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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?

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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

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