Posts Tagged ‘China’

An interview rather than article, with the excellent Central Asia Analysis Network (CAAN) or Voices on Central Asia. This looks at the repercussions of the US-China clash in Central Asia – had I done it later, I would have also included this crazy story from Kazakhstan about China pointing fingers at biolabs that the US had sponsored in Kazakhstan. Led to a wonderful comment from the Echo Kazakhstan that the government should listen to the people and reject both the US and China.

This aside, a Webinar with some RSIS colleagues here in Singapore looking at COVID-19 and the terrorist threat picture in now up on YouTube. My comments focused a bit on how it was impacting counter-terrorism response drawing on my earlier RSIS CTTA article.

The Worsening of US-Chinese Relations and the Echo in Central Asia

May 18, 2020

What has led to the worsening of the US-Chinese relations today? Is this a legacy of unresolved trade issues, the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, or is it primarily connected to the current US administration?

The almost complete collapse in US-China relations at the moment is a product of a number of trends on both sides. First, in Beijing you have seen rise a government under Xi Jinping that feels far more entitled and firm about its position on the world stage. Shedding the old maxims of ‘hiding and biding time’, Xi Jinping’s China is the end product of decades of economic growth and prosperity that have shot China up from being a developing world country into a global power in two short decades. This has naturally engendered confidence and to some degree arrogance on the world stage and a desire to shape the world order rather than just be dictated by it.

At the same time, this shift in Beijing has followed a growing despondency in Washington regarding China. This stems from a number of different places. There are those who fear the waning of Pax Americana, following persistent inconclusive wars in the Middle East and a reduced ability to dominate international affairs. From their perspective, a rising China is a clear challenger to the throne who must be aggressively countered.

And then within the China watching community, there are those more inclined to be dovish towards China from years of sinology and close friends in China. They have watched as the country has gradually increased its political repression under Xi Jinping, crushing hopes that had been raised during the Hu Jintao era of explosive economic growth that prosperity was going to herald a more open and liberal China. The business community has grown increasingly frustrated at the deal they had to strike to make money in China, which was to sacrifice intellectual property for market access. Additionally, they have found over time that they are still not being let into some sectors, and they now have the problem of not only facing Chinese firms that are just as strong, but also state supported challengers around the world. And finally, the China hawks who have long wanted confrontation with Beijing now see an opportunity to lead the debate and push forward their narratives of destroying the CCP.

The narrative of democracy versus authoritarianism is a useful lens for people to try to explain this simply, but it does not accurately capture the discourse, as this really is a conflict about power and norms. Within this, President Trump is a complicating factor, mostly because he has greatly reduced America’s standard (and therefore the democratic ideal) in the world while at the same time shown himself to be quite erratic on China. On the one hand, he is presiding over an administration that is pushing back on China more aggressively than any power before, but at the same time, he is personally praising Xi Jinping. This oscillation causes all sorts of problems. But a key element that American analysts tend to miss is that from Beijing’s perspective, there is a clear continuum between Obama and Trump – they are all articulations of America as an adversary. The fact that in the west we see them as so different is not how they are perceived on the ground. This is important as it further clouds our ability to effectively and realistically frame things as a debate between authoritarians and democrats given the differences we see between Trump and Obama.

What consequences do these US-Chinese contradictions have for the countries of Central Asia?

The clash’s impact on Central Asia is largely one of further marginalizing the United States in the region. Geography means Central Asia will always prioritize its relations with China and Russia, but as the relationship between the US and China sharpens, the challenge for Central Asia will be to continue to find a way of striking a path through the middle (if it wants to). If the US continues down a path of confrontation with China, both sides will start to apply more pressure in an effort to get those in the middle to make a choice between them—something no one really wants to do. This will be a problem for regions like Central Asia, which find themselves with important relationships with neighbouring China.

At the same time, the situation is made even more complicated by the fact that two other countries that Central Asia finds itself next to, Russia and Iran, also find themselves in conflict with the United States. These complications are likely to sharpen as the clash between China and the US gets worse, leaving Central Asia with even fewer options and surrounded by American adversaries.

Can COVID-19 change the role of the USA, Russia, and China in the Eurasian space? Can it, for example, slow down the dynamics of BRI and the EAEU? If Russia faces an economic slowdown and political problems, does this influence its political image and power limits in Eurasia?

The EAEU is likely to continue to face problems as its economic heart, Russia, finds its economy under ever greater pressure. It is hard to see, however, this reducing Moscow’s influence over the former Soviet heartland, given most of these economies’ continued dependency on Russia and their strong links to Moscow. The EAEU’s dynamic was always too ambitious for many of those outside Russia, and the pressure against it was always going to limit how far it could go. The question now, however, is whether it can provide backup or support for economies suffering as a result of COVID-19. The fact that this is unlikely to be possible—thanks to shrunken coffers in Moscow—will only further highlight the institution’s limitations.

BRI was already slowing down before COVID-19. The narrative was one of countries taking on more than they could handle and China increasingly finding itself carrying a lot of bad debt. Kyrgyzstan has already sought some renegotiation of its debt burden with China (amongst others), while China has asked for a slowdown in gas supplies from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. This is the literal articulation of what a BRI slowdown looks like. It does not mean it is going to stop, but you will see a greater focus on projects that are viable and able to deliver results, with an effort to stop waste—something that will be driven in no small part by growing pressure at home for Beijing to spend its money on China, not on foreign projects of questionable value.

Is the American establishment worrying about China’s growing influence in Central Asia’s security?

I recall having a meeting in Washington about a year ago in which the topic of Chinese security influence in Central Asia came up. I do not recall anyone being particularly interested or concerned about the topic. They see the SCO as one of the main points of security engagement and see it as a fairly impractical and ineffective organization. At the same time, they see Chinese security and bases going up in the region to support countries in counter-terrorism efforts and border protection as a process, which they can just ignore given its marginal impact on their interests. At worst, they imagine that it might lead to China getting dragged into military confrontations in Afghanistan and therefore be a net advantage for the United States. Overall, they see Chinese security encroachment into Central Asia as something which is a problem for Russia and likely to cause tensions between China and Russia—something which, again, is a positive for Washington.

Coronavirus can enhance regionalization processes, since countries may want to protect themselves and create closer production chains. What stakeholders can benefit from this—the five Central Asian countries, or Russia and China? Someone who has clearer goals?

China is most likely to come out of this with the most benefits in the Russia/Central Asia space. Its considerable domestic market size means it will be able to replace regional supply chains domestically and will have the companies that can start to dictate within their regions. Having said that, if Central Asia is dynamic enough, it might be able to take advantage of the fact that there are some things which just do not make economic sense to be done in China anymore. Historically, these have relocated to Southeast Asia, but given that the region is going to find itself even more torn in the US-China clash, if Central Asia could offer itself as a new place to relocate, it might be able to take advantage of the relative stability it could offer Chinese manufacturers.

The United States, Russia, and China want to promote a peaceful and prosperous Eurasia. However, can economic difficulties (including problems faced by migrants) increase instability in the region?

The drop in remittances and employment opportunities that will take place from the slowdown in migrant labour is going to create a real problem in Central Asia. With few immediate prospects at home, it is likely that we are going to see a rise in an idle male workforce, which is a recipe for problems.

Frankly, it is up to Central Asian governments to focus their efforts and take advantage of this situation to offer themselves as places that can offer manufacturing capabilities aligned with the new supply chains that are likely to develop around China as decoupling between the US and China takes greater hold. If they are able to develop this capacity at home, they will be able to create gainful employment for the now idle migrant labor workforce. Otherwise, they will find themselves hit by the triple-whammy of growing numbers of idle men alongside the slump in remittances income and reduced income from rock bottom commodities prices which will resonate across the Eurasian space.

A new piece in the South China Morning Post which seems to have elicited anger and positivity from both sides in equal measure. Part of a broader theme around some of my writing of late which is taking quite a negative turn. Hard to be hugely positive given the current state of the world.

Beyond this, media appearances have been more limited, but did feature in BBC Radio 4’s Briefing Room series about China’s relations with the world. And two of the recent Webinars that I did are now available on YouTube. Watch here to see me talking about Mapping the Pandemic and the implications to UK-China relations courtesy of RUSI with Veerle, Steve and Jonathan moderating, and here talking about Kabir’s excellently readable book on ISIS in South Asia hosted by Maya and ORF with Indrani Bagchi as a fellow discussant.

Beijing faces a perfect storm as the world turns against its narrative amid rising nationalism, leaving it no room for compromise

In the face of growing global criticism, Beijing may be painting itself into a corner with its narratives, which are fuelling an increasingly angry nativism in China, forcing it to take the dangerous path of doubling down on confrontations

Raffaello Pantucci
Published: 10:45am, 16 May, 2020

People wave Chinese flags as they gather for a flag-raising ceremony to mark the New Year in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Photo: Reuters

People wave Chinese flags as they gather for a flag-raising ceremony to mark the New Year in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Photo: Reuters

China is heading into a perfect storm on the world stage. While the Communist Party habit is to double down when confronted, others are showing a willingness to match, and top, anything China does. The Covid-19 crisis has provided the perfect cover with China already painted by some as the instigator, something its conspiratorial rhetoric has only exacerbated.

The most obvious problem China faces is its confrontation with the US. Already bad before this crisis, relations have only worsened. But President Donald Trump is not the problem; without him at the helm, the situation might be even worse for China. Without his confusing and contradictory noise, the US might be able to mount a coherent and consistent strategy with allies against China.

Beijing is out of supporters in Washington. Sinophiles are appalled at the negative human rights news. The harassment of journalists based in Beijing has hardened the foreign press corps against the party. The think tank community is concerned about the continued detention of the two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

And the business community has realised the limits of the economic opportunities in China. Even fewer will want to champion Beijing, as the narrative of China as an adversary takes off in the public imagination.

Beyond Washington, the grand Western alliance is turning against China. Beijing may be able to persuade some European powers to side with it, but the underlying orientation within Europe will still be towards a transatlantic partnership.

Serbia, for example, is not going to turn its back on Europe or European Union membership in favour of Beijing. Nor are Hungary, Italy
or any other powers where senior political figures say positive things about China.

These are internal dynamics at play. Serbia has long had a resentful relationship with Brussels – China offers an opportunity to poke it in the eye. But should Brussels suddenly change its passive approach and start imposing a cost on Serbia, the country’s Sinophilia would quickly melt away.

European powers will not reject the US at a strategic level in favour of China. There are issues where the US and Europe diverge but, at a fundamental strategic level, European powers still operate under an American security umbrella

There are frictions and resentments, but these are disputes within a long-standing marriage, rather than early signals of a divorce. The transatlantic alliance is a fundamental part of European strategic thinking and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Tensions also extend to Beijing’s supposed allies. Russia and Iran may see themselves as close to China at a strategic level, but it takes very little to get beneath the surface to find unhappiness towards Beijing.

Very public spats over Covid-19 between senior officials in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran are just one articulation of this. While at the official level, they continue to hold together against the common enemy of an American-led democratising West, this is a thin alliance.

There is also growing anger against China because of how high it has risen and how it acts in parts of the developing world. While China used to be able to hide behind the mask of being a developing country, this is no longer the case. China’s development may be uneven, but this is not what people see. China’s grandstanding on the world stage shows it to be a big power.

But once you ascend to this position, global expectations are raised. And when they are not met, people feel more able to say something and be angry. As a major power, you are supposed to be able to take such criticism. The global order is changing, but this comes with responsibilities and resentment.

And atop this, China’s domestic behaviour is viewed negatively elsewhere. Beijing may dismiss this as foreign interference, but it does not change perceptions about the treatment of Uygurs, Taiwan, Hong Kong
or growing encroachment in the South China Sea. Given such domestic circumstances, few believe Beijing will be more magnanimous internationally.

How China deals with these issues is the final problem for Beijing: that of angry nationalism at home. China’s nativists are increasingly emboldened. They see their country rising and confronting the world superpower, the US. And they see no reason to back down. They have been told they are living the Chinese dream, with everyone eager to connect through the belt and road and have access to their success and wealth.

From their perspective, these ungrateful countries want to rip China apart. Any ceding of China’s position on core issues would be an admission of defeat, and would raise questions about the legitimacy of the party’s rule.
This means Beijing cannot back down, and must weather the coming economic storm while doubling down on any confrontation.

This is the quandary Beijing has got itself into. It can rail against the US and complain about double standards, but its narrative is only hardening opposition.

The world is becoming more restive. Everyone needs to think about what the future could look like if we continue along this dangerous path.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

Not quite a new article, but a short letter in the Financial Times, restating a point I made in an earlier article for the Straits Times. Generally feeling quite pessimistic at the moment and suspect that it is coming through in my writing.

Lessons of Covid-19 for defence spending have still to be learnt

FT image

Helen Warrell’s point about the defence industry facing a shrunken environment in the wake of Covid-19 is unfortunately likely but reflects an over-optimistic assessment of the international security environment (Opinion, May 6). While government budgets will undoubtedly shrink in general, the threats that are faced have not gotten any smaller.

Arguably, they are getting worse. The US-China confrontation is taking an ever more bellicose tone, while the Iran-US showdown is escalating. Russia continues to be an armed irritant buzzing UK shores and neighbours’ armed forces, showing no interest in backing down from its persistent confrontation with the west. And the confusion around Kim Jong Un’s disappearance highlights a nuclear confrontation that has yet to be resolved. At the other end of the scale, militant groups are spotting an opportunity and pushing forwards as governments look elsewhere at home to manage their healthcare problems.

We are entering a world of ever more great power confrontation. The answer will unfortunately be to increase defence spending, as illogical as it might be in the face of a realisation that there are far more dangerous things to us than conflict between states. Assessments of risk before Covid-19 pointed to a pandemic virus being the most likely and most disruptive threat that we might face and we failed to prepare. There is little reason to think we have learnt that lesson yet.

Raffaello Pantucci
Senior Associate Fellow,
Royal United Services Institute,
London SW1, UK

Another piece looking at how COVID-19 is impacting international security questions, somewhat emphasizing a point made in an earlier RUSI piece focusing in on how existing terrorist threats were evolving while the world was not paying attention. This time it is for my new local paper the Straits Times and takes a wider lens to look at how adversaries are actively taking advantage of distraction to advance their own interests. Given the dominance of COVID-19 on international affairs writ large at the moment suspect there are a few more pieces in me on this topic in some shape or form. In other matters, while not doing much media, am doing various webinars including one later this week (April 29 at 6PM Indian Standard Time) with the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) about the excellent Kabir’s very readable recent book on ISIS in South Asia. Last week spoke with a panel at the Pakistani Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research (CSCR) on impact of COVID-19 on Belt and Road – the entire event was recorded and can be found on YouTube.

Covid-19 is fuel to the flames of security threats

Raffaello Pantucci For The Straits Times
PUBLISHED | APR 27, 2020, 5:00 AM SGT

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An Afghan security officer stopping motorists at a checkpoint in Kabul on April 8, during a government-imposed lockdown as a preventive measure against Covid-19. The virus may have brought much of the world to a standstill, but it has not ended conflict, says the writer. In Afghanistan, the peace process appears to be barely holding together amid continuing violence. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The Covid-19 virus may have brought much of the world to a standstill, but it has not ended conflict.

In fact, there is a growing danger that some are exploiting people’s distraction to advance their own interests. Coming at a time when there is not the capacity to either respond directly to the threats or marshal the diplomatic wherewithal to stop problems from escalating, there is a real danger that it is not just the world’s economies that will be irrevocably damaged in the post-Covid-19 world, but our national security environment as well.

The problem is articulating itself in different ways, among adversaries large and small.

In many cases, the activity is an extension of existing issues – part of the general feeling of acceleration that is being driven by the crisis. But coming when most governments are focused on disease relief at home, there is little surge capability available to respond adequately.

Those who can respond – for the most part, the United States – are moving quickly to escalation, with all the risks that come with it.

China’s recent activity in the South China Sea is a good example of this. Beijing’s behaviour is not in itself new. With its nine-dash map, China has long made claims to much of the waterway and the atolls, reefs and islands that some countries in South-east Asian consider theirs.

But the recent decision to push at them by renaming sea features and establishing districts over disputed areas suggests that China sees an opportunity in further changing the realities on the ground and creating a context that will be difficult for others to push back on without engaging in some form of conflict.

Beijing’s behaviour has not gone unnoticed, with the US dispatching vessels to support South-east Asian partners. But this comes at a difficult moment, when South-east Asian countries are seeking to work with China to help manage the pandemic they face, and also hopeful for the country to rapidly turn its economy back on to boost regional growth once again.

The danger of confrontation is high given that managing relations between the two big powers is not the easiest in the best of times, even more so now with the region in the grip of the pandemic.

Big power rivalry aside, the pandemic is undermining the fight against terrorism.

Terrorist-fuelled conflicts in Africa have seen a rise in violence as Western forces find themselves increasingly stretched by the Covid-19 crisis. In Mali, Spain drew down a substantial proportion of its forces there, while France has seen some of its forces in West Africa fall sick and suspended some maritime operations. Over in East Africa, Interpol was forced by Covid-19 to suspend its regional intelligence coordination mission.

Terrorist groups have been quick to take advantage.

In West Africa, Al-Qaeda’s local affiliate gleefully celebrated the foreigners’ difficulties as reports from Mali suggest that militants are getting within reach of the capital Bamako. In East Africa, an Islamist-fuelled insurgency in northern Mozambique continues to escalate and is taking a trajectory that increasingly resembles that of Boko Haram, the terrorist group that continues to ravage Nigeria’s north and neighbours. Groups across the Sahel are becoming more ambitious and aggressive, with soldiers, civilians and fighters killed in growing numbers.

This pattern is also visible in Asia. In the holiday spot of the Maldives, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has claimed responsibility for its first attack amid a growing number of violent incidents in the country, including attacks on foreign visitors. In Afghanistan, the peace process appears to be barely holding together amid continuing violence.

Both the Maldives and Afghanistan also face Covid-19 outbreaks of unknown magnitude and are likely going to struggle to manage both a pandemic and terrorist attacks at the same time.

Again, outsiders have tried to step in to help, but the assistance is sporadic and mostly focused on providing medical aid, without focusing on the escalating security problems. A brief visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo showed the US’ concern with the Afghan security situation, but was not enough. In fact, the rush to exit from Afghanistan by the US risks leaving chaos in its wake that will have wider repercussions across the region.

In the meantime, Western powers have to contend with sabre-rattling and other provocative actions from the likes of Russia, Iran or North Korea. In a time of great distraction elsewhere, there are few moderating influences available to try to de-escalate these situations.

What Covid-19 has done is to act as an accelerant to the fires already burning in various hot spots around the world. If not contained, the conflicts will be hard to unwind. With the US and China on a path towards collision, there is increasingly little space for diplomacy.

Material changes on the ground, like claimed territories or cities taken over by terrorists, will not be easily reversed without conflict.

It is understandably difficult to get governments to focus on much else at the moment. Controlling the virus, saving lives at home and finding ways of getting economies moving again are clearly the immediate priorities.

But we are in danger of missing shifts happening in our national security environment that could lead to conflict or escalation beyond the point of control.

Without more attention being paid to these other problems, when the world starts up again after the contagion is over, we may find the geopolitical environment strategically altered for the worse.

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

And now finally up to date with my latest piece for the South China Morning Post, this time looking at some of the geopolitical questions flowing around China, broader geopolitics and the COVID-19 mess. Covers ground not dissimilar to my earlier piece for the Telegraph though focused in a different direction. Has already received some anger online and was reproduced in a Singaporean local Today. In other media work, earlier piece for ORF on Kashmir and the UK and my last RSIS piece on the Maldives were both picked up and reproduced by Eurasia Review, while spoke to the Independent about recent UK terrorism numbers release and last interview in CTC Sentinel with Lord Evans was written up by the paper.

How China’s coronavirus medical diplomacy is failing to win over the world

Forget Pax Sinica, China’s medical outreach is struggling to attract new friends. And even though Russia and Iran, its closest allies, may be on the same page, underlying tensions remain. There is a global leadership gap but Beijing is not filling it

Raffaello Pantucci

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The world is grasping for an understanding of how the geopolitics of the coronavirus will play out. One dominant theme is that China is mendaciously riding the media waves to paint itself as a saviour dispensing medical equipment.

Yet, it is hard to see how Beijing is benefiting from its medical diplomacy, with opprobrium from every direction. Even given China’s close alliances with Iran and Russia, it is possible to see tensions emerging.

It is not at all clear that China will come out of the virus crisis as the rhetoric winner, notwithstanding the frantic narrative seeking to paint it that way.

Given the energy that China appears to be putting into promoting and pushing its medical diplomacy, it is surprisingly hard to uncover much evidence of a positive reception. While news stories speak of Chinese doctors and equipment arriving in stricken European states, it is difficult to find many news stories trumpeting China’s magnanimity.

Those who do speak of it positively tend to be the ones who already hold a positive view of China. The bigger narrative that seems to have caught on of late, however, is that much of the Chinese equipment appears to be faulty. It certainly does not seem that China is winning many new friends with its medical diplomacy.

Where China is finding resonance is in the predictable places, but even this is with caveats. The almost comical conspiracy theory that Covid-19 was a US military weapon has, unsurprisingly, found resonance in both Tehran and Moscow.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei referred to the theory on his Twitter feed, while Russia’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, defended China’s work on the virus and helped to propagate narratives espoused by Beijing.

Yet, singing from the same hymn sheet about the virus has not swept away the underlying tensions. For example, Sinochem is refusing to buy oil from Russia’s Rosneft after the US warned of sanctions if it did so.

At the same time, Chinese purchasers have bought record volumes of Russian oil from other suppliers, taking advantage of record low prices to fill strategic reserves.

Iran may still be supplying energy to China, but some calculations have concluded that Tehran is doing this for zero income, given that it is paying off earlier Chinese investments. This is hardly magnanimous action on Beijing’s part to strategic allies in difficult positions.

The coronavirus has caused tensions between the three nations. Russia was one of the first countries to close its borders to China (doing so at the same time as
Italy and before theUnited States), while reports from Iran suggest that its outbreak, which started in Qom, may have come either from businessmen travelling back from China or Chinese workers.

In Russia, there have been reports of East Asians being attacked, while Moscow bus drivers were told to report it to the police if they found a Chinese person on board.

We are seeing a classic dance play out here, with all three powers playing the same game of rhetoric (deriding Europe and attacking America), while the realist dynamics churn on relentlessly below the surface.

There is little evidence that the coronavirus has changed the dynamics between the three, nor that it has bolstered China and its axis of convenience on the world stage.

Some fear that in some ways Beijing’s displays of medical diplomacy will permanently reshape the international order. Yet, the reality is that the most damaging impact to the international order comes from the absence of leadership in Washington.

Some European capitals have been slow to respond to the pandemic and walked when they should have run, but the truth is that few expected the European Union to lead the world in responding to this crisis. The EU remains confounded by its fundamental governance contradictions.

But none of this means that China can credibly fill the vacuum. Rather, a vacuum continues to exist, and is only being made larger by the fumbling response from US President Donald Trump and his administration. This is the acceleration that is happening in international geopolitics. Power is ebbing away while others desperately thrash around for influence.

Yet no one is able to fill it, creating a confusing order where rules and behaviour are increasingly incomprehensible, where state leaders and their spokespeople lie, and we refuse to acknowledge goodwill and impressive gestures for what they are. The cynicism is obvious, but the absence of something better means such narratives are gaining greater attention.

China has undoubtedly used its medical aid politically, but ultimately this is not going to shape the new world order. We may not be seeing an end to an American-led order in favour of Pax Sinica, but we are witnessing a rebalancing of the two.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

Trying to be a bit more rapid about my updates this time, here is a brief Telegraph commentary that came out looking at the geopolitics of Coronavirus and the impact it is having on the west and China in particular.

China is losing the geopolitical battle of coronavirus. Unfortunately, the West is too

The more dominant public narrative is of

The Chinese government has embarked on a highly-publicised campaign to supply medical supplies to European nations as they contend with their own domestic outbreaks of coronavirus. But for all the noise Beijing is making about its “medical diplomacy”, it is hard to see how many new friends it has won.

So far, expressions of gratitude have come from predictable places, while China’s critics have focused on the unreliability of Chinese data or conspiracy theories advanced by Foreign Ministry spokesmen. It is not clear that China is winning the geopolitical conflict around Covid-19. Unfortunately, neither is the United States, which leaves a dangerous vacuum at the top.

But while China might not be winning this narrative, it is strengthening itself at home, creating a context which will leave Beijing well-placed to paint itself as a successful government in comparison to others around the world, when the short-term nightmare of covid-19 has passed.

This will have repercussions for China’s future behaviour, and for parts of the world that were already inclined in Beijing’s direction. China may not be winning new geopolitical space, but it is shoring itself up at home. This will make it even more assertive in the future.

One narrative that has caught on in public discourse is that China has ramped up its medical aid in a cynical attempt to use the current chaos to win new influence. Countries like Italy are described as being abandoned by their European brothers while the friendly Chinese sweep in with aid and gifts, in a clear geopolitical “win” for China.

The reality is far more complicated. The EU has mobilised considerable resources to support its member states. EU rules around state aid have been relaxed to allow countries to support affected industries better. Medical aid has flowed around the continent, and a growing number of intensive care cases from the hardest stricken countries like Italy are being sent to neighbouring countries. And while there is no denying the Chinese support, it happened after considerable volumes of European aid flowed to China when the country was in the heat of its own crisis – all delivered with much less fanfare.

This is not unknown in the halls of power. European governments know that their first port of call will always be their neighbours. Those who shout about Chinese aid are for the most part using it to score political points against adversaries, either at home or in Brussels. Leaders who have thanked China in more modest tones have only done the courteous thing which is expressed gratitude when someone offers you support.

Media reports have instead focused on Chinese equipment being delivered either with caveats or outright defective or faulty. Conspiracy theories advanced by Chinese foreign ministry officials about the virus being a product of some US military plan have failed to gain traction, and there is open doubt about data around the virus reported by Beijing.

There is little evidence that we are seeing a groundswell of positive perspectives on China sweeping across Europe. For all Beijing’s efforts, it has failed to win hearts and minds through medical outreach and aid.

Where these narratives have worked is at home, where the conspiracy theories in particular, as well as the stories of munificence and the improved domestic situation, have shaped Chinese domestic perceptions of the virus. The narrative in China is that Beijing has controlled the virus domestically, but now faces a second wave from irresponsible European countries who failed to control their own outbreaks and are exporting trouble back to China.

Such narratives also focus on domestic success and external enemies stirring up trouble within China, something already visible in the conspiracy theories about the virus emanating from the United States military. The rally to the flag effect this produces is only exacerbated when Chinese people see the dominant narrative in Europe being of defective Chinese equipment and cynicism about Chinese motives. The sense of hurt this generates could widen the gulf between China and Europe. None of this is strengthening China geopolitically, but it is certainly strengthening the Chinese leadership at home.

This is not dissimilar to what is happening in Washington, where the government has slowly let the crisis overwhelm it, used anti-Chinese narratives to apportion blame and has failed to take a global leadership role. The result is a situation which could be wide open for middle powers – including Britain – to step forward. But this has not yet happened; everyone is understandably distracted with their own problems. The result is a rudderless moment in international geopolitics, at a moment when great conflict was already the keynote.

This is where the real danger of Chinese influence could lie. It is not in China influencing new parts of Europe, but instead becoming even more detached. Building a nationalist narrative at home will make even greater aggression abroad politically possible in the future. An already confident China will feel even more emboldened while the rest of the world lacks any clear way forward and will be left reeling by the economic damage Covid-19 will unleash.

We are entering a moment of even greater geopolitical uncertainty, with adversarial behaviour all around and no clear leader. Nature abhors a vacuum, and Covid-19 has torn a big hole in our already confused order.

As usual have been distracted in real life to get around to posting here, so have a bit of catching up to do. That and the fact that the world seems to be becoming utterly consumed by this virus nightmare, makes you wonder what the longer term consequences of everything really are. But in any case, been writing for a few new outlets and here is the first of a few pieces that emerged recently. First up is a blog post for the French Institut Montaigne, an interesting think tank that is close to President Macron. Thanks to Mathieu and Viviana for their invitation and work on this. Looks at the already faltering peace deal in Afghanistan and China’s general appetite on engagement within the country.

The US-Afghanistan Peace Agreement and a Detached China

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It has not taken long for the strains in the US-Taliban agreement to show. Within hours of signing the agreement, Afghan authorities appeared to be contradicting one of its key pillars. Within days, there was a noticeable return to violence, with the Taliban attacking government positions, the US striking Taliban forces and civilians getting killed. As more time has passed, perspectives are appearing to become more entrenched. What has been noticeable, however, has been the largely quiet response from Beijing, one of Afghanistan’s potentially most consequential neighbors that has played a relatively limited role in the country until now. A question lingering in the back of most regional planning is at what stage might Beijing ultimately step forwards to play a more proactive role.

An agreement for bringing peace

The agreement itself – at least the published part – appears fairly thin gruel. The rather clunky title “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America” reflects the immense complexity that undoubtedly underpins the broader effort to get to the position where the two sides were able to sign a document. The fact it has taken such a short period of time for the seams to show is a reflection of the rush with which it was assembled. This was an agreement to paper over an intense American desire to leave Afghanistan.

And to some degree this perspective is an understandable one. Washington has now been engaged in Afghanistan for almost two decades, and it is hard to see where the end of this conflict might lie. Simply slugging on may exhaust further American blood and treasure without changing much.

At the same time, the precipitous nature of the US withdrawal as it is currently structured appears to answer a US political need and calendar rather than any Afghan interests. For President Trump, an agreement with the Taliban and withdrawal from Afghanistan will be another foreign policy victory he will add to the list that he will no doubt repeatedly shout about on the campaign trail – adding a cowed Taliban to the roster of dead terrorist enemies (which includes ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s leader Qasim al-Rimi and Iranian General Qasem Soleimani).

The impact of such a precipitous withdrawal is not clear. Many point to the fact that it took a few years for President Najibullah to hang after the Soviet withdrawal, with many ascribing the end of foreign aid to his government as the final nail in his coffin. But Afghanistan today is not the same country it was almost three decades ago, and the Taliban are not the same organization they were two decades ago. And in contrast to then when China was a far weaker power still emerging on the international stage, Afghanistan now borders one of the world’s fastest-growing economies (Coronavirus excepted). In many ways, it could be Beijing’s response now that will help shape Afghanistan’s future – be this in terms of investment in infrastructure, encouraging bilateral trade and playing a more proactive role in stabilizing the country in political, economic and security terms. How Beijing steps forwards could shape Afghanistan’s future.

China’s circumspection

So far, Beijing has been circumspect in its response to the peace negotiations. They have not been hugely positive, nor very critical. Rather they have said they will support the process and welcome a clean resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan. In gently critical pieces they suggest that the United States has more responsibility around blame than the Taliban, though they are very careful to not to point too many fingers.

This careful approach is a product of the fact that Afghanistan appears to be one of the few places where the US and China might still effectively cooperate. Notwithstanding tensions elsewhere, Beijing and Washington were able to craft a series of engagements in Afghanistan which they delivered together. However, this approach has been sorely tested since the arrival of the Trump administration and their single-minded and aggressive focus on China. This has extended to harsh criticisms of China’s activity around its western periphery with Secretary of State Pompeo attacking China’s activity in Central Asia during a visit last month, following blunt comments by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of South and Central Asian Affairs Ambassador Alice Wells about China’s activity in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In blunt terms, she excoriated China’s involvement in Afghanistan during a Congressional hearing. While she acknowledged China’s willingness to engage on peace talks, in no uncertain terms she stated “I think that it is fair to say China has not contributed to the economic development of Afghanistan. We have not seen any substantial assistance from China. The Belt and Road is just a slogan.” Just over two months later in a public discussion at the Wilson Center, she repeated these statements as part of a broader assault on China’s Belt and Road activities. When asked about Afghanistan she responded “I haven’t seen China take the steps that would make it a real contributor to Afghanistan’s stabilization, much less stitching it back into the Central Asia and the international community.

Unsurprisingly, this generated angry commentary in the nationalist Chinese Global Times newspaper which attacked Ambassador Wells and accused the United States of continually failing to provide an “efficient resolution to boost the Afghan peace process.” In an interesting contrast, the newly installed Chinese Ambassador to Kabul Wang Yu responded to Ambassador Wells with a detailed presentation about China’s contribution to Afghanistan, including detail about the collaborative efforts that the US and China had done together. This more conciliatory approach likely reflects a desire by China to be seen as at least leaving itself open to cooperating in Afghanistan.

China no longer fears a US withdrawal

At the same time, however, it is not clear that Beijing has much plan to step forwards into the Afghan mess. Beijing has spent considerable time and effort over the past few years strengthening the various sides of the border that it shares with Afghanistan – it has provided investment and equipment support to Tajik border forces, Pakistani security forces in Gilgit-Baltistan, and hardened its own direct border.

It has provided support for Afghan forces in Badakhshan (in the form of camps, equipment, training and some joint patrolling), and it has sought to get the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) more engaged in the country. Particularly notably, it also instigated the creation of the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) that brings together the Afghan, Chinese, Pakistani and Tajikistani Chiefs of Military Staff and has started to explore doing joint training exercises together.

All of this means that China is not too concerned about security problems in Afghanistan having a direct impact back on itself, or what concerns it might have it has now created buffers against. And any problems they might generate in Central Asia or Pakistan are likely already factored into the regional instability that China expects in these regions. As a result, from Beijing’s perspective, there is little to be concerned about with regard to Afghanistan becoming a source of instability for China. It would appear that China’s security apparatus heeded Xi Jinping’s reported closed-door 2014 declarations about protecting the country from trouble from Afghanistan in the face of potential American draw-down.

This stands in contrast to the past, where Beijing was very alarmed by the prospect of an abrupt American withdrawal and did little about it. When such talk circulated in the early 2010s, Beijing started to panic, worried it would be left with chaos on its border though at that stage was not very confident about what would need to be done beyond hedging through Pakistani proxies. Flash forward and Chinese analysts are far more sanguine about Afghanistan. The government may survive, the Taliban may come in, fighting may break out, but China is unlikely to be impacted by much of this. Its limited investment projects in the country have not really delivered much, and while it is a positive aid contributor to the country, it has not taken the burden on that it might. No-one in Beijing is advocating for the PLA to deploy in the country. Rather, this time around, it would seem as though China is distancing itself from the American withdrawal, positioning itself as the honest broker who will be there and friends with whoever takes power. And in the event of complete chaos, China has now strengthened its direct borders insulating it from direct trouble.

Keeping the Afghan problem at bay

Earlier discussions of China acting as a ‘security guarantor’ seem to have fallen by the wayside, and China seems to have given up the role of hosting the intra-Afghan talks. Beijing, it could be concluded, sees little good coming from the abrupt American withdrawal and wants to be as disassociated from the mess as possible. This would fit with the largely flat comments to have emerged from the MFA and Xinhua in the wake of the talks as they essentially wait the situation out.

What is also clear, however, is that the goodwill that had been generated between the US and China over Afghanistan has likely gone. From Beijing’s perspective, everything is now shaped through the lens of its conflict with the United States and COVID-19. Within this context, it might actually be preferable for the United States to stay bogged down in Afghanistan as this will distract Washington’s attention from China. Afghanistan used to be a place for potential cooperation, but this is likely not the case anymore. But Beijing is no longer fussed. This time China has laid its groundwork and is in a far more comfortable position to weather any chaos that might follow the implementation of the US-Taliban agreement. Washington may think this is a problem on China’s doorstep, but Beijing has hedged itself against most eventualities.