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Is Strategic Balancing a ‘New Normal’ in Interlinked World?

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The G-20 Summit 2018 will be remembered for extraordinary  large number of bilateral and trilateral meetings, which seem to be even more significant than the main purpose of the meet. There are some high profile bilateral meetings like US – China and US – Russia (Scheduling of which has seen many flip-flops) which are very significant in context of Trade-War or Ukraine crisis. The two trilateral meetings involving US-Japan-India and China-Russia-India are also seen to be very significant because of centrality of Indian position in both the meetings. One of the reasons for this phenomenon is that the world is that the world has got interlinked so much as never before, hence even bilateral relations between global powers impact the world directly or indirectly.

When a large number of countries including US allies, strategic and trade partners joined AIIB, against the wishes of US, it was quite evident that a time has come that many countries will like to have alternate sources of funding other than west dominated IMF or Japan dominated ADB and will follow their own national interest. Similarly when China exhibited aggressive design of converting feature and atolls to artificial islands, with a view to have South China Sea as ‘Chinese lake’ based on unilateral interpretation of history ignoring international laws, UNCLOS and decision of ICJ, a group of democratic countries huddled together to form QUAD with a potential to counter balance such moves, which have possibility of obstructing global trade and exploitation of global commons. The Russian aggression westwards post Crimea, brought many western countries together resulting heavy sanctions on Russia, (followed by the recent standoff with Ukraine, Martial Law in some parts of Ukraine and the criticality continues. The Western opposition and sanctions was instrumental in pushing Russia nearer to Beijing. The international relationships and strategic interests of most countries in the interlinked world of today are so interwoven, that it is difficult to count countries only in one grouping; hence many new issue based groupings have emerged in last few decades.

Are Global Powers pushing everyone to Strategic Balancing?

In the exuberance of pursuing ‘America First’ policy, in last few years US has been highly critical of some of its allies, strategic and trade partners, whenever they did not follow a course which was of interest to America. In some cases it used threatening gestures, while some others were put under sanctions. The policy got a major jolt, when they threatened everyone to support their decision of shifting embassy to Jerusalem, but many countries junked the threat and voted as per their own perception. A similar issue came up earlier, when the last US President got all Head of States of ASEAN countries together to discuss South China Sea issue and wanted a joint statement, condemning Chinese actions, but those countries did oblige.  Pulling out of Paris accord for climate change, Iran Nuclear deal, TPP are some more examples when all the ‘Friends of US’ are not on the same page, and decided to continue with it even without US. Pulling out of nuclear deal with Russia is under global criticism, as it could trigger fresh arms race and a dangerous one, although US has some strategic logic to do so in American interest. The last G-7 Summit was not a pleasant experience for US allies due to alleged self centered economic approach of US. The NATO allies are also relatively lesser confident of US backing and keep waiting for next surprise from US Administration. Under these circumstances, Is US Concept of ‘With US’ or ‘Against US’ is outdated in Interlinked World?

On the other hand Chinese after announcing Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, with elevation of President Xi Jinping from ‘Chairman of everything’ to ‘Core’ and ‘Leader for life’, exhibited its expeditionary design starting from South China Sea to land grabbing in Indian Ocean. With its fast growth it tried to showcase its methodology of governance better than democratic model. Its ‘Incremental Encroachment Strategy’ in Doklam as well as South China Sea exhibited its ambitions exceeding beyond peaceful growth to the arena of global strategic dominance; hence it started facing opposition from a group of democratic countries in various forms like formulation of QUAD and other groupings. Interestingly most of Chinese neighbors did not buy its method of governance and some of them went democratic in recent past, while maintaining good relations with it. In case of Russia also, we find Germany, a US ally drawing gas from them. Russia and China helping out North Korea with fuel and essentialities immediately after Singapore Summit between President Trump and Kim. Russia a strategic partner of India supplying military hardware to Pakistan and many other countries. A cross pollination of relations is therefore quite evident.

Analysing the cases of three global powers above, a time has come when most countries want to manage their international relations as per their own national interest, and do not want their strategic choices to be dictated by others. The strategic autonomy is quite dear to every sovereign country. It is also a fact that the world today is much more interlinked; hence issue based relationships is increasing. In context of the above let me analyze few cases justifying the ‘Compulsion of Strategic Balancing’ in international dynamics.

Japan’s Insecurity and Prime Minister Abe’s visit to China followed by meeting Indian Counterpart

During Prime Minister Abe’s visit to China on the 40th anniversary of the ‘Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China’ hardly any issues of divergences was discussed. It was looked as an effort to ‘Fostering Mutual Political Trust’ and ‘Cooperation and Confidence Building in Maritime and Security Affairs’. Beyond good optics, It can be seen as an effort to balance out/reset relations with China, and a messaging to Uncle Sam, about independence in foreign policy formulation of Japan. Immediately after this first visit to Beijing since 2012, Prime Minister Abe hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a resort near Mount Fuji for a luncheon Sunday, just a day after returning from talks with the leader of China. While the leaders may call India-Japan partnership having been strengthened as a ‘special strategic and global partnership,’ but beyond the optics, it can be termed as an effort to balance relations between China and India as well.  India would perhaps be looking to move forward in convergences, and need not be concerned of Sino -Japan engagement because India and Japan have hardly any issues of divergences. The balancing/resetting by Japan in international relations was again exhibited, by the fact that Japanese PM seems to be  “determined” to wrap up talks toward peace treaty based on 1956 declaration with Putin, stipulating the return of two of four northern islands by Russia to Japan, while retaining claim on all four. The self confidence of Japan in balancing act between US, China, Russia and India is noticeable.

South Korean bonhomie with North Korea

South Korea despite being apprehensive of dangerous arsenal of North Korea, continues to be an ally of US. Deployment of THAAD, military exercises with US forces, have caused great anxiety not only in North Korea, but in China and Russia as well. Despite heavy sanctions on North Korea, it continued with its nuclear and missile tests. When President Trump started giving confusing signals of ‘America First’ and asking allies to pay for their security, South Korea was inclined to attempt peace in Korean Peninsula and making it nuclear free. It was successful in seemingly impossible diplomatic exercise of getting together Kim and President Trump together for a summit. As an analyst, I do not count the summit anything beyond optics, as nothing worthwhile has changed in nuclear and long range missiles capabilities of North Korea as well as UN sanctions, but South Korea has improved its relations with North considerably applying the theory of strategic balance. North and South Korea had Summits, exhibiting lot of bonhomie, decided to field one sports team under single flag, started people to people contact, and South Korea started helping North Korea with essential humanitarian needs, where China and Russia joined in to start business as usual with North Korea, immediately after Singapore Summit. The optics of keeping missiles and nukes away from North Korean parade does not mean that it will really destroy the only leverage it has, which is making US talk to him, and condemning Rouhani and Assad, looking for regime change there. Some symbolic destruction of few testing sites by North Korea and destruction of few posts along demilitarized zone does not mean that South has full confidence over North Korea but it clearly indicates that South Korea is balancing/resetting relations between them.

India’s Strategic behavior: Is it different than Balancing/Resetting International relations?

Post Wuhan visit of Prime Minister Modi to China it is being alleged by western media that India has perhaps drifted towards China. In my opinion there is hardly any worthwhile change in Indian strategic behavior. India has a set of convergences and divergences of interests with major global players namely China, USA and Russia. India has so far been able to keep these relations exclusive of each other; hence has been able to successfully manage an independent foreign relationship without any bias. In the turbulent complex environment of today, our convergences and divergences have started impacting each other. India’s differences with China on certain aspects of Sino-Pak nexus, use of global commons in South China Sea, its adventurism in Indian Ocean, and obstruction to Indian entry in NSG can also be viewed as convergence of interests with US. India’s differences with US on trade, tariff, and CAATSA in context of Russia can be seen as convergence of interests with China The silver lining is that US being our strategic partner will like to have well equipped Indian Forces to balance China and Indian connectivity to Afghanistan, in case Pakistan does not serve its strategic interest. The US waiver on Chabahar port and connectivity to Afghanistan, as well import of Iranian oil for next six month is a welcome step by US towards its strategic partner India.

After Indian expression to expand the scope and dimension of QUAD, opening it up to other affected countries, there is a general feeling amongst other QUAD members that India is perhaps getting softer towards China in progressing QUAD agenda. The reality is that India has an independent foreign policy.  In Indo-Pacific, it stands with US, Japan and Australia in checking Chinese encroachment of global common like South China Sea, stands for seamless movement in international water and rule based order. Interestingly none of the QUAD members have common unsettled land borders with China. In land frontier and combating proxy war, India has to fight its own battle with some help from friendly countries including equipment from Russia, Israel, France to name a few, besides Indian friends from QUAD, hence it has to tackle relationship with China in a different manner than other members of QUAD. India therefore has to maintain harmonious relations with all its friends and neighbors to pursue its national interest. Despite such complexities, the silver lining is that the US, as well as China want better relations with India and vice versa. Russia also will not like to give up the largest purchaser of military hardware and a strategic partnership which stood the test of time even in ‘Heated Cold War’ era, hence, with smart diplomacy, India should be able to manage an independent foreign policy in current global environment. The number of bilateral and trilateral meetings attended by India clearly explains the balancing diplomatic exercises carried out by India, as per its National interest. Indian participation in two significant trilateral meetings namely US-Japan-India and China-Russia-India signifies the centrality of India. It clearly indicates the efforts required to balance out relations with two separate groupings which have wide gap in perceptions.

Unilateralism is Outdated/Impractical Concept

There is a growing opinion that US needs to revise its policy of sanctions and CAATSA. The analysis suggests that President Trump’s reintroduction of sanctions on Iran,(with many of its allies still honoring Iran Nuclear Deal), as well as further push on CAATSA (without modification) on countries trading with Russia might edge US towards its own diplomatic/ strategic and economic isolation in the long run . The ICJ decision on 03 October 2018 ordering US to remove any restrictions on the export of humanitarian goods and services to Iran to some extent shows that the world may not always buy US narrative on sanctions. Similarly Chinese aggressive stance in South China Sea will continue to bring resistance in different forms by collective efforts of affected parties, and its purse diplomacy will not work everywhere. Ongoing Trade War, strengthening of Taiwan and military posturing in South China Sea are indicators which will discomfort China.  In interlinked world interactions with all countries wherever their interests converge is the order of the day. Japanese trade with China, visit of Prime Minister Abe to China followed by visit of Prime Minister Modi and Countries pursuing relations with Saudi Arabia despite CIA revelations are some examples of this new normal in future. It is also expected that in a multilateral world of today, no one country will be able to dictate the strategic choices of others or force any country not to act in its national interest in future. It also proves a point that any country, which thinks that it can rule the world all by itself, is sadly mistaken in the future world, which is overly interlinked.

The author is a veteran Infantry General with 40 years experience in international fields and UN. A globally acknowledged strategic & military writer/analyst; he is currently the Chief Instructor of USI of India, the oldest Indian Think-tank in India.

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East Asia

The Demise of a French Sub Deal: Is China a Threat?

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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?   

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Japanese firms’ slow and steady exit is sounding alarm bells in Beijing

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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.  

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How China Exacerbates Global Fragility and What Can be Done to Bolster Democratic Resilience to Confront It

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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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