giving medical equipment to the world, that China is only now suffering because of people from foreign countries. Given that in contrast the international media is full of accusations that Chinese labs leaked the virus, stories of faulty Chinese medical equipment and general anger at China’s handling of the virus, the clash between the two is clear. The result of this divergence for a domestic Chinese audience is angry nationalism.

This builds on nationalist sentiment that President Xi has been stoking since he came to power. For a Chinese audience that only hears domestic narratives, it has been a story of growth and prosperity — a China dream — that is now being stymied and attacked by outsiders. When nationalists talk of China’s neighbours wanting to be part of China, they are articulating the natural extension of this sentiment.

The Chinese government is ultimately most interested in what the Chinese people think. Stoking the fires of nationalism is an easy way to win them over — especially when painted against a historical narrative of overcoming a century of humiliation at the hands of foreigners.

Yet this nationalism will not always be directed in ways that Xi wants, particularly if it causes frictions with neighbours who are nominally friendly with China. Chinese nationalism may be a problem for the world, but if it goes too far it becomes a problem for Beijing too.

Raffaello Pantucci is Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), London.