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Cyber Caliphate: What Apps Are the Islamic State Using?

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As the argument goes, law enforcement agencies must protect the safety of citizens, and to do so, they must be in contact with representatives of the IT sector. This in turn compels the representatives of mail services, messaging apps, and smartphone manufacturers to contact the authorities and disclose user information. However, excesses do occur, and the founder of the Telegram messaging app Pavel Durov refused to provide the FSB with their encryption keys. Telegram was repeatedly accused of being the messaging application of terrorists, and in the context of the messaging service’s being blocked, the discussion surrounding the rights of citizens to engage in private correspondence grew more heated. The example of the Islamic State, however, only goes to show that militants shall not live by Telegram alone: they act much more competently and work to keep a step ahead of law enforcement agencies. What tools do terrorists actually use and how should we fight against the digital technologies of militants?

Different Goals, Different Weapons

The success of Islamic State militants can largely be attributed to brilliant propaganda work. Depending on their goals, militants have been able to resort to various tools for propaganda, recruitment, and communication between group members. Propaganda includes all the usual tools: videos, online magazines, radio stations, brochures, and posters designed for both Arabic and Western audiences.

Western services have played a cruel joke on Western society, facilitating the distribution of propaganda videos like, for example, one of the most popular clips, “Salil as-savarim” (The Sound of Swords) on YouTube and Twitter as well as through file sharing services such as archive.org and justpaste.it. YouTube administrators repeatedly deleted the videos, but they were simply uploaded once again from new accounts with the number of views driven up by reposting them on Twitter. The use of Twitter for these purposes is discussed in detail in the article “Twitter and Jihad: the Communication Strategy of ISIS”, published in 2015. According to the former national security adviser of Iraq, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, it was in large part thanks to Twitter and Facebook that 30,000 Iraqi soldiers lay down their weapons, removed their uniforms, and abandoned Mosul to jihadis without a fight in 2014. [1].

ISIS has taken into account the mistakes of its jihadi predecessors and has skilfully set its own propaganda up against attempts by the foreign press to portray it in a negative light. However, on a deeper, internal level, militants employ other communication tools more reliable than social networks.

Anonymous Networks

In September 2017, political scientist and member of the non-profit RAND Corporation and the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism at The Hague, Colin P. Clarke suggested that ISIS would most likely continue to use encrypted messaging to organize direct terrorist attacks abroad even if the caliphate were to become a “less centralized entity”.

However, terrorists have already resorted to using such tools for some time now. In early 2015, it became known that ISIS had developed a 34-page manual on securing communications. The document, based on a Kuwaiti firm’s manual on cybersecurity, popped up in jihadi forums. The document also listed those applications considered most suitable for use, such as Mappr, a tool for changing the location of a person in photographs. The Avast SecureLine application facilitates the achievement of similar goals, masking the user’s real IP address by specifying, for example, an access point in South Africa or Argentina in place of, say, Syria.

Jihadis have advised using non-American companies such as Hushmail and ProtonMail for email correspondence. Hushmail CEO Ben Cutler acknowledged in comments to Tech Insider that the company had been featured in the manual, but added that “It is widely known that we cooperate fully and expeditiously with authorities pursuing evidence via valid legal channels”. In turn, CEO of Proton Technologies AG Andy Yen mentioned that besides ProtonMail, terrorists likewise made use of Twitter, mobile phones, and rental cars. “We couldn’t possibly ban everything that ISIS uses without disrupting democracy and our way of life,” he emphasized.

For telephone calls, the manual recommended the use of such services as the German CryptoPhone and BlackPhone, which guarantee secure message and voice communications. FireChat, Tin Can and The Serval Project provide communication even without access to the Internet, for example, by using Bluetooth. The programs recommended by terrorists for encrypting files are VeraCrypt and TrueCrypt. The CEO of Idrix (the maker of VeraCrypt) Mounir Idrassi admitted that “Unfortunately, encryption software like VeraCrypt has been and will always be used by bad guys to hide their data”. Finally, the document makes mention of Pavel Durov’s messaging system, Telegram.

It was a massive information campaign that saw Telegram branded with the unofficial stamp of messaging app of terrorists. Foreign politicians played their part. Three days before the attack on the Berlin Christmas Fair in December 2016, senior members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee urged Durov to immediately take steps to block ISIS content, warning him that terrorists were using the platform not only for propaganda, but also to coordinate attacks. Moreover, Michael Smith, an advisor to the US Congress and co-founder of Kronos Advisory, claims that Al-Qaeda also used Telegram to communicate with journalists and spread news to its followers. Against this backdrop, Telegram reported on the blocking of 78 channels used by terrorists. It was this interest and pressure from the authorities that ultimately caused the militants to seek a replacement for this messaging service.

Monitoring Safety

Telegram representatives have repeatedly claimed that their messaging service is the safest in the world thanks to the use of end-to-end encryption. However, this is at very least doublespeak: end-to-end encryption is used only in secret chat rooms and even then possesses obvious shortcomings, as pointed out by Sergey Zapechnikov and Polina Kozhukhova in their article On the Cryptographic Resistance of End-to-End Secure Connections in the WhatsApp and Telegram Messaging Applications [2]. In particular, due to the vulnerability of the SS7 network, which manifests itself through authorization via SMS, it is possible to access chats. Secret chats cannot be hacked, but you can initiate any chat on behalf of the victim. Secondly, developers violated one of the main principles of cryptography – not to invent new protocols independently if protocols with proven resistance assessments that solve the same tasks already exist. Thirdly, the use of the usual Diffie–Hellman numerical protocol and the lack of metadata security, so that you can track message transfer on the server, add any number from the messaging service’s client to the address book, and find out the time a person came online.

In this context, WhatsApp seems more reliable since it uses end-to-end encryption for all chats and generates a shared secret key using the Diffie–Hellman protocol on elliptical curves. Many terrorists have recourse to this messenger. In May 2015, in “The Life of Muhajirun”, the blog of a woman writing about her and her husband’s trip to Germany, the author wrote about how her husband contacted smugglers by WhatsApp while in Turkey.

In the article Hacking ISIS: How to Destroy the Cyber Jihad Malcolm W Nance; Chris Sampson; Ali H Soufan, the authors recount the story of Abderrahim Moutaharrik, who planned an attack on a Milan synagogue with the intent of fleeing afterwards to Syria. He used WhatsApp to coordinate the attack. Italian police were able to identify the criminal after an audio message was sent.

However, jihadis are skeptical about WhatsApp, and not only for reasons of security. In January 2016, a supporter of jihad, security expert Al-Habir al-Takni, published a survey of 33 applications for smartphones, separating them into “safe”, “moderately safe”, and “unreliable”. WhatsApp ended up at the bottom of the rating. In defence of his opinion, the expert mentioned that the messaging service had been purchased by the Israeli Company Facebook (WhatsApp was bought by Mark Zuckerberg in 2014 for $19 billion, the messenger has 1 billion users worldwide).

In the light of complaints about Telegram and WhatsApp and as laws are tightened, terrorists have become preoccupied with the creation of their own application. In January 2016, the Ghost Group, which specializes in the fight against terrorism, uncovered online an instant messaging service created by militants, Alrawi. This Android application cannot be downloaded on Google Play – it is only available on the Dark Web. Alrawi has come to take the place of Amaq — a messaging service providing access to news and propaganda videos, including videos of executions and videos from the battlefield. Unlike Amaq, Alrawi possesses complete encryption. The Ghost report noted that after American drone strikes destroyed the prominent cybersecurity specialist Junaid Hussain in the summer of 2015, the cyber caliphate’s effectiveness declined dramatically. “They currently pose little threat to Western society in terms of data breaches, however that is subject to change at any time” a spokesperson for the hacker group said in a conversation with Newsweek.

The Game to Get Ahead

Jihadis, like hackers, are often a step ahead of the authorities and in tune with the latest technological innovations. Gabriel Weimann, a professor at the University of Haifa in Israel and the world’s foremost researcher of Internet extremism, noted that terrorist groups tend to be the first users of new online platforms and services. As social media companies lag behind in the fight against extremism on their platforms, terrorist groups become more experienced in modifying their own communication strategies. “The learning curve is now very fast, once it took them years to adapt to a new platform or a new media. Now they do it within months,” said G. Weimann.

These words can be confirmed: every popular service, like WhatsApp or Telegram, has alternatives that jihadis are more than willing to make use of. In the above-mentioned article Hacking ISIS: How to Destroy the Cyber Jihad, the authors list dozens of other services jihadis utilize. For example, Edward Snowden’s favourite application, Signal, has open source code, reliably encrypts information, and allows you to exchange messages and calls with subscribers from your phone book. Signal is community sponsored through grants. According to Indian authorities, ISIS member Abu Anas used Signal as a secure alternative to WhatsApp. Another solution, released in 2014, is the messaging service Wickr, created by a group of cyber security and privacy specialists. It was this application that first made it possible to assign a “life” to a message, ranging from a few minutes to several days. Wickr destroys messages not only on smartphones, telephones, and computers, but also on the servers through which correspondence passes. The program has a function to erase the entire history, and after it has been used messages cannot be restored by any means. Australian Jake Bilardi came across an ISIS recruitment message in Telegram and was to meet with a recruiter through Wickr, though he was detained in time.

Surespot, Viber, Skype and the Swedish messaging system Threema are also mentioned. The latter application deserves to be mentioned on its own — Threema received 6 out of a possible 7 points for security from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (a non-profit human rights organization founded in the U.S. with the aim of protecting, in the era of technology, the rights established in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence). Jihadis have also called the Silent Circle application a preferred app. After learning of this, the developers tightened security requirements, compelled by the fact that one of the creators, Mike Janke, is a former naval officer. Silent Circle now cooperates with governments and intelligence agencies. Though the list doesn’t end there — Junaid Hussain likewise made use of Surespot and Kik.

Militants have a great number of communication tools at their disposal in accordance with the goals they happen to be pursuing.

But if applications are primarily used on smartphones, other programs exist for laptops and PCs, readily used by both Information Security specialists and jihadis; for example, the Tor browser or T.A.I.L.S (The Amnesic Incognito Live System), a Debian-based Linux distribution created to provide privacy and anonymity. All outgoing T.A.I.L.S connections are wrapped in the Tor network, and all non-anonymous ones are blocked. The system leaves no trace on the device on which it was used. T.A.I.L.S. was used by Edward Snowden to expose PRISM, the US State Program, the purpose of which was the mass collection of information sent over telecommunication networks.

It can be concluded that militants have a great number of communication tools at their disposal in accordance with the goals they happen to be pursuing. Banning or blocking these tools will not ensure victory over the terrorists, though that is not to say the methods should be abandoned altogether. The best method to employ is that of having agents infiltrate terrorist ranks to ensure constant online and offline monitoring.

First published in our partner RIAC

  1. Michael Weiss, Hassan: ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, ANF, Moscow, 2016
  2. Sergey Zapechnikov, Polina Kozhukhova, On the Cryptographic Resistance of End-to-End Secure Connections in the WhatsApp and Telegram Messaging Applications: NRNU MEPhI, Information Technology Security, Volume 24, No. 4, 2017

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Incidents of Uranium Theft in India: Depleting Nuclear Safety and International Silence

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Terrorism

In yet another incident of the capture of nuclear-related materials from unauthorized persons in India has made headlines in the Indian media but largely ignored in the international media. On 4th June 2021, as reported in the Indian media, the authorities arrested seven people possessing approximately 6.4 kilograms of Uranium in the Eastern State of Jharkhand. This is the second time in less than a month where Indian authorities have captured such a gang in an attempt to sell uranium illegally. An incident of the same nature was reported just a few days ago in May 2021 where authorities apprehended unauthorized persons, who were trying to sell nearly 7 kilograms of natural uranium on the black market. Notably, Indian authorities themselves believe that these events might be linked to a “national gang involved in illegal uranium trade”. This is a very serious issue because it means two things; first, that Indian local uranium reserves, radioactive nuclear materials, and facilities are not protected and are prone to black marketing. Secondly, this scenario has emerged because India is not adhering to international bindings of nuclear safety and security such as UN resolution 1540 and (Convention on Physical Protection on Nuclear Material) CPPNM under IAEA to secure its materials, reserves, and facilities. But, the most damaging aspect in this scenario is the discriminatory behavior of the international community, which is criminally silent on the violations of norms, practices, and regulations necessary for nuclear safety and security.

Though in both incidents, Uranium was in natural condition, which cannot be used for making bombs; however; it should be of great concern, as even in its natural state the Uranium can spread considerable radioactivity if used with conventional explosives. Moreover, Indian authorities themselves are considering that these activities could be linked with national gangs involved in the illegal supply of uranium. This raises the point that actually how much natural uranium is illegally sold in the black market by India. Since these are only incidents that are being reported in the Indian media, there might be many incidents that have never been reported. Also, this gang was captured from near the area where Indian Uranium mines of Jharkhand are allocated, the likelihood of access of non-state actors to these mines cannot be denied. These incidents are critical for international security and stability because such radioactive material when sold in black markets could be brought by the non-state and states aspiring for nuclearization. Unfortunately, in such a scenario all the efforts currently going on to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons would be hampered. The recurring of these incidents reflect that India, despite being a member of CPPNM is not ensuring the protection of its nuclear materials from theft and sabotage by proper regulations, stringent mechanisms, and control. Other than CPPNM, India has also signed UN resolution 1540, which makes it mandatory for the states to ensure security regulations, mechanisms, equipment required for the security of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) from the non-state actors. But, surprisingly, so far the UN or any other international organization has not taken notice of these recurring events. Rather, these mishaps by Indian authorities are shoved under the carpet. These incidents have been reportedly re-occurring in India, media reported these events in 2003, 2008, 2009, 2013, 2016, 2019, and now again in 2021. 

Nuclear safety and security is a national matter of any state; however, against the backdrop of the potential damage, which these weapons can bring, they have become an international concern. Specifically, to an extent, where states are sometimes criticized, lauded, and sometimes rewarded for their behavior in this realm. In this regard, India appears as an exceptional case, where the formation of Nuclear Suppliers Group NSG to stop such events in the future has its roots in the Indian so-called peace nuclear explosion (PNE) in 1974. Ironically, a few years down the road, the same NSG gave a waiver to India for conducting nuclear export. Moreover, India was made part of many other regimes such as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Australia Group, and Wassenaar Arrangement. Although, these decisions were carried out in lieu of geo-political realities, where the West regards India as a balancer against China but it gave a free hand to India. Even the US-based NTI Report on Nuclear Security Index gives India less score in nuclear safety and security regulations. At a time when many nuclear theft-related incidents have occurred in India in recent years, disgracefully, India still desires to become a member of NSG based on its so-called nuclear record.

To sum up the situation, the occurrence of back-to-back nuclear theft-related incidents has further exposed India’s nuclear credentials and its non-adherence to international practices of nuclear safety and security. If legal bindings such as CPPNM and 1540 would not be implemented in the future by India, the South Asian stability, as well as the international security, would be undermined. Moreover, if the international non-proliferation continues to remain lenient towards states like India, the rest would likely regard the international non-proliferation mechanism not just as discriminatory but even as hoaxing. Many states might prefer to proliferate for their own interests, which would not serve the non-proliferation mechanism and regime. A very candid example is that today even after two years of the last NPT review conference, the next has not been conducted and chances are that it might not be conducted this year.

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Uranium is being traded freely in the open market in India

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Terrorism

The Times of India has reported that a special police team arrested seven persons and recovered 6 Kgs of Uranium from them following raids at different parts of the city on Thursday. Bokaro SP Chandan Kumar Jha said, “We have seized the yellow substance and will send it to experts for tests. Uranium is a highly radioactive substance used at nuclear facilities.”

Police said the accused, suspected of being part of a national gang involved in the illegal uranium trade, searched for customers and fixed its price at Rs 50 lakhs per kg. Notably, a kilogram of Uranium sells for around Rs 18 crores in the global market, sources said. For the first time, Uranium has been seized in this industrial town, but in other parts of India, similar cases were reported several times recently.

Those arrested have been identified as Bapi Da alias Bapi Da alias Bapi Chandra, Anil Singh, Deepak Kumar, Krishna Kant, Hare Ram Sharma, Mahavir Mahto, and Pankaj Mahto. They are residents of different parts of the district. Deepak and Bapi have a criminal history. It is illegal to possess Uranium without a license in India, and violation of the Atomic Energy Act, 1962, can attract stringent punishment.

Jha said police received information that some criminals are preparing to sell Uranium. A nine-member team headed by Chas DSP Mukesh Kumar and City DSP Kuldeep Kumar were involved in the raids. “It is still unclear how they got their hands on the radioactive metal. During interrogation, they mentioned West Bengal, Giridih, and a few other places. Seven mobile phones and a motorcycle were also seized from them,” he said.

Notably, Jharkhand is among a few states in the country that has uranium mines. Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) also has a uranium processing plant at Jaduguda, about 150km from Bokaro city.

Sources said police are also investigating to ascertain whether the arrested accused have any links with a similar racket busted by Maharashtra Anti- Terror Squad (ATS) on May 5 after it nabbed two persons. A total of 7.1 kg of natural Uranium worth Rs 21.3 crore was seized from the duo identified as Jigar Jayesh Pandya (27) and Choudhary (31).

It is a severe failure of the Government that hazardous materials are accessible by common people. It is the state’s responsibility, and the state must ensure the safety of the ordinary people. However, PM Modi has different priorities and over-engaged in non-issues. His focus to undermine minorities and the illegal occupation of Kashmir has made him over busy and left no time to safeguard the public interest. His extremist policies and brutalities against minorities are strongly condemned.

It is not the first time that Uranium has been traded like a regular commodity in the open market. It can be dangerous for India as well as the whole world. The law and order situation in India has deteriorated adversely, and criminals may avail this opportunity. The worst scenario will be if the RSS Hindu extremists got access to Uranium, then, definitely, the subcontinent is a one case. The fanatic RSS members are so vulnerable that they can go to any extent without considering the consequences.

Therefore it is appealed to the International community, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the UN to take serious notice and place preventive measures on the ground.

Being the next-door neighbor, Pakistan is under threat and has a responsibility to highlight such severe violations and may involve the international community to avoid similar cases in the future.

Pakistan on Friday, describing the reports of yet another incident of attempted illegal sale of Uranium in India as a “matter of deep concern,” reiterated its call for the thorough investigation of such incidents and measures for strengthening the security of nuclear materials to prevent their diversion.

In a statement, FO Spokesman Zahid Hafeez Chaudhri said the similar incident in Maharashtra last month and other such reports in the past “are a matter of deep concern as they point to lax controls, poor regulatory and enforcement mechanisms, as well as the possible existence of a black market for nuclear materials inside India.”

The UN Security Council Resolution 1540 and the IAEA Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) make it binding on states to ensure stringent measures to prevent nuclear material from falling into the wrong hands, the statement noted.

“Pakistan reiterates its call for [a] thorough investigation of such incidents and measures for strengthening the security of nuclear materials to prevent their diversion,” it added.

The press release said it was “equally important to ascertain the intent and ultimate use of the attempted uranium sale given its relevance to international peace and security as well as the sanctity of global non-proliferation regime.”

Uranium is used in several areas, including nuclear explosives and medical techniques. The very fact that some people stole or illegally mined Uranium raises concerns about nuclear safety and security in India. It also indicates the possibility of a nuclear market existing in India that could be connected to international players.

Pakistan had voiced serious concern last month, too, after reports of the Maharashtra seizure emerged, pointing to gaps in state control mechanisms there.

“We have noted with serious concern the reports about the seizure of more than 7kg natural uranium from unauthorized persons in India,” Chaudhri had said at the time.“Security of nuclear materials should be the top priority for all countries,” he added.

“There is a need for a thorough investigation of the matter as to how such sizeable quantity of uranium could become available outside any state control and identify the gaps which made this possible.”

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World Ocean Safety and Logistics: Chinese “Diplomacy of Straits”

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The world ocean has always been considered an arena of confrontation between the strongest powers in the struggle for control of resources and trade routes. The dominance on the sea has always allowed strong countries to dictate their terms of the world order (for example, the Great Geographical Discoveries of the UK, Spain, Portugal; the colonial policy of the UK, France, Spain, Portugal, etc.). States discovered and conquered new territories, carried their own orders and faith. In the XXI century, the situation with the redistribution of borders at sea has changed in comparison with history, but the presence of the large fleet still remains a huge advantage.

Statistics on the number of ships change every year: some countries, due to the lack of funds for modernization, reduce the fleet, others build new ships. (See Map 1).

Map 1.: Military Infographic (2020)

Source: SIPRI Military Expenditure Database, 2020

Thus, in accordance with the recent US defence report estimations, China  has the largest  navy in the world in 2021 in terms of the naval fleet. China’s navy has rapid growth in its offensive arsenal by building new warships and submarines and is still building out new ships. China’s navy considered the fastest-growing fleet in the world. Every year, the State increases units of marine equipment. China is now standing up to Japan, and it also raises legitimate concerns of the US government. The number of ships of various types at the end of 2018 is about 465, troops-more than 324,000 people. It is important to note that the US amphibious ships outnumber the Chinese in tonnage and capacity. To ensure the uninterrupted supply of fuel to the fleet, China is creating external bases in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Thus, for refuelling under a special agreement, Chinese ships enter the ports of Gwadar (Pakistan), Victoria (Seychelles), Yangon (Myanmar) etc. on a regular basis.

Comparatively, the Chinese navy has a numerical advantage in terms of the total fleet, the US still is the world’s most powerful navy for the superior technological edge. The most powerful as well as strongest army in the world, the US also has by far the most aircraft of any country. The country has cutting-edge technology like the Navy’s new rail gun, also a large and well-trained human.

According to the Naval Vessel Register and published reports, the US Navy as of early 2021, the U.S. Navy has over 490 ships in both active and reserve operations. In addition, the United States is the world leader in the number of aircraft carriers. The composition differs not only quantitatively, but also qualitatively. The US ships are equipped with modern equipment. There are 332,507 people in the navy. They have a dominant position in the Pacific Ocean, which was secured in the Second World War by ousting Japan.

Third most powerful military in the world is Russia, which total number of vessels at the end of 2018 is 270, but they also include those that are in reserve and on modernization. Half of them is actively used. Russia’s naval fleet includes one cargo carrier, one battlecruiser, three cruisers, 13 destroyers, eight frigates, 78 corvettes, 17 submerged SSNs, 22 submarines, 13 submarines for ballistic weapons, 7 submarines of cruise-missiles, 3 submarines for special purposed purposes. The priority area is submarines carrying modern missile weapons.

The fourth-ranked Japanese navy, which is considered to have 70 warships, including 17 submarines, 3 light aircraft carriers, and about 40 destroyers. Japanese Navy has 50,800 active naval personnel and around 155 ships. The Japanese Navy is one of the  largest  navies in the world. 

It currently has around 345 naval aircraft of which around 145 are helicopters. F-35 Lightning II is going to be the main fighter jets of the Japanese Navy in the future. At present, it has 4 helicopter carriers, 40 destroyers, 20 submarines, 0 frigates, 6 Corvettes, 6 patrols and 25 mine warfare.

The Japan Self-Defence Maritime Force (JMSDF) is the maritime warfare branch of the Japan Self-Defence Forces consisting of 50,800 personnel, 150 ships, and almost 346 aircraft. The main purpose of creating troops is to ensure the security of the country, but today the law allows the armed forces to act differently if necessary.

Completing the top five is the fleet of India, which has one of the largest and most powerful fleets in the world, although in accordance with other sources its place is also occupied by the great maritime power of Great Britain. The Indian Navy pursues its origins back to the East India Company’s Marine which was founded in 1612. When India became a republic in 1950, it was named the Indian Navy. The Indian Navy currently has around 70,000 active naval personnel and around 285 ships.

Now coming to the size of naval aircraft the Indian Navy has approximately 250 aircraft of which around 100 are helicopters. Currently, MiG-29 and HAL Tejas are the main fighter jets of the Indian navy. It has 1 aircraft carrier, 10 destroyers, 16 submarines of which 3 are nuclear-powered, 19 corvettes, 13 frigates, 139 patrols and only 3 mine warfare.

The ranking of the world’s naval forces shows that the largest and most powerful are located in the Asia-Pacific region. It is also important that 4 out of 5 powers (the US, China, Russia, India) have nuclear status. These two facts indicate that their confrontation at sea is extremely dangerous for the maintenance of world order in the event of a conflict between states.

It is also important to take into account the active maritime diplomacy of the countries of the region. Thus, in accordance with the recent US defence report  and the world media, it can be noted that in this direction, the PRC takes an active position in the region. China has steadily built up its maritime capabilities over the past three decades, giving it the ability to contest its littoral seas in the event of conflict. But significant challenges remain before it can control those waters, let alone the broader Pacific Ocean.

After the end of the Cold War and the passing of the ideological confrontation between the two systems, serious changes have taken place in the Asia-Pacific region. The rapid growth and strengthening of China’s comprehensive potential, the sharp increase in its international prestige, led to the fact that the Middle Kingdom was gradually considered as a potential strategic enemy of the United States and Japan. At the same time, China’s transformation into a global factory and the world’s second economy after the United States has dramatically increased its dependence on external supplies of raw materials (especially hydrocarbons), equipment, components, etc. The main sea communications, through which the Persian Gulf countries supply more than 80% of the state’s imported oil to China, run through the waters of the South China Sea and pass through the Strait of Malacca. A significant part of the export goods produced in China goes to the world market along the same route (see Map 2).

This region is becoming particularly important for China, so China is increasingly focusing on its maritime interests, including economic development, territorial management, energy and food security, as well as trade.

Beijing has always understood that new defence mechanisms are needed for new goals and achievements. In recent decades, China has turned the whole world into a “stage” for a global procession of Chinese goods. But in recent years, Beijing has started to develop the domestic market of its country. The concept of “xiaokang” (which means a well – off family or an ideal society) has gained a special place in the Chinese external and internal political stratagems[1].

Map 2.: World’s natural resources map

Source: CIA Factbook, 2020

This concept suggests that in five years 23% of the Chinese population should significantly improve their living conditions. The goal of the concept is to give priority to the Chinese economy’s policy of stimulating domestic demand as opposed to export industries.

It should be understood that the reorientation to the development of the domestic market means that it will be more difficult for China’s partners to exert political influence on its economic development (though stock and financial pressures and speculation) [6, p.244]. The reaction of many countries to a new alignment of forces in the world may be ambiguous, for Beijing that means a change in the mechanisms for protecting their national interests.

Chinese diplomacy of stratagems. What does this mean for today’s global geopolitical map? How does China use soft power tools and, most importantly, for what? Similar kinds of questions arise from analysts and researchers studying the growth of the Eastern dragon.

The Chinese policy of stratagems originates from ancient times. “Tossing out a brick to get a jade gem” – this is one of the 36 ancient Chinese military strategies. One of its interpretations can be translated as follows: “To get something really valuable, you first need to let the other party know the benefits”. It is believed that this is one of the first mentions of the Chinese “soft power”.

Having developed the economy at the beginning of the 21st century, China began to seriously think about new prospects in foreign policy. In Beijing, they reasoned that in addition to a modernized army and a powerful economy, “soft power” is also needed. Its importance for China in 2007 from the rostrum of the XVII Congress of the Communist Party was announced by Secretary General Hu Jintao. The stake was made on the ancient culture and values – the authorities feared that Sinophobia (hostility to all Chinese) would interfere with economic plans as well.

The 2008 Olympics in the Chinese capital became a landmark and, in many ways, a turning point. It began a new stage in the powerful promotion of China’s positive brand to the broad masses around the world.

Xi Jinping supported the promotion of Chinese culture and art from the very beginning of his rule. His first big concept, the “Chinese dream”, had a great domestic policy purpose and implied a revival of the nation in all spheres, but it was already then stressed that China’s achievements should be known all over the world. And to know, for example, not by the stereotypical “made in China”, but by the new high – quality brand “created in China”.

However, changes in domestic policy were only the beginning of global restructuring.

Let’s look at the foreign policy of China in 2014. China is actively studying the theory and practice of innovation in international relations, participates in the development of the global economy and financial management, maintains friendly relations with countries in various important areas, contributes to the peaceful resolution of conflicts in hot spots, works for the benefit of domestic development and creates a favourable atmosphere. In 2014, a strong foundation was created for Chinese foreign policy and achieved great success in this area. However, what followed next? Next was the Chinese Boom, in the form of China’s active manifestation of itself as an active and leading actor in international relations.

The second half of the first decade of the 21st century resulted in the implementation of a new foreign policy strategy. On March 25, 2016, the Politburo meeting of the CPC Central Committee recognized the urgent need for an integrated development of the military and civil sectors, since this is linked to national security and prosperity.

The speech of Chinese Rear Admiral Zhang Huacheng (the main stake was made on the fact that “China moves from coast defence to defence on the high seas”) was soon confirmed by further practice. Thus, China focused on the strategically important South China Sea. Since 2016, the PRC has ceased to make claims and historical substantiations for this region (it has already done it for a long time) and moved on to a policy of direct presence.

While analysing Chinese diplomacy of Straits, certain world’s regions should be taken into account:

Sino – Pakistan ties. The construction of the port and railway in Gwadar allowed the PRC to get a transport corridor to the Indian Ocean, which can work in both directions (see Map 3). Chinese goods will flow to the East and to Africa, and minerals and Middle Eastern oil will flow back. Beijing has always been concerned about the presence of the United States in the Persian Gulf, which controls up to 60% of the energy resources transported for the needs of the American economy in this area. Thus, the exploitation of the Gwadar port will increase the energy security of the People’s Republic of China in case of a global military conflict.

Map 3.: Gwadar

Source: Institute for Conflict Management, 2016

Finally, Gwadar will enable China to establish an “intercept and listening post” to “monitor U.S. naval activity in the Persian Gulf, Indian activity in the Arabian Sea, and possible U.S.Indian maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean”. The Chinese military presence in the region is of extreme concern to both the United States and India. At the same time, the naval capabilities of Pakistan itself are not dangerous for India, but the combination of Chinese and Pakistani naval forces can really become a serious problem. In addition, New Delhi fears that Islamabad will allow Beijing to use Pakistan’s military infrastructure without public disclosure, which will further complicate the work of international observers in this area.

It is also necessary to take into account that Gwadar is located on the territory of Balochistan a province that American strategists consider in various geopolitical scenarios as part of a possible new state that unites Baloch Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. We cannot exclude the possibility that in the case of a war with Iran and complete internal political destabilization in the IRP, the United States itself will go to the creation of an independent Balochistan, using the Baloch rebel forces in Iran and Pakistan. In this case, the United States will win a landslide victory over China, depriving it of the possibility of unhindered access to the Persian Gulf.

Emphasizing the strategic importance of Gwadar, it should be noted that it is located on the watershed of the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman – i.e., is the “door” to the Strait of Hormuz between the Omani and Persian Gulfs. This location means that 40% of all contracted crude oil on the planet passes through the Strait of Hormuz. Important is the fact that the owner of the eastern side of Hormuz is a strategic ally of Beijing and an active political player – Iran. On the west side, there are rich, but militarily weak monarchies of the Persian Gulf, which raises the question of the possible arrival of a new geopolitical force from the East into a potential hot spot.

China – Bangladesh. This country is one of the priority partners of the PRC in the military sphere, and there is a logical explanation for this. Since the mid-1970s, Bangladesh’s relations with India have deteriorated rapidly. In these circumstances, to ensure its own security, Dhaka began to actively develop cooperation with countries that had pursued an anti-Indian policy in the region. Quite naturally, Bangladesh quickly established ties with China, which at that time was in a state of acute confrontation with India. Beijing, in line with its desire to surround its rival with a “hostile cordon”, immediately began to provide significant military and economic assistance to Bangladesh. As analysts emphasized, in the 1980s, the PRC fully provided the armed forces of Bangladesh with everything necessary. By the early 1980s, almost all of Bangladesh’s military equipment was Chinese made. Since the late 1980s, Sino-Indian relations have gradually begun to normalize, but China continues to actively support Bangladesh in various fields: politics, economy, public life, culture, etc. In recent years, economic cooperation between the two countries has been developing particularly rapidly.  

Regarding the construction of a container port in Chittagong (Shetgang) on the territory of Bangladesh, the Chinese leadership has repeatedly stated that its participation in this project depends on the independent decision of Chinese enterprises (see Map 4). According to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang, the Chinese government always encourages and supports its companies in friendly and equal cooperation with different countries of the world, including Bangladesh.

Western scholars, however, believe that China is building container port facilities in Chittagong for its merchant and naval fleets. The authorities of Bangladesh, according to foreign experts, fall under the pressure from the leadership of the People’s Republic of China and agreed to supply nuclear technology to their country in exchange for providing the Chinese navy with naval bases in the Bay of Bengal. In March 2010, China agreed to invest $ 8.7 billion in a project to build a deep-water port in Bangladesh, as well as roads and railways between the two countries. The new container port, according to the plan, will be able to receive up to 100 million tons of cargo at the same time by 2055, which is more than three times higher than today’s figures. According to some experts, China is also interested in the project because it expects to use the port in Chittagong as a gateway to the sea for its southern province of Yunnan.

Map 4.: port in Chittagong (Shetgang)

Source: Anadolu Agency Research, 2020

The actions of the PRC caused great alarm in New Delhi. In 2010. India has agreed to sell electricity to Bangladesh, provide it with a $ 1 billion credit line for infrastructure projects, and reduce import tariffs. In exchange, Dhaka allowed Indian ships to use the port, which is currently being rebuilt by China.

China – Sri Lanka. In March 2007 Beijing has signed an agreement with Colombo to finance the construction of the Hambantonta development zone on the southern tip of Sri Lanka (see Map 5). This zone included a container port, a bunkering system, and an oil refinery. The Export-Import Bank of China financed 85% of the cost of the $ 1 billion project, and China Harbour Engineering, which is part of a state-owned corporation, was engaged in its implementation. The same conditions have been achieved for the construction of an international airport, which was located nearby.

In the United States, the Hambantonta project is regarded as part of the “string of pearls” strategy, considering that China plans to use the port as a refuelling and maintenance station for its fleet while patrolling the Indian Ocean. However, the official Beijing insists that the port on the southern coast of Sri Lanka is a normal commercial enterprise. Despite the fact that the United States uses a naval base on the neighbouring island of Diego Garcia, the PRC has no immediate plans to build a full-fledged naval base, although it seeks to create a similar foothold in the Indian Ocean to protect its oil resources from pirate attacks or blockades by a foreign power.

Map 5.: Hambantota development zone

Source: South China Morning Post, Infographics, 2019

China – Myanmar (Burma). Deepening ties with this country is of great importance for China.  Of particular interest to Beijing are the rich mineral resources of Myanmar, primarily the oil and gas resources of this country. It is worth noting that in August 2011, the construction of the Myanmar section of the China—Myanmar oil and gas pipeline began (see Map 6). The length of the Chinese section of the oil pipeline is 1,631 km, and the length of the gas pipeline is 1,727 km. The length of the oil and gas pipeline of the Myanmar section is 771 and 793 km, respectively. According to the construction plan, these pipelines were constructed and put into operation in 2013.

China – Thailand. Relations between China and the Kingdom of Thailand, for which China is the largest trading partner, are also developing dynamically.

Map 6.: China—Myanmar oil and gas pipeline

Source: Shwe Gas Movement, 2012

In 2005, The Washington Times newspaper reported from a report by the US Secretary of Defence that, as part of improving its energy security, China plans to participate in the construction of the Thai Kra – Canal (the Thai Canal through the Malacca Peninsula of Thailand), connecting the Pacific (Siamsky Bay) and the Indian (Andaman Sea) oceans) on the isthmus in the northern part of the Malay Peninsula belonging to this state (see Map 7). According to the Chinese side, the project will take 10 years and will require the involvement of 30 thousand workers and 20-25 billion dollars.

Western experts argued that by crossing the isthmus (at its narrowest point, its width is less than 50 km), it is possible to connect the Andaman Sea with the South China Sea, and therefore the Indian Ocean with the Pacific. Chinese ships, thus, will be able to go around the strategically important Strait of Malacca.

According to some Chinese scientists, in particular Sun Lingshun, the project the Kra – Canal is not in the interests of China’s national security. The researcher claims that for the PRC, the main goal of this project is to get out of the difficult situation in the field of oil and gas imports through the Strait of Malacca. Currently, the US Navy controls the entire Pacific and Indian Oceans, and Thailand is traditionally among the American “friends”, hence it is allowed to Thailand from time to time to revive the idea of “the Kra – Canal project” and bring it to one or another degree of embodiment. If there is a military conflict between China and the United States over the Taiwan issue, the United States can easily close the Kra – Canal.

Map 7.: the Thai Kra – Canal

Source: Deutsche Welle analytics, 2016

Sun Lingshun also believes that the implementation of this project will improve the strategic position of not only China, but also other important players in the region. The Kra – Canal is primarily beneficial to Thailand itself, as well as to South Korea. Korea and Japan, which also have to transport up to 80% of oil imports through the Strait of Malacca. Despite this, from the point of view of eliminating the threat to the security of Chinese oil transportation, the Kra – Canal project is less effective than the China – Myanmar pipeline project”.

China’s choice of precisely the Kra – Canal concept was dictated by very pragmatic facts. Thus, it should be noted that the Kra – Canal can reduce the path of ships from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian by more than 1,800 kilometres and eliminate the need to follow the dangerous and downtrodden channel of the Strait of Malacca. 

Beijing’s ambitions are not limited to the Straits of Malacca. Thus, the China – Pakistan economic corridor (CPEC), which connects Northwest China and the Persian Gulf, came in sight in the field of view of the PRC’s interests. This is a grandiose 45.6 billion – dollars logistics project, which is a network of highways and railways, as well as oil and gas pipelines. Until recently, each of the countries protected its network section: China – Xinjiang Uygur region, Pakistan – Baluchistan. However, in March 2016, the Afghan agency Khaama Press, and a number of Indian media reported the news that Chinese troops will be stationed in Pakistan to protect the CPEC. Analysts noted that China is striving for the Strait of Hormuz (because its extreme western CPEC point is Pakistan’s seaside Gwadar – a major modern port city given to the management of the Chinese state – owned company Chinese Overseas Port Holdings).

The South China Sea. According to Western experts, in the South China Sea, the PRC is developing systems that allow for large-scale deployment of naval and air force units, by strengthening bases on Hainan Island, the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands, as well as in coastal areas in southern China (see Map 8).

Map 8.: South China Sea territory disputes

Source: Money Morning staff research, NPR, 2020

Hainan Island is known as a “tourist Mecca”. In April 2011, the 3rd summit of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) was held here. According to Indian scientists, this island is home to a deep-sea Chinese naval base, which is capable of receiving large aircraft carriers. It has 4 entrance tunnels to the underground storage facility, where you can place submarines with ballistic missiles on board. This base, located about 2,200 km from the Strait of Malacca, is the starting point of the chain of strongholds of the PRC, which stretches along the northern coast of the Indian Ocean to the Southwest Asia.

In the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands, China is building port facilities for mooring large ships and runways for long-range bombers. In fact, the PRC is in the process of building a group of unsinkable aircraft carriers in the centre of the South China Sea, according to Japanese scientists.

Shortly before the global financial and economic crisis of 20082009, one of the world’s largest port operators, Dubai Ports World, which has its own infrastructure on all continents, supported the Chinese proposal to build a canal to Malay the peninsula and the bridge over it, as well as ways to connect the ports on both sides of it with high-speed rail and highways. Malaysia had hoped to join the project because it was interested in building pipelines parallel to the channel from the Bay of Bengal to the South China Sea. Such a transport network, resembling the infrastructure of the Panama Canal, would become a crossroad of routes that are extremely important not only for Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and other countries of Southeast Asia, but also for the entire Asian region. The crisis prevented the implementation of the project, and it was postponed until better times.

In addition, China plans to complete the creation of a high-speed railway network by 2021, which will connect it with the states of Southeast Asia with Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand (so-called 3,000-km pan-Asian railway network). As of January 2014, construction of sections connecting China with Vietnam, China with Myanmar and Laos with Vietnam were under way. Work on sections in Laos began in December 2017 and is expected to be completed by the end of 2021 with Chinese assistance. According to Western experts, this line is of strategic importance, since it provides the southern part of China with access to the sea.

It should be noted that China established control of the northern part of the sea (the Paracel Islands, Chinese – Xīshā Qúndǎo) back in 1974, but then it was not so much related to economic opportunities as to the blocking of Kuomintang Taiwan. In recent years, China has confidently taken control of the Spartly archipelago (Chinese – Nansha Qingdǎo), located in the southwestern part of the South China Sea (see Map 8).

According to the director of the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), Greg Pauling, in 2016, several Chinese reefs of the Spartly archipelago (Mischief, Subi and Fiery Cross) have been turned into artificial islands, and now space images show “rectangular areas with a retaining wall, 3,280 yards long”. Thus, Western analysts note that China is building three naval airbases in the southwestern part of the South China Sea with a runway three kilometres long.

Today, not only China, but also Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines are making claims to the Spartly archipelago(see Map 8). However, the military power there is currently on the side of Beijing. The PRC, with the brilliant serenity of a strong player, ignores both the protests of Taipei, Hanoi and Manila, as well as the “deep concern” of the US, sometimes raising the issue of the threat of war[2].

By such actions, China has actually placed under its control all the South China Sea, through which about $ 5 trillion of world trade turnover passes and has come “close” to the shores of Indonesia and Malaysia, i.e. to Singapore and the Strait of Malacca – to places through which a third of the world’s trade flows.

This PRC activity in the seas of South – East Asia did not bypass the Chinese partners in the region, provoking a negative reaction. Indonesia first started to contract, deploying in November 2015 a squadron of seven ships in the area of the Riau Archipelago, which is located halfway between Spartly and Singapore.

China – Africa. The African vector of Chinese “strait diplomacy” has not lost its relevance. On February 25, 2016, the spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Defence, Colonel Wu Qian, stated that in Djibouti (the African side of the Bab el – Mandeb, connecting the Gulf of Aden (and hence the entire Indian Ocean basin and the Asia – Pacific region) to the Red Sea and further, through the Suez Canal, with the Mediterranean Sea), in the port city of Obock, work on the construction of a naval base of the PRC began. Chairman of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping agreed on this construction in January 2016 during his trip to Johannesburg for the summit of the Forum on China – Africa Cooperation (see Map 9).

Map 9.: Transhipment corridors

Source: Chinese Defense Ministry, EIA, Yonhap, 2019

It should be understood that the base in Djibouti will not only enable Beijing to control the Bab – el Mandeb Strait to some extent, but also will serve as a military guarantee of Chinese interests on the African continent, which is (for 2014) $ 210 billions of trade turnover and $ 20 billions of direct Chinese investment.

China is positioning itself as a “responsible” player in the global arena, not focusing on political issues, but focused on the economy and taking care of trade and the prosperity of at least half the globe. If in 2012, China invested $ 40 billion in Africa, in 2016 this figure was already $ 90 billion. China is a leader in developing countries who understands and shares the problems of these countries. For this reason, the deployment of troops of the Chinese army in Africa does not seem to be an adequate solution to the security problem. No one wants to adopt the Western colonial policies and acquire a negative image of invasion of internal affairs.

Although it is impossible not to recall that China officially opened its base in Djibouti (Camp Lemonnier) (see Map 10). In theory, the base can accommodate up to 10 thousand Chinese military, but so far in Beijing will be limited to a couple thousand people. The base in Djibouti will first of all allow the Chinese Navy to increase its presence in the Indian Ocean, it will also become a stronghold in the event of an emergency evacuation of Chinese citizens from Africa. Recently, by the way, it became known that China is expanding the port infrastructure in the territory of its base, extending the space for mooring ships.

Map 10.: Chinese and US bases in Djibouti

Source: The New York Times: Straits Times Graphics, 2018

It can be noted here that the rumours about China’s plans to create 18 naval bases all over the World Ocean have been circulating for more than one year, at least since 2014. The Xinhua News Agency at one time “recommended” the establishment of bases in such ports as Chongjin (North Korea), Port Moresby (Papua – New Guinea), Sihanoukville (Cambodia), Koh Lanta (Thailand), Sittwe (Myanmar), Djibouti, Maldives, Seychelles, Gwadar (Pakistan), Port of Dhaka (Bangladesh), Lagos (Nigeria), Hambantota (Sri Lanka), Colombo (Sri Lanka), Mombasa (Kenya), Luanda (Angola), Walvis Bay (Namibia), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania). As it can be seen, not only Africa is here in the sphere of attention of Chinese analysts.

In addition to purely security issues, Africa is also a market for Chinese weapons and a huge storehouse of natural resources that China needs for its development (see Map 11). From 2013 to 2017, exports of Chinese weapons to Africa grew by 55% compared with the previous five years. From 2008 to 2017, China exported $ 3 billion worth of arms to Africa. Algeria already purchases 10% of all exports of Chinese weapons, including warships.

Map 11.: Natural resources of Africa

Source: CIA Factbook, 2020

But at the same time, if the USA and Russia in Africa sell the lion’s share of weapons to several countries (for the USA, this is Egypt and Morocco, for Russia, Algeria and Egypt), then China supplies weapons on a smaller scale, but to a much larger number of African countries. In the long run, this may be a more effective strategy (stratagem “Feign madness but keep your balance”). One of its interpretations can be translated as follows: “Hide behind the mask of a fool or a madman to create confusion about your intentions and motivations. Lure your opponent into underestimating your ability until, overconfident, he drops his guard. Then you may attack”).

Thus, it can be seen that over the past few years, Beijing not only took control of the South China Sea, but also loudly declared itself in the three most important “bottlenecks” of world trade: in the Malacca, Hormuz and Bab – el Mandeb straits, while other Major powers of international relations (the United States, Russia, the EU) “were searching for democracy and human rights” between the black earth of Ukraine and the sands of Syria.

However, today the task of protecting maritime communications remains very difficult for the Chinese Navy. From the point of view of Western scientists, in its development, China simply follows in the footsteps of other world powers that have established military bases abroad to protect their interests. A great power is necessarily expansionist, and China, according to Western experts, will not be an exception, so the whole of Asia should be ready for the strengthening of the position of the PRC in the World Ocean, and Japan, the United States and other traditional maritime powers should again consider their “sea power” in this region as a key component of protecting their own national interests. Chinese scientists, in turn, say that such statements excessively inflame the situation around this problem and are ultimately aimed at deterring the PRC.

Thus, the Chinese leadership is faced with the task of reducing the resistance to its rise as a maritime power. On the one hand, Beijing needs to pay special attention to the realization of its maritime interests and, to this end, increase its maritime power. On the other hand, China should strengthen political and economic cooperation in the Indian Ocean and the Asia – Pacific region with Japan, the United States, India and the ASEAN countries. Thus, most likely the maritime policy of the People’s Republic of China will try to find a solution to this dilemma in the near future.


[1] Confucius began to develop this concept two and a half thousand years ago. In 1984, the father of Chinese reforms, Deng Xiaoping, noted that “a per capita GNP of $ 800 by the end of this century is Xiaokang.” In November 2002, at the 16th Congress of the Communist Party of China, the previous leader Jiang Zemin announced new “frames” of the Xiaokang: by 2020, 4 times increase in GNP against the level of 2000 or up to $ 2,000. And in October 2015, at the Plenum of the CPC Central Committee, Xi Jintao set the task of doubling the country’s GDP and building a “medium prosperity” society in China by the centenary of the founding of the CCP in 2021. The real president of China, Xi Jinping, continued the idea of realizing of the strategy in 2016.

[2] The possibility of “provoking a war” was declared by Chinese admiral Wu Shenli when in October 2015 an American destroyer “Lassen” passed in 12 nautical miles ( 22 kilometers ) from the reefs Mischief and Subi.

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