Speaking as former Secretary General of the Council of Europe on de-escalation on the Korean Peninsula, on peace and security in Eastern Asia is a real challenge. For millenniums Europe itself was far away from forming unity and providing peace. On the contrary, the smallest of all continents has been the scene of many wars, some of them called the “100 years war” or the “30 years war”.
The latter involved most of the European countries and was one of the most destructive armed conflicts in history.
Between 1618 and 1648 more than half of the European population died because of direct or indirect consequences of the fighting. In the 20th century this history of bloody conflicts culminated once again in conflicts which became global, 100 years ago Europeans started World War I and 75 years ago World War II. Many historians dealt this year of centenary of WWI with its causes.
I dare to say that there are always the same threats to peace and security: lack of communication, stereotypes and prejudices and ignorance.
Current conflicts, in the Middle East, in Africa, but also in Eastern Europe may persuade us to repeat the saying that history gives lessons all the time, but nobody is learning them.
However there are examples where the lessons of history were not only listened to but were transformed into dialogue, mutual understanding, and at the end to friendship. One example is the process of European unification including the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But there are other, in my view exiting examples too.
E.g. South Africa, which was also divided, not in a territorial sense but inside the nation. In all these positive examples you will see three key words and principles: dialogue, reconciliation and truth.
While after World War I it were only a few people who were ready to learn the lessons, during the World War II people started to prepare the new after-war-Europe based on a common cultural and spiritual heritage. It was in the middle of World War II, in 1943, when the famous British statesman Sir Winston Churchill surprised the listeners of his weekly radio address.
He suggested that after the war all nations of Europe including the current enemies should form a “Council of Europe” to unite the continent in peace and through cooperation.
In the aftermath of the horrors of the Second World War, the main concern of the founding fathers of the European unification was to create a system that would ensure lasting peaceful co-operation between all European nations based on common values. Unfortunately the post-war period in Europe was also marked by the political and material division of Europe with the emergence of the iron curtain.
The division, which has had a deep and traumatic impact on Europe, was characterized by an ideological confrontation between two political systems. Europe was breathing, to quote Pope John Paul II, only with one lung.
But beside this deep ideological and military rift Europe could avoid direct military confrontation, I would like to say, also because of the remembrance of the horrors of the WWII.
And in this context I have to pay tribute and bend my knees in front of the victims of the nuclear tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their unimaginable suffering saved the world from further tragic nuclear experiences. And the legacy of the dead or livelong suffering and handicapped people from Hiroshima and Nagasaki must be nuclear disarmament, in particular in Eastern Asia!
But before turning to East Asia and the Korean Peninsula, let me return to the European example.
An important step to overcome the rift in the common home of Europe was the conference on security and cooperation in Europe with the Helsinki accord of 1975 signed by 35 countries including the U.S. and the Soviet Union, that promotes human rights as well as cooperation in economic, social, and cultural progress. The Helsinki accord proved that Europe had still much more in common than what could divide the continent.
The OSCE – Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – emerged from the Helsinki Conference.
It plays an important role up to today and is covering Europe, Central Asia and North America except Mexico. Currently the OSCE is monitoring the Ukrainian crisis. The OSCE is not unknown in East Asia as three countries of the region – Japan, Mongolia and South Korea are already partners for cooperation of the OSCE.
14 years later, 1989/1990 dramatic political but peaceful changes swept through Europe as consequence of several factors.
Michael Gorbachev’s perestroika was one of them, the collapse of centrally planned economy in the communist countries was another one. But in my view the most important factor was the people. The peoples of the countries separated from the other part of Europe by the Iron Curtain wanted to choose their governments themselves like in the Western part of Europe.
In my view it was not the end of history as proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama, no, it was the return to the better part of European history.
Central, Eastern and South-eastern Europe could join the path of peace and reconciliation which was chosen by the Western European democracies in the late 40ies and early 50ies of the last century when the Council of Europe and the European Communities were created. The Council of Europe goes back to the already mentioned courageous idea of Winston Churchill and the European Union, former the European Communities, goes back to the idea of French foreign minister Robert Schuman.
The enemies of yesterday should administrate the main resources of armament, coal and steel, together in order to make wars between them impossible.
However, there was also still mistrust among nations in the after-war-decade. And the ideas were not totally new. The Austrian aristocrat with a Japanese mother, Richard Coudenhove-Calerghi, created after the WWI the Paneuropa-movement and proposed United States of Europe.
A programme of European Christian-Democratic Parties in the 30ies spoke about a common market, a term which is familiar to the European Union.
What was essential for the success of these ideas in the aftermath of WWII was that they were accompanied by a large movement of reconciliation or you may call it also spirit of reconciliation. Reconciliation of former enemies has been seen throughout Europe, for example between France and Germany, Austria and Italy, Germany and Poland, Russia and Germany.
This reconciliation is at the same time a prerequisite of European unification as well as a result of it. I do not dare to answer the famous question who was first the chicken or the egg. Reconciliation is taking place also in South Eastern Europe. The enemies of yesterday are sitting together in a Regional Council and are co-operating in a free trade area. I do not want to hide that there are still problems, like the functioning and complicated structures of the common state institutions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and a fair and just solution for all inhabitants of Kosovo.
There are still problems in the Caucasus and the already mentioned Ukrainian and Crimean crisis. But in the spirit of the new Europe dialogue and mutual understanding should help to solve these problems too.
What was decisive that reconciliation could take place, became reality in every day’s live of the nations concerned? These were of course several and different aspects. It needed politicians who were convinced that they couldn’t do more for the security and a live in peace for their nations than to reconcile with the neighbours and enemies of the past.
E.g. it was important for German-Polish and perhaps even more for German-Jewish reconciliation when German Chancellor Willy Brandt fell on Dec.7, 1970 on his knees in front of the monument of the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto. And it fostered without any doubt the French-German reconciliation when President Charles de Gaulle and Bundeskanzler Konrad Adenauer met on the battle fields of WWI and when the two old men embraced each other after signing the Treaty of Elysee between their countries.
But the sustainable reconciliation happened at grass root level, when more than 8 million young Germans and French participated in the youth exchange or when Italians and Austrians worked together in the mountains of Northern Italy, 2000 to 4000 meters above sea level, to turn the trenches and shelters of WWI into mountain trails.
One may ask whether this concept can be exported or better to say, imported? The African Union, for example, followed already the model of the Council of Europe but with the goal to reach the level of integration of the European Union.
This will of course be not very easy due to different political systems in the member countries and they still face serious conflicts to overcome, may I just refer to Congo and Sudan. But the vision is already there.
The Americans have their Organisation of American states and NAFTA, the free trade zone of USA, Canada and Mexico, South America has Mercosur. In East Asia and the Pacific you will find several attempts to enhanced cooperation, from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (without Japan), the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (with Japan as observer), to ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Asian+3, with again Japan, China and South Korea on board.
To some extent these cooperation organisations or entities are still a mirror of political and ideological rifts and differences, some are already crossing ideological dividing lines, some still need some deepening of trustful cooperation.
As East and South East Asia has a history of conflicts like Europe and is still facing ideological rifts, reconciliation of former enemies and rivals should play a similar role like in Europe in order to achieve peace, stability and security for all.
When Willy Brandt fell on his knees in Warsaw in 1970 Europe was still divided, the Federal Republic of Germany belonged to the democratic West and NATO, and Poland belonged to the Communist Bloc and the Warsaw Pact.
This did not hinder Willy Brandt to apologize for the crimes and atrocities carried out by Nazi-Germany. He demonstrated that reconciliation is possible across political and ideological boundaries.
To achieve, what is the aim of today’s conference, de-escalation in Eastern Asia and in particular on the Korean Peninsula, you need the same spirit and readiness for dialogue and reconciliation.
On all sides you need the cognition that across existing boundaries and rifts there is much more people have in common than what could divide them. So, where to should such a cognition or recognition lead?
First of all, continue and develop what is already there, e.g. the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership which is in the state of promising negotiations between the member countries of ASEAN, the three additional members of ASEAN Plus Three, i.e. China, Japan and South Korea, and Australia, India and New Zealand. These 16 countries should not form an exclusive club.
They should express from the very beginning the openness for others, in particular for North Korea. It will demonstrate that economic cooperation is bringing many more advantages than military confrontation.
The same applies to already existing areas of economic cooperation between North and South Korea, e.g. the Kaesong North-South Korean industrial complex.
But there are other modalities too such as traditional arm’s-length trade and investment and processing on commission (POC) trade.
Despite all difficulties and backlashes one shouldn’t underestimate the contribution of economic cooperation to de-escalation. It was also one of the European experiences during the time of the so-called Cold War when Western and Eastern Germany developed economic ties.
Another option at East Asian multilateral level would be to follow the European example of the Helsinki process. As already mentioned it was an important contribution to security and cooperation in Europe when in 1975 35 countries from both sides of the Iron Curtain including the U.S. and the Soviet Union met for a conference.
The aim was promoting human rights as well as cooperation in economic, social, and cultural fields. Like the OSCE a Conference and in consequence an Organization for Security and Cooperation in East Asia (OSCEA) of all countries of the region including of course Russia but also the “trans-pacific” USA could be a platform for de-escalation and prevention of conflicts. The OSCE participating states Russia and USA as well as the East Asian partners for cooperation of the OSCE could certainly help with their know-how. The organization itself will for sure assist too.
Looking to the map, OSCE and a new OSCEA would cover the northern and central part of Asia, Europe and North America, forming a kind of belt of security and cooperation.
I could also imagine that either some East Asian states bilaterally or international organisations of East Asia could organize even multilaterally youth exchange following the very successful French-German example. I am afraid that such a proposal is coming too early for North and South Korea, but I would see another opportunity that is a pressing issue for many Koreans at the same time.
Millions of families were separated following the division of the Korean peninsula in 1945 and the 1950-53 Korean War. There have been family reunification events in the past on a relatively small scale. But many more separated families who had no contacts at all for more than 60 years are desperately waiting to see their relatives. Reassuming family reunification talks and programs would certainly be a way to better mutual understanding.
Let me come to my last proposal in a very sensitive area.
You remember that I mentioned the Schuman-Plan that stood at the cradle of the European Union, avoiding future wars by common administration of the resources of conventional warfare, coal and steel. Today’s challenge is not the resources of traditional warfare but the threat of nuclear war.
I repeat that the legacy of the dead or livelong suffering and handicapped people from Hiroshima and Nagasaki m be non-proliferation of nuclear arms and disarmament, in particular in East Asia.
On the other hand, still some countries including North and South Korea want to use atomic energy peacefully. But it’s well known, it is not a very big step from nuclear power plant to the production of atomic bombs. The best way to overcome the mutual mistrust would be to form a nuclear community on the Korean Peninsula, administrating peaceful atomic energy together and holding the peninsula free from nuclear bombs.
Coming to the end of my intervention I would like to summarize.
It is worth to follow the European example how to create an area of peace and stability. Courageous leaders have to admit wrongdoings and crimes of the past and should see reconciliation with former enemies as the best way to provide peace and security for the own nation. Overcoming the threats of non-communication, stereotypes and prejudices as well as ignorance and based on a spirit of truth, dialogue and reconciliation inclusive cooperation on a regional level regarding economy as well as security should be intensified.
On the Korean Peninsula existing economic cooperation should be intensified with a very special solution for the nuclear power.
At grass root level the spirit of reconciliation shall be implemented through a wide program of youth exchange and on the Korean Peninsula more separated families should have the opportunity to meet. May be all this sounds like a dream.
But let me by concluding modify a word of Vaclav Havel, who said, if we don’t dream of a better Europe, we will never get a better Europe.
If you don’t dream of East Asia in peace and prosperity, of a Korean Peninsula without confrontation, you will never get it.
The Demise of a French Sub Deal: Is China a Threat?
The conflict between emerging and existing powers is almost as old as time. Labeled the Thucydides Trap, it first recounted the 5th century BC Peloponesian war and its inevitability as Sparta, the dominant power, feared the rise of Athens. Is something similar about to transpire between the US and China?
The latest war of words is about nuclear submarines. When armed with ballistic missiles, they become a hidden mortal danger. So the US also deploys nuclear attack submarines which shadow rival nuclear ballistic submarines … just in case.
Australia was in the process of acquiring 12 French conventional attack submarines (a deal worth $37 billion) when the US and UK stepped in with the AUKUS deal. Intended to counter China, it offers Australia advanced nuclear propulsion systems and an opportunity to construct nuclear subs of their own with the technology transfer. Australia will then become the seventh country in the world to build and operate nuclear submarines.
The fear of the ‘yellow peril’ is ingrained in the Australian consciousness from the days when they were afraid of being swamped by Chinese immigrants. It led to restrictive immigration policies for non-whites.
Much of the concern with China is due to the forceful nature of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s policies. In Xinjiang the Uyghur population is a minority in its home province due to the influx of Han Chinese. Moreover, Uyghurs feel discriminated against, in jobs and the progress they can make. Some have rebelled causing many to be put in re-education camps where there are tales of torture although denied by Chinese authorities. Biden has declared it a genocide and introduced sanctions on leading Chinese officials there.
China’s proactive foreign policy, renewed interest in Afghanistan, its warships patrolling all the way across the Indian Ocean to Africa are further evidence.
The new Afghan leaders, at least many of them, spent their exile in Pakistan giving the latter influence with the new government. And Pakistan is effectively a Chinese client state. The mineral wealth of Afghanistan, if it is to be developed, is thus likely to include Chinese help.
The UN General Assembly holds its first debate of the new session on the third Tuesday of each year; the session then runs through to the September following. As leaders converge, one of the questions being asked of those involved in AUKUS is how they are going to pacify an angry France. It has recalled its ambassadors from Australia and the US — in the latter case a move without precedent in almost 250 years of diplomacy.
If the French feel the Australians have been duplicitous, the Australians for their part claim they are obligated to do the best for the people who elected them. The new deal brings jobs, technology and a greater role for Australia in dealing with an increasingly powerful China
It would be a great shame if the West in trying to shore up its interests in the Indo-Pacific region loses a crucial ally — France — at the very least in wholehearted support. Is Mr. Xi smiling and quoting some ancient Chinese proverb, perhaps Lao Tzu, to his colleagues?
Japanese firms’ slow and steady exit is sounding alarm bells in Beijing
Last year in March, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had indicated Japan would initiate measures to reduce the country heavily relying on China for factory production. Since July 2020, Japan has rolled out subsidies totaling over 400 billion Yen to move its enterprises out of China to Southeast Asia and beyond. It is yet to be seen if the scale of incentives has actually triggered a major change in where Japanese companies relocate production. On the other hand, experts in China continue to wonder why would Japanese companies which are on average making 17% profit diversify into the ASEAN nations, where in 2019, their rate of return on direct investment was a mere 5%?
In less than ten days, Japan is going to have a third prime minister within a short span of twelve months. On September 1 last year, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe resigned on health grounds, Yoshihide Suga was chosen as Abe’s successor. At the time, China’s leadership did not show any worrying signs as the new Japanese leader was expected to continue with the foreign policy of the previous government. But one year later, Suga’s unexpected departure is leaving Japan’s diplomatic relations with China considerably strained over Taiwan. Yet the leadership in Beijing is not going to lose sleep over the next prime minister’s public stance on the Japan-Taiwan “alliance.” What China will be closely watching is how many more billions of Yen and for how long a new leader in Tokyo will carry on with rolling out subsidies to lure away Japanese businesses out of China?
Interestingly, on assuming office Prime Minister Suga had promised continuity in domestic policies and that he will respect Abe’s foreign policy. However, Suga’s promised commitment to further improve relations with China was viewed differently in the People’s Republic. Writing in an article on the day Yoshihide Suga took office in Tokyo, Zhou Yongsheng, professor of Japanese studies at Beijing’s China Foreign Affairs University, observed: “[Under Suga] Japan will continue to align with the US as far as international relations and security affairs are concerned, and continue to back the US policy of containing China It is under these preconditions that Japan will seek cooperation with China.”
In sharp contrast, reviewing Suga’s foreign policy performance after two months, NIKKEI Asia’s foreign affairs analyst Hiroyuki Akita wrote in November 2020: “Suga has not said much publicly about his views on diplomacy but he has urged his aids to continue Abe’s diplomacy as it is at least for one year.” Akita gave a thumbs up to this approach and recalled a Japanese saying to describe it: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, not everyone agreed with Akita praising Suga’s brief record in diplomacy as flawless. Having spent seven years in the Abe cabinet as Chief Cabinet Secretary, Suga’s image was that of “a fixer, not a leader.” Suga did everything in diplomacy in his early phase as the prime minister what Abe had been espousing for the past seven years.
But as Toshiya Takahashi, professor of IR at Shoin University in Japan had predicted within a few weeks of Suga becoming the top leader, “Abe’s shoes were too big for Suga to fill.” Why so? Mainly because unlike Abe, not only Suga was not ideological, he was also far less diplomacy driven. “Suga is not an ideologically driven revisionist — he is a conservative politician, but his attitude has no relation to ideology. He does not seem to hold any specific cherished foreign policy objectives that he is willing to push with all his political capital in the way that Abe did in 2015 with the passage of the security-related bills,” Takahashi had commented.
To observers and experts in both Japan and China, Prime Minister Suga’s (he will relinquish office on September 30) non-enthusiastic approach to foreign policy might have much to do with the current state of strained relationship between Japan and China. Asahi Shimbun opinion poll last year claimed foreign policy and national security as among the two most popular elements of Abe’s legacy. No wonder, critics in Japan have been pointing out that Suga’s cabinet did not have the luxury and support Abe enjoyed in foreign affairs of having in the government someone like Shotaro Yachi – the former secretary general of the National Security Secretariat. In China too, reacting to Suga’s first policy speech after taking office, scholars such as Lü Yaodong, Institute of Japanese Studies, CASS in Beijing had observed, “Suga seems not to be as enthusiastic about China-Japan ties as Abe. Compared with Abe’s administration, Suga may walk back China-Japan ties.” (Emphasis added)
Remember, as already mentioned, the LDP had succeeded in pursuing policy of (economic) cooperation and avoiding confrontationist diplomacy with China under Abe. But Suga government’s failure to effectively fight coronavirus pandemic and its perception that China was increasingly becoming aggressive in SCS, are being cited as reasons why Japan was compelled to take strong steps against China. It is too well-known by now how Tokyo angered Beijing by referring to the importance of Taiwan to regional security in the recently released 2021 Defense White Paper. In fact, a Chinese scholar had warned as early as within a month of Suga taking over as prime minister from Shinzo Abe, saying that “Japan will take a more offensive stance against China over maritime boundary disputes under the incitement of the US” (emphasis added).
Hence, it is of extreme import to mention here China’s top diplomat Wang Yi’s recent trip to four ASEAN nations. Apparently, the second visit by the Chinese foreign minister in quick succession in the neighborhood had aroused the global media attention as it was soon after the recent visit to the region by the US vice president Kamala Harris. However, according to a Chinese commentator, Wang Yi’s recent visit to ASEAN countries must be viewed in the context of the region turning into a “battle ground” for rising economic one-upmanship among big powers. “Just a day after Wang Yi’s departure, Vietnam reached an agreement on defense equipment and technology cooperation with Japan,” the commentary noted.
Furthermore, whilst under the previous Abe government, Japan consistently increased its investments in the ASEAN nations, except in the year 2016, all through from 2014 until last year, Japan’s investment in the region far exceeded that of China’s. Contrary to his vows, since coming into office in September last year, especially following his meeting with President Biden in the White House in April this year, Prime Minister Suga’s quiet agenda has been to confront China in both political and economic arena. In Japan, the Suga agenda was interpreted by analysts as “rebuilding Japan-US industrial chain, decoupling economic ties with China.”
A policy report released by Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) in March 2021, revealed three important facts: first, in the year 2019, total Japanese investment in ASEAN nations stood at USD 265.5 billion – 14% of the country’s overall overseas investment, i.e., USD 1,858.3 billion.; second, in 2000, Japanese investments in ASEAN totaled USD 25 billion as against its USD 8.7 billion investment in China – a gap of USD 16.3 billion. Whereas in 2019, Japan invested USD 135.2 billion more in ASEAN as compared with China. As pointed out by one Chinese analyst, this gap is hugely significant, especially as the overall size of the ASEAN economy is a little over one-fifth of China’s GDP; third, followingthegovernment’s new strategy last year to encourage Japanese businesses to move out of China to new locations in ASEAN nations, the new guidelines also entailed reducing investments into China. A large part of the investments was diversified into ASEAN markets.
Finally, what is beginning to worry the Chinese authorities is the trend and direction of slow exodus of Japanese businesses out of China going back to Japan and towards Vietnam and Indonesia on one hand, and widening gap in Japanese investments between ASEAN and the PRC, on the other hand. At the same time, it was beyond anyone’s imagination in China that Japan would be acting foolish and risking “economic security” by diversifying businesses and investments into less profitable “barren” markets. But then who could anticipate what political and economic policy-rejigging coronavirus pandemic would bring about?
Overall, China’s more immediate and bigger concerns are firstly the sudden departure of Prime Minister Suga – in spite of Suga having made it clear he had no will to change or reverse “decoupling” policy he had been pursuing, and secondly, whoever emerges as the new leader of the four contenders by the month-end, analysts in Japan believe Tokyo is unlikely to change its “anti-China” political and economic policies.
How China Exacerbates Global Fragility and What Can be Done to Bolster Democratic Resilience to Confront It
Authors: Caitlin Dearing Scott and Isabella Mekker
From its declared policy of noninterference and personnel contributions to United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping Missions to its purported role in mediating conflicts, China has long sought to portray itself as a responsible global leader, pushing narratives about building a “community of common destiny” and promoting its model of governance and economic and political development as a path to stability. This narrative belies the reality. Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-style “stability,” whether to protect Belt and Road Investments (BRI) or regimes with favorable policies towards China, in practice facilitates authoritarianism and human rights violations, contributes to environmental degradation and corruption, and undermines democratic governance, all of which can fuel instability, intentionally or otherwise.
In pursuit of its true goal – “a world safe for the party” – China has leveraged its diplomatic and economic power to weaken the international human rights system, bolstering support for illiberal regimes, contributing to democratic decline and exacerbating global fragility in the process. Nowhere is this more apparent than in conflict-affected contexts.
Conflict Resolution, CCP Style
Although China brands itself as a ‘promoter of stability, peace, and unity’, its very definition of stability is built on its authoritarian model of governance. This, plus its concerns about non-interference in its own domestic issues, informs its conflict resolution approach, which emphasizes host state consent and political settlement, two-ideas that can be laudable in theory, depending on the context. In practice, however, China’s conflict mediation efforts in some instances have provided support to incumbent regimes who are perpetuating violence and conflict, promoting a ‘stability’ that disregards the voices of vulnerable populations and the need for inclusive governance. In the case of the Syrian civil war, China’s “political solution” meant maintaining China-friendly Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power, while blocking resolutions condemning the regime’s brutality against its citizens.
“Stability” promoted by China can also come at the expense of human rights. China (and Russia) have previously pushed for cuts to human rights positions within peacekeeping missions, endangering the capacity of these missions to protect civilians in conflict. In Myanmar, where the military is committing unprecedented human rights violations against its own citizens, China initially blocked a UN Security Council statement condemning the military coup and other international efforts to restore stability at a time when a strong international response was much needed. This was in line with China’s previous engagement in the country, working closely with the military regime to “mediate” conflict near the Chinese border in a way that preserved China’s interests and influence, but did little to actually address conflict. After a growing humanitarian crisis began to threaten its investments on the Myanmar side of the border, however, China changed rhetorical course, showing where human rights violations stand in its hierarchy of stability.
Advancing China’s Interests, Undermining Governance
China’s policies in fragile states mirror its unstated preference for expanding its economic and political interests, even if securing them sidelines the stated imperative of addressing fragility. In some instances, China has lobbied for UN policies in conflict-affected contexts that appear to support its own agenda rather than – or sometimes at the expense of – peace. According to the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission’s 2020 report to Congress, “China has shown an apparent willingness to leverage its influence in the UN peacekeeping operations system to advance its economic interests in African countries, raising the possibility that Beijing is subverting UN norms and procedures in the process.” Per the report, the most notable example of this was in 2014 when China lobbied to expand the UN Mission in South Sudan to protect oil installations of which the China National Petroleum Corporation held a 40 percent stake.
Moreover, China’s pursuit of its interests sets up countries on unstable trajectories. China’s economic investment policies and initiatives exacerbates governance deficits and increases fragility by encouraging corruption, facilitating authoritarianism and human rights violations, and contributing to environmental degradation, all key drivers of conflict. Two cases from Nigeria and Pakistan highlight the point.
In Nigeria, China’s investment projects have exacerbated corruption and fueled distrust in local government – key drivers of conflict and intercommunal violence in the country. China has exploited poor regulatory environments and worked within illegal and corrupt frameworks, often tied to armed groups and criminal networks. In one illustrative example, China state-owned timber trading companies offered bribes to local officials to illegally harvest endangered rosewood. Members of local communities have cited feelings of exploitation by officials accepting bribes from Chinese businessmen, further stressing fragile ties between local government and citizens. Such business practices also demonstrate a blatant disregard for the environmental consequences of illegally harvesting endangered flora and fauna. Moreover, the inherently opaque nature of these projects that are tied to CCP interests makes it difficult to demand accountability.
Similarly in Pakistan, a 62-billion-dollar project known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) aimed at linking Xinjiang to the Arabian sea, has exacerbated tension in conflict-affected provinces. The project plans to build infrastructure and extract resources from several less developed regions, while overwhelmingly benefitting industrial and political hubs such as Punjab. Many provinces, including Balochistan and Sindh, have accused political elites of altering the route of the corridor in their own interests, thus further marginalizing their communities. Separatist groups have launched several attacks throughout the country, not only fueling conflict between Pakistani ethnic groups but also leading to attacks against Chinese expatriates. Recently, prominent voices from within China have called for a military intervention in Pakistan. CPEC has increased military presence throughout small villages, sparked an uptick in violent conflict along the route, and further eroded trust in local government institutions.
These cases may of course signal more opportunism and indifference by China to the impact of its engagement on stability in any given country, as opposed to an explicit attempt to undermine democratic governance (as it has done elsewhere in support of pro-China interests). Regardless of the intent, however, the impact is the same. China’s focus on political leverage and profits first and foremost undermines stability – and China likewise can benefit from instability in states with corrupt politicians interested in trading local resources for short-term political gains.
What Can be Done: Bolstering Democratic Resilience to Address Fragility and Foreign Influence
Foreign authoritarian influence has a compounding impact in conflict-affected contexts, further undermining governance structures, institutions, and processes that can mitigate or exacerbate fragility. Good governance, on the contrary, can not only help countries prevent and manage conflict, but can also help countries address the myriad challenges associated with foreign authoritarian influence. Strong democratic institutions help societies respond positively and productively to threats both domestic and foreign.
Targeted investment in democracy in conflict-affected contexts vulnerable to foreign authoritarian influence offers an important opportunity for utilizing the Global Fragility Strategy in support of US foreign policy initiatives and advancing the Biden Administration’s policy priorities to tackle climate change, prevent authoritarian resurgence, confront corruption, and prevail in strategic competition with China. An investment in support of democracy and good governance to address any one of these issues will reap dividends across each of these issues – engaging in conflict prevention and stabilization programming will both advance global democracy and advance US goals vis-à-vis China and other authoritarian rivals. Such investments, which must be long-term to account for the compounding impact of foreign authoritarian influence in already fragile environments, should include:
- Supporting governments, civil society, and citizens to better understand, expose and counter foreign authoritarian influence, particularly in conflict-affected contexts where data and research efforts can be challenging. An understanding of China’s playbook is critical to countering CCP influence operations;
- Helping independent media to investigate and expose foreign authoritarian influence and how it fuels conflict, whether through training, financial support, or other protections of the civic and information space, to raise public awareness of the impact of such engagement on conflict dynamics and promote transparency and accountability in dealings with foreign actors;
- Developing evidenced-based tools to prevent and mitigate foreign authoritarian influence in fragile contexts;
- Strengthening electoral institutions, political parties, legislative bodies, and judiciaries to uproot elite capture and mitigate malign influence;
- Leveraging diplomacy to build political will and incentives for government officials to resist foreign malign influences. Such diplomatic efforts can include increased outreach and contact with countries previously neglected by the US – but prioritized by China – and public diplomacy to both expose the CCP’s misleading narrative and advance narratives about what democracy can deliver; and
- Coordinating with similarly-minded donors such as the European Union, Japan, and Australia, to implement a unified approach to match the scale of Chinese investment and maximize the impact of any intervention.
Only democracy can help countries navigate the nexus of domestic and foreign threats to their stability. In the era of COVID-19, authoritarian resurgence, and climate crisis, supporting countries to develop these “resilience” fundamentals is a sound – and necessary – investment.
*Isabella Mekker is a Program Associate with IRI’s Center for Global Impact, working on countering foreign authoritarian influence and conflict prevention and stabilization programming.
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