Connect with us

East Asia

The traditional independence and balance of North Korea



Years ago, while talking with Kim Il-Sung about Mediterranean issues, he told me about an episode concerning a country geographically very close to Italy, namely Albania.

During the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (October 17-31, 1961) – which marked the split between Russia and Albania – the delegation led personally by my friend did not accept Russia’s call to stigmatise the Albanian Communists at all, and not a word of condemnation was addressed to Albania.

Five years later, a delegation from the Korean Labour Party attended – with full honours – the work of the 5th Congress of the Labour Party of Albania (the third in order of importance after the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the Vietnamese Workers’ Party).

The remaining Socialist countries that survived (and did not survive) the three-year period 1989-1991 suffered from major political crises (Madagascar); dissent and economic depression (Cuba, the former USSR); nationalism and irredentism (the countries of former Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Republics, etc.); compromises with the armed opposition (Angola, Mozambique); radical reforms (the former USSR, Mongolia) or structural reforms (Vietnam, Laos), without forgetting the Cambodian civil war (1975-79); and wars between Socialist countries (Ethiopia and Somalia in 1977, Vietnam and China in 1979).

The only regime that survived unscathed the fatal moments of transition of international Communism was the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), apart from the States which, to a greater or lesser extent, adjusted their economic structure – namely the People’s Republic of China, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, etc.

One of the two basic reasons for North Korean resistance is the Juche ideology, lucidly analysed by Antonio Rossiello in an Italian newspaper in 2009.

The vulgate of perfect Marxism-Leninism in the Asian context has never been convincing. Only in the few serious studies which have been conducted so far in Italy on the people’s democracies in the Far East, including Rossiello’s, we can fully understand how the Asian traditions leave only formal room to the effects of the French Revolution.

While, in the West, Maoism somehow differentiated itself from the palingenetic myth of Stalinist Marxism-Leninism, Kim Il-Sung’s thought has never been fully explored because of the ostracism of Italian-style Communism and its priestlings, gallants, lackeys and pseudo-intellectuals.

Undoubtedly, the international position taken by the DPRK over the recent seventy years is the additional cause underlying the country’s internal and external stability.

In practice, for a large part of Asian peoples, the Second World War was a liberation war. In the short and long term, the Japanese message “Asia to the Asians” – aimed at developing the imperial design of Europe’s expulsion from Asia – led to a weakening of the old and new colonialist structures: in this regard, the Chinese revenge (1934-1949) and the Vietnamese redemption (1945-1975) are emblematic.

In the Juche ideology, the word freedom has no liberal-bourgeois, free-market capitalist meaning at all, but it merely means: “homeland without foreign presence on national soil”.

The DPRK (proclaimed on September 8, 1948, while April 25 is the Army Day) was ahead of its time, thus definitively anticipating the mainstays of its balancing policy, suggested and prompted by its contiguity with the two major Communist powers.

On December 25, 1948, Stalin’s Red Army and the Soviet administrative apparata withdrew from the DPRK at the request of Kim Il-Sung.

During the civil war (1950-1953) the DPRK enjoyed decisive Chinese help and support, although not tying itself to China afterwards. Nevertheless, that did not mean an entry into the Soviet or Chinese orbit: in the aftermath of war devastation, the DPRK refused to join Comecon (despite considerable pressure), making its stance public and defending it in clear and principled terms against any form of international socialist division of labour.

It was against that background that the Juche or self-sufficiency idea took shape: “economic independence is also a guarantee to eliminate all kinds of yokes”, in view of sparing the country a destiny as an economic, and hence political, province of one or other of its great neighbours.

When new States gained independence in the 1950s and 1960s, and various African, Asian, Caribbean and Latin American countries appeared on the world scene, the DPRK tried to develop its relations, which were limited to Socialist countries (but not with Tito’s pro-U.S. Yugoslavia).

Hence North Korea’s policy towards the Third World was oriented to diplomatic, economic and ideological goals, initially to gain support and later to improve its standing within the United Nations (of which it was not yet a member).

According to Kim Il-Sung, the Third World could protect North Korea’s interest by striving to gain favourable statements and indispensable votes on issues concerning the peaceful unification of the homeland, as well as facilitate the attempt to enter the Non-Aligned Movement.

Furthermore, the support for liberation movements and for some insurgent groups was seen as a means of creating new State entities that would erode the U.S. power, i.e. militarily oppose the White House in view of its final withdrawal from its zones of influence.

In 1957, the DPRK launched its first trade agreements with Egypt, Burma, India and Indonesia. In 1958 it recognised the Algerian provisional government and later signed cultural agreements with Afro-Asian States and Cuba.

General development aid went to the newly independent countries, which appreciated it very much as it was considered to be unconditional. Demonstrations of solidarity in the case of natural disasters by sending money to the victims were fundamental: in 1958 for the hurricane in Ceylon (Sri Lanka); in 1960 for the earthquake in Morocco; in 1961 for the typhoon in Indonesia and the flood in Somalia.

In the 1960s, the DPRK’s international prestige also increased due to its high level of development and autonomy, with control over resources, nature and the reasons for progress in a former colonial country with only a few decades of independence behind it.

The doubts about the Soviet policy towards the countries on its side in any kind of confrontation with the United States (see the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba), as well as the contrasts between the People’s Republic of China and the USSR in coordinating aid to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam),increasingly convinced Kim Il-Sung to take separate paths.

In this regard, it was one of the countries that provided a major contribution, not only verbally, to North Vietnam and the Viet Cong National Liberation Front (NLF). Its offer to send volunteers, however,  was not accepted by the Vietnamese, despite the presence of South Koreans in South Vietnam. In so doing, the Vietnamese confirmed the aforementioned Asian sense of freedom, i.e. no foreigners.

Finally, Russia’s and China’s concerns over the capture of the American ship, Pueblo, by the North Korean forces (1969) showed Kim Il-Sung that the Soviets and Chinese were much more careful to protect their interests than those of the small “brother” countries.

In the 1970s, with increasing moderation and self-restraint in foreign policy – in view of reassuring the world public of his desire for peaceful unification -in his alliance with the Third World, Kim Il-Sung also accentuated the achievement of the cause of democracy between States, as well as national independence and social progress. Nevertheless, a common past of humiliation and insults, as well as struggles against colonialism and imperialism, was still alive in North Korea’s international activities.

The DPRK was the first country to offer volunteers to Cambodia after the overthrow of Prince Sihanouk (1970), and it also helped and funded numerous Afro-Asian and Latin American liberation movements.

In 1972, however, the North Korean government – except for military assistance to the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front– stopped active support to the movements (maintaining political solidarity with them) in favour of a systematic campaign to obtain widespread diplomatic recognition. In fact, it preferred to assist already established realities, namely Egypt, Malta, Mozambique, Seychelles, Uganda, Lesotho, etc.

The results were not long in coming: in 1973 it was granted observer status at the United Nations, as it was already a member of the World Health Organization. In August 1975, the Lima Conference of the Foreign Ministers of Non-Aligned Countries accepted the DPRK’s candidacy (while South Korea’s was rejected).

The efforts made directly at the United Nations achieved a great symbolic success, as for the first time a document recognizing North Korea’s position won a majority. That year, the General Assembly adopted Resolution 3390 B (XXX) of November 18 by 54 votes to 43, with 42 abstentions and 4 absentees, calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops present in South Korea under the UN flag and the opening of negotiations between the United States and the DPRK (the South Korean government was ignored).

Between 1975 and 1979, the DPRK kept on concluding new economic, scientific, transport and cultural agreements with emerging countries, leading up to the 6th Labour Party Congress –that opened on October 10, 1980 – which, faced with new international problems, clarified the traditional policy line without misunderstandings or compromise formulas.

North Korea denounced Vietnam’s intervention in Cambodia (1978) but distanced itself from the Khmer Rouges, and did not invite Cambodian delegations to the Congress. Only a message from Sihanouk, who lived in the capital, was accepted.

When asked, some leaders made it clear that they had never approved of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, but that they did not want to take an official stance because it was “of no use”. During the Congress, they confined themselves to denouncing the “dominationistic” tendencies (the word “hegemonistic” was avoided because it was used by the Chinese against the Soviets).

Great importance was given by Kim Il-Sung in his report to the Non-Aligned Movement. The President rejected the Cuban theory whereby the Movement would be the natural ally of the Socialist camp, stating that “the aligned countries should absolutely not follow one or the other bloc, nor let themselves be influenced or allow divisions within them”.

Those statements were accompanied by an attitude of openness towards the parties of the Socialist International. Considering the many and large European socialist delegations invited, it was clear that the DPRK wished to attend the Socialist International meetings as an observer.

Although some Socialist parties (the German SPD) were more hostile than others to the nature of the regime, they remained sensitive to the will always expressed in those years and shown in the position taken during the first Gulf War (1980-1988). North Korea supported Iran – the victim of the attempted Iraqi invasion – by providing the attacked country with weapons and advanced technology at a time when Saddam Hussein had the United States, Russia and China on his side. The DPRK, Syria, Libya and Albania were the only countries to support Iran, which had the world against it.

In 1991, the two Koreas were admitted separately to the United Nations: the consensus was expressed at the opening of the 46th Ordinary Session of the General Assembly (September 17). That came about because the DPRK had decided on May 28 to permanently relinquish the principle of single confederal representation, following South Korean successes in gaining assurances from China and the Soviet Union that they would withdraw their vetoes on its candidacy.

A historic event took place at the end of 1991. The two Korean Prime Ministers, Yon Hyong Muk (for North Korea) and Chung Won Shik (for South Korea), signed a treaty of non-aggression and conciliation in Seoul on December 13, formally putting an end to the state of war that had existed since the Armistice (July 27, 1953).

The agreement re-established communications, trade and economic exchanges, and allowed for the reunification of families separated in the aftermath of the conflict (June 25, 1950). It also established the presence of a joint garrison in Panmunjon, along the demilitarised zone. That was the first step towards the unification of the peninsula, which was desired by both governments, albeit in different terms.

The positive outcome was first of all due to North Korea’s decision (expressed just twenty-four hours before the signing of the agreement) to relinquish the idea of negotiating only with the White House, as the counterpart of the Armistice. It was clear that the United States did not want to give in to North Korean diplomatic attempts to consider the Republic of Korea as one of its dependencies.

Over and above easy enthusiasms, distrust and mutual suspicions persist. The very permanence of U.S. forces (under the UN flag) – feared by North Korea – was reconfirmed by the then Secretary of Defence, Dick Chaney, in November 1991.

There are currently 28,500 U.S. military in South Korea. It is the third largest contingent of U.S. soldiers abroad – a figure that does not coincide with the typically Asian sense of freedom: Japan (53,732); Germany (33,959); South Korea (28,500); Italy (12,249); the United Kingdom (9,287); Bahrain (4,004); Spain (3,169); Kuwait (2,169); Turkey (1,685); Belgium (1,147); Australia (1,085); Norway (733), etc.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

Continue Reading

East Asia

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



The conflict between emerging and existing powers is almost as old as time.  Labeled the Thucydides Trap, it first recounted the 5th century BC Peloponesian war and its inevitability as Sparta, the dominant power, feared the rise of Athens.  Is something similar about to transpire between the US and China?

The latest war of words is about nuclear submarines.  When armed with ballistic missiles, they become a hidden mortal danger.  So the US also deploys nuclear attack submarines which shadow rival nuclear ballistic submarines … just in case.

Australia was in the process of acquiring 12 French conventional attack submarines (a deal worth $37 billion) when the US and UK stepped in with the AUKUS deal.  Intended to counter China, it offers Australia  advanced nuclear propulsion systems and an opportunity to construct nuclear subs of their own with the technology transfer.  Australia will then become the seventh country in the world to build and operate nuclear submarines.

The fear of the ‘yellow peril’ is ingrained in the Australian consciousness from the days when they were afraid of being swamped by Chinese immigrants.  It led to restrictive immigration policies for non-whites. 

Much of the concern with China is due to the forceful nature of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s policies.  In Xinjiang the Uyghur population is a minority in its home province due to the influx of Han Chinese.  Moreover, Uyghurs feel discriminated against, in jobs and the progress they can make.  Some have rebelled causing many to be put in re-education camps where there are tales of torture although denied by Chinese authorities.  Biden has declared it a genocide and introduced sanctions on leading Chinese officials there. 

China’s proactive foreign policy, renewed interest in Afghanistan, its warships patrolling all the way across the Indian Ocean to Africa are further evidence.

The new Afghan leaders, at least many of them, spent their exile in Pakistan giving the latter influence with the new government.  And Pakistan is effectively a Chinese client state.  The mineral wealth of Afghanistan, if it is to be developed, is thus likely to include Chinese help.

The UN General Assembly holds its first debate of the new session on the third Tuesday of each year; the session then runs through to the September following.  As leaders converge, one of the questions being asked of those involved in AUKUS is how they are going to pacify an angry France.  It has recalled its ambassadors from Australia and the US — in the latter case a move without precedent in almost 250 years of diplomacy.

If the French feel the Australians have been duplicitous, the Australians for their part claim they are obligated to do the best for the people who elected them.  The new deal brings jobs, technology and a greater role for Australia in dealing with an increasingly powerful China

It would be a great shame if the West in trying to shore up its interests in the Indo-Pacific region loses a crucial ally — France — at the very least in wholehearted support.  Is Mr. Xi smiling and quoting some ancient Chinese proverb, perhaps Lao Tzu, to his colleagues?   

Continue Reading

East Asia

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



Last year in March, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had indicated Japan would initiate measures to reduce the country heavily relying on China for factory production. Since July 2020, Japan has rolled out subsidies totaling over 400 billion Yen to move its enterprises out of China to Southeast Asia and beyond. It is yet to be seen if the scale of incentives has actually triggered a major change in where Japanese companies relocate production.  On the other hand, experts in China continue to wonder why would Japanese companies which are on average making 17% profit diversify into the ASEAN nations, where in 2019, their rate of return on direct investment was a mere 5%?


In less than ten days, Japan is going to have a third prime minister within a short span of twelve months. On September 1 last year, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe resigned on health grounds, Yoshihide Suga was chosen as Abe’s successor. At the time, China’s leadership did not show any worrying signs as the new Japanese leader was expected to continue with the foreign policy of the previous government. But one year later, Suga’s unexpected departure is leaving Japan’s diplomatic relations with China considerably strained over Taiwan. Yet the leadership in Beijing is not going to lose sleep over the next prime minister’s public stance on the Japan-Taiwan “alliance.” What China will be closely watching is how many more billions of Yen and for how long a new leader in Tokyo will carry on with rolling out subsidies to lure away Japanese businesses out of China?

Interestingly, on assuming office Prime Minister Suga had promised continuity in domestic policies and that he will respect Abe’s foreign policy. However, Suga’s promised commitment to further improve relations with China was viewed differently in the People’s Republic. Writing in an article on the day Yoshihide Suga took office in Tokyo, Zhou Yongsheng, professor of Japanese studies at Beijing’s China Foreign Affairs University, observed: “[Under Suga] Japan will continue to align with the US as far as international relations and security affairs are concerned, and continue to back the US policy of containing China It is under these preconditions that Japan will seek cooperation with China.”

In sharp contrast, reviewing Suga’s foreign policy performance after two months, NIKKEI Asia’s foreign affairs analyst Hiroyuki Akita wrote in November 2020: “Suga has not said much publicly about his views on diplomacy but he has urged his aids to continue Abe’s diplomacy as it is at least for one year.” Akita gave a thumbs up to this approach and recalled a Japanese saying to describe it: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, not everyone agreed with Akita praising Suga’s brief record in diplomacy as flawless. Having spent seven years in the Abe cabinet as Chief Cabinet Secretary, Suga’s image was that of “a fixer, not a leader.” Suga did everything in diplomacy in his early phase as the prime minister what Abe had been espousing for the past seven years.

But as Toshiya Takahashi, professor of IR at Shoin University in Japan had predicted within a few weeks of Suga becoming the top leader, “Abe’s shoes were too big for Suga to fill.” Why so? Mainly because unlike Abe, not only Suga was not ideological, he was also far less diplomacy driven. “Suga is not an ideologically driven revisionist — he is a conservative politician, but his attitude has no relation to ideology. He does not seem to hold any specific cherished foreign policy objectives that he is willing to push with all his political capital in the way that Abe did in 2015 with the passage of the security-related bills,” Takahashi had commented.   

To observers and experts in both Japan and China, Prime Minister Suga’s (he will relinquish office on September 30) non-enthusiastic approach to foreign policy might have much to do with the current state of strained relationship between Japan and China. Asahi Shimbun opinion poll last year claimed foreign policy and national security as among the two most popular elements of Abe’s legacy. No wonder, critics in Japan have been pointing out that Suga’s cabinet did not have the luxury and support Abe enjoyed in foreign affairs of having in the government someone like Shotaro Yachi – the former secretary general of the National Security Secretariat. In China too, reacting to Suga’s first policy speech after taking office, scholars such as Lü  Yaodong, Institute of Japanese Studies, CASS in Beijing had observed, “Suga seems not to be as enthusiastic about China-Japan ties as Abe. Compared with Abe’s administration, Suga may walk back China-Japan ties.” (Emphasis added)

Remember, as already mentioned, the LDP had succeeded in pursuing policy of (economic) cooperation and avoiding confrontationist diplomacy with China under Abe. But Suga government’s failure to effectively fight coronavirus pandemic and its perception that China was increasingly becoming aggressive in SCS, are being cited as reasons why Japan was compelled to take strong steps against China. It is too well-known by now how Tokyo angered Beijing by referring to the importance of Taiwan to regional security in the recently released 2021 Defense White Paper. In fact, a Chinese scholar had warned as early as within a month of Suga taking over as prime minister from Shinzo Abe, saying that “Japan will take a more offensive stance against China over maritime boundary disputes under the incitement of the US” (emphasis added).

Hence, it is of extreme import to mention here China’s top diplomat Wang Yi’s recent trip to four ASEAN nations. Apparently, the second visit by the Chinese foreign minister in quick succession in the neighborhood had aroused the global media attention as it was soon after the recent visit to the region by the US vice president Kamala Harris. However, according to a Chinese commentator, Wang Yi’s recent visit to ASEAN countries must be viewed in the context of the region turning into a “battle ground” for rising economic one-upmanship among big powers. “Just a day after Wang Yi’s departure, Vietnam reached an agreement on defense equipment and technology cooperation with Japan,” the commentary noted.   

Furthermore, whilst under the previous Abe government, Japan consistently increased its investments in the ASEAN nations, except in the year 2016, all through from 2014 until last year, Japan’s investment in the region far exceeded that of China’s. Contrary to his vows, since coming into office in September last year, especially following his meeting with President Biden in the White House in April this year, Prime Minister Suga’s quiet agenda has been to confront China in both political and economic arena. In Japan, the Suga agenda was interpreted by analysts as “rebuilding Japan-US industrial chain, decoupling economic ties with China.”    

A policy report released by Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) in March 2021, revealed three important facts: first, in the year 2019, total Japanese investment in ASEAN nations stood at USD 265.5 billion – 14% of the country’s overall overseas investment, i.e., USD 1,858.3 billion.; second, in 2000, Japanese investments in ASEAN totaled USD 25 billion as against its USD 8.7 billion investment in China – a gap of USD 16.3 billion. Whereas in 2019, Japan invested USD 135.2 billion more in ASEAN as compared with China. As pointed out by one Chinese analyst, this gap is hugely significant, especially as the overall size of the ASEAN economy is a little over one-fifth of China’s GDP; third, followingthegovernment’s new strategy last year to encourage Japanese businesses to move out of China to new locations in ASEAN nations, the new guidelines also entailed reducing investments into China. A large part of the investments was diversified into ASEAN markets.

Finally, what is beginning to worry the Chinese authorities is the trend and direction of slow exodus of Japanese businesses out of China going back to Japan and towards Vietnam and Indonesia on one hand, and widening gap in Japanese investments between ASEAN and the PRC, on the other hand. At the same time, it was beyond anyone’s imagination in China that Japan would be acting foolish and risking “economic security” by diversifying businesses and investments into less profitable “barren” markets. But then who could anticipate what political and economic policy-rejigging coronavirus pandemic would bring about?

Overall, China’s more immediate and bigger concerns are firstly the sudden departure of Prime Minister Suga – in spite of Suga having made it clear he had no will to change or reverse “decoupling” policy he had been pursuing, and secondly, whoever emerges as the new leader of the four contenders by the month-end, analysts in Japan believe Tokyo is unlikely to change its “anti-China” political and economic policies.  

Continue Reading

East Asia

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



Authors: Caitlin Dearing Scott and Isabella Mekker

From its declared policy of noninterference and personnel contributions to United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping Missions to its purported role in mediating conflicts, China has long sought to portray itself as a responsible global leader, pushing narratives about building a “community of common destiny” and promoting its model of governance and economic and political development as a path to stability. This narrative belies the reality. Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-style “stability,” whether to protect Belt and Road Investments (BRI) or regimes with favorable policies towards China, in practice facilitates authoritarianism and human rights violations, contributes to environmental degradation and corruption, and undermines democratic governance, all of which can fuel instability, intentionally or otherwise.

In pursuit of its true goal – “a world safe for the party” – China has leveraged its diplomatic and economic power to weaken  the international human rights system, bolstering support for illiberal regimes, contributing to democratic decline and exacerbating global fragility in the process. Nowhere is this more apparent than in conflict-affected contexts.

Conflict Resolution, CCP Style

Although China brands itself as a ‘promoter of stability, peace, and unity’, its very definition of stability is built on its authoritarian model of governance. This, plus its concerns about non-interference in its own domestic issues, informs its conflict resolution approach, which emphasizes host state consent and political settlement, two-ideas that can be laudable in theory, depending on the context. In practice, however, China’s conflict mediation efforts in some instances have provided support to incumbent regimes who are perpetuating violence and conflict, promoting a  ‘stability’ that disregards the voices of vulnerable populations and the need for inclusive governance. In the case of the Syrian civil war, China’s “political solution” meant maintaining China-friendly Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power, while blocking resolutions condemning the regime’s brutality against its citizens. 

“Stability” promoted by China can also come at the expense of human rights. China (and Russia) have previously pushed for cuts to human rights positions within peacekeeping missions, endangering the capacity of these missions to protect civilians in conflict.  In Myanmar, where the military is committing unprecedented human rights violations against its own citizens, China initially blocked a UN Security Council statement condemning the military coup and other international efforts to restore stability at a time when a strong international response was much needed. This was in line with China’s previous engagement in the country, working closely with the military regime to “mediate” conflict near the Chinese border in a way that preserved China’s interests and influence, but did little to actually address conflict. After a growing humanitarian crisis began to threaten its investments on the Myanmar side of the border, however, China changed rhetorical course, showing where human rights violations stand in its hierarchy of stability.

Advancing China’s Interests, Undermining Governance

China’s policies in fragile states mirror its unstated preference for expanding its economic and political interests, even if securing them sidelines the stated imperative of addressing fragility. In some instances, China has lobbied for UN policies in conflict-affected contexts that appear to support its own agenda rather than – or sometimes at the expense of – peace. According to the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission’s 2020 report to Congress, “China has shown an apparent willingness to leverage its influence in the UN peacekeeping operations system to advance its economic interests in African countries, raising the possibility that Beijing is subverting UN norms and procedures in the process.” Per the report, the most notable example of this was in 2014 when China lobbied to expand the UN Mission in South Sudan to protect oil installations of which the China National Petroleum Corporation held a 40 percent stake.

Moreover, China’s pursuit of its interests sets up countries on unstable trajectories. China’s economic investment policies and initiatives exacerbates governance deficits and increases fragility by encouraging corruption, facilitating authoritarianism and human rights violations, and contributing to environmental degradation, all key drivers of conflict. Two cases from Nigeria and Pakistan highlight the point.

In Nigeria, China’s investment projects have exacerbated corruption and fueled distrust in local government – key drivers of conflict and intercommunal violence in the country. China has exploited poor regulatory environments and worked within illegal and corrupt frameworks, often tied to armed groups and criminal networks. In one illustrative example, China state-owned timber trading companies  offered bribes to local officials to illegally harvest endangered rosewood. Members of local communities have cited feelings of exploitation by officials accepting bribes from Chinese businessmen, further stressing fragile ties between local government and citizens. Such business practices also demonstrate a blatant disregard for the environmental consequences of illegally harvesting endangered flora and fauna. Moreover, the inherently opaque nature of these projects that are tied to CCP interests makes it difficult to demand accountability.

Similarly in Pakistan, a 62-billion-dollar project known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) aimed at linking Xinjiang to the Arabian sea, has exacerbated tension in conflict-affected provinces. The project plans to build infrastructure and extract resources from several less developed regions, while overwhelmingly benefitting industrial and political hubs such as Punjab. Many provinces, including Balochistan and Sindh, have accused political elites of altering the route of the corridor in their own interests, thus further marginalizing their communities. Separatist groups have launched several attacks throughout the country, not only fueling conflict between Pakistani ethnic groups but also leading to attacks against Chinese expatriates. Recently, prominent voices from within China have called for a military intervention in Pakistan. CPEC has increased military presence throughout small villages, sparked an uptick in violent conflict along the route, and further eroded trust in local government institutions.

These cases may of course signal more opportunism and indifference by China to the impact of its engagement on stability in any given country, as opposed to an explicit attempt to undermine democratic governance (as it has done elsewhere in support of pro-China interests). Regardless of the intent, however, the impact is the same. China’s focus on political leverage and profits first and foremost undermines stability – and China likewise can benefit from instability in states with corrupt politicians interested in trading local resources for short-term political gains.

What Can be Done: Bolstering Democratic Resilience to Address Fragility and Foreign Influence

Foreign authoritarian influence has a compounding impact in conflict-affected contexts, further undermining governance structures, institutions, and processes that can mitigate or exacerbate fragility.  Good governance, on the contrary, can not only help countries prevent and manage conflict, but can also help countries address the myriad challenges associated with foreign authoritarian influence. Strong democratic institutions help societies respond positively and productively to threats both domestic and foreign.

Targeted investment in democracy in conflict-affected contexts vulnerable to foreign authoritarian influence offers an important opportunity for utilizing the Global Fragility Strategy in support of US foreign policy initiatives and advancing the Biden Administration’s policy priorities to tackle climate change, prevent authoritarian resurgence, confront corruption, and prevail in strategic competition with China.  An investment in support of democracy and good governance to address any one of these issues will reap dividends across each of these issues – engaging in conflict prevention and stabilization programming will both advance global democracy and advance US goals vis-à-vis China and other authoritarian rivals. Such investments, which must be long-term to account for the compounding impact of foreign authoritarian influence in already fragile environments, should include:

  • Supporting governments, civil society, and citizens to better understand, expose and counter foreign authoritarian influence, particularly in conflict-affected contexts where data and research efforts can be challenging. An understanding of China’s playbook is critical to countering CCP influence operations;
  • Helping independent media to investigate and expose foreign authoritarian influence and how it fuels conflict, whether through training, financial support, or other protections of the civic and information space, to raise public awareness of the impact of such engagement on conflict dynamics and promote transparency and accountability in dealings with foreign actors;  
  • Developing evidenced-based tools to prevent and mitigate foreign authoritarian influence in fragile contexts;
  • Strengthening electoral institutions, political parties, legislative bodies, and judiciaries to uproot elite capture and mitigate malign influence;
  • Leveraging diplomacy to build political will and incentives for government officials to resist foreign malign influences. Such diplomatic efforts can include increased outreach and contact with countries previously neglected by the US – but prioritized by China – and public diplomacy to both expose the CCP’s misleading narrative and advance narratives about what democracy can deliver;  and
  • Coordinating with similarly-minded donors such as the European Union, Japan, and Australia, to implement a unified approach to match the scale of Chinese investment and maximize the impact of any intervention.

Only democracy can help countries navigate the nexus of domestic and foreign threats to their stability. In the era of COVID-19, authoritarian resurgence, and climate crisis, supporting countries to develop these “resilience” fundamentals is a sound – and necessary – investment.

*Isabella Mekker is a Program Associate with IRI’s Center for Global Impact, working on countering foreign authoritarian influence and conflict prevention and stabilization programming.

Continue Reading