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Russian Far East and Arctic: Emerging Arenas for India-China Competition?

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In a speech this year in Moscow, Indian Foreign Secretary highlighted the three strategic geographies- Eurasia, Indo-pacific and the Russian Far East (RFE), and the Arctic, which will be the key emerging theatres of geopolitics that upcoming diplomats will be engaged in throughout their careers. He further stressed that not only is Russia crucial to all the three regions, but there is also an inherent need of multi-polarity for the security and prosperity of these regions. Also, a multipolar world and a multipolar Asia is not possible without India and Russia.

Did the Foreign secretary underline the increasing Chinese ambitions in these regions and the need for countering these ambitions by pointing towards the necessity of multipolarity in Asia? Several questions arise when we take in consideration the recent rejuvenation in the relationship between India and Russia, and the narrative that strategic hedging against China is the main motive behind this rejuvenation. 

For answering these, one needs to understand why China is interested in these regions and what has been China doing in these key areas. Further, what are India’s stakes in these regions and whether India can think of competing with China here. Moreover, how Russia looks at the competition if it exists. This piece tries to analyze these questions and highlight the ongoing geopolitical dynamics in the RFE and Arctic and the pertaining Indian and Chinese foreign policies, in their past, present, and future goals.

Importance of RFE and Arctic

Geographically, RFE comprises of the Far Eastern Federal district that is the easternmost territory of Russia sandwiched between eastern Siberia and the Pacific Ocean. The district shares land borders with Mongolia, China, and North Korea to the south and shares maritime borders with Japan to its southeast and with the US to its northeast.

Having never known serfdom, this region has been culturally, religiously and politically different from Moscow and the Russian heartland for a major part of history, by virtue of more entrepreneurism and autonomy. Today there exists an additional dimension to this ‘difference’ between the RFE and the center. In the Soviet period, the region was tied to Europe economically but in past decade it has become increasingly clear that several of the Far Eastern krais and oblasts (units of governance in Russian political system like districts), especially those bordering China are now economically dependent more on Asia than on European region. This situation is compounded by migration related demographic issues. For more than a decade now the region has witnessed exodus of ethnic Russian population and seen a growing influence of Chinese businesses and migrants. The extent of this phenomenon is widely visible as over the years large tracts of land in this region have been leased to Chinese for farming, infrastructure projects and energy exploration, with a low tax regime and a considerable amount of autonomy over the activities. As a result, the region has witnessed  emergence of Chinese run farms which look like fortresses, surrounded by high fences and red flags.

The Arctic is deemed as the northernmost region on Earth. While most part of this region used to remain covered with snow for a major part of the year, this phenomenon has been on a downfall due to changes being purported by climate change. The Arctic region not only contains plethora of mineral resources but is extremely important from strategic point of view. During the cold war era, the Arctic held a prominent place in the political and military standoffs between the two superpowers- US and USSR. The region observed a drop in the geopolitical and geostrategic relevance in the 1990s and remained of ‘low tension’ due to commitments made by the Arctic states to keep the Arctic a zone of peace.

The unfreezing of snow makes way for the possibility of opening of the Northern Sea Route which can provide a cost-effective and shorter duration alternative for global shipping routes. Also, scientific developments taking place in hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation can lead to full-scale utilization of the resource base of the Arctic in near future.

Moscow’s Approach  

Since the rise of Vladimir Putin at the helm of Russian Federation, Moscow’s approach towards development of the RFE has been to inject money into existing industries which according to many analysts of the field has not worked due to the lacunae in addressing the problems of infrastructure and regional integrity. Moscow desires to integrate the region with the broader Asia-Pacific region to solve the problems of development, investment, and connectivity.

 In last few years, Moscow has taken decisions like encouraging the return of Russian ‘compatriots’ from Central Asia to accelerate large scale projects. It has also created Special Economic Zones with low tax regimes, focused on modernizing the ‘Trans-Siberian railway’ network, and emphasized on plans to invite investments in the region from nations like India and Japan, beyond the biggest investor in the region- China.

It has to be noted that any developments in the RFE cannot be in isolation from that in Arctic. With the aim of developing both the regions in concurrence, Moscow created the ‘Ministry of the RFE and the Arctic’ which is now working on creation of a corporation in order to supervise the economy and to assume control over elements like ports and exchanges.  For the Arctic, Russia rolled out its ‘Strategy for Developing the Russian Arctic Zone and Ensuring National Security through 2035’ in October last year, which aims to advance the development of the region’s abundant resources (especially oil and gas), and improve living conditions for the population. As a long-term objective, Russia hopes to establish the Northern Sea route as a new global shipping lane. These aims and policies need to be considered while understanding Chinese and Indian policies and ambitions and the emerging geopolitical triangle between the three countries, resulting in both cooperation and competition.

The India-China Competition

 The perception of China has seen a rise and fall in the last three decades in Russian society. Unlike the 1990s, when there was much skepticism regarding a rise in Chinese immigration, Russia became less wary of engaging with China when relations with the west deteriorated in the aftermath of conflicts in Georgia in 2008 and in Crimea in 2014. Gradually, China became the leading source of foreign direct investment in the region as well as the leading exporter to the districts at the Russia-China border. The extent of asymmetry in terms of trade resulted in a situation where while the exports from this region are diversified among the three northeast Asian states- South Korea, China and Japan, the imports are heavily dominated by China, mainly consisting of machinery, equipment and metals. This imbalance has been further aggravated by factors such as sanctions by the west- leading to declining investment from European nations, and the dramatic rise of China in realm of manufactured goods- which has led to stagnant conditions for the local industries of these regions which are now dependent on export of mainly raw materials and minerals.

As observed by some experts, Beijing’s interest in the region increased after the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 when the Chinese investment was followed by an influx of Chinese migrants in the five districts at Russia-China border, namely- Amur oblast, Jewish autonomous region, Primorsky Krai and Khabarovsk Krai. From amongst these regions, Amur oblast has the largest gold reserves in Russia, while in another near-border district of Oktyabrsky, there are large Uranium deposits. Adjoining Amur is Sakha (or Yakutia), which carries the world’s largest diamond deposits.

 However, mineral resources are not the only source of motivation for Chinese investment in the region. RFE contains huge potential for infrastructure development in realm of power generation (where Chinese electric companies have already shown interest to gain foothold), and upgradation of railway infrastructure which can connect the RFE, Northeast China and Japan with Europe with a land-based network and thus reduce the sea-dependence. Invariably, there has been an increasingly accepted reality that like the Russian Asia-Pacific policy, the policy in RFE too might become lopsided due to the factor of overdependence on China.

 Kremlin on its part remain aware of the increasing dependence on export of raw materials to China. China on the other hand is working actively in diversifying its own energy imports and is now seeking to compete with Russia in realm of exports to traditional Russian markets for weaponry and technology. Ideas like temporary placement of skilled manpower from India in RFE are being explored. Besides this, the pledge by India for a $1 billion Line of Credit for development of the RFE highlights the importance being placed by the two countries to make this region a source of renewed cooperation.  For now, the plans have been in phase of conceptualization and once the implementation stage arrives, China’s stance towards the potential competition here will be interesting to observe.

Unlike the case of RFE, the changing dynamics and increasing Chinese interests in the Arctic region have been debated and speculated much more in the global geopolitical arena. In the last two decades, not only has Beijing accumulated memberships in all Arctic-related regional associations in some form, but Beijing has also made it a surety that China actively participates in all international organizations whose responsibilities cover the Arctic Ocean and laws related to it. To this end in the past decade, Beijing has started projecting its interest and speaking up on issues pertaining to Arctic. The extent of this activism can be verified by the aims and objectives mentioned in the white paper published by China on 26 January 2018, titled ‘China’s Arctic Policy’. This policy paper very explicitly states that China will participate in regulating and managing the affairs and activities relating to the Arctic, and that ‘respect’ is the key basis for China’s participation in Arctic affairs.

Beijing has made it clear that it has formulated policies and have interest in every realm in the Arctic, ranging from development of shipping routes, exploration and exploitation of oil, gas and minerals, conservation and utilization of fisheries, tourism, as well as strengthening her leadership credentials by having a say in Arctic governance. In totality, if RFE is a region for China’s increasing influence in Russia’s domestic landscape, Arctic is much more of an opportunity to put on display the increasing clout and aspirations for being accepted as a ‘great power’ who now has interests in every corner of the world. India, even if starting to present itself as an alternative to China in the RFE, will find it difficult to match the Chinese position in the Arctic.

 In January this year, India rolled out a draft Arctic policy of its own and highlighted that India seeks to play a constructive role in Arctic by leveraging its vast scientific pool and expertise in Himalayan and polar research. India remains aware that Arctic might be becoming an arena of increasing power competition.  But beyond planning, goal setting, and utilizing the existing mechanisms for scientific development, in coming years, the economic base of India will not let New Delhi go all-out for claiming a position on the Arctic high table. This is bound to increase tensions in Moscow who would not want a challenge to its hegemony in the Arctic by an increasingly ambitious China.

Conclusion

 On its part, Moscow has taken several steps to develop the RFE region to reduce its overdependence on China. However, remoteness of the region, outmigration and difficult business environment are some other issues which append the complex dynamic of the region. Beijing is aware of the benefits available due to scarce ethnic Russian labor, lack of investment from other sources for Russia, the geographical difficulties for nations like India for smooth access, and the absence of deep pockets like China for other nations. In case of the Arctic, Beijing is going for proactive diplomacy and wooing the smaller states. Although Beijing would not want to come to blows with Washington or Moscow in any ways, creating a discourse where China starts being seen as a ‘Arctic’ and not just a ‘Near-Arctic’ state will be a big win for China even before any other advantages as mentioned above are realized. India while looking to initiate presence in RFE can be deemed capable to some extent, but the credentials in case of Arctic region seems no match to that of China. Russia on her part, will want India to at least think about trying to punch above its weight and rise to the task of providing Moscow a way for hedging against Chinese hegemonic ambitions. Recently, India has expressed interest in cooperating with other nations like Japan in these key strategic areas. How Moscow responds to these plans by New Delhi will shape the geopolitical dynamics between Moscow, Beijing, and New Delhi in these two emerging regions which look all set to witness a competition in the coming years.  

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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%?

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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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