BOGOTA, Colombia – Carlos Martinez joined the Colombian military at the age of 17, a minor who had to obtain his parents’ written permission to enlist.
“I didn’t have many options. There aren’t a lot of opportunities in this country for someone like me who grew up poor,” he said, “but war will always be profitable.”
Martinez spent almost 10 years on active duty in the army, eventually joining an elite special forces unit that fought armed groups and drug traffickers in the Andean countryside.
Colombia, which currently boasts some 250,000 active-duty armed forces personnel, produced millions of soldiers like Martínez during its five-decade conflict with guerilla groups, as well as its ongoing campaign on the front lines of the so-called War on Drugs – both efforts heavily subsidized by the United States.
“We are trained to kill,” Martinez told WPR. “There is no other way to describe it.”
The problem for Colombia, though, is where do these trained killers go when they leave the military? Lacking the skills necessary to readapt to civilian life, many become private security contractors, a euphemism for mercenaries that became widely used during the US war in Iraq.
Colombian mercenaries have been spotted in nearly every conflict-stricken corner of the world, working legally as contractors in Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan, or training cartels in Mexico. They are in high demand because of their reputation as well-trained and battle-tested fighters, with considerable combat experience in guerrilla warfare and other complex security environments.
In addition to its large and capable military, Colombia has a long history with more informal paramilitary groups from across the political spectrum. Rebel groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – better known as the FARC – and the National Liberation Army, or ELN, battled not only against the Colombian armed forces, but against private militia groups organized by government supporters as well.
All of these entities have been guilty of grave human rights violations, but that has not stopped some of them from marketing their battlefield experience. Some paramilitary veterans drawn from groups that supported the Colombian government during the civil war were even hired to help defend Honduran landowners in the aftermath of the country’s 2009 coup.
US military involvement in Colombia has only enabled the growth of its private security contractors. Under a joint operation known as Plan Colombia, which began in 2000, the American and Colombian governments funded and trained both the Colombian military and paramilitary groups to fight drug traffickers and rebel groups like the FARC.
“The US military pioneered this trend [of using private contractors] in Colombia even before the Iraq and Afghanistan wars made the issue well-known globally,” said Adam Isacson, director of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America, an NGO that specializes in human rights issues in the region. “As part of the drug wars in Colombia, they began hiring outsiders and private companies to fulfill military roles.”
The private security industry took a big reputational hit in 2007, when armed guards working for Blackwater, founded by Erik Prince, massacred 17 Iraqi civilians and injured 20 more in Baghdad. But Prince continued to expand his empire, reaching an agreement to build a private standing army in partnership with Saudi Arabia in 2011.
The corporate mercenary industry had gone global, and some of its most attractive recruits were Colombian veterans and ex-paramilitary members.
“The selling point was not only that Colombian soldiers were ‘battle tested,'” said Sergio Guzman, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a research and consultancy firm in Bogota. “They had worked with US special forces. They had been trained by US advisers.”
Another factor adding to the appeal of Colombian veterans to the private security industry, Guzman added, was that “they were cheaper than their North American counterparts.”
And that attraction was mutual. Colombians with battlefield experience found that as foreign security contractors, they were able to earn 10 times what they could at home, and former fighters flocked to the industry.
The economic draw of private contractors created a “brain drain” for the Colombian military, with Washington footing the sizeable bill.
“The US was effectively paying three times to train these contractors,” said Guzman. “They paid to train someone, who would then leave to work for a US company in the private sector, also paid for by the US, and the absence of the soldier meant [the Colombian military] had to immediately train someone else.”
The turnover became so bad that the US insisted the Colombian military modify its contract, so that soldiers had to fulfill a minimum period of service before leaving for the private sector.
Not all soldiers dream of becoming mercenaries, however. “I would never work as a contractor,” said Martinez. “To me that’s just more paramilitarism, which is something that has torn my country apart. But many of my colleagues couldn’t retire fast enough to take military jobs abroad in the private sector.”
According to one Colombian veteran, who worked for years as a security contractor in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, there is a culture surrounding paramilitary fighters in Colombia – known locally as paracos – that enables the growth of the private security industry.
“Paraco culture, sadly, has become a national culture,” he told WPR. The veteran asked that his name be withheld to avoid potential issues with his current employer.
“We all grew up in it. After more than half a century of conflict, it has become normalized,” he continued. “And unfortunately, some of those who are part of that culture have less scruples than others when it comes to deciding which jobs to take.”
The phenomenon is likely to continue. With Washington’s backing, the current Colombian government led by President Ivan Duque has ramped up the military’s anti-drug trafficking efforts.
Duque has also slow-rolled the implementation of the government’s landmark 2016 peace agreement with the FARC, which was signed by his predecessor, and the promise of peace remains a mirage for large parts of the country.
In the FARC’s absence, other armed factions, including offshoots of some of the same paramilitary groups that received US funding in the past, simply moved into the vacuum.
“There will always be an economic impetus for more Colombian fighters,” said the Colombian veteran who currently works as a contractor. “We have become very good at what we do.”
And due to an extreme lack of transparency in the industry, as well as varying legal frameworks in the countries in which they operate, there will always be a gray area where unethical private entities hire these soldiers of fortune.
They include the shadowy firm that calls itself the Counter Terrorist Unit Federal Academy. Run by a Venezuelan exile from a small warehouse in Miami, it hired the Colombians awaiting trial in Haiti for allegedly killing the president.
“The armed forces in Colombia are made up of people who didn’t start with advantages,” said Martinez, who is now a reservist. He said his current salary from the government is about twice the minimum wage, which is roughly $264 a month.
“Some of us feel we have no choice [but to work as mercenaries], but we do,” he added. “There are other options.”
However, the continued expansion of the private sector seems to confirm Martinez’s sentiment. War is profitable.
Joshua Collins is a freelance journalist based in Bogota, focused on migration and violence. Follow him on Twitter @InvisiblesMuros.
Parker Asmann is a journalist who writes about human rights, security policy and organized crime across Latin America and the Caribbean. Follow him on Twitter @PJAsmann.
For the past four decades, a narrative has taken hold among policymakers and the general public alike suggesting that China’s rise will continue indefinitely, even when mathematics and demographics suggest otherwise.
Between the 1980s and the turn of the millennium, this notion was fueled by China’s astonishing double-digit growth. In more recent years, although expectations of growth have been tempered, hopes for and fears that China is on the rise both politically and militarily have given the impression that Beijing’s progress is unstoppable.
In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, even had to remind readers that “China is not ten feet tall,” and that “the United States remains the stronger power in the US-Chinese relationship.”
There is no doubt that China has had economic successes, not just in the COVID-19 period, but also over the past two decades and more.
The country’s reinvention of itself as a major innovator in technology; its development of a foreign direct investment strategy through the Belt and Road Initiative; and its experimentation with ideas like digital currency in its domestic market have created a unique ecology for economic development.
But China’s growth is not going to be a linear story of infinite extension. The 2020s will be a crucial decade for the nation as it readjusts to being a richer – but not, per capita, rich – older and more resource-deprived country.
Even China’s own policymakers have expressed concerns for the near future, both explicitly and by implication. The Chinese Communist party, or CCP, seems to realize that the good times may not roll on forever.
From 2030 onward, the country will begin to feel the effects of the One-Child Policy imposed by the CCP in the late 1970s. Though that restriction officially ended in 2015, giving way to a two-child policy and, very recently, a three-child policy meant to increase birth rates, China’s population is likely to shrink by 48% by the end of this century, from 1.4 billion in 2017 to 732 million in 2100, according to a projection published in The Lancet.
Meanwhile, severe droughts in northern China have caused significant drinking water shortages and fears of food insecurity, even as new, major cities are being built there.
There is little likelihood that China’s economy will collapse, as some of its more apocalyptic detractors suggest, or perhaps hope. However, observers should be skeptical of the idea that China will continue along its current trajectory indefinitely.
The 5-year plan
Although the Chinese Communist Party’s messaging these days presents China as a “confident nation,” its newly endorsed Five-Year Plan details many areas of concern – food insecurity, increased defense spending, sustainable development and the significant debts incurred by local governments.
In doing so, it reveals a caution underlying the exuberant rhetoric. And the plan’s significance goes beyond its policy prescriptions. It also reveals a wider ideological shift in which China’s Marxist-Leninist political framework has become ever more explicit.
Of course, China has been a communist country since 1949, when Mao Zedong capped off the decades-long Communist Revolution by founding the People’s Republic of China. But from 1978 on, China entered an era of reform, spearheaded by Deng Xiaoping, during which it implemented economic reforms to achieve “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
Along the way, the new leadership downplayed the importance of the state’s ideological foundations in favor of a loosely defined pragmatism. Deng spoke of “crossing the river by touching the stones” to describe the kind of experimentation that marked the reintroduction of market mechanisms to the country’s economy.
In contrast, in recent years, the Marxist-Leninist strand in Chinese political thinking, never absent, has become much more noticeable, with the Marxist element underpinning many of the state’s economic assumptions and the Leninist element guiding its approach to political control.
The framework that current Chinese leader Xi Jinping and other top leaders use to frame China’s dilemmas draws increasingly on classic Marxist terminology such as “struggle,” or douzheng in Chinese, and “contradiction,” or maodun; the former, when invoked, can relate either to China’s current global standoff with the United States or the party’s desire to purify itself domestically through anti-corruption reforms.
Last year, the Chinese state media outlet Xinhua even used the term “rectification” to describe intraparty reforms in certain cities, bringing to mind the first usage of the term, by Mao, amid his ruthless campaign to remodel the party in his own image in the 1940s.
More explicitly, in an August article for the CCP’s political theory journal Qiushi, Xi took pains to point out that the “foundation of China’s political economy can only be a Marxist political economy, and not be based on other economic theories.”
His goal was to reject the idea that “capitalism,” a term that the CCP firmly associates with a Western system they perceive to have failed, has any connection with the economy of today’s China, even though the accumulation of capital is central to its strategy.
Xi also commonly refers to key societal “contradictions,” a part of Marxist theory drawn originally from the German philosopher Hegel, that was also greatly beloved by Mao. “Contradictions” refer to crucial differences between the needs and wants of unequal social classes, which can be either “antagonistic” and resolved through “struggle,” or “non-antagonistic” and resolved through debate.
For Xi, one of the major “contradictions” today is how growth can be both sustainable and green, since up to now, economic progress has concentrated purely on GDP without much assessment of the quality of life associated with that growth.
This is a challenge China shares with the rest of the world, to be sure – but few ruling parties other than the CCP define sustainable, green growth in such explicitly dialectical terms, to use another bit of Marxist terminology.
Leninism is namechecked with less frequency than Marxism, but it is visible throughout the political style of today’s leadership. The philosophy depends on top-down political control and the ruthless exercise of state power to achieve wider social goals. The civil society and social media networks that emerged during the early 2000s have since been heavily repressed, a tactic that Lenin would have easily recognized.
These are not abstruse observations. They relate to the way the CCP will implement its Five-Year Plan in reality and explain many decisions taken in the past decade as China’s politics has become more top-down and heavily controlled.
In addressing the many issues listed in the plan – from reforming the financial sector to implementing green growth – the CCP will rely on the exercise of party-state power.
Hopes from the 1990s that China will liberalize its markets – or indeed its politics – must give way to acceptance that a “socialist market economy” is a real model in both theory and practice. And in that system, when the liberal confronts the Leninist – that is, when there is a choice between greater economic freedom and greater political control – the CCP’s choice will almost always be for political control.
Ideology in practice
How successful has China’s approach been so far – and how will this reaffirmed Marxist-Leninist devotion affect its trajectory going forward?
The country has made a remarkable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, with an 18.3% growth rate in the first quarter of 2021. Consumer behavior is steadily returning to normal in many areas, including in the entertainment, hospitality and domestic travel industries.
Nonetheless, CCP leadership is concerned about the pressure from outside forces, notably the United States, that mean China no good.
In response, they have placed a “dual circulation” strategy at the heart of the Five-Year Plan, which aims to reduce reliance on overseas supply chains in favor of domestic production and to stimulate domestic consumption while remaining a significant exporter to the world.
The contradictions in the strategy, which demands a large export surplus and increased domestic consumption, have not been resolved. China’s workers still have relatively little to spend compared to their counterparts in other emerging economies, so if the state hopes to boost domestic consumption, it will at some point have to make the hard decision to give them more cash.
But then there will necessarily be a period when China exports less, until production levels can meet the rising demand at home. Doing so isn’t impossible to pull off, but it will mean making some difficult economic and political choices that, in a democratic society, would at least be debated. In China, they will likely be imposed without a proper discussion of how this particular contradiction can be resolved.
Meanwhile, the complexities of China’s global initiatives will also come to the fore in the 2020s. The Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, the state’s foreign direct investment strategy adopted in 2013, has been a mixed bag of positive and negative outcomes. Its infrastructure projects in Sub-Saharan Africa provided badly needed capital, even as lending to countries like Pakistan has enabled the building of coal-fired power stations that will exacerbate climate change.
The strategy behind the campaign also fosters a reliance on Chinese contractors and manufacturers, which has led many in the West to characterize the BRI as a form of Chinese imperialism. But the real problem with the initiative is that the money is too frequently funneled into financially high-risk investments, such as the project to build a high-speed rail line in Laos.
So instead, in the 2020s, the BRI is being reoriented to focus on technology and health, bringing together the areas where China has – or expects to have – advantages over its competitors.
This shift has involved the mass rollout of Chinese COVID-19 vaccines in countries like the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia, as well as the provision of cheap 4G and 5G networks. The latter is heavily subsidized, requiring customers to weigh their desire for efficient broadband against fears that installing Chinese equipment may create pathways for the CCP to conduct industrial espionage.
The West, once more, sees dangers in this approach – but their political priorities are often less of a concern for Global South economies that need support to recover from the coronavirus pandemic right now, and not in a decade’s time.
Furthermore, China’s approach to technology development, which combines the capabilities of the civil and military to innovate for both markets, is likely to find a massive, untapped market in the 2020s among emerging economies that want cheap technology suited for middle-class lifestyles and products that can serve for either defense or internal repression.
But in the tech arena, too, the CCP is balancing its desire for growth with its desire for social control. One recent focus of attention has been the increasing prominence of China’s antitrust regulators, notably the Anti-Monopoly Enforcement Agency. Its powers have been updated and made more prominent in 2021, and its most high-profile victim has been Jack Ma, founder of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, which was recently hit with a $2.8 billion antitrust fine by state regulators who want to see the behemoth split up into smaller, competing entities.
At first, the regulators’ strategy brings to mind former US President Theodore Roosevelt’s campaigns to break up powerful monopolies in the early 1900s, including, most prominently, US Steel. But in the Chinese case, even if giant tech majors like Alibaba, Huawei, Didi Chuxing, Meituan and Tencent are broken up into seven or eight competing companies, the one-party state will remain in control, with party members at the helm of each new entity.
The breakups would provide greater competition and – crucially – more, not less, leverage for the CCP in the domestic market. The liberal notion that competition creates the market is close to the opposite of the Chinese strategy, in which government is the deciding factor. And so far, in China, this alternate approach seems to be working.
There is also a performative motive behind this antitrust campaign, in addition to the economic one. For the past decade, the only Chinese figures with genuine global reach, glamour and credibility have been the tech innovators and marketers, in particular Alibaba’s Jack Ma and Pony Ma, the founder of Tencent, the technology conglomerate behind the messaging app WeChat.
With the recent public pressure on Alibaba and Tencent, the CCP has made clear that no individual Chinese person should be seen to be bigger than the party – with one exception: Xi Jinping. If the concentration on party over market forces creates economic distortions, too bad.
Hong Kong is another area being subjected to the new Chinese model. The city’s liberal economy and civil liberties once made it especially attractive to foreign investors, and analysts once believed this economic value would protect the city from the repression found in mainland China.
But, in the wake of a national security law implemented in July 2020, Hong Kong’s legal and financial systems are likely to work more closely with those of southern China in the coming decade.
Shenzhen, a major Chinese city just across Hong Kong’s border, is now home to one of the liveliest tech ecologies in China. The value of Hong Kong, meanwhile, has become less about its role as a global financial center and more as an entry point for venture capitalists looking to cash in on the mainland’s burgeoning tech sector.
China will try to redefine “one country, two systems” – the policy that previously allowed Hong Kong a degree of democracy and openness – as “one country, two economies,” while using economic revival in Shenzhen and elsewhere in the southeast as proof that its implementation of a “socialist market economy” has been successful.
Struggle in the new decade
To be sure, there are several known unknowns standing in China’s way in the decade ahead. The first and most unpredictable problem is one the country shares with the rest of the world.
Last year’s hopes that the COVID-19 pandemic would be swiftly defeated with lockdowns and quickly developed vaccines were clearly over-optimistic. Given its low case numbers and economic recovery, China’s domestic situation is better than that of many other countries, at least for now, but it still faces systemic problems that muddy the picture.
And China has a problem that no other sizeable economy does. Pandemic performance in the US, Brazil, India and across the European Union has been very poor at times – but the extent of this underperformance has always been relatively clear. The governments of these countries collect and publish sufficient information to make known the reality on the ground, and to allow governments and experts to assess what needs to be done in order to return to something like normal.
Outside observers and investors will find it difficult to make such an assessment about China. The anecdotal impressions have been impressive – there is no doubt that China has done a good job in repressing the pandemic – but precise infection figures are hard to obtain, as is peer-reviewed information about the efficiency of the Chinese-developed vaccines.
This makes calculations about how fast China will recover in the medium term challenging and unreliable. China has never been a liberal society, but before the pandemic, its economy was well-connected to the outside world, with millions of visitors coming in and out for business and tourism. It’s hard to imagine a version of this cosmopolitanism returning until 2023 at the earliest.
Chinese antagonism – another good Marxist term – toward the US is driven in large part by a crucial similarity between the two countries: They are the only ones that tell apocalyptic stories about themselves and each other, often claiming that only one of their systems can endure in the longer term.
But the 2020s are likely to be more prosaic for China: Its economy will likely grow and may even become the world’s largest by GDP, but growth alone will not address the challenges it faces in areas as different as the environmental crisis to the undereducation of rural workers.
More lurid scenarios, much debated in policy circles, are possible as this decade unfolds – ranging from a climate catastrophe that would make life in newly-built cities all the more difficult to the outbreak of war with the US over Taiwan.
In either of these cases, it is likely that China’s prospects would darken quickly – and given its ties to economies across the developing world, it would take the world’s stability and security with it as it fell. The fall of China in the 2020s would be a lot more problematic than its rise in the 2010s.
But since its founding a century ago, the CCP has proven itself a remarkably flexible institution, changing from a command economy into a capitalist behemoth – despite its ideological aversion to capitalism – and drawing on advice from figures as far apart as Lee Kuan Yew,* Milton Friedman and Henry Paulson. Its incarnation in the 2020s may yet surprise us too.
*Editor’s note: The original version of this article incorrectly spelled Lee Kuan Yew’s name as Lee Kwan Yew. WPR regrets the error.
In the wake of the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas, Israel remains in the spotlight for the civilian casualties and widescale destruction of civilian areas caused by its attacks on Gaza.
Like most democracies whose air wars kill large numbers of civilians, Israel claims the moral high ground. Though acknowledging that the harm caused to civilians was regrettable, Israel argues that its armed forces took all feasible precautions to avoid it, while taking care to aim their strikes at Hamas military targets.
By contrast, according to Israel, Hamas was targeting Israeli civilians directly and intentionally.
But this kind of thinking misses an important point in the laws of war. The requirement to avoid indiscriminate attacks is more than just an injunction against targeting civilians directly.
It also prohibits attacks using weapons systems that would be incapable of being directed at a specific military objective in the particular context of their use, because their effects cannot be limited or are of a nature to strike military and civilian objects without distinction.
The rule prohibiting indiscriminate attacks, found in Article 51 of the 1977 Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, was the basis for banning anti-personnel landmines, biological weapons and chemical weapons, among others.
But it is also a general principle meant to guide targeting practices even where specific weapons systems have not themselves been explicitly banned. And it is a rule worth considering as the international community assesses the actions of Israel in Gaza and the wider question of how to apply humanitarian law in urban spaces, in particular.
This conversation is already taking place in high-level forums. By coincidence, the Israel-Hamas conflict occurred just ahead of this week’s previously scheduled discussions at the United Nations on the organization’s Protection of Civilians mandate.
And as highlighted in a briefing to Security Council ambassadors on the issue by the UN’s emergency relief coordinator, Mark Lowcock, the choices of weapons systems and target contexts by belligerents have significant implications for protecting civilian lives during conflict.
What observers are rightly beginning to ask is whether it can ever be reasonably claimed that it is possible to use explosives discriminately in urban areas. That is because explosive weapons in densely populated urban areas simply cannot be used in a precision manner or be limited in the ways envisioned by the Geneva Conventions.
As Lowcock pointed out Tuesday, 90% of the people killed when explosive devices are used in urban settings are civilians, compared to 20% when they are used in rural areas. Even the most carefully conducted attacks using explosives have wide area effects.
Civilians are harmed by shrapnel, shock waves and fire. They are buried in rubble. Even if they survive, the destruction of civilian property and infrastructure claims lives.
Israel and Hamas are hardly alone among states and nonstate actors in using or implicitly condoning the use of aerially delivered explosives as a weapon of war in ways that cause disproportionate civilian harm.
Russia’s BM-21 Grad is the most widely deployed multiple-rocket launch system in the world, capable of firing 40 rockets in 20 seconds over a wide area and designed to deliver fragmentation effects. The United States continues to reserve the right to use – and arm countries, like Saudi Arabia, that do use – cluster munitions, a form of weapon that releases bomblets over wide areas, causing numerous explosions in a way that cannot be aimed precisely at military targets.
On the other side, even among armed groups whose goal is to engage security forces rather than civilians, nonstate actors often use mortars and improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, in ways and under weather conditions that render them more inaccurate.
But even explosive weapons that are designed to be as precise as possible and are deployed with attention to minimizing casualties often harm nearby civilians or destroy infrastructure needed for civilian health and survival.
In Gaza, for example, hundreds of civilians were killed and over 1,000 injured by “precision” weapons Israel claimed were aimed solely at Hamas. Moreover, over 100,000 civilians were displaced, with massive damage to essential infrastructure including power-generating plants, water treatment facilities and hospitals.
As the Costs of War Project at Brown University documents, when one accounts for the civilian casualties from preventable disease, hunger, violence, displacement and loss of livelihoods, the toll becomes much higher than that reported during the initial conflict.
The inherently indiscriminate effects of explosive violence in urban areas, which is generally used by both sides of a conflict, has drawn attention in recent years from humanitarian disarmament NGOs.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC, is also seized of the dangers to civilians of explosives used in populated areas. In a recent blog symposium on urban warfare, the ICRC echoed these concerns and committed to “stepping up its engagement” in this area – a sign that the issue is becoming a more urgent priority on the international agenda.
With the UN Protection of Civilians discussions in New York coming to a close on May 28, humanitarian advocates hope that diplomats will continue to discuss measures to address this matter, including a Political Declaration committing to avoid using explosives in urban spaces.
These conversations are not happening because of Gaza. They are the result of normative currents that have been percolating in global civil society for a long time. But ironically, the timing of the Gaza conflict – coming just before the UN discussions began – may have become an illustrative impetus raising the salience of this issue on the global scene.
Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science and legal studies at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, specializing in human security and international law. She tweets @charlicarpenter. Her WPR guest column will appear every other Friday.
Yet, governments of Muslim-majority countries have so far largely refrained from criticizing China over its actions in Xinjiang. Why? There are justifiable fears that their relations with Beijing would suffer if they condemned the repression of the Uyghurs.
China had yet to begin constructing the network of internment camps – which it euphemistically calls “education and training centers” – in Xinjiang, but a diverse range of officials and politicians in Ankara were still vocal about the oppression of the Uyghurs, whom they refer to as “eastern Turks.”
Turkey’s secular nationalists viewed solidarity with a fellow Turkic-speaking people as an important priority, while the Islamists of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party framed the Uyghurs’ plight as a pan-Islamic cause for Turkey to defend.
Yet due to growing Chinese investment in Turkey – as well as the geopolitical fallout of the failed Turkish coup of 2016, which prompted Ankara to pivot away from its Western allies and build closer ties with China and Russia – Turkey’s leadership has muted its stance on Xinjiang in recent years.
In Iran, which recently signed a comprehensive cooperation agreement with China, few high-level political figures are willing to speak out on Xinjiang. Ali Motahari, a former Iranian lawmaker, is one of them. He complained in August 2020 that Tehran has remained silent on the “complete eradication of Islamic culture” in western China, due to fear of rocking the boat with Beijing.
In an interview with a local media outlet, Motahari said he had asked a Foreign Ministry official about the issue and was told the government needs to be silent “due to economic needs.” In light of Iran’s efforts to further integrate its economy with China’s through its cooperation agreement, it is safe to assume that Tehran’s position will not change, particularly if the US is leading the charge against China.
At the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos, Prime Minister Imran Khan acknowledged that Pakistan’s close economic ties with China played a major role in shaping his government’s approach to Xinjiang. “China has helped us,” he said. “They came to help us when we were at rock bottom, and so we are really grateful to the Chinese government.”
Such statements are significant considering Islamabad’s indirect role in boosting the salience of Islam among the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. China and Pakistan partnered to build the Karakoram highway, one of the highest-altitude paved roads in the world, which was completed in 1979.
Also known as the China-Pakistan Friendship Highway, it connects Xinjiang with the Pakistan-administered province of Gilgit-Baltistan. This has led more Uyghurs to be exposed to the Saudi-inspired conservative interpretations of Islam that are prevalent in Pakistan, encouraging more overt expressions of religiosity in Xinjiang.
Many Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries also have important roles to play in implementing China’s ambitious infrastructure development strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, which seeks to build regional trade and transport connectivity.
These countries, many of which are ruled by autocratic regimes, understand that there are no human rights litmus tests that must be passed to cooperate with Beijing on its projects. This approach is welcome for countries like Saudi Arabia, which have faced pushback in the West due to their human rights abuses.
Authoritarian regimes in the Middle East also have deep concerns about political Islam, which may factor into their decisions to give Beijing a pass on Xinjiang. Their support, in turn, gives China valuable political cover from governments of Muslim-majority countries, especially those that claim religious authority in the Muslim world, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
These two countries, along with the United Arab Emirates, claim to promote “moderate Islam” – an approach that, in practice, is used to discredit any expression of Islam not sanctioned by the state. The demonization of non-state-sponsored forms of Islam aligns conveniently with the objective of the Chinese government: to characterize expressions of faith among the Uyghurs as potential signs of dissent, violence or even terrorism.
Given its own concerns about the perceived threat of Islamist activism, the UAE has been particularly supportive of China’s “Strike Hard” campaign in Xinjiang.
When the UAE’s de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Zayed, visited Beijing in July 2019, President Xi Jinping thanked him for his country’s “valuable support” when it comes to Xinjiang. Mohammed bin Zayed told Xi that the UAE would be willing to work with China to “jointly strike against terrorist extremist forces.”
A host of Middle Eastern governments also have concerns about their own separatist movements, which pushes them further into the pro-China camp on this issue.
“Beijing claims that the Uyghur controversy is a Western-propagated conspiracy aimed at hindering China’s progress by creating ethnic minority divisions within its borders – similar to the situation in many Arab states, where governments tend to view Kurdish and other minority movements as Western-fueled attempts to sow internal strife and separatism,” Haisam Hassanein, a former fellow with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in 2019. “Arab and Chinese leaders alike are firm believers in suppressing any such movements within their borders.”
Uyghurs seeking to flee China are generally safer in Western countries than in the Muslim-majority states of the Middle East. Yet the relative difficulty of gaining entry to countries in Europe and North America has left Uyghur refugees with few safe havens.
A final factor in Muslim-majority states’ tepid approach to Xinjiang is Global South solidarity. Segments of many Arab and African countries see China as an anti-imperialist power and for this reason would oppose their governments joining the West in attacking Beijing for its human rights abuses.
When 22 mostly Western countries issued a joint statement condemning the treatment of Uyghurs in 2019, 37 other states, mostly from the Global South, signed a letter to the UN Human Rights Council praising China’s contributions to human rights.
“In many countries, criticizing China is the new blasphemy,” wrote Nick Cohen, a columnist for The Observer. “Nowhere can you see the power more nakedly displayed than in Muslim-majority regimes.”
Indeed, from the perspective of these governments, the parallels between China’s goals and their own increasingly make Beijing a more attractive partner than Washington. This means that the Uyghurs will continue to find greater support from Western nations than from governments comprised of their fellow Muslims.
Annelle Sheline is the research fellow for the Middle East at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Follow her on Twitter @AnnelleSheline.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy that focuses on the Middle East. His writing has been published by Al Monitor, LobeLog and the Middle East Institute. Follow him on Twitter @GiorgioCafiero.
The organization’s global diffusion recently led a group of leading terrorism experts to describe ISIS as an “adhocracy,” better understood as a group of “structurally fluid organizations in which ‘interacting project teams’ work towards a shared purpose and/or identity.”
By maintaining this structure, the group’s leaders seek to harness the benefits of a transnational network spanning multiple regions and continents.
“All politics is local,” as the famous saying goes. But in the 21st century, all conflict is global, and organizations like ISIS are well-positioned to leverage the capabilities of its affiliates worldwide.
Another way to think about the Islamic State is as a venture capital firm. It is the investor that provides much-needed resources to the affiliates – or “provinces,” in the organization’s lingo – with the best potential for a high rate of return.
ISIS then gains an “equity stake” and can tout the success and momentum of its new startups. Armed groups that are sponsored by ISIS central in this way reap the benefits its operational and organizational capabilities, including financing, training, weapons, propaganda support and strategic direction.
Nowhere has this venture capitalist approach been more successful than in sub-Saharan Africa. A United Nations report from last year identified the Islamic State’s affiliate in Somalia as the “command center” for a “triad” of jihadist organization in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique, thereby linking its operations in East, Southern and Central Africa.
At the same time, ISIS involvement inevitably transforms the character and nature of affiliates, as evidenced by the beheadings committed by the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province, which mirror ISIS core’s brutal calling card.
Sub-Saharan Africa has long been in the crosshairs of groups waging global jihad. And with other areas of the world receiving the lion’s share of attention from Western counterterrorism forces, both al-Qaida and ISIS have taken advantage of the opportunity to grow their presence in the region.
Jacob Zenn, a scholar of African jihadist groups, has highlighted the importance of sub-Saharan Africa as a region where ISIS can achieve “breakout capacity,” or the ability to generate and maintain a high operational tempo of attacks.
ISIS provinces in West Africa and Central Africa respectively have the potential to conquer and hold territory in the Sahel and along the continent’s southeastern Swahili coast, in a manner similar to what ISIS core was able to achieve in Iraq and Syria during its peak.
The Islamic State’s shifting attention to sub-Saharan Africa should be seen as part of a deliberate strategy in a region where it is far easier to work across borders than in other parts of the world.
Throughout this process, what were once perhaps purely local groups can take on a transnational dimension to varying degrees. Even as they remain primarily driven by parochial concerns and grievances, ISIS affiliates can evolve to become more global in nature.
Several African jihadist groups have noticeably changed the way they fight after becoming ISIS affiliates, in some cases involving both tactical improvement and strategic evolution. These groups are now capable of launching more complex operations and are featured more prominently in ISIS propaganda.
The devastating attack on the town of Palma in March, which killed dozens of people, had some of the hallmarks of classic ISIS attacks, included the beheading of foreigners and the targeting of Western economic interests. It forced the suspension of French oil giant Total’s $20 billion liquefied natural gas project and related offshore exploration activities near Palma.
With a war chest possibly consisting of upward of $100 million, ISIS will maintain the ability to consistently seed new ventures and enhance existing ones, particularly those displaying progress.
The international community will need to pay close attention to see where the Islamic State is funding new affiliates, and where already existing branches or provinces are displaying improved skills and capabilities in an effort to blunt the impact of what has been, at least to date, a highly effective approach to keeping the “caliphate” alive.
Colin P. Clarke, PhD, is the director of policy and research at the Soufan Group, a global intelligence and security consultancy headquartered in New York City.
South Koreans often refer to their country with a famous proverb: “In a fight between whales, the shrimp’s back gets broken.” But rather than a shrimp, Seoul is betting that it can become a dolphin, giving it more agency and maneuverability as competition heats up between the United States and China.
Getting it right would allow the country to balance its security alliance with the United States along with its economic dependence on China. Getting it wrong would see South Korea alienated in the region, distrusted by both Washington and Beijing. This balance will prove difficult, but South Korean leaders are unlikely to stop trying.
Upon taking office in 2017, Moon faced a Chinese economic pressure campaign in 2017 over his predecessor’s decision to install the US-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system, known as THAAD. He sought to normalize relations with Beijing by agreeing to the “three no’s” – no more THAAD deployments, no South Korean integration into a regional US missile defense system, and no trilateral military alliance with the US and Japan.
More importantly, though, the focus on Moon’s presidency misses the broader trends in South Korea’s foreign policy. Moon and his fellow progressives are not alone in seeking a middle ground between the United States and China.
There are virtually no prominent conservative national security experts in South Korea calling for the country to openly side with the United States in an anti-China coalition. Doing so would put the country’s economy at risk, as South Korea exports more to China than it does to the US, Japan and the European Union combined.
Even if a conservative candidate wins the 2022 presidential election, South Korea’s approach to relations with the US and China will remain unchanged. After all, it was Moon’s conservative predecessor, Park Geun-hye, who attended China’s parade to commemorate the end of World War II in 2015 – the only democratic leader on the stage with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.
The prospect of aligning with the US in an anti-China coalition is made even more unlikely by the view – common among South Korea’s progressive and conservative foreign policy elites alike – that Washington is an increasingly unreliable partner. The economic coercion campaign that China undertook following the March 2017 deployment of THAAD, which the United States heavily pushed for, eventually cost South Korea an estimated $7.5 billion.
There is now serious concern that Trump – or someone more organized and dangerous – could return to the White House in the future, putting the alliance in serious jeopardy. That possibility cannot be dismissed out of hand, reinforcing South Korea’s preference for maintaining maneuverability.
On the other hand, a closer alignment with China is also improbable, due in part to public attitudes.
In Chicago Council polling, China’s favorability rating in South Korea is now on par with North Korea and Japan. This decline is largely driven by the economic coercion campaign that followed the THAAD deployment, as well as ongoing battles over sensitive cultural and historical issues.
Moreover, 60% of South Koreans say that China and South Korea are mostly rivals. Majorities from members of the two main political parties – the ruling Democratic Party (54%) and the conservative People Power Party (63%) – agreed, as did majorities from all age cohorts.
Not only do South Koreans see China as a rival, they also view it as more of an economic threat (60%) than an economic partner (37%) and as more of a security threat (83%) than a security partner (12%). However, only 51% of South Koreans say that China’s economic power is a critical threat, and 53% say the same about China’s military power.
Far more people view declining birthrates (81%), climate change (76%) and North Korea’s nuclear program (62%) as critical threats.
That should not be taken as evidence that South Koreans are naïve about China and its intentions, however. Nearly nine in 10 say that China will seek to displace the United States either in the Asia-Pacific (28%) or in the world (60%).
Ultimately, there may not be a pressing need for South Korea to closely align with either great power, as it is not standing idly by in terms of its own defense. Under the supposedly dovish Moon administration, the country saw its two biggest year-on-year defense spending increases in its history, with an 8.2% increase in 2019 and 7.4% in 2020.
Roh Moo-hyun, the last progressive president before Moon Jae-in, presided over construction of a deep-water naval port on Jeju island, South Korea’s southernmost point. The advance of the South Korean navy is in part a natural outgrowth of South Korea’s growing security interests around the world. But Seoul also has one eye on China and its territorial ambitions.
South Korea is in an unenviable position, and it will face growing scrutiny as it seeks to balance its economic and security interests. But the growth of its own national power has opened up previously closed spaces as it seeks to swim – not idly float – among the whales. Its ability to strike that balance will depend on not getting its tail caught.
Karl Friedhoff is the Marshall M. Bouton fellow for Asia studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @KarlFriedhoff.
WPR: By now, most everyone is familiar with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, which are decentralized. And of course, digital payments have become pretty much ubiquitous. But I think it’s fair to say that the concept of a central bank digital currency has yet to seep into the mainstream. So could you first enlighten us about how China’s new digital currency works – what it is and what it’s not?
Yaya Fanusie: As you said, people are used to Bitcoin and people know a lot about digital payments, because we all pay for things digitally. But a central bank digital currency is something a little bit different. Bitcoin is a decentralized digital currency that no one controls; it’s independent of any government and anyone can participate.
Digital payments, as we know them, basically involve private banking infrastructure where private banks have central bank money, and then they allow you to transact, but it’s really their infrastructure that you’re participating with. So, you have a relationship with that private bank. You don’t really have a relationship with the central bank.
But now, with the advancement of technology, governments see Bitcoin and are expressing interest in it, because Bitcoin solves some interesting problems around how to move value digitally. Central bankers also see that private companies are really involved in people’s commerce and everyday transactions.
This is especially the case in China, which has wanted to figure out a way to have a digital currency that was run by the central bank. So, not like Bitcoin, which is independent and decentralized.
Beijing was concerned about the digital payment space, which you may know is very big in China. The central bank has felt that private digital payment companies are way too powerful. So years ago, they started to think about how they could create infrastructure where the money is actually digital, but it is run by the central bank. Now, what does that look like? We don’t know the details.
In fact, the central bank has been pretty clear that a lot of this is still being worked out. But what we do know the general framework: The People’s Bank of China is going to create the digital currency, and then it’s going to distribute it to banks and to private companies. Those banks and companies will basically have wallets, they’ll have software, and people will transact with the digital currency through those wallets.
But the big difference is that unlike regular digital payments, the thing that they’re transacting with is going to be the central bank money itself, digitally. Not just the applications that they were transacting with through the private companies.
WPR: How far along is China’s digital Yuan relative to similar initiatives in other countries? Because this isn’t something that China is alone in working on, right?
Fanusie: Lots of governments are actually looking at exploring and researching the idea of a central bank digital currency. They’re looking at the pros and the cons, but China is probably the foremost of big economies in terms of actually developing something. They started researching back in 2014, and then roughly a year or so ago, they actually got to the point of doing trials.
What they’ve done over the past few months is they’ve distributed this digital currency via a lottery system to certain citizens in certain cities. And they’ve given them the equivalent of, let’s say, 31 US dollars in the digital yuan, or digital renminbi. They have actually just done these trials – I think it’s maybe half a dozen or more cities that are participating – and I think millions of dollars worth of this currency has transacted over the past few months.
They’ve also taken certain municipal government workers and they’ve allowed them to get some of their salaries paid in this digital currency.
So, I’d say it’s relatively far along, but the key milestone that China is looking at is the 2022 Winter Olympics, which will be held in Beijing next February. The government is saying that they would like to roll out more of this digital currency by then. Not that it will be out universal, but that’s certainly a milestone that they’re looking towards.
WPR: I believe I’ve read some testimonials of people who have been selected for this lottery, and they’ve said that the currency is pretty easy to use and that they like the utility of it so far.
Fanusie: Yeah, I think so. And that’s probably because it’s not that different than mobile payments that they’re already using, since most people in China are not using cash that much. They’re already using digital payments, so it’s possible that for them, it doesn’t make that much of a difference. But for the central bank, it makes a big difference.
You may wonder, if it’s not so different for the consumer, why would the central bank want to do this? Well, the reason is that it’s really about data, and there are a couple of ways to look at this. One is maybe a very positive way, and one is a little bit more cynical.
When you have a central bank digital currency, if you’re a central bank, what this means is that if you create the currency, as people transact, you can actually observe the data. You can have insight as to when people are spending and what’s happening. How much is this currency circulating? What happens when you implement a certain monetary policy? How does that change consumer spending?
The data is available, because people are using the currency that is connected to your infrastructure. In today’s digital payments, that access doesn’t exist. Let’s take an example from the US, with Square or Venmo. All of those transactions are happening, but the government here in the US doesn’t have access to that data immediately. There’s a multilayered process where companies would report back to the government.
But in China, the digital currency is going to allow for a lot more collection of data, which goes with the Chinese Communist Party’s desire to have a more data-driven economy, to collect more data and to use it for monetary policy, but to also to use it for analysis and even surveillance.
WPR: It’s incredible to think about because China’s already such an advanced surveillance state, probably the most advanced in the world. What kind of new data do you think Beijing would be able to collect with this digital currency?
Fanusie: Some of it is new data, but probably most of it is not necessarily new. It is the efficiency of collecting the data. What is different is that we’re talking either real time or near-real time observance of people’s spending. In the current system, obviously the Chinese government is strong, and it can go to companies – and it does – and say, “Hey, show us the transactions of person X, or company X, and hand over this information to us.”
That’s how the government gets its access to financial data now. But what would be different is that the government wouldn’t necessarily have to go to all these different banks and all these different companies to compel them to hand over the information. The payment instrument that people would be using would be within their data house, in a sense.
The Chinese government is now saying that it’s going to anonymize this data, which I wouldn’t take at face value. But even so, the big plus for them is going to be that they’ll be able to see all of these transactions happening, even individual wallets. Whoever is using this, their activity will be seen in at least real time, or maybe relative real time. This is access that doesn’t exist anywhere.
As much as people think about big brother, and they think that they’re always being watched by their government, it’s honestly just not possible technologically for governments to track everyone’s digital payments in real time. because the infrastructure is set up in such a bifurcated way. So this is a huge barrier breaker in terms of collecting financial transaction data.
One thing I should probably also mention is that what this also does is it gives the Chinese government more levers to pull. If the government has access to this digital currency and it’s held with the central bank, you’d be transacting with it, but it’s really a central bank instrument that you’re holding and that you’re transacting in.
If you think a few steps in advance, I think what this means logically is that it would be easier for the central bank to turn off access to that. Right now either the government has to go to companies and say, “Block off this person, close their account.”
But I think the way this is going to work is that they’ll have centralized access. They’ll be able to say, “All these digital Yuan, let’s make them inactive.” Or, “Let’s stop transactions from being able to go into these particular wallets,” or “these particular digital bank nodes are going to be null and void.”
Logically, I think that’s what this infrastructure is going to lend itself to. It then gives the government maybe more power to influence citizens, to take punitive measures and to even look at party members and see exactly how they’re spending. There are lots of implications for domestic control that this technology lends itself to.
WPR: It wasn’t long ago that digital payments and digital currencies were being viewed as maybe one of the best tools to fight corruption in the world, given that with each payment, there was a digital footprint that could be traced. But I don’t remember anyone at the time saying, hold on a second, let’s take a step back and imagine what might happen if one centralized authority is able to collect and monitor all of this data at the same time around people’s payments.
Fanusie: It’s funny, because that sentiment has actually been growing in private circles, especially in the tech community, because of Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies. These decentralized cryptocurrencies are usually public, and all of the transactions can be read and accessed on a public online ledger.
So even though it’s pseudo-anonymous, people can look at a Bitcoin wallet or a Bitcoin address and they can see all the transactions. There’s really no barrier, they just don’t necessarily know who is making the transactions.
For a while, a lot of people have been concerned that if you attach identities to the Bitcoin blockchain, then that could really ruin privacy. Because if you know my address, now you can look and you can see how much I’m spending. You could see how much is in my account. So, there’s actually been a push for privacy within the cryptocurrency community.
What’s interesting is that now that central banks are thinking of a digital currency, even though it’s not going to be public, there is maybe even more of a concern about privacy. If a central bank has a digital currency and all these transactions are on a record, then that central bank could track and maybe see your transactions forever, depending on how you’re going to design this and what privacy safeguards you put in place.
There are all these concerns that the government could have access to someone’s past, present and future transactions, depending on how they design privacy in a central bank digital currency. So, this issue is not going away.
While tensions between Israel and Iran have been omnipresent in the Middle East for decades, the prospect of open military conflict between the two countries has never seemed closer than it does now.
Over the past few months, the two rivals have escalated an undeclared naval war featuring unclaimed attacks on Israeli- and Iranian-owned ships. At the same time, Israel has continued its air strikes on Iranian weapons shipments transiting across Syria, and a damaging explosion on April 11 at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility was widely attributed to Israel.
All of this comes against the backdrop of US President Joe Biden’s efforts to hold talks with Iran in order to explore the possibility of reviving the 2015 nuclear deal or crafting a new agreement to rein in Iran’s nuclear program.
The last time friction arose in the US-Israel alliance over Iran, it was in the leadup to the Obama administration’s eventually successful negotiations that led to the crafting of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, as the multilateral nuclear deal is formally known.
Israeli officials’ concerns at the time were about both substance and process; they complained about being kept in the dark about the secret American overtures to Iran that preceded the formal negotiations, and the Israeli security establishment was almost uniformly of the view that the deal fell short in a number of critical areas.
Israel was concerned primarily about the JCPOA’s sunset clauses – which allowed some of the deal’s restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment and overall uranium stockpile to expire over a 15-year period and progressively loosened the inspection and verification measures between years 10 and 25 – as well as the lack of restrictions in the deal on Iranian research and development for key nuclear and ballistic missile technologies.
In the eyes of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his advisers, the deal’s formula meant eventually assenting to an Iranian nuclear weapons capability, not blocking it.
The Israelis also believed that negotiating solely over Iran’s nuclear program was mistaken, as the deal did not address Iran’s non-nuclear regional aggression and support for terrorism, and that any deal that did not counter what they saw as Iranian belligerence writ large was inadequate.
Some in Israel, including Netanyahu, went even further, arguing that no deal with Iran was acceptable irrespective of its contours. Netanyahu made this point clear in his address to a joint session of the US Congress in March 2015, warning against the US entering the JCPOA.
With the advent of the Trump administration, the US and Israel were brought into alignment on Iran and the JCPOA. One of Donald Trump’s signature moves as president was to withdraw from the JCPOA and enact a campaign of “maximum pressure” on Iran in the form of increased sanctions, policies that were supported by Netanyahu.
But while the JCPOA commanded little support within the Israeli security establishment, once it was finalized, the predominant view was that Israel was better off with the US remaining in the deal than withdrawing from it.
The deal was panned as widely flawed and there was no confidence in complete Iranian compliance, but Israel still found that the temporary reprieve from worrying about an imminent Iranian breakout capability allowed it to focus to great effect on countering Iran’s non-nuclear activities.
The facts that Iran dramatically expanded its nuclear capability during the period after Trump’s withdrawal from the deal, and that the US maximum pressure policy did not cause the fall of the regime in Tehran, also gave some Israeli security officials pause.
As a result, the Israeli national security establishment is not as uniformly opposed to the US engaging in talks with Iran as it was when Obama embarked on a similar venture.
One camp, led by Netanyahu, still views any deal with Iran as foolhardy and wants to do everything possible to arrest Iranian nuclear ambitions through direct action.
While most Israeli security experts view recent actions that have been attributed to Israel – such as the multiple explosions at Natanz and the assassination of Iran’s leading nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, last November – as legitimate and necessary to roll back Iranian nuclear gains, for Netanyahu, they may have the concurrent benefit of raising the stakes for Iran in a way that makes it harder for the regime to negotiate with Washington.
Entering talks are more politically difficult for Iran’s leaders if they are seen as capitulation to pressure. This in turn leads Iran to make demands, such as removing all sanctions before it agrees to talks, that are designed to get a political win but are unlikely to be met by the US
Other Israeli security figures, such as Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, appear to prefer working with the US and trying to improve any theoretical new deal while dissuading a return to the JCPOA.
This camp has been influenced by the benefits Israel felt during the JCPOA’s abbreviated tenure. As such, it is focusing on improving the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, specifically by urging the US to eliminate any sunset clauses and negotiate hard limits on Iranian nuclear research rather than focusing solely on enrichment levels and centrifuge deployment. (Of course, whether Iran would agree to such stringent terms is another matter.)
Their thinking is that the Israel government’s open confrontation with the US during the Obama era was a tactical mistake that did not end up benefiting Israel’s interests vis-à-vis Iran, and that if Biden is determined to negotiate a deal, Israel’s aim should be shoring up the cracks that characterized the last one.
This camp, which includes former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, favors following up the JCPOA with a new, stronger agreement that has a longer time horizon. This approach is motivated not only in wanting to put Iran’s nuclear program back into a box – even if it is a rickety one – as quickly as possible, but also in wanting to stay in America’s good graces and work with the US rather than against it.
So far, the US and Israeli governments have worked hard to avoid the type of fallout between the two allies that occurred in 2015. The Biden administration has made a concerted effort to keep Israeli officials in the loop and to improve regular coordination and consultation at high levels, despite its grumbling about Israeli military action that is raising the temperature in the region.
Israel, meanwhile, has made a concerted effort to cut off public criticism of the Biden administration’s approach and its desire to explore a deal, despite Israel’s disappointment that Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran has been abandoned and its clear skepticism about what it views as the Biden administration’s naivete.
Whether the two sides can continue to manage their differences is an open question; what is certain is that the US and Israeli approaches will remain misaligned. That means Israeli actions against Iran’s nuclear program are likely to continue, no matter the status of US-Iranian negotiations.
Michael Koplow is the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum.
Signed with great fanfare on March 27, during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Tehran, the deal does provide Iran with a political and rhetorical win in the context of its ongoing negotiations over the revival of the 2015 nuclear deal.
Beyond the optics of the agreement with China, though, the substance follows the same playbook that Beijing and Tehran have developed over decades of bilateral relations: agreeing to deepen ties but on vague terms that are scant on details and concrete commitments.
The deal itself has not been made public, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif took pains to highlight that the agreement with China was not a treaty, removing the requirement for parliamentary approval. He also denied that it outlined any specific figures – despite reports of $400 billion in promised Chinese investments – or obligations for either side.
Leaders of the two countries first publicly discussed their growing partnership when Chinese President Xi Jinping went to Iran in 2016. During the visit, Xi and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, pledged to expand their bilateral ties and to boost two-way trade from $32 billion to $600 billion over the next 10 years – an ambitious goal.
Xi agreed to increase Chinese investments in Iran’s energy, infrastructure and even nuclear sectors. The plan also covered greater defense and military cooperation, something Iran was starved for after a decade-long arms embargo. But notwithstanding these pledges, progress on building ties remained slow.
Reports of a formal 25-year strategic partnership to deepen relations between the two countries first emerged last July.
A leaked 18-page draft document reportedly outlined a vast expansion of Chinese investments in various sectors in Iran, including telecoms, transport, infrastructure and banking, with Beijing receiving a guaranteed supply of discounted Iranian oil in return. The document also referred to the potential deployment of Chinese forces to Iran to protect their investments, as well as a Chinese lease of the strategically located Kish Island in the Persian Gulf.
The leaked document caused an uproar inside and outside Iran. Some Iranians equated the draft agreement with the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay, under which Tehran conceded several territories to Russia and which has become a symbol of bitter defeat to Iranians.
2021 is a fitting year for a major deal between the two countries, as it marks the 50th anniversary of Iran-China diplomatic relations. Following Western efforts to isolate Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Beijing became an important player for Tehran.
The Iranian leadership valued China for its ability to block coercive action through its veto power at the United Nations Security Council – though it never actually used it on Iran’s behalf – and its willingness to expand economic, political and military relations with Iran at a time when most other countries were not.
From the start, Sino-Iranian relations always had a few key premises: They would not come at the expense of the two countries’ relations with other major powers, the US in particular; they would be transactional, based on mutual interests and necessities; they would be mutually convenient, with Chinese and Iranian leaders working together only when it suited them; and there would be no strings attached.
The relationship has had its ups and downs, though. China’s economic involvement in Iran increased as sanctions around it were tightened throughout the 2000s, making it an invaluable partner to Tehran. But many Iranians had reservations about Beijing.
For example, they believed Chinese products to be of poor quality, and lamented that the Chinese dragged their feet when it came to implementing projects that they had pledged to support. In 2013, Iran expelled the state-owned China National Petroleum Corp., or CNPC, from development work on the flagship South Pars natural gas field in the Persian Gulf, alleging the company had failed to carry out promised work.
From Tehran’s perspective, China also wasn’t always reliable when it came to standing up to the West’s sanctions on Iran: China supported every UN Security Council resolution on Iran that came up for a vote between 2006 and 2010 and reduced its imports of Iranian oil during Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. In 2019, CNPC, which had earlier returned to work on the South Pars project under a new contract, pulled out of the project, likely to avoid US sanctions.
Today, the relationship between the two countries is on the same trajectory. It is fundamentally transactional and growing, but slowly, and with some hiccups along the way.
China, like Iran, has been careful not to put all its eggs in one basket. After all, it can’t afford to risk its ties with the oil-rich Gulf Arab states that are key to its energy and economic growth needs.
Iranian officials may not like this, but they have also made peace with the idea that they must work with the Chinese. From their perspective, the past five years proved that the US and Europe couldn’t be counted on, not even to deliver on their obligations in a deal they agreed to.
This led Tehran to build what it refers to as its “resistance economy,” and to “look East,” a view now shared by both conservative politicians and more pro-Western Iranian officials.
Given its apparently vague terms, the deal is best seen as a roadmap for improving bilateral relations between the two countries, outlining areas for cooperation and exchanges in energy, infrastructure, cultural endeavors, and defense and counterterrorism, to name a few.
Much of the promised deepening of economic ties will remain somewhat dependent on the lifting of US unilateral sanctions, as China doesn’t want to openly flout them. Sino-Iranian relations can only reach their intended potential if the nuclear crisis between Iran and the US is resolved.
All of this suggests that the deal is unlikely to have much of a concrete impact on the nature of Iran’s relationship with China.
Despite Zarif’s insistence that that deal does not concede any territory, basing rights or exclusive access to Iranian territory to China, many Iranians remain suspicious of Beijing, with some protesting that the new cooperation pact will sell their country out. Many will also read the lack of concrete figures as signaling a relatively loose commitment.
While discussing the agreement on the Clubhouse app, Zarif defended the deal against criticism, but also added, “I don’t believe in the [policy] of looking to the East or the West.” Rather, he said, Iran would have to engage all, based on its interests and goals.
But the new pact with China may nevertheless prove useful to Iranian leaders in demonstrating that isolating Iran is not so simple anymore. It is a political win for Tehran, at a time when efforts to revitalize the 2015 nuclear deal by bringing Washington back into the fold are stuck in limbo.
The pact also signals to Washington and its allies that there will likely be limits on their ability to impose another “maximum pressure”-style campaign. After all, sanctions are most effective when they’re universal, not when a military and economic powerhouse such as China stands outside them.
Perhaps for this reason, Tehran has also looked to deepen ties with Russia, announcing the signature of a military cooperation agreement on April 10.
Ultimately, Iran’s recent cooperation pact with China gives Tehran a political and rhetorical boost vis-à-vis the outside world, and the US in particular. It formalizes the growth in Iran-China ties and could establish the groundwork for protection against future international isolation.
But for now, the fundamentals remain the same: The two promise to work together, based on mutual interests and necessities in a compartmentalized manner and with no strings attached – the same way they’ve dealt with each other over the past 50 years.
Dr. Dina Esfandiary is a senior adviser for the Middle East and North Africa Program at the International Crisis Group. Follow her on Twitter @DEsfandiary. This article is part of a regularly occurring series of briefings by analysts of the International Crisis Group.
When it comes to armed drones, is smaller and more precise necessarily better?
The question came to my mind upon seeing the news that the US Air Force just successfully test-launched a new weaponizable drone, the ALTIUS-600, making it the smallest drone in operation. Even more remarkably, this tiny aircraft was launched from the second-smallest-drone, the Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie, while the Valkyrie was in flight.
There is nothing objectionable about the development of mini-drones. One could even argue they would be improvements, in humanitarian terms, over the use of the much larger Reaper to deliver 500-pound bombs in allegedly “precise” strikes that instead often sweep up scores of civilians and destroy the property their surviving family members rely on for their livelihoods.
But the US military’s obsession with minimalism – from fewer boots on the ground to lower-payload munitions – also minimalizes public engagement with the wider ethics of armed violence.
The emphasis on size, mobility and precision is the product of a highly limited and limiting view rife in American political discourse: that the key ethical and legal problem presented by armed drones is collateral damage. This narrative – reflected in public opinion surveys, Hollywood films and political discourse – circumscribes debate.
Due process is required for state-sanctioned executions; guilt must be proven, not assumed. And even the death penalty for criminals convicted of the worst genuine offenses is increasingly frowned upon and must be carried out using humane means. The only exceptions to this prohibition on the use of deadly force are in cases of imminent harm to others where no other options for preventing that harm are available.
Of course, in times of war, things shift, and the law of war applies. The default proscription against killing is lifted, but only under strict conditions, reflecting the fact that war is considered an aberration, a small subset of the variety of circumstances in which states might direct lethal force against individuals. Among the conditions that must be met, a state of war must apply.
Those doing the violence must be members of the state’s armed forces; civilian CIA pilots would be unlawful combatants. The targets must be military objectives, not civilians. And the harm and suffering caused even to legitimate military targets must be minimized to what is necessary to weaken the enemy and not involve inhumane methods or disproportionate or indiscriminate collateral harm.
Here and only here do the rules of collateral damage apply, with the central question being, How much harm to bystanders and infrastructure is acceptable given the necessity of hitting a particular legitimate military target with a particular military means deployed by a particular military actor in a particular military context?
In short, the collateral damage question is embedded within the rules governing who may be targeted, which are in turn embedded within the rules governing who may do the targeting, which are subordinate to the bigger question of whether a situation falls within the scope of war law at all, rather than peacetime human rights rules.
Yet, popular attention so often focuses on this tiny subset of the rules governing collateral damage, eliding these higher-level issues.
Suppose a drone were not only perfectly precise and relatively humane, but also carried a firearm rather than explosives or sword blades. Suppose it killed quickly, rather than burning its victims alive or hacking them death, as a new Hellfire missile is designed to do in the name of limiting collateral damage. And suppose the identity of the target could be determined without fail, using biometrics before a bullet was fired.
The accuracy of such an attack does not resolve the question of whether a kill decision is correct in the first place. These targeting decisions often rely on human intelligence – reports from locals – to determine who is allegedly a mortal danger to US interests.
At times, in fact, the US has often relied not on specific kill orders of specific individuals, but rather on “signature strikes” – a best estimate of who is likely to match the profile of a suspected militant in a particular context – to determine whether to launch a strike that often targets whole groups.
As the NGOs Article 36 and Reaching Critical Will have documented, signature strikes have been carried out based on criteria as arbitrary as the sex and age of the victims, with nearly any military-age male in a frontier region vulnerable to lethal strike. These combinations of false stereotypes, faulty intelligence, mnemonic shortcuts and sheer hubris have killed scores of civilian teenage boys, not by accident, not by precision weapons failure, but by design.
These civilian men and boys directly targeted by the US include 16-year-old Tariq Aziz, a soccer player, amateur photographer and anti-drone activist. Aziz died in late October 2011 in Waziristan, Pakistan, when a CIA-fired Hellfire missile burned him and his 12-year-old cousin Waheed Khan beyond recognition as he drove to give his aunt a ride home from a wedding.
Even in a precise strike carried out far from other villages, with no collateral damage, the killings of these boys would have been not only tragic, but criminal. In a real war, we would have called this a case of civilian targeting – a war crime. In peacetime – a more accurate view of the state of relations between the US and Pakistan – we would simply call this murder.
That the Pakistani government approved or perhaps even requested the strike doesn’t make it legitimate. It merely makes both governments complicit in political murder.
All these important legal concerns are lost in a view of weaponized drones and targeted killings that sees the main issues as those of precision, human intelligence, accuracy and the reduction of collateral damage to “bystander” civilians, as if the civilians we are directly targeting merit no outrage on their own.
Reducing collateral damage is important in real wars, but that is not the only or even the primary concern with the use of ever-smaller lethal technology to wage ever-more subtle forms of peacetime political violence.
Terrorism is a crime. States are obligated to capture criminal suspects, put them on trial, allow them to defend themselves and free them if they are found innocent. Drones enable the opposite, as do special operations teams with kill orders.
But drones do something else as well: They provide a veneer of precision and bloodlessness that directs our attention to efforts at collateral damage control, obfuscating the reality of what is and has always been a campaign of extrajudicial execution sweeping up civilians whether by accident or by design.
It concludes, “A policy that allows the use of covert, lethal force under the laws of armed conflict outside of the context of an armed conflict undermines the protection of internationally recognized human rights and international law.”
It added that any reform agenda must not make the mistake of focusing too narrowly on any single abuse, which “risks missing the emergence of a more problematic phenomenon, the gradual accumulation of legal loopholes.”
As a result of this ethical devolution, not limited to but certainly epitomized by drone politics, our understanding not only of political-legal reality, but also of political-legal possibility, becomes smaller and more insignificant.
Leaders of the free world would be wise to reverse course and return to fundamental principles. One reason to be heartened is the fact that President Joe Biden’s review of the use of US drones outside of active battlefields is really a review of America’s targeted killing program.
To be clear: Weaponized drones themselves are also not the problem. Drones are only a platform, and what matters in international law terms is how platforms are used. But if there is a reason to focus on drones, it is because of the way in which, as Gregoire Chamayou shows us, our conceptual understanding of drones as a particular technology has also impacted our ability to even notice what is wrong with their use in international law terms.
Focusing on technology relaxes our legal and ethical horizon and narrows our parameters of debate, and this needs to change. Smaller and simpler is not always better. Less is not always more.
Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science and legal studies at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, specializing in human security and international law. She tweets @charlicarpenter. Her WPR guest column will appear every other Friday.