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North Korea is the Mafia: Lessons from the "Kim Jong-un has disappeared" Hysteria

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For six weeks, from September 3 to October 14, Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, disappeared from view. The rumors it triggered became increasingly outlandish. He was dead or dying; body doubles were being prepared (a favorite theory about his father); his sister was running the country (a female leader in North Korea?); factional infighting had broken out in the backrooms of Pyongyang; or he had been pushed aside in a coup.

As if to illustrate just how untethered the commentary had become, The Onion ran its own pretty funny mock story.

Now that the 'Young General' is back, the hangover has kicked in. Increasingly, the noteworthy story of the last two months is not Kim Jong-un's disappearance itself, but the explosion of over-the-top media speculation it unleashed, particularly in the West. In South Korea (where I live), the media coverage was obviously sustained, but not nearly as unhinged. I think we can draw a few conclusions from the speculative fun we all had last month:

1. The Kims get sick too, but the regime can stumble on for awhile:

This seems pretty banal, but everyone seemed to forget that Kim Jong-un's father Kim Jong-il suffered from a stroke and disappeared from view for twice as long back in 2008. At that time too, there was some hysteria, but nothing like this time around even though it was longer. I am not sure why.

It is worth noting that the Kims, obviously, lead pretty unhealthy lives. All three Kim monarchs were seriously overweight, if not obese, in their prime. All were rumored to be heavy drinkers and smokers, possibly abusing narcotics. Kim Jong-il's consumption of Hennessey was legend. North Korea even has a semi-formal prostitution service – the “joy brigade” – for its elites, presumably including the top leader. The Kims are the modern versions of the self-indulgent tyrants of antiquity, like Nero, living a lifestyle of gross over-indulgence. Not surprisingly, they have recurrent health issues.

But the state does not fall apart as a result. Presumably even North Korea, focused as it is on the “Sun King,” can muddle through on autopilot for at least a few months, a prediction I made before Kim Jong-un resurfaced. The Kims are the focus of global media attention, but there is a whole cluster of family, retainers, flunkeys, high-ranking Korean People's Army and Korean Worker's Party officials deeply vested in the continuation of the Kim monarchy. If these figures did not turn on each other in a factional power struggle after Kim Jong-il unexpectedly died in 2011, it was hard to see them doing so in these circumstances.

I've often thought a good analogy for North Korea is the mafia. North Korea engages in all sorts of illicit activities, from its well-known proliferation efforts to its less well-known meth operations and insurance fraud. The DPRK is what happens when the godfather and his cronies manage to take over a whole country; the Kims are the Korean version of the Corleones.

In such a structure, all the top players are bound to each other by blood, shared knowledge of each other's criminality and desire to keep the lifestyle and money rolling in. In the same way the Corleone family survived the Don's near assassination and semi-retirement, so will the Kim gangsterocracy. No one (in either family) wants the structure to fall apart because they are all complicit in its awfulness and enjoy its rewards, so the incentives are huge to put the system on autopilot when el hefe is temporarily incapacitated.

2. The media focus too much on the Kims:

Part of the problem must be the unique global media focus on the Kims, and specifically on the leader. In my experience with media as a commentator/talking head, I am routinely asked about the Kims themselves, including their personal habits, their mental state and their absurdities (Kim Jong-il's platform shoes and bouffant hair-style were favorites). The working assumption is often that they're just “bonkers”, as a Sky TV reporter asked me once.

But clearly no country with a large population can function without some manner of institutions tying the society together. And North Korea, in its own unique, gangsterish way, has those. The most important are the Army and the Party (probably, as we don't really know), soldered together by the personal relationships of the extended Kim clan. It is a curiously feudal or patrimonial structure, especially for a state that, in its ideology, formally condemns feudalism as backward and reactionary. It is not “Weberian” or rational. It is massively economically dysfunctional; it led, for example, to the famine of the 1990s. For this reason political scientists often define the DPRK as fragile or brittle and it is regularly near the top of the Fund for Peace' annual Failed State Index

But North Korea has managed to survive far greater challenges and hurdles than many thought it could overcome. Despite the death of Kim Il-sung, the cut-off of Soviet subsidies, the famines, the extreme isolation following the nuclear tests, the sudden death of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un's disturbing desire to party with Dennis Rodman, the regime lurches on. Clearly there is much more going on that just a sun-king monarchy, however relentless the media focus on the top leadership.

3. The media enjoys the sheer lunacy and freedom to wildly speculate that North Korea opens up:

Perhaps I watch too much media coverage of North Korea, but I am always struck by how “unplugged” North Korea allows otherwise bland media networks and reporters to be. A year ago, wild unsubstantiated rumors circulated that Kim Jong-un's uncle (Jang Song-thaek) had been executed by wild dogs tearing him apart. This “story” originated in some obscure Chinese paper but was quickly picked up by Western media with little fact-checking. Almost certainly, the sheer luridness of it was appealing: North Korea is a black hole, the boy-king is probably bonkers anyway, so sure, why not run that story?

Similar media hype of North Korean kitschy ridiculousness can be seen in the stories about its discovery of a unicorn. Once again, the story went viral (Google it and see), probably for the sheer lunatic fun of reporting on North Korea. It's almost like you can say anything. That must be fun in a way. Consider all those “Kim looking at things” tumblrs. At some point, this is not really news anymore. It's comedy. But they are actually really serious ethical issues about laughing over North Korea, a place where hundreds of thousands are executed or imprisoned in appalling conditions. Remember that next time you hear some gratuitously parodic depiction of North Korea.

This piece was first posted on The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Image: Creative Commons 2.0/Flickr

TopicsSecurity RegionsNorth Korea

Chinese Combat Drones: Ready to Go Global?

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In November of every other year, aviation experts descend on the Chinese city of Zhuhai for a rare look at the future of China's air power. Over the last ten years, the International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition have charted the progress of China's drone fleet from concept art to functioning models. Now, as the country's investment in drone technology helps it catch up to the competition, the technology on display at Zhuhai next week could pose another challenge for the global arms control effort.

Chinese companies have boasted about muscling into the international drone market, and they appear to be making headway. In May, it was revealed that Saudi Arabia purchased an unknown number of Chinese-made Wing Loong drones, a rough equivalent to the US-made Predator. This followed earlier reports of Chinese collaboration with the Algerian military, and suspicion that Uzbekistan, the UAE and Pakistan are operating Chinese drones. And in an August joint military exercise, China conducted a live-fire demonstration of drone strikes for its partners in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

All this comes at a time when American experts are worried about their diminishing lead in unpiloted aerial vehicle (UAV) technology.

Several years after the Predator boom, the US military has scaled back its drone acquisition, to the point where it struggled to cobble together enough vehicles for surveillance of the Islamic State while the fighting season in Afghanistan was also getting underway. The US Navy is developing the only known future combat drone, and after being watered down to save on cost it is now the subject of review. In the meantime, with American export licenses for armed drones limited to the UK, there is a gap in the worldwide market, which China hopes to plug.

Aiding China's export strategy are several underlying factors. In a country where central authority often needs to be imposed on wayward local officials, and where privacy restrictions don't really exist, technology that offers persistent surveillance is in high demand. Beijing has already used drones to keep an eye on polluting industries, corrupt officials and drug smugglers, assist the emergency response during earthquakes and support policing operations against Uighur-led violence in Xinjiang. All of these roles are likely to expand in the years ahead.

Drones also have commercial applications for China. Industries that are modernizing in the developing world, like agricultural science and environmental mapping, rely on aviation. But the shortage of commercially available flight in China is making otherwise cheap drones a viable substitute.

As the Chinese military pushes ahead with research into next-generation fighters and bombers, improvements in engines and sensors will likely flow over into better equipment for future drones. As a result, China is forecast to become the global hub of drone production over the next decade, with the Chinese Government as the main buyer. But this raises some questions for a country with a patchy record on weapons proliferation. 

China is not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the major arms control body for regulating the sale and transfer of unmanned technology. This Cold War regime was originally meant to curb the proliferation of launch vehicles for weapons of mass destruction, imposing a “presumption of denial” against the export of airborne systems able to carry dangerous payloads like nuclear weapons or biological agents. These restrictions also extend to the heavier class of drones, like the Predator. The US has tried to modify the terms of the MTCR to permit the sale of more drones, but faced with resistance from European partners, the Obama Administration is unsure of how far it can push the issue.

China's position is more concerning. It has long promised to adhere to the MTCR rules, but its 2004 request for membership in the arms control body was denied, partly from suspicion over its past violations and partly from doubt about its accountability in any future regime. 

Non-proliferation experts agree that China has been cleaning up its act on weapons sales in recent years, but there have also been some notable lapses. With so little transparency over its drone programs, it is hard to know whether China will abide by its unilateral commitment to the regime. If the Wing Loong resembles the Predator, as China claims it does, then its sale to Saudi Arabia very likely pushed close to the line of the MTCR.

To be sure, China selling drones may not provoke the kind of proliferation disaster , which many critics fear. The threat of a precise “targeted killing” campaign relies on a sophisticated and expensive infrastructure. Satellite bandwidth, guidance software, remote operating terminals, electronic sensors and informants on the ground are all needed for drones to operate far from home with any accuracy. This is difficult for all but a few of the most powerful countries to manage.

But there are many uses for UAVs among countries, which struggle with messy, protracted conflicts. With the Hadithi rebels seizing cities in southern Yemen, a Saudi Arabia losing trust in American diplomacy might be tempted to intervene in the neighboring territory with its own drones; or in a Myanmar criticized for its treatment of the Rohingya Muslims, a quick trade with Beijing for drones may secure the best tool for use against rebellious hill tribes. Like China's small arms exports, drones could further strain the political stability of the developing world. 

As UAV technology improves, this problem will become more acute. Already, the latest vehicles on the market blur the distinction between armed drones and cruise missiles. For instance, the Israeli-made Harop is capable of loitering in the air until it detects the radar signal of an enemy, arms itself and then flies headfirst into a target. If the sale of these advanced drones is not carefully regulated, the guidance and flight technology can be adapted to other missiles, undercutting the MTCR. Drones will offer an ideal vehicle for dispersing other types of prohibited weapons. Already, Russian scientists have warned that slow-flying drones dispersing biological weapons could deliver more damage across a wider area than a standard ballistic missile. 

With massive human and intellectual resources being poured by the Chinese state into combat drones, these problems will at some point make their way onto the agenda in Beijing. The state of drone technology and the potential buyers in the crowd at Zhuhai will shed some light on whether that time has now arrived.

This piece was first posted on The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

The Next Big Gun Debate: 3-D Printed Firearms

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The advent of 3-D printed firearms is shattering the foundations of government gun control and reviving an important debate about the place of firearms in modern democracies. In the next decades, the dissemination of printed guns will force public institutions and citizens to adapt, whether they like it or not. A more widespread knowledge of gun safety will be necessary to cope with this development.

Since 2012, and the initial efforts made by the non-profit organization Defense Distributed to design and distribute information related to the digital manufacture of arms, desktop gunsmiths  armed with 3-D printers have developed increasingly reliable firearms. The implications of this technological feat far exceed the perennial debate on gun control in the United States.

In modern democracies, a majority of citizens expect their government to provide them with safety and order. Most of them appreciate that state institutions need to be able to control and trace the use of firearms to fulfil their security mission. Thus governments have set up legal frameworks to regulate the manufacture and sale of firearms.

The ability to print guns at home, based on blueprints that are available online and the use of increasingly affordable and reliable 3-D printers, directly challenges this state of affair. The trivialization of the manufacture of guns will without a doubt complicate state control of small and require significant regulatory adjustments.

Defense Distributed is now advertising the “ghostgunner,” a compact machine that can be used “to manufacture unserialized firearms in the comfort of your home,” which should become publicly available for under $1500 before the end of 2014. The ability to manufacture ghost guns at home could shatter the foundations of gun control and generate strong opposition from gun control advocates in government and elsewhere. If the ghostgunner becomes truly available, the current gun control debate on the specifications of firearms will become completely obsolete.

Public institutions have already opposed printed guns. When Defense Distributed made the blueprint of its “liberator” gun available online, the State Department claimed it breached the Arms Export Control Act and the non-profit organization decided to take the files down. The city of Philadelphia went further and passed a 3-D printer gun ban. Abroad, Japanese authorities arrested one of their citizens for possessing guns made with the help of a 3-D printer.

So will printed guns revolutionize gun control? Governments throughout the world have never had complete control over small weapons. Domestically, the U.S. Constitution actually allows citizens to manufacture their own firearms, including 3-D printed guns, for personal use. Abroad, most Western governments have long supported the legal export of firearms to other countries, including dictatorships, and covert shipments of small weapons to non-governmental organizations, including “moderate” rebels in Syria and less moderate mujahidin fighting against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Printed guns could simply add to this habit. Their potential intractability will allow agencies like the CIA to support foreign paramilitary forces more covertly. In a less controversial context, Special Forces, deployed in far-away countries, will welcome the ability to manufacture their own weapons to satisfy pressing operational needs. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. Department of Defense has already launched a pilot program to explore the possibilities of additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing.

Given the government’s consent for the use and dissemination of firearms in these situations, some commentators consider its opposition to printed guns to be an hypocrisy.  There is no denying that the ability to manufacture and distribution of weapons is in the public interest, the question is who and how should this interest be represented?

For libertarians, the advent of ghost guns is an expression of their right to bear arms, as inscribed in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. From this perspective, ghost guns can empower the people against big government and corporations. Robert Steele, a former CIA officer turned open source activist, notes that ghost guns challenge what he considers to be “the two greatest threats to humanity, the government monopoly on force, and the corporate monopoly on information.” In his opinion, open source everything, including firearms, is the antidote.

Anti-gun advocates will point out that more people already die of gun violence in the U.S. than in all the other Western states. To them, printed guns and the complete liberalizations of firearms are worrying because they have the potential to multiply firearm related deaths.

In practice, it may already be too late — perhaps even useless — to hold a new debate between libertarian and gun control advocates since easy access to guns, through 3-D printing, may soon become the norm. When this will be the case, governments will have a hard time preventing people from printing what they want, including guns. Blueprints may not be readily available on internet anymore, but in the age of internet, they will remain so to those who are keen enough to look for them.

If firearms do become so readily available, most Western governments and societies will have a hard time coping with the societal impact. In Europe, where political culture has traditionally given a much greater role to the state in security matters, most citizens fear and dislike firearms and have little to no knowledge of basic gun safety rules. The advent of ghost guns could therefore lead to a growing number of incidents related to firearms. Their accessibility will also offer gun-seeking criminals an additional and more discreet source of supply.

For the time being, ghost guns constitute an opportunity for citizens to re-consider the role our governments and for-profit companies play in the market for firearms, and the politics behind selective gun control. At a societal level, the possibility of a complete liberalization of firearms creates a compelling need to educate younger generations about the use of firearms.

Dr. Damien Van Puyvelde is Assistant Professor of Security Studies and Associate Director for Research at the National Security Studies Institute, The University of Texas at el Paso. His research focuses on the relationship between democracy and security.

TopicsGuns RegionsUnited States

Planet Earth Beware: China is Addicted to Cheap Coal

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A recent paper in Nature says that “no other country is investing so much money or generating so much renewable energy” as China. “Its build-up of renewable energy systems at serious scale is driving cost reductions that will make them accessible to all.”

The International Energy Agency reckons China accounts for 56% of the US$250 billion in annual global renewables investment, and that solar could become the world's leading primary energy source by 2050. Beijing has recently rejuvenated its nuclear program too. China's Vice Premier, Zhang Gaoli, proclaimed at the UN Climate Summit that his country would strive to peak absolute CO2 emissions 'as soon as possible.' Apparently China is shifting its stance on climate change, and backing its words with manufacturing muscle.

A field-trip across China reveals a more nuanced reality on the ground.

For a start, as the Nature essay notes, today the vast majority of China's non-fossil electricity generation is from hydropower, and the country's gigantic dam projects are controversial. One problem with all renewables is “intermittency”; they need rain, wind and sun, which are capricious, so backup thermal plants must stand by. Another problem is “curtailment”. By 2020, there could be well over 300 GW of wind and solar capacity installed, representing almost 20% of China's total nameplate capacity, but actual generation might be only 8% of the total.

Coal supplies three-quarters of China's electricity and 67% of its total primary energy (although 16% of this is exported in manufactures). A Xinjiang official boasted his province might have one trillion tonnes of coal reserves: “our black treasure will supply China's needs for a century.” I have noted before that coal underpins China's growth model; Inner Mongolia achieved a 159% energy efficiency gain between 2002 and 2009 but exploited this to make fourteen times more cement and steel.

The much-touted UHV lines, transporting power from west to east, all originate at coal-fired complexes, not wind and solar farms. Although coal's trajectory has moderated and will eventually peak, a coal glut is the immediate concern. Recent regulations (a sales tax, supply consolidation, import bans) appear intended to support the mining sector's profitability.

A power utility explained that a large (1000 MW) modern ultra-supercritical thermal plant earns 25-30% return on equity, compared to 8-12% for renewables, even with subsidies from one to the other. Coal is a third cheaper than wind power. The reason is simple: coal is superabundant. Global prices have halved since 2011. A manager at a power equipment maker says that coal power is seeing a resurgence in orders, spurred by the fuel's competitiveness. He disclosed that President Xi Jinping, heading China's leading small group for energy security, has “re-emphasized the importance of coal.”

China's real objective is not so much low carbon as “clean carbon.” China's emissions already exceed the US and EU combined, it emits more per capita than Europe and could overtake America by 2017. A Rolling Stone essay portends that “what China decides to do in the next decade will likely determine whether or not mankind can halt — or at least ameliorate — global warming.” James Fallows, quoted in Mother Jones, describes Beijing's attempt to (using climate change argot) “bend down its curve.” He continues: “The Chinese government is pushing harder on more fronts than any other...to develop energy sources other than coal. The question is, will they catch up? Who will win that race between how bad things are and how they're trying to deal with them?”

But pollution is the real issue driving Chinese policy today, not climate change. This winter is off to a dreadful start. Sulphur and nitrogen emissions standards in wealthy cities have been greatly tightened, and “scrubbing” is (in theory) compulsory. The coal import restrictions target dirty high-ash and sulphur coals. However, the  National Energy Administration's Action Plan actually permits a 4.8% annual coal-fired power generation growth until 2020, according to analysts at Bernstein Research. China does require that its generators become more efficient (310g/kWh by 2020) but the CO2 emissions benchmark that regulators target is American shale gas, a fuel the Nature paper disparages.

China's cheap coal has become both a blessing and a curse. As long as it is cheap, it will be used plentifully. About as quickly as China installs solar panels and wind turbines, it will build the giant ultra-supercriticals alongside, currently at a rate of one every two weeks. And we may reach “peak coal” demand only to find that supply has barely responded and coal is more affordable than ever. Fundamentally changing coal's economics is necessary. Burying CO2 is fancifully expensive, so burning coal in the first place must be made more costly.

The most promising solution is a carbon price determined through an emissions trading scheme. To date, progress has been sketchy, but last Friday Europe pledged to revive its flagging carbon market, and to cut its 1990-level CO2 emissions 40% by 2030. China's energy intensity/GDP today is twice OECD levels, suggesting room for improvement. But GDP might expand four times by 2030. China's renewable energy manufacturing machine is racing against cheap “clean” coal.

This piece was first posted on The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Image: Creative Commons 3.0 License. 

TopicsEconomics RegionsChina

The Deepening Divide in U.S.-China Cyber Relations

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Recent revelations by a group of security researchers of another China-based hacking group, reportedly more sophisticated than Unit 61398, is likely to set off the usual recriminations and denials, but have very little impact on the U.S.-China bilateral relationship. The Chinese embassy has already responded that “these kinds of reports or allegations are usually fictitious,” a response that Robert Dix, vice president of government affairs for Juniper Networks, colorfully and baldly describes as the Chinese giving “a big middle finger to anybody in the United States that’s tried to out them or point fingers in their direction.”

The report on the group, called Axiom, describes a six-year campaign against companies, journalists, civil society group, academics, and governments, and may preclude any real discussion on cyber issues between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit next week. There was, however, very little chance that their sidebar discussion was going to lead to major progress. The differences between the two sides are deep.

An article that ran last week in the People’s Liberation Army Daily[Chinese] criticizing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and efforts to develop the laws of armed conflict in cyberspace shows just how deep the differences are. The focus of the piece is the Tallinn Manual on the International Law Applicable to Cyberspace. Written by a group of international experts at the invitation of NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, the manual addresses many of the specific applications of law to cyberspace, including the use of force, when and how states can defend themselves, as well as questions of proportionality, distinction, and neutrality. The report was non-binding and is not the official ruling of NATO, the United States, or any other government.

The Chinese have long been skeptical about the applicability of international law to cyberspace. This article goes one step further, casting the manual as an effort to manipulate cyberspace using law. In particular, the author levels four charges:

- Post hoc justification: the manual argues that using the Internet for strategic action is permissible, and that countries can send false information to make the enemy believe that there is an ongoing error, wage psychological warfare, fabricate command issues, and steal enemy codes, signals, and passwords, all things the United States is said to have already done.

- Unilateralism: this is another example of the U.S. military using its strength to define rules that reinforce its dominance.

-Cold War thinking: NATO is an alliance designed for collective defense. Even though it is supposed to be a partnership, the United States will lead the organization into a confrontation over cyberspace.

-Bad faith: NATO says the group that researched and wrote the manual is independent, but the author of the article implies this cannot be true because of the leadership of Michael Schmitt, who teaches at the U.S. Naval War College.

There was some hope that discussions about international law might be a useful area of cooperation for the United States and China. The 2013 Council on Foreign Relations Independent Task Force report suggested that the U.S. State and Defense Departments “should call together a group of legal advisers from Kenya, Brazil, China, India, Tunisia, South Africa, Turkey, and other important developing cyber powers to work on these questions.” Perhaps the task force was naive in its hope that these discussions could be the basis for collaboration, but it is surely not a good sign that some in Beijing see the process as a weapon and source of greater mistrust.

The above first appeared in CFR’s blog Net Politics here.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsCyber Security RegionsChina

China's Afghanistan Challenge: Testing the Limits of Diplomacy

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In just two months' time, international forces in Afghanistan will hand over security responsibility to local personnel. In preparation for the handover, and the eventual withdrawal of foreign militaries, Beijing has substantially raised its traditionally low-key diplomacy in the country.

China has pursued dozens of bilateral and multilateral diplomatic mechanisms with Afghanistan and surrounding countries that have focused on the issue of security. As I write in a new Lowy Institute Analysis, diplomacy is one of China's two major policy pillars in Afghanistan (the other is to substantially increase economic engagement).

Beijing's key interest in Afghanistan is security. China wants to prevent the spread of terrorism, and in particular terrorist ideology, into the Chinese province of Xinjiang, as well to ensure that Afghanistan does not function as a strong base for Uyghur militancy. Beijing will not commit militarily to Afghanistan, so how will it use diplomacy to prevent new instability spreading to Xinjiang?

Beijing will attempt to reduce the security threat in two main ways:

1. Stabilise Afghanistan, or prevent further deterioration in the Afghan security environment.

2. If 1. fails, limit the spread of new instability regionally and reduce the direct threat to Xinjiang.

Beijing's direct influence in stabilizing Afghanistan is limited. It will commit huge levels of economic support. Diplomatically it is encouraging surrounding countries to contribute to the reconstruction of Afghanistan. But security will be left to Afghan forces and any residual foreign troops. The US will likely play the role of mediator in Afghanistan if necessary, as happened during the recent electoral deadlock.

On point 2, Beijing has more diplomatic options. China maintains contacts with a broad range of actors and groups in Afghanistan, including the Taliban. Since the Karzai Government came to power in 2001, contact with the Taliban has often been via intermediaries. But more recently Beijing has reportedly rebuilt the direct links it had with the Taliban prior to the US invasion in 2001.

Beijing seeks guarantees that Afghanistan won't function as a base for Uyghur militant groups. It also wants Chinese investments in Afghanistan protected from Taliban attacks. There are mixed views to how effective this approach will be. Some Chinese sources say the Taliban doesn't want to raise the ire of Beijing because this could complicate the Taliban's relationship with Pakistan, which has close ties to China. Others question the Taliban's commitment to China's requests. Insurgents have attacked Chinese resource projects in Afghanistan on numerous occasions, and in 2012 Reuters quoted a Taliban spokesperson saying it opposed China's largest investment in Afghanistan, a copper mine near Kabul.

Beijing has also vastly increased its regional diplomatic footprint. China hopes to achieve a consensus on the Afghan issue among surrounding countries because they are at the front line of containing any new Afghan instability. What this consensus may look like is vague, but could include increasing regional cooperation on issues such as anti-narcotics and counter-terrorism, with practical measures such as intelligence sharing, joint military exercises and judicial or law-enforcement training (some of these already happen bilaterally or through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization).

There are clear obstacles. Officials in Central Asian countries are suspected of close links to the drug trade. And there are long running concerns that Pakistan's security and intelligence services help shelter terrorists. Also, many countries in the region have antagonistic relationships with each other.

Despite challenges, Beijing's diplomatic approach may suffice to quell the terrorist threat from Afghanistan. The number of Uyghur militants sheltering in Afghanistan (and Pakistan too) in all likelihood remains small, and the capability of external Sunni Uyghur militant groups to launch attacks in China appears limited. It would take a significant capability leap from these groups to be a constant operational threat to China.

However, diplomacy, economics or military intervention cannot prevent the spread of terrorist and religious propaganda into Xinjiang. This was consistently identified by Chinese interlocutors in research interviews for my Lowy Institute Analysis as the greatest external threat to Xinjiang's stability.

The Chinese Government probably hypes the ideological threat from abroad – as many governments do. Xinjiang's problems are overwhelmingly domestic, stemming from a disenfranchised Uyghur population that chafes under religious repression, economic imbalances and ingrained discrimination. But concerns abound that ideological messages could resonate with this group.

The most prominent external Sunni Uyghur militant group, the Turkistan Islamic Party, undeniably encourages violence in Xinjiang and supports Uyghur separatism. Its media output has become more sophisticated in the past few years. Other groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda have also expressed ideological support for Uyghurs in Xinjiang, although this doesn't appear to have led to operational support.

Chinese analysts understand the limits of diplomacy in regard to Afghan security, but it is seen, along with an economic contribution, as the least-worst policy option. Shi Lan of the Xinjiang Academy for Social Sciences sums it up: “Dialogue is the best choice we have for solving this issue. Of course, I feel it may be difficult to achieve results with dialogue, but we have to try.”

Dirk van der Kley is a PhD candidate at Australian National University, focusing on Chinese foreign policy in Central Asia. Dirk previously worked as a Research Associate in the East Asia Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and in China as a translator as well as in business development.

This piece was first posted on The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsAfghanistan RegionsChina

4 Things You Didn’t Know About the U.S. Air Force’s Role in Fighting Ebola

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With so much misinformation circulating about the scale and domestic danger of the Ebola threat, less attention has been paid to the U.S. military’s effort to stem the disease’s spread in Africa. Operation United Assistance is now well underway, drawing the joint armed services together with a wide range of interagency and multinational partners. While the headquarters of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division have been the most visible element of this operation, much of the behind-the-scenes work has been conducted by the U.S. Air Force. I spoke with Air Force participants to get a sense of this contribution:

1. The U.S. Air Force is the backbone of the anti-Ebola effort. From the outset of Operation United Assistance on September 17 to October 21, Air Mobility Command (the U.S. military’s worldwide airlift system, commanded by General Darren McDew) flew 208 sorties in support of operations, transporting 1,989 short tons of cargo and 595 passengers. This provided the logistical foundation for the entire mission.

2. Airmen are building bases and getting their hands dirty right alongside the Army. There are over 200 Airmen on the ground—roughly one quarter of the United States’ total 880 troops currently deployed to West Africa.  These Airmen are civil engineers, logisticians, and operational coordinators, engaging in a wide range of tasks. They are assessing sites for temporary air bases and pitching in with the building.

3. Airmen are providing medical support, too. The Air Force’s Expeditionary Medical Support System (EMEDS) are devoting critical in-house talent to Operation United Assistance’s medical mission set. The Air Force’s 633rd Medical Group completed deployment of a modular hospital in Liberia on October 20—the first deployment of a facility of its kind. This hospital will be used to train crucial emergency care responders.

4. Volunteer Air Force Reservists and the Air Guard provide significant capability. The Air Force relies heavily on volunteers in its Reserve Component (which includes the Air Guard and the Reserves) for all of its day to day and surge operations.  Accordingly, many of the C-17 sorties are being flown by Air Force Reservists, who have volunteered to take time off of their civilian jobs to support the anti-Ebola mission. Likewise, 70 Airmen from the Kentucky Air Guard 123rd Contingency Response Group have deployed to Senegal with active duty airmen from California and New Jersey to support the Joint Task Force—Port Opening (JTF-PO) operation, where their mission is to move the supplies and support through to the main effort.

Although the Air Force supplies only a quarter of the most visible “boots on the ground” for this mission, without the other dozens of less visible “boots in the air,” there would be no military mission at all.

The above first appeared in CFR’s blog Defense in Depth here.

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 

TopicsEbola RegionsAfrica

Ukraine Votes for a Future in Europe

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On Sunday night, I sat in a chilly school gym while election officials in the city of Lviv went through the tedious process of counting and reconciling paper ballots for Ukraine's parliamentary election. Millions of Ukrainians went to the polls on Sunday to elect a new Parliament, less than a year after former president and Putin puppet Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in the Maidan protests. There was no heat, because most of the gas that powers Ukraine comes from Russia and is too expensive to use this early in the season. Despite the conditions, however, I will not forget the Ukrainian people I met while observing their election.

There was the kindly grandmother, running a rural polling station, who was so proud to have a foreign observer, especially an American, visit her village. She told me that the little hamlet, aptly named Velyka Volya ("Great Freedom"), was the place where a group of Ukrainian resistance fighters, in a 1946 version of Masada, committed suicide rather than surrender to the encircling Soviet troops.

An elderly man at a downtown polling station shared his story. As a medical student following the Second World War, he joined the resistance and fought the Soviets until his capture in 1951. He was shipped to a Russian gulag and survived for six years before being released, but authorities prevented him from going home. He never returned to medical school. He was so happy to be serving as a precinct secretary in a democratic election in his native land. He pleaded with me for America to send arms and Kevlar so that Ukraine's young men would have a fighting chance against Russian regulars.

A young mother arrived at a suburban precinct. In tow was her three-year-old daughter, dressed in a white snow suit that matched her own. The little girl clutched and waved Ukraine's blue and yellow flag and smiled the whole time that her mom underwent the formalities of casting her vote. The election was about the child. Her mom envisioned for her a future of freedom and the rule of law in the sunlit uplands of the West, not of despotism in the wintery East.

The precincts were manned by fresh-faced kids. Of the seventeen precinct election committees my team visited, most had a majority of twenty-something members. Some were made up entirely of young people. The Maidan protests that claimed the lives of 100 of their contemporaries inspired them to get involved to stop the apparatchiks from stealing another election. These young people are taking their country back and corrupt, one-party rule has no part in their plans.

One of these young post-Maidan activists is Hanna Hopko. She is a thirty-two-year-old mom and committed Christian with a PhD in communications. Hopko has already established herself as a reformer who took on big tobacco in her effort to rid Ukraine's bars and restaurants of second hand smoke—no easy feat in a country where cigarettes are still sold everywhere. Hopko was the number one candidate on the Samopomich Party list. Until Sunday, Samopomich had never contested a parliamentary election. What it lacked in national election experience, it made up for with a pro-European, free-men and free-markets platform. While it appears that President Petro Poroshenko's bloc will win a narrow victory, the International Republican Institute exit poll shows Samopomich taking an unexpectedly strong third-place position. Dozens of its "outsider" candidates, led by Hopko, will now be demanding reform from inside Ukraine's Parliament.

Finally, for the first time since the Soviets occupied Ukraine in 1918, there will be no Communist Party representation in Ukraine's legislative assembly. When the exit polls were released just after 8 p.m., showing that the Communists were well below the 5 percent threshold for proportional representation, several Ukrainian voters pumped their fists and smiled. For them, this election was a welcome end to Communist influence over their lives.

Notwithstanding the war and the punishing economic circumstances Russia's invasion and occupation have inflicted on them, Ukrainians are happy today. They showed the world that they remain unbowed in the face of aggression and are committed to a future in the democratic West.

Robert C. O'Brien is the California Managing Partner of a national law firm. He served as an US Representative to the United Nations. He was a member of the International Republican Institute delegation that monitored Ukraine's parliamentary elections on Sunday. He also advised Republican presidential candidate Governor Mitt Romney on foreign policy matters. Robert’s website is www.robertcobrien.com. Follow him on Twitter @robertcobrien.

Image: Robert C. O'Brien

TopicsDomestic PoliticsElections RegionsUkraine

Could This Be ISIL's Next Target?

The Buzz

Could ISIL gain traction in Azerbaijan? Amid the welter of analyses about ISIL in Syria and Iraq, little attention has been paid to the potential impact of ISIL or other Islamic extremist movements in another important area--namely, the strategically sensitive south Caucasus region and especially energy-rich Azerbaijan. The anti-ISIL plan for a Kurdish autonomous entity has even greater implications for the south Caucasus and its several secessionist movements.

First, the matter of ISIL. Located just northeast of Iraq, Azerbaijan has a mostly Shi’ite population with a Sunni minority. The state is secular, but President Ilham Aliyev has raised the specter of Islamic extremists in the north where his country borders Russia along the Caucasus Mountains. Twenty-six alleged fighters for Islamist groups, ISIL among them, were arrested last week on their return to Azerbaijan.  

Is Azerbaijan an Iraq-in-the-making? How real is the threat? How can we tell?

Azerbaijan is unlike Iraq in numerous meaningful ways. Neither religious identity nor rhetoric has been a factor in Azerbaijani politics for over a century. The leader of one Azerbaijani opposition party commented that sectarian politics like those in Iraq are “primitive.” The population of Azerbaijan though mostly Shi’ite is Turkic. Its history of Shi’ite-Sunni cooperation, societal modernization and emergent secularism goes back to the 19th century. Azerbaijan’s reformers achieved short-lived victory in their republic of 1918-20.

The arrival of the Bolsheviks in April 1920 led to the imposition of violent, if sporadic, anti-religious campaigns, which were distinct from the evolutionary secularizing efforts of the native elites. Thus, the comparison between today’s Azerbaijan and Iraq, where secularism was imposed mainly by the Ba’ath party since the late 1960s, shows the greater longevity and depth of secular life in Azerbaijan. Tolerance of religious difference, especially in Baku, is shown not merely by the presence but by the growth over time of such non-native groups as the Jewish community which grew rapidly in the early 20th century as Jews fled pogroms in Russian and Ukraine. It remains active today. The disappearance of the Baku’s long-established Armenian community and closing of its church can be traced to the bitter and unresolved conflict over Nagorno-Karabagh rather than a general intolerance of Christians. Overall, religious expression is considered a personal matter in Azerbaijan, and in society as a whole, people who attend a mosque or wear the hijab are neither feared nor ostracized.

At the same time, it would be premature to suggest that Azerbaijan is immune from Islamist appeals. The Sunni population in the north can hardly be insulated against the radicalism of the north Caucasus, but the nature of the spill-over remains murky. Some experts have suggested that sectarian conflicts in the region have encouraged or deepened divisions within Azerbaijani society, especially in rural areas. But hard evidence is illusive.

The Aliyev regime’s designation of all sorts of religious people and groups as Wahabbis or Salafis is unhelpful. Religious individuals are persecuted without differentiation. Such broad-brush treatment impedes efforts to get a clear reading on the type and depth of political uses of Islam and the potential for future radicalism among Azerbaijanis. Piety does not make a Muslim a radical.

If an extreme Islamist faction did exist, it would not have to be large to be dangerous. Two factors could make it more dangerous. First, discontent born of poverty or injustice feeds radicalism. Despite oil wealth and the modernization of Baku, lingering economic, social and political inequality contribute to Azerbaijan’s vulnerability to Islamist appeals. Outside central Baku, poverty is evident. People with Soviet-era educations cannot take advantage of jobs in new industries and often cannot provide better education for their children.

How many are affected? What are their alternatives? Is there an emerging middle class, as the regime insists? Data on these matters are not sufficient or sufficiently reliable to draw a definitive conclusion. Bribery is endemic, and citizens report pressure to give bribes even to get low-level jobs. A perception that the regime is corrupt and unjust can push the populace toward a traditional pole of morality, religion. Radical leaders could take advantage of such a climate, and Azerbaijan’s ruling circles are missing opportunities to address these problems.

Second, a regime that quashes open discussion and even mild dissent is cutting off peaceful discourse and thereby fostering extremism. Recent years have been marked by increasing government repression including the marginalization of the genuinely democratic opposition parties. Their offices and publications have been pushed out of the city center or shut down. Election rallies have been blocked. Parliamentary elections of 2010, which were deemed by international observers to be neither free nor fair, led to the complete exclusion of opposition parties from the National Assembly. With the failure of the democratic opposition to protect itself, much less effect needed change, popular interest in Islamist groups cannot be ruled out.

Nor are there other means for peaceful redress of grievances. Independent human rights activists, journalists and bloggers have been harassed, beaten, and arrested. This summer so many human rights activists were arrested that one account characterized the list as a “who’s who” of important civil society figures. Particularly shocking are the beatings and torture of activists in jail, most recently Leyla Yunus, a petite and diabetic woman with an international reputation. NGOs including scholarly organizations have had bank accounts frozen and offices raided and closed. Critical reports from Amnesty International, Freedom House, the OSCE and other groups are dismissed by officials in Baku as “anti-Azerbaijani.”

The regime stresses its security requirements, its need to maintain independence, especially against Russia, and defend against terrorists. These are real challenges. But it’s hard to see how election monitors, human rights groups, and bloggers threaten Azerbaijan’s independence.

Nor is religious extremism the only potential danger. Kurdish autonomy is being considered a tool to contain ISIL and the “treatment” here may be as volatile as the disease. Few Western analysts have explored the broader implications of Kurdish autonomy and certainly not for the south Caucasus. Such an arrangement for Iraq’s Kurds not only affects Turkey’s Kurds, as all have conceded, but could lead also to comparable demands by Iran’s Kurds living in the northwest of that country bordering Iraq. As a frequently oppressed ethnic and sectarian minority (Kurds are mostly Sunni) Iranian Kurds might find autonomy flimsy and press for secession. Secession movements, an urgent topic despite the outcome of Scotland’s referendum, affect each state of the south Caucasus.

All demands for secession are used by Armenians to bolster arguments for the self-proclaimed republic in Nagorno-Karabagh, in Soviet times an autonomous region inside Azerbaijan populated mainly by Armenians. Since the 1994 cease fire to a 6-year war, Armenian forces have occupied that area and surrounding regions totaling about 17% of Azerbaijan’s territory. Azerbaijan has rejected the secession-as-self-determination demand on the basis of preserving its territorial integrity.  

Here Azerbaijan must be wary of Russian meddling since Moscow has both a military and more recently commercial treaty with Armenia.  Azerbaijan’s major ally is NATO-member Turkey that is itself on guard against both Kurdish and Armenian territorial claims. Renewed fighting over Nagorno-Karabagh could turn into a truly ugly regional conflict.

Neighboring Georgia likewise resists demands of ethnic minorities that are supported by Russia. Both of Georgia’s secessionist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have Russian support, including the invasion of Georgia in “defense” of the Ossetians in 2008. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s revanchism early this year in Ukraine affirmed that Russia can with impunity seize the territory of a neighboring sovereign state using the pretext of claims to protect ethnic Russians. Neither Georgia nor any other state of the south Caucasus has a significant Russian minority but Russia has already claimed to protect Ossetians and may well do the same for its Armenian allies or others. Secretary of Defense Hagel’s trip to Tbilisi after the September NATO meeting, reflected this linkage by discussing Georgia’s entry into NATO.

Nor is the impact of secession confined to the states of the south Caucasus. Even the whiff of secession from Iran’s Kurds could, Tehran surely fears, inspire a similar demand from the neighboring Turkic population of Iran’s east Azerbaijan and Ardebil provinces. The movement for reunification of Iranian (“southern”) Azerbaijan with northern (now independent) Azerbaijan has been simmering since the Soviet collapse. It is encouraged by groups and individuals in the north. The vigorous support for the movement by Azerbaijan’s first post-Soviet president Abulfez Elchibey was a particular point of contention between Baku and Tehran. Iran stands to be hurt by secessionist movements in its northwest, and paradoxically, it is all that stands between a possible IS drive from Mosul to Baku.

Neighboring Russia and the Middle East, the entire south Caucasus is vulnerable to events in both. The potential autonomy or secession of the Kurds affects each of the three states, though differently – Georgia and Azerbaijan stand to lose territory from successful secessions bids while Armenia stands to gain. Similarly, Russia, which has just used the secession-by-self-determination card in Ukraine /Crimea can throw its weight on the same side of that argument to weaken Georgia and Azerbaijan and support Armenia. Indeed, of the various threats. Russian meddling is perhaps the greatest for the region and especially for Georgia and Azerbaijan. But the danger of Islamic extremism cannot be clearly assessed without more realistic information from Azerbaijan. The attraction of radicalism itself could be reduced if the Aliyev government were to establish and protect civil society.

Audrey Altstadt is a fellow at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author.

Image: Wikicommons/C.C 3.0 License. 

TopicsISIL RegionsAzerbaijan

Team Obama's Pointless Attack on Israel

The Buzz

What does the Obama administration hope to accomplish by trashing Israel in the press? This is the most important question after an apparently coordinated wave of anonymous quotes welled up in Tuesday’s press. Relations with Israel have steadily worsened over the course of Obama’s presidency, and little of what was said was out of step with some views being expressed in broader policy circles. But why say it, and why now?

The wave began Monday night, with Foreign Policy’s Gopal Ratnam saying that the White House was “undermining” Israeli defense minister Moshe Yaalon during his recent visit to the United States by denying him access to several key officials. This wasn’t surprising—Yaalon had called Secretary of State John Kerry “obsessive and messianic,” among other insults. But the tone of the snub was sharp. Ratnam quotes “a pro-Israel congressional aide,” who we can reasonably assume is a Democrat close to the administration, saying of Yaalon that “there is a limit to how much you can shit all over the White House and expect to get every meeting you want...I don't know why the Israelis continue to feel the need to express their disagreements in offensive terms with this administration.”

But the executive excreta fell much thicker on Tuesday afternoon in a column by the influential journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, who quoted “a senior Obama administration official” calling Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “chickenshit.” Goldberg asked “another senior official who deals with the Israel file regularly” about this assessment, and the official “agreed that Netanyahu is a ‘chickenshit’ on matters related to the comatose peace process, but added that he’s also a ‘coward’ on the issue of Iran’s nuclear threat.” The first official also said that Netanyahu is “scared to launch wars,” is principally concerned with his own political survival, and has “got no guts.” And the second official crowed that it is now “too late” for Netanyahu to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, saying that “a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic” meant that Netanyahu “ultimately...couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger.” Said the second official, “The feeling now is that Bibi’s bluffing.”

And the end of Goldberg’s column contains what may be a set of threats from the administration to Israel: first, to allow Palestinian actions at the UN that will “isolate Israel from the international community,” and second, to “make explicit” America’s vision of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement—a vision that is likely to diverge significantly from Netanyahu’s vision. Goldberg, a seasoned observer of U.S.-Israeli relations, writes that he doesn’t “remember such a period of sustained and mutual contempt” between the two allies, and lays the blame for the split at Netanyahu’s feet, calling his government “disconnected from reality” and his foreign policy a formula for “disaster.”

All this cloacal talk is sure to touch off a firestorm in Israel. The administration seems to want Netanyahu to pay a domestic price for his policies. Yet Goldberg’s assessment is that Netanyahu’s approach “has its charms” for the Israeli electorate, and Bibi appears to be in a solid position at home. There are few clear alternatives to the man TIME magazine once branded the “king of Israel,” and his principal challengers nowadays are to his right. So there’s little reason to believe that the Obama team’s remarks will topple him, or that we’d get something much better if he did fall.

The timing of the remarks is equally baffling. The Iran negotiations come to a head on November 24. If there’s a deal, the administration will come under immense pressure at home, particularly from Israel’s strongest defenders in Congress. A better relationship with Israel would mitigate that pressure. And if there’s not a deal, the administration may wish to extend the interim deal with Iran—another political friction point in which pro-Israel factions will be at odds with the administration. Yet the White House has opened fire early, and rather than attacking Netanyahu’s Iran approach, it’s engaging in playground name-calling. It’s hard to see what good this will do, and the damage could be serious. There has been a growing feeling in Washington that Israel would not have been willing to push Congress to confront the president on Iran, that it would prefer to live with a tolerable deal than to have an open battle with its closest ally. If Congress is already attacking Obama on Israel and if Israel and America are already fighting each other, these incentives change.

Further, if the administration doesn’t want Netanyahu to attack Iran, accusing him of bluffing and calling him a coward might not be the best way to ensure that. And as one observer noted, the administration is effectively “taunt[ing] Netanyahu for trusting in the Obama admin's promises” to deal with the Iranian problem in return for Israel backing off its threats. With American allies in Europe and Asia questioning the reliability of our defense guarantees, should the White House be gloating that it’s played an ally for a sucker?

The Obama team’s thoroughly undiplomatic language, in other words, will likely have little payoff. Perhaps this is in continuity with the administration’s common approach to international crisis: to treat strongly-worded speeches as an effective and low-cost form of action, even when they continue to be neither.

Or perhaps the officials merely wanted to vent after nearly six years of dealing with an exasperating Israeli leader. If that’s the case, their “chickenshit” talk should have been reserved for their colleagues, their spouses, their friends, their pets, their houseplants, their therapists, or even Siri. But a major journalist? Obama’s staffers have damaged an important relationship for no benefit other than the self-satisfaction of a sharp insult. Such actions are a mark of arrogance.

John Allen Gay, an assistant managing editor at The National Interest, is coauthor of War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences(Rowman and Littlefield, 2013). He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.

Image: Flickr/The Israel Project. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsDiplomacy RegionsIsrael

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