London Event 25 June – The ‘Asia Century’: Expectations and Challenges

Tuesday, 25 June, from 06:00 PM, Room K0.16, King’s College London, Strand, London, WC2R 2LS

Following the trajectory of rapid urbanisation, industrialisation and thriving economic and population growth throughout Asia, the 21st century has been heralded as the ‘Asia Century’.

However, Asia also faces a number of challenges to its global rise including ongoing strains on the Korean Peninsula, maritime disputes in the South China Sea, overpopulation, disparity of resources, regional instability between India and Pakistan and the impending effects of climate change. Despite these challenges will Asia be able to take the lead and become the centre of global world order? And if so, what is to be expected from an ‘Asia Century’?


Dr Shirley Ze Yu – Visiting Senior Fellow at London School of Economics and a former China National Television news anchor.

Dr Pablo de Orellana – Teaching Fellow in the Department of War Studies at Kings College London.

Duncan Bartlett – Editor of Asian Affairs magazine, former broadcast journalist for the BBC.

Aaditya Dave – Research Analyst focusing on South Asia in the International Security Studies department at the Royal United Services Institute.

Vasuki Shastry – Associate fellow of the Asia-Pacific programme at Chatham House and former global head of public affairs and sustainability at Standard Chartered Bank.

Doors open at 6pm, with discussion beginning at 6:30pm. Please sign in at reception upon arrivial, reception staff will then direct you to the room.

Sales end at 11:00 a.m. on June 24

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Empowering Rohingya Women:  Confronting Sexual Violence in Humanitarian Settings

During the second half of 2017, an estimated 671,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar due to systemic violence perpetrated against the ethnic group, including killings, rape, and torture. Much of this violence, allegedly committed by Myanmar’s armed forces, specifically targeted women and girls. Pramila Patten, United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, stated that the organized gang rape of Rohingya women was “a calculated tool of terror aimed at the extermination and removal of the Rohingya as a group.” Adding to the trauma of this campaign of sexual violence, many Rohingya women continue to experience sexual exploitation and violence after reaching the refugee camps in Bangladesh. To date, little has been done to address the unique needs of these women or to prevent a recurrence of the systemic violence they fled from.

A Muslim minority group living in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, the Rohingya have faced government persecution for decades. Among the many discriminatory policies they face, the Rohingya are not recognized as one of the country’s official ethnic groups and have been denied the right to claim citizenship in Myanmar. In August 2017, violent clashes erupted when a Rohingya militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked military stations throughout Rakhine State. After the ARSA claimed responsibility for the attacks, the resulting military crackdown forced thousands of Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.

Sexual gender-based violence (SGBV) often escalates during crises like these, when large populations are displaced and a state’s protection systems for women collapse. Rape is often used as a tactic to dehumanize and humiliate “other” populations within sectarian conflicts and during the military’s clearance operations, Myanmar soldiers allegedly raped Rohingya women and girls. When the women attempted to report the violations to authorities, they were forced to undergo invasive medical examinations. The government of Myanmar has denied that its armed forces have committed any acts of sexual violence, even suggesting that Rohingya women are not attractive enough to merit such attention. Yet, in every case of sexual violence reported to Human Rights Watch, the perpetrators were described as uniformed members of Myanmar’s security forces.

Even after reaching Cox Bazar, Bangladesh, where sprawling refugee camps have been set up to accommodate an ever-growing refugee population, Rohingya women continue to live in fear of SGBV in what should be a safe haven. This is in part due to frustration with life in the camps, as well as an extreme lack of privacy, especially near latrines. Latrines are not separated by gender, which compounds the discomfort of women survivors of sexual violence. Reports of violence near sanitation facilities have led to instances where women and girls refuse to eat in order to avoid using the toilets, dreading the violence that comes with it. Some women even resort to sharing burkas to feel they can move safely about the camp without fear of being assaulted.

In addition to the risk of sexual violence, aid agencies have also reported an increase in sex trafficking in and around Rohingya refugee camps, with girls as young as 13 years old being abducted and sold as sex slaves. Many of the smugglers come from outside the camps, falsely promising families they will provide work opportunities for the girls, who are then smuggled out of the camps and sold in Thailand, India, and Malaysia.

Although a repatriation deal has been reached, the United Nations Refugee Agency assesses that conditions in Myanmar are not ready for the safe and voluntary return of Rohingya refugees. The first and most important step toward this goal, is to acknowledge and address the sexual violence perpetrated against Rohingya women. It is paramount that humanitarian organizations uphold and protect the safety of all refugees within the camps and especially for women and girls, who are the most vulnerable to sexual exploitation and trafficking.

Second, organizations working within the camps should immediately expand services to meet the unique needs of Rohingya women survivors. These services should include pre- and post-natal care for Rohingya women, some of whom became pregnant during the violent military crackdown. Since August 2017, aid agencies have provided services to 2,756 survivors of SGBV in refugee camps. But renowned human rights journalist and Nobel Peace Laureate Tawakkol Karman noted after a visit to Cox Bazar that less than 20% of Rohingya women have had access to post-rape care. This is completely unacceptable.  In a more positive development, the first Multi-Purpose Women Center built by UN Women in the Bhalukhai refugee camp creates a safe space for Rohingya women, as well as provides sexual violence recovery services and counseling. This model should be replicated in other Rohingya refugee camps, as well as around the world.

Third, humanitarian organizations and civil society groups should educate the entire Rohingya refugee community about sexual violence. According to Human Rights Watch, two-thirds of Rohingya survivors interviewed did not report their rape to the appropriate authorities due to a deep-rooted stigma surrounding SGBV. Diminishing the stigma of SGBV will not only encourage more women survivors to come forward and report the violence they have experienced, but also help them receive proper recovery services and improve SGBV prevention.

For many women refugees, the risk of SGBV doesn’t disappear after they leave the location of their crimes, even when they reach places of presumed safety. The humanitarian response to the Rohingya crisis must be revamped to meet the particular needs of women and girl refugees, especially their protection and recovery from systemic SGBV within refugee camps. Acknowledging and addressing the plight of Rohingya women, especially within humanitarian settings where they should expect a certain level of security, is essential to putting these women on the path to recovery and breaking the cycle of violence.

By Renee Coulouris

Photo: Flickr

Event July 10 London Event – “The Nuclear Peninsula: the Future of the Two Koreas”

Tuesday, July 10. 6.30 pm. K2.31 (Nash Lecture Theatre), Strand campus, King’s College London.

The situation on the Korean Peninsula is a complex and ever changing one. In the space of one year, the political context has shifted from impending conflict, characterised by insults and fiery rhetoric, to renewed friendship between North and South, temporarily cemented by the promise of Northern Nuclear disarmament.

Due to the unpredictable nature of the situation on the peninsula, analysis as to its future is a complex task. To shed light on this topic, the Project for the Study of the 21st Century has gathered a panel of experts to discuss the current situation and how the situation may change.

Join PS21 as hosted by Kings College London’s War Studies Department for an evening of discussion on the future of the Korean Peninsula.

Confirmed panellists include:


Jihyun Park – Outreach Director at Connect: North Korea refugee support group, recipricant of the Natwest Chairman’s Award and North Korean defector.

Alison Evans – Head of Open Source Analytics and Senior Asia-Pacific Analyst, IHS Markit.

Karl Dewey – CBRN Analyst, proliferation editor at Jane’s, IHS Markit.

Hamish Macdonald – Contributor to NK News, Chief Operations Officer of the Korea Risk Group.

Dr Chris Weston – PhD in North Korean institutional economics, international business consultant on risk management.

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An Unconventional Superpower

First edition of Abraham Ortelius‘ map of Asia (1572), displaying a vast network of waterways across East Asia, advocating his belief that a shipping route existed through China to the Northern Sea and thence, by way of the Northeast Passage, to Europe.


By Tim Abington. Tim is a 6th form student applying to study International Relations at the University of Birmingham in September.

Despite what would appear to be voters’ best attempts to say otherwise, there is still a case for multilateralism. Why? Because time and time again the physical world proves it can quickly overwhelm the human one when single states are simply not able to cope with a geography that ignores the human notions of sovereignty or national borders.

When talking about geography it’s hard not to use a map. Maps should be used more – they illustrate points in a direct manner that is hard to ignore.

So now, turning to your nearest atlas, flick to the relief map of the Middle East and glance at the contours. They show that anti-immigration arguments of misled compassion are missing a major point. Syrian refugees enter Europe partly because geography leaves little alternative. To the East are the Zagros and Elburz mountain ranges; to the South, the Syrian desert; neither are particularly hospitable or inviting to humans. To the West, the European plains, a flat relief, easily navigable and a moderate climate. It is ironic that one of the geographical factors that helped Europe conquer the world is now pushing it into a retreat.

Another geographical factor, climate change, goes well beyond that cliché image of a lonesome polar bear. It causes floods across Northern India whilst turning Southern Spain into a desert. Consequently, agriculture – always sensitive to its environment – is facing its biggest test in decades.

The Earth is getting warmer and crops are feeling its effects. Just as the English lawn turns yellow in summer, maize will wilt and die. Temperature rises will reduce growing seasons, increase heat stress and increase the range of various pests and disease vectors. There is no doubt that the ‘everyday staples’ will be affected by climate change. Last year, orange juice concentrate prices rose 21% as poor weather wreaked havoc with Brazilian harvests. Conditions are not going to get any more favourable, as the globe warms and air masses heat up, they hold a larger quantity of water vapour, resulting in greater precipitation. Quite simply, it rains more.

Across Northern Bangladesh the most common form of cultivated crop is Boro Rice, ideally suited to growing in shallow water. Yet all too easily, the entire crop is washed away by a rainfall that is just too much for paddy capacity. Rice forms the staple diet in South East Asia, so the issue is not limited in scope to just Bangladesh.

Staying in the region, South Asia is actually a perfect example of how international cooperation is required to overcome geographical barriers. The region is covered in rivers, wide and vast bodies of water, they ignore borders and flow as geography allows. The river sources are generally located in the Himalayan highlands of Nepal whilst the mouth flows out across the deltas of India. Any decisions made by Nepal, whether they be the building of dams or reservoirs, will have consequences all along the river basin, leaving rice paddies destroyed and populations displaced. Nepal imports $204 million of rice from India; it is in its interest to cooperate and minimise disruption to rice yields, humanitarian moralism aside, its own population needs feeding.

In September 2013 an article appeared in the ‘Financial Times’, “First Chinese cargo ship nears end of Northeast Passage transit”. 40 years beforehand, such a headline would only have been found in a science fiction novel. Yet a Chinese vessel, sailing from a port of Cold War enemy South Korea to the Netherlands – NATO and EU member – successfully completed a passage through Russian and Norwegian waters. The City saw it a testament to commercial enterprise and a sign of possible profits to come; multilateralists as proof of a need for international cooperation. International cooperation is required at all times, even more so than the current ‘hot spots’ of Suez and Panama, as ice, lack of infrastructure and a lack of civilisation in general make this a high risk (but arguably, a high reward) shipping route.

To maintain its pride of place as ‘the cheapest option’, container shipping operates to a ‘just-in-time principle’ – there is no place for petty disputes when it comes to arctic shipping. Information is needed and if that means cooperating with other less-desirable nations, then so be it.

These examples are but a tiny proportion of the multiplicity of cases where multilateral action is needed to respond to geographical hazards. The common theme across these responses is that it is in many nations’ best interests to act in concert, not so much due to ‘ideologies of cooperation’. Instead, multilateralism is required to counter geographical circumstances that overwhelm single nation states. Geography poses challenges, be it extreme weather, physical landforms or climate change. At the same time, international cooperation allows states to maintain their independence whilst overcoming these difficulties.

Geography remains a factor that will continue to determine domestic and foreign policy and any attempt to ignore it will, for the moment, remain futile.

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.

Taiwanese Independence: Identity and Diplomacy

By Gabrielle Falardeau

A year has passed since the election of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), an independence leaning party in Taiwan. At the time, these results were met with strong objections from the Chinese government because of the possible impact on the sovereignty of the island state. In Western media, coverage of the election strongly emphasised the importance of this issue in the decision to elect the DPP. Despite all of this, a year has gone by without any concrete movement towards independence.

Although a strong majority of Taiwanese agree that the country should be independent, there are varying responses when it comes to the question of whether or not this will really occur in the short or even long term. The Taiwanese recognize their nation’s small size and meagre capabilities when compared with their powerful neighbour. Many are therefore concerned that any movement towards independence would be devastating for the country’s economy and/or physical security. The previous inclination towards sovereignty for the island state in 1995 and 1996 was met by China with missile tests off the coast of Taiwan.

Concerns regarding the repercussions of a movement towards independence have certainly been a factor in discussions within the ruling party. While this issue currently stands as Article one of their charter, there have been discussions to adopt a status quo stance instead. This would however have strong consequences for the party as a whole as it has already been criticised for adopting similar stances to the opposition party, the Kuomitang (KMT), on key issues. The independence clause therefore constitutes a fundamental distinguishing element between the two main parties in Taiwan. Removing this clause could thus lead to a drop in support for the DPP in favour of smaller opposition parties.

Questions about steps towards independence inevitably lead to queries about the identity of the Taiwanese vis-à-vis the Chinese. Various polls have highlighted the sentiment of Taiwanese nationals towards the question of identity asking respondents whether they consider themselves Taiwanese, Chinese, or both. All of the polls leaned towards Taiwanese as the dominant identity (the proportion of people who chose a combination of Taiwanese and Chinese was however significant). Locals will stress their identity as Taiwanese, while recognising their shared cultural heritage with China. This acknowledgement is however followed by additional comments stressing their more “traditional” take on a shared culture and language. These differences are important for Taiwanese in asserting themselves as distinct. Such comments occur not only in everyday interactions with foreigners, but also in schools. Foreigners coming to Taiwan to learn Chinese are constantly reminded of how the Taiwanese version of Chinese with its use of traditional characters is considered more authentic. Under Mao, China underwent a simplification process of written language to enable more people to learn to read and write. In contrast, Taiwan’s retention of traditional characters is a big source of pride.

What effects would it have on Taiwan if it chose not to move towards formal independence? It is important first to highlight that Taiwan currently functions as a fully independent state and does not possess the same level of foreign interference by China as is witnessed in Hong Kong. Currently, Taiwan holds “quasi” diplomatic relations with foreign states, most of which do not officially recognize the island state. These countries conduct regular diplomatic functions in Taiwan through trade or culture offices. That being said, relations between Taiwan and foreign countries are plagued by the considerations foreign states must hold regarding any possible repercussions on their relations with China. Local offices are therefore very tight-lipped and refuse to discuss their relations with Taiwan. Within major international organisations, Taiwan is not represented, with the exception of the World Trade Organisation, where it is known as the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan. This is of course related to its lack of international status, but also to China’s adamant refusal to allow the island country to assert itself in the international space. Taiwan’s absence from international organisations remains a significant obstacle to its ability to contribute to discussions relating to issues that concern it, such as transnational crime or human trafficking.

The fact that Taiwan is not recognized internationally as an independent state also poses problems in other areas. Recently, the issue of deportation of Taiwanese citizens made headlines when 269 Taiwanese and Chinese nationals were arrested in Spain for running a telecom fraud. Despite months of negotiations, the Taiwanese nationals were deported not to Taiwan, but to China to face justice. This is not the first time that Taiwanese citizens were deported to China. In 2016, Armenia, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Kenya deported Taiwanese citizens to China.

Within China, schools actively teach that Taiwan is a part of the country and this represents the official position of the state. There has however been considerable change in recent years in the relationship between Taiwan and China. Only in 2008 did direct flights from Taiwan to China resume. In 2015, China also modified legislation to allow Taiwanese citizens to travel and even move permanently to China in what has been referred to as “quasi-citizen treatment”. That being said, Beijing has reiterated on many occasions that it will never accept any movement towards independence by Taiwan because of their shared history, as well as the island’s strategic position. Indeed, control over Taiwan is essential for China in the case of an open conflict because it would allow its military to extend its range and advance defences to protect the mainland.

Currently, China accounts for almost 30 percent of Taiwan’s trade, making it the island’s largest trading partner. A strong movement towards independence could be met by China with economic sanctions or even a blockade, producing crippling effects on Taiwan’s economy and its ability to import vital energy to power the country. In the wake of the last elections in Taiwan, many were quick to predict increasingly tense relations between China and Taiwan. Although it is important to plan for various contingencies in order to understand the possible outcomes, strong pushes towards sovereignty are not likely in the short term. The Taiwanese government, although displeased with the difficulties related with the absence of a recognised independent status, is currently benefiting from good trade relations with China. One thing is clear, China will not wait idly until Taiwanese sovereignty is a fait accompli, but rather intervene to halt burgeoning movements.


PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.

Is China’s growing appetite a threat to global food security?



by Tim Abington. Tim is a 6th Form student applying to study International Relations.

Over the course of the last two decades, China has become the blueprint for rising nations by becoming the dominant power across the East Asia and beyond. Yet, the People’s Republic is not without weakness and it is facing growing concerns, one of which is all too often overlooked in discussions of national security.

The Asian superpower is attempting to feed a population four times greater than that of the United States, on arable land which amounts to less 1/10 hectare per person, according to the World Bank. Historically, China has had mixed success in providing food for its growing population. The prized 95% grains self-sufficiency rate, enacted in 1996 following world cereal prices reaching a 15 year high, has contributed to a relatively stable food price. But then in stark contrast, the legendary photo of the ‘shopping bag man’ standing in Tiananmen Square and the protests which surrounded it were preceded by a year of high food inflation and panic buying.

The fear of further political unrest and desire for self-sufficiency has kept the People’s Republic on its toes in regard to food production. It heavily supports agriculture in each 5 year plan; tax-breaks, subsidies and direct payments all contribute to the national directive of 50 million more tons of grain annually by 2050.

Yet even those famously effective national plans may not be enough to reverse the worrying trends emerging within Chinese food markets. China is facing a dilemma that all rapidly developing nations encounter. Urbanisation and industrialisation inevitably result in an agrarian decline. Those areas of China which are most suitable for agriculture are those in which urbanisation occurs: the flat, well-irrigated, fertile land of the East coast proving ideal locations for factories, technology parks and high-rises.

In the last 20 years alone Chinese arable land has declined by 2%. This might sound paltry but equates to 187,764 km2, enough farmland to produce 1 billion tons of wheat- or 1 trillion loaves of bread. As the skyscrapers appear across Shanghai’s skyline, the rural population is moving, at an ever-increasing rate, towards the cities. It numbered 74% at the time of Tiananmen Square, it has now shrunk to 44%. In an effect mirrored around the world, the Chinese are struggling to keep farmers on the farms.

Instead, many are heading for the bright lights of the cities. They’re choosing the sparkling new university campuses, factories and laboratories over rural deprivation and squalor. This decline is posing greater problems than the lack of wheat alone. It is having an impact upon consumption od China’s new opium: pork. China has a rather unique relationship with the pig. It is the only nation in the world with a strategic reserve of frozen pork, (a reserve from which it was forced to release 3 million kilograms as pork prices rose 50% in April) and is said to have been the first area in the world to domesticate the swine.

The hog has become as much a part of the rural home as the iPhone has of the urban one. Mirroring its booming economic growth, Chinese pork consumption has only increased, to 56 million tons- half of the world’s total. Naturally, the total number of pigs matches the appetite, 482 million hogs strewn across China, all of which require feed and water. It is, therefore, of no surprise that a culmination of urbanisation and rising consumption of white meat has placed pressure upon China’s grain supplies. This has resulted in a shift from exporter to importer of soybeans, wheat and rice. The country now imports 70% of its wheat from the United States- a worrying step towards dependency for a state that is determined to be self-sufficient.

That said, this trend is traveling both ways across the Pacific. In what was a controversial move, the Shuanghui Group, China’s largest meat producer and whose chairman enjoys a seat on the National People’s Congress, purchased Smithfield Foods – the world’s largest pork producer – in a takeover which was the largest Chinese acquisition of an American company to date. Along with the markets it brought, the deal allowed Shuanghui to acquire vast acres of farmland across Texas and Missouri, the more to meet the demands of the hungry urbanised Beijingers and Shanghainese.

There is now significant Chinese investment in the US meat processing industry, the Australian and New Zealand dairy industry and several European agri-technology firms (along with their patents for GM crops and fertilizers). Even the humble Weetabix is in Asian hands as China eyes up prime farmland, infrastructure and technologies around the world in order to meet its domestic demand. This appears to be a trend set to continue as companies remain encouraged by the Government directive “to focus investments on agricultural logistics, trading, and production assets overseas in order to ensure a dominant role for Chinese companies in the supply chain for imported commodities.” A clear bid from the State Council to strengthen its food security.

Quite literally, the Chinese are eating the globe’s breakfast, lunch and dinner with elevenses to match. Or as Xinhua News agency nicely puts it, the PRC’s appetite increasing invokes the question “feed China, starve the world?”

There are severe implications of China’s attempts to satisfy its hungry population. Other nation states must wake up to these dangers and address this issue of food security in order to prevent food supplies go sailing into the sunset. It is quite easy to be reassured by defensive spending commitments but as numerous recent political turmoil shows, a rise in food prices on supermarket shelves inevitably results in political and economic turmoil.

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.

SOLD OUT: London event – the changing face of counterterrorism

Photo 24.11. crowd whitehall

WHEN: Wednesday, August 17, 2016 from 17:30 – 19:00 

WHERE: Whitehall, London, United Kingdom – Exact location to be confirmed to attendees


From Paris to Brussels,, Nice, Orlando and beyond, Western states appear to be facing an almost unprecedented tempo of militant attacks – although they pale in comparison to those in truly front-line nations such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria. With a growing number of such incidents apparently involving single radicalized individuals, often with mental health problems, how can one really define “terrorism”? And with recent attacks in Europe and North America now helping drive domestic politics, what can be done to protect civilians while avoiding further polarizing communities and deepening divisions?

Peter Apps [moderator] – executive director, PS21. Reuters global affairs columnist

Nigel Inkster – former deputy chief, MI6, now head of transnational threats and political risk for international Institute for Strategic Studies

Omar Hamid – former Pakistani police officer, now head of Asia-Pacific risk at IHS

Julia Ebner – policy analyst specializing in European militant threats, Quilliam Foundation

Frederic Ischebeck-Baum – Sir Michael Howard Centre Fellow at King’s College London and PS21 fellow.


You can sign up here.


The PS21 Team.

South China Sea : The Saga continues

Portion of a Qing scroll on battling 19th Century piracy in the South China Sea (Wikipedia)


Berivan Dilan is a recent graduate from Maastricht University in International Relations, and is starting an MSc in International Political Economy at LSE.  


On 12th July 2016, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea at The Hague ruled that Chinese claims to territorial rights in the South China Sea have no legal basis, after a case was brought to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2013 by the Philippines. The tension in the South China Sea is at a fever pitch, with China vowing that it “will take all necessary measures to protect its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests,”[i] countered by the U.S. sending an aircraft carrier and fighter jets to the region. This ruling certainly does not mark the end of the South China Sea dispute. In fact, this ruling might just have opened up Pandora’s Box.


The South China Sea has been home to territorial disputes for many decades. The disputes involve claims among several states that all have an interest in the fishing areas, potential natural resources and strategic control of one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. China asserts that its historical claim to these prized waters predate the United Nations Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) however Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Brunei beg to differ and believe the international law regulating the delimitation must be adhered to.


Why does China claim this area?

Money, money, money goes to explain much of China’s so-called “win win” approach to its contemporary foreign policy decisions. The area in question without doubt offers huge economic benefits to the PRC: from the potential for unique access to the immense fishing area, strategic control of one of the busiest shipping routes in the world, and increased access to exploiting potential natural resources (i.e. oil) are to name a few examples. Geopolitically, its security would have been strengthened had the Court chosen to favour China in this dispute, given the current dominance of U.S. backed naval resources in the region. It would be naïve not to recognize the material realities of the dispute. However, in addition to the economic and geopolitical dimensions, there is a third dimension which is often neglected by the popular accounts of the dispute, namely the historical dimension. China is not only claiming the South China Sea because it has vested interests in the region, but also because China views the area claimed within the nine-dashed line as historically theirs. In order to understand Chinese foreign policy fully, particularly as it re-emerges as a superpower, it is necessary to understand the ancient Chinese conception of world order.


In order to understand the way the PRC is currently acting, first one needs to look at the concept of Tianxia, which can be broken down into three parts: the world (in a geographical sense), the will of the people, and the world institution[ii]. What is important to note is that Tianxia does not refer to a nation state as we interpret it, but to a world or society: “traditional China did not see itself as a nation-state or even as an empire with separate subject peoples, but rather as the centre of civilisation.” [iii] This led to the ancient Chinese idea of Sinocentrism, the idea that China is the undisputed centre of civilisation. In the Sinocentric world order China has a hegemonic position. In the past when China aimed to create a Sinocentric world order, it did so by socialising foreign rulers into accepting China’s centrality and superiority. In fact, in some periods, the Chinese rulers were able to accomplish this with some Western visitors as well as in the system of tributary and vassal states.


As China re-emerges as a superpower, it seems clear that this Sinocentric viewpoint is being taken on-board once more by its leaders. Gone are the days of Xiaoping’s “bide one’s time” philosophy, the nation is now taking a lead with assertive foreign policy choices, such as refusing the tribunal’s ruling in the South China Sea dispute, despite being a UNSC power. China will not easily give up its territorial claims in the South China Sea. The first Chinese interaction with Western international law in the 19th century was not easy. China experienced it as traumatic, leaving memories of humiliation, domination and oppression. The unequal treaties signed in this time period, such as the Treaty of Nanking, encroached upon China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and exemplified how foreign imperialism managed to reduce the Middle Kingdom to a society with semi-colonial status. The Chinese saw international law as one of the tools used by the west to restrain ‘wild foreign consuls’[iv]. Although today international law is part of China’s advancement strategy to catch up with the developed countries, “early Chinese experience with international law still remains a key to the understanding of the present Chinese attitude towards international law”[v]. The Chinese claim to the South China Sea is based on unverifiable historical claims and while this does not hold much power in international law, the Chinese government will not back down any time soon.


What happens next?

The tribunal has no powers to enforce its ruling. China has rejected the ruling and maintained its presence in the South China Sea claiming that it has the right to set up an air defence zone. The U.S. has framed the outcome of the case as a test of China’s respect of international law. China’s rejection could lead to reputational damage, as well as alienating its neighbours if it maintains the current course of action and language. However, it is playing well to its citizens at home who are increasingly seeking a more active role for China in international relations. Whether the tensions in the South China Sea will escalate to a military encounter between China and the U.S., is unclear. However, this ruling has created more uncertainty and unease for both sides. In any case, it is clear that the situation in the South China Sea goes much deeper than merely economic and geopolitical power. To understand contemporary foreign policy decisions made by the PRC, one must look further than simply realpolitik. It seems that China’s assertiveness is a reassertion of an age old worldview which has influenced Chinese governance and self-understanding for over two millennia.


Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, nongovernmental, nonpartisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own. Interested in contributing? Email us at E-mail us at


[i] Reuters. (2016). China vows to protect South China Sea sovereignty, Manila upbeat. Retrieved July 17, 2016, from

[ii] Zhao, T. (2006). Rethinking Empire from a Chinese Concept ‘All-under-Heaven’ (Tian-xia,). Social Identities, 12(1), 29-41.

[iii] Nathan, A. J., & Scobell, A. (2015). What Drives Chinese Foreign policy. In China’s search for security (pp. 1-37). Columbia University Press.

[iv] Zhaojie, L. (2001). Legacy of modern Chinese history: its relevance to the Chinese perspective of the contemporary international legal order. Singapore Journal of International & Comparative Law, 5, 314-326.

[v] Zhaojie, L. (2001). Legacy of modern Chinese history: its relevance to the Chinese perspective of the contemporary international legal order. Singapore Journal of International & Comparative Law, 319.

Chinese actions demonstrate their expansionary intentions

reef_1 david murrin

David Murrin is the author of Breaking the Code of History, the culmination of decades of personal research across a wide range of disciplines. He is a Global Fellow at PS21 and chairman of Spartent Global Solutions.

There is always a time when the intentions of an individual or that of a nation shift from the hidden to uncloaked. That is the point where the wise prepare for action. We have for over a decade warned of the rise of China and that its challenge to the world would ultimately not be a peaceful one, as so vehemently claimed by President Xi. Consequently, we have been following the construction of islands in the Spratly chain, based on the partially submerged reefs that lay below the high tide mark, all of which under UNCLOS (The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) were considered not to be sovereign territory. However, the recent pictures released by the BBC, clearly demonstrate Chinese territorial ambitions and their desire to expand their influence across the South China Sea. Judging by the impressive magnitude of these transformations, the Chinese vision will no doubt be a series of deep water naval and air bases from which they can project military power across the surrounding seas and especially to some of the exits from those seas. The evidence speaks for itself as shown by the pictures below.

If there was ever any denial as to the Chinese objectives towards expansion, these pictures should now quell any doubt. Under UNCLOS any plane or ship should have the freedom to travel through/around these islands and yet the Chinese Navy insists on an exclusion zone.

Both the US Navy and now an Australian plane have challenged this exclusion zone successfully. However, one has to wonder for how long this zone will be free to planes and ships that seek to force free passage, especially when they are fully operational as military bases and can lock their weapons systems on to intruders.

It seems that the Chinese calculation in the construction of these island fortifications has been based on the current weak pushback from the Obama administration. Thus, one should expect that by the time of the next US election in eleven months, these islands will become Chinese property in a fait accompli. After all, it is doubtful that the US Navy would start a war to remove these bases.

One just has to wonder and worry, what or where will be the next Chinese target of acquisition, once these islands are considered as Chinese territory. The concern is that, having come up with a successful island acquisition strategy, what will stop the Chinese from repeating this process in other locations to extend their string of pearls?

Mischief Reef before the Chinese arrived.

Mischief Reef after the Chinese arrived.

Gaven Reefs

Fiery Cross Reef before the Chinese arrived.

Fiery Cross Reef after the Chinese arrived.

This article was originally published here on December 17th, 2015. 

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

‘Womenomics’ in Japan

Womenomics 2015-11-30

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Sally Herd spent two years living in Japan, where she worked at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo. She is now a political consultant at Burson-Marsteller in London. She tweets @herd_sally

As the Japanese prime minister said in an address to the United Nations General Assembly in 2013, “enhancing opportunities for women to work and to be active in society is no longer a matter of choice … it is a matter of the greatest urgency”.

Japan is a country with an eternally sluggish economy, with an aging, immigration-resistant population. Abe’s “womenomics” offers a solution with its core tenet that a country that hires and promotes more women grows economically, and no less important, demographically as well. So in order to boost the Japanese economy, Prime Minister Abe turned to a long ignored asset: women.

Japanese women are among the best educated in the world. Yet only 65 percent are employed (and half of those are part-time workers), as compared to 82 percent of men. Work culture in Japan—which includes long work hours and limited leave — makes it challenging to reconcile career aspirations with domestic obligations. Up to 70 percent of Japanese women leave the labour force when they have children, and most do not return.

In response to this stalled development of women in the workforce, Prime Minister Abe pledged to create a society in which ‘all women can shine’. He acknowledged that women had long been an under-utilised resource in the Japanese economy and promised to boost female labour participation rates, increase the presence of women in corporate board rooms and improve gender equality.

Two years on, the initial hype may have faded, and critics lament that Abe’s economic experiment has failed. However, it is now, more than ever, that Abe’s ‘womenomics’ experiment needs to succeed.

The success of womenomics is integral to saving Japan’s flat-lining economy. The world’s third largest economy is crippled with stagnant growth and deflation. Government debt is mounting. Bringing more women into the workforce is a key way of raising Japan’s economic game. According to “Womenomics”, a Goldman Sachs report, it was estimated that if the employment rate of women in Japan equaled that of men, it would boost the country’s GDP by as much as 12.5 percent.

The success of womenomics is also central in helping Japan beat its demographic issues. Japan’s birth rate slumped to a record low in 2014. Some estimates say that by 2050 the population could be as low as 97 million – 30 million lower than now. A drop in the number of 15 to 64-year-olds is predicted to lower potential growth and shrink Japan’s GDP. That in turn is expected to harm the pension system and other elements of social welfare. The impact in rural areas is predicted to be especially damaging, putting the very existence of some communities in danger. Without a significant change in the birth rate, Japan is facing a demographic time bomb.

However, there are enormous hurdles that stand in the way of changing Japanese society’s views of women in the workforce. Tellingly, last year, Japan ranked 105th among 136 countries in the Global Gender Gap Report issued by the World Economic Forum.

Employees in Japan traditionally work exceptionally long hours, making it difficult for mothers with young children to stay in the workforce. As of 2013, there were still 22,741 children on waiting lists nationwide for daycare facilities. Likewise, the rapidly growing problem of caring for one’s elderly parents has not been adequately addressed by Abe’s policies. More than 95,000 Japanese, 80 percent of them women, quit their jobs to care for relatives, mainly parents, last year. Those women who do return to the workforce usually find themselves locked into low-paying, part-time contract jobs.

Moreover, fathers rarely play an active parenting role and government policies actually reinforce the breadwinner system by giving tax breaks to households where one spouse works only part time. Japan’s out-dated social norms and government policies may explain why 70 percent of women give up their jobs after having their first child.

Another challenge for female employees in Japan lies in the workplace itself. At the very top of corporate Japan is the “bamboo ceiling”—so-called by women for being thick, hard and not even transparent. In 2011, 4.5% of company division heads were female, up from 1.2% in 1989. But relative to other countries the numbers are still dismal. Of the most senior, executive-committee-level managers in Japan, 1% were women in 2011, according to a regional study by McKinsey. The equivalent figure for China was 9% and 15% for Singapore.

Furthermore, societal attitudes towards working mothers may explain why there are so few Japanese women in senior managerial positions. Workplace discrimination and bullying of pregnant workers is known in Japanese as matahara, or “maternity harassment.” According to Rengo, Japan’s biggest trade union confederation, a fifth of young mothers experience some kind of office harassment.

Since Abe’s first unveiled his womenomics policy, there have been small shoots of progress. Government initiatives such as increased childcare leave benefits, subsidies and tax incentives for companies deemed “women friendly”, reduced waiting lists for child-care programmes and greater workplace flexibility, such as teleworking, have helped introduce one million women to Japan’s labour force.

Nevertheless, when it comes to womenomics, Abe’s “to-do list” remains long. The Prime Minister must re-adjust Japan’s idea of work-life balance by convincing both men and women that long working hours have many disadvantages for both societies and companies. Societal factors such as in-work bullying against pregnant women and working mothers must be challenged from the top-down.

While critics suggest womenomics will end with Abe’s departure, optimists believe that a generational change by 2020 would ensure women’s empowerment becomes the norm rather than a political buzzword. In short, Abe needs to prove that womenomics is for real, not some national corporate-social-responsibility exercise. The country’s future literally depends on it.

PS21 Report: Lessons from recent humanitarian disasters

2015-09-10 04.28.00

    • The 2015 Nepal Earthquake was not the earthquake that authorities and aid agencies were preparing for
    • Increased urbanisation in developing states is posing new challenges to humanitarian organisations generally, but the extremely rural Nepalese villages and difficult terrain posed the biggest challenge to relief efforts
    • The influx of foreign aid workers in the immediate aftermath of a disaster can be counterproductive to relief efforts
    • Political alliances and rivalries continue to play out in disaster response actions
    • Aid agencies each carry their own agenda, which can get in the way of efficiency
    • Cash distribution is becoming a preferred form of relief and development

    On September 10, 2015, Project for the Study of the 21st Century, in conjunction with the European Interagency Security Forum, held a panel discussion on lessons from recent humanitarian disasters.

    Please feel free to quote from the report below citing PS21. Contact if you wish to reach any of the participants

    Chair: Tom Beazley: PS21 Company Secretary

    David Sanderson: Professor, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

    Dan Cooke: Operations Director, Serve On

    Kate Gray: Senior Programme Manager, Options Consultancy Service

    Barnaby Willitts-King: Research Fellow, Humanitarian Policy Group, Overseas Development Institute

    The last earthquake in Nepal was outside living memory for most of the population, which hindered earthquake preparedness.

    Sanderson: This is a place where there is a lot of preparedness, a lot of clever people have worked for a long time and at the same time this earthquake took people by surprise.

    Gray: I think part of the reason Nepal hadn’t got the housing stock that it should have and the buildings weren’t in the state they should have been despite risks is exactly because of the gap in time from the last massive earthquake to this one, that’s more than a lifetime’s and past living memory, so the fear is abstract.

    Chile, for example, has been very effective and has very forcefully policed implementation of laws around housing and construction, and as a result it’s much better prepared than Nepal was… [The] frequency of earthquakes in Chile has meant that fear, imperative, and pressure from civil society remains quite high, whereas in Nepal actually you had an entire generation of people who never experienced a big earthquake so the social pressure doesn’t build up to force action in the same way.

    Willetts-King:  I lived over there for a few years and (an earthquake) was what they were planning for and preparing for. And yet, despite that, the initial response was chaotic, uncoordinated.

    You have to look at the institutions that you have, the building codes, and more importantly the culture around that in terms of people realising it’s important, and that’s partly enforcement and partly changing the way people are educated, and that’s to do with getting people into schools.

    The difficult terrain posed one of the biggest problems to relief efforts. The impact on rural communities was unexpected, as most preparations were based on the assumption that an earthquake would hit Kathmandu.

    Cooke: It became apparent quite early that it wasn’t as bad as the terrible one that unfortunately we were expecting – the structure was slightly different.

    So it’s an extremely complex place to work because the roads have all slipped off the side of the mountain and there weren’t helicopters early enough and I’d say that more than any other place we’ve been we were expecting chaos but it could have been worse.

    Sanderson: This earthquake happened in Gorkha districts in the North West about 80km, something like that, throughout the valley, so this was not a disaster than anybody was getting ready for.

    What’s apparent is that the earthquake’s damage is particularly visible in rural areas, and of course many of those are far flung, they’re hard to get to, it may take days hiking to find many of these places. And not yet all have been reached by aid agencies. So there’s a complexity of the terrain, a difficulty in terms of access, the monsoon season is upon us and winter is coming and other climate issues of course with snow, so there’s a real need right now to address and to look at those issues.

    In Nepal it’s been really hard because of the terrain, you double the costs of material just by trying to get it somewhere, with transportation you just double that cost.

    The huge influx of foreign aid workers can pose issues for relief efforts. The differing agendas of each group create competition between relief organisations that can be counterproductive. This was identified as a central issue in most disaster response efforts.

    Cooke: We were about the fourth team to formerly arrive. Obviously everyone thinks that British and American forces are the first to respond, but also Indian troops were right in there, China, and by the time our team had returned from the rural areas that we went to, there wasn’t a country that didn’t seem to have a team there and a set of aeroplanes lined up and all sorts of things filling the space.

    Teams were queuing up to try and find jobs. The best way to describe is these people want to help, they want to make a difference, they’ve got a big team, there’s a big hotel there, lots of cameras and that’s why we do our things.

    There are a lot of egos, there’s a lot of people in fighting, there’s a lot of people who need to justify either representing their country, or their sponsor organisation, or whatever.

    Willitts-King: The way the system works is very much stuff gets sent and so you do end up with lots of really great motivated hard working people who want to help but it doesn’t necessarily add up to what you would design if you started from scratch and you end up with lots of people and inflated rents because you’ve got so many foreigners coming, you end up with the airport being rammed full. I think the key to it goes back to being better prepared and the government and local authorities being in charge.

    Sanderson: There is a tension for agencies on the one hand, and there is a need for branding and marketing and that’s understood, that’s part of the media age we’re in where we can take photographs and stream movies and that’s understood, and of course at the same time there’s the collective effort of the coordination.

    Gray: The donor response, like the NGO and relief agency response, was very immediate.  Each donor government brings its own agenda and desire to help in a particular way; its own modus operandi.

    There is a lot of competition between agencies to work in some areas. To take one particular example from the health sector,  a huge amount of damage was done to health infrastructure. Building a hospital or a health facility is a visually very impactful thing to do, and it’s very important as well.  As a result construction work is quite an attractive are of work for lots of agencies and organisations and there is competition to provide this supprot.

    International organisations need to learn to recognise and accept when they are not needed, or when they are interfering with the recovery process rather than assisting.

    Willitts-King I think that Nepal had the same experience as Haiyan and the Philippines and countries affected by the tsunami in 2004 where coordinating the international response was as overwhelming as the actual natural disaster. Certainly, if you look at the Philippines, the typhoon that happened a year after Haiyan, the government of the Philippines said “actually we don’t want any international help because you’re distracting us from the response because we’re having to manage all of you.” That’s a pretty bad indictment.

    Gray: So in some cases I think that withdrawal is what’s needed, by doing jobs that people can do themselves you’re not actually helping things in the long term.  However, there does need to be that sudden influx of support in very particular areas. I welcome that move out after that initial phase of emergency relief is complete.

    Cooke:  If a government has got a UN coordination system and has said no more of these please, a responsible organisation should be able to do it, whereas the amount of diplomatic twisting and turning and the reasons why we couldn’t carry on for a little bit, with people still arriving 24, 48 hours after it happened – exactly what was asked not to happen – is a bit unfair and selfish.

    While the Nepalese Government’s response has been widely criticised, it is nonetheless crucial to relief and rebuilding efforts.

    Gray: I think the government has come under a fair amount of criticism following the earthquake and the talk of an earthquake has always been there, that’s been a constant background to the country’s and government’s thinking as a whole so I think there was a conference on earthquake preparedness two weeks before the earthquake hit and the findings were not so prepared, was the conclusion, and I think that’s more enactive in their experience in the following months.

    Sanderson: The Nepalese government enacted NEOC (National Emergency Operation Centre) within 4 hours of the disaster. There’s an awful lot of preparedness on that level and it “worked” in terms of immediacy of getting together and organising and starting to do things.

    The government is in the driving seat, certainly in the early stages, it’s very clearly on the record that the government made some decisions then reversed those decisions and changed some decisions. And so agencies seeking to work in that context were dealt an extra level of complexity when it relates to how to work in those areas.

    The actions of local governments and local organisations in affected areas are essential to the response.

    Gray: The local governments in individual affected districts, those coordinating groups, are essential as well as the centrally managed government.  That is the level at which the reality of coordination is realised.

    Willetts-King: The role of local organisations is very important. Communities are the first responders, local organisations, there’s been a real change in Nepal in terms of the solidarity between communities which has been really notable but again how do you get all these different moving parts, the local, the national, the regional, the international, together?

    I think the role of the international community is to share best practice and customise it to the local situation and fund it. I think with Nepal there was a lot of work with institutional change, funding things, but it could only go so far because of the politics of the country.

    The post-war context of Nepal has also distracted from earthquake preparedness. The lack of constitution and weak political structures prevent the implementation of proactive policies.

    Willetts-King:  It’s really important to remember where Nepal has come from in terms of having had 10 years of civil war, there’s still a very weak government, very contested politics, no constitution, which just had all these ramifications and structures which we take for granted in more stable countries in terms of the ability to deal with preparedness as a community level because the bodies to do this really aren’t in place as a result of the constitution.

    When you’ve got a country that’s emerging from civil war it’s still very conflicts politics, [which makes it difficult] to get politicians to really focus on something that is a far off abstract concept.

    Humanitarian disasters are not immune to international political rivalries. However, states are generally able to put aside political differences for humanitarian reasons.

    Willetts King: The humanitarian landscape is getting more complicated. China is particularly as an enabler but is taking a really big new role in India, and a hugely important one in Nepal.

    Those bilateral relationships are really important and an interesting comparison with Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, where China was really heavily criticised for pledging half a million dollars for that response in the region. And came under a lot of criticism for playing politics because of the political disputes they were having in the region with the Philippines. I think what you see in Nepal, and there’s been different takes on it, but the rivalry between India and China plays out in Nepal in all sorts of different ways in terms of vying for influence.

    Cooke: I’d say though in terms of teams talking to each other and being civil and productive and helpful was better than any other disasters that I’ve been in that situation and I did see China, Russia, USA, India, Israeli Defence Force, the Gulf states, Polish Turkish all around the big table and all in a big meeting almost as easy as this is at the moment.

    Willetts-King: Natural disasters are, for governments wanting to show support and solidarity, are a very straightforward way to demonstrate support, at a human level, but also politically. And so compared to engaging in Syria or the complex politics of conflict, responding to natural disasters is politically more straightforward.

    Increased urbanisation in developing countries is changing the function of aid agencies. However, in Nepal, the mix of urban centres and extremely remote villages poses a unique challenge to recovery and rebuilding systems design.

    Sanderson: Cities are growing around the world by a million people a week, and it’s almost unbelievable. If the UN habitats are right it’s around 180,000 people a day and it’s a throw of the dice actually whether you think that’s good or bad.

    There are thousands [of cities], tens of thousands probably, at risk of climate and flood, earthquake, and there will be more cities growing a week and we need to rethink how we do this and take it seriously.

    Aid agencies talk about “field work”… but it’s not field work, its neighbourhood work, and that’s the difference and the shift. It’s learning about new tools and especially since the Haiti earthquake that was a big wakeup call. It is a new landscape, it’s the cityscape.

    Gray: Urbanisation does require a big shift in the way that services are delivered.  Often primary healthcare is structured around the idea that you have these clinics that people travel to from afar and there’s only one and you make sure that it can provide one service. When working in an urban environment actually you’ve got a mix of public providers, public providers, the competition is a lot more real and it requires very different systems, delivery, design and approach.

    In Nepal I think there’s a very particular balance whereby there’s urbanisation to a huge extent, but you’ve also at the same time got incredibly remote communities, remote in a way that remote communities aren’t remote in most parts of sub-Saharan Africa or Asia, they’re up a mountain, four days walk over Everest, somewhere else.

    The process of rebuilding has improved dramatically through lessons from previous disasters and technological developments.

    Gray: The transition phase now is about “building back better”.  That is the government’s catchphrase – which captures how they’re trying to ensure so that the humanitarian response, and the reconstruction isn’t just about replacing what was there before or a quick cut to what’s needed in the immediate aftermath, but to actually ensuring that what is returning is better than what was there in the first place.

    Sanderson: There’s been less transitional shelter and more a delivery of goods, especially CGI (corrugated iron) and that’s good and bad. It’s good because it’s cheap and durable, you can deliver it stacked up and distribute it and that’s the bulk response. The problem is its hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and it rusts, and doesn’t last very long, but then people are clever to reuse it.

    Mobile smart phones are a powerful thing, the use of smart phone technology for assessments where we could quickly send information back very quickly that’s very powerful.

    Cash transfers are increasingly becoming the preferred method of post-disaster development.

    Sanderson: The real game changer was cash. Giving people money, cash transfers, it sounds obvious, give people money. It’s very powerful because the transaction costs are super low, you can be super-efficient, you can give people more autonomy to do things… I bet in five years’ time will be the one where cash was even more mainstream and even higher.

    You know Typhoon Haiyan, the World Food Programme was number one way of doing this now – donating people food, donating people cash, that’s the way things are done now. Cash is as important as food and water.

    Disasters such as the 2015 Nepal Earthquake should be grasped as opportunities for building policies as well as rebuilding physical structures.

    Sanderson: There’s no Natural Disaster Management Act that’s been discussed since 2007. So there is an opportunity there, given these terrible events that have happened, to actually come out with a world class Disasters Management Act. Why shouldn’t that be an outcome of this terrible event?

    Report by Claire Connellan. Transcript by Fiona Slater.

The war in Afghanistan has so far cost $33,000 per Afghan


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Peter Apps is the executive director of PS21 and a veteran reporter. He tweets @pete_apps

Fourteen years old this month, the West’s war in Afghanistan had all but vanished from the headlines. Even before the fall of Kunduz this week, however — the first provincial capital to be taken by the Taliban in more than a decade — it was clear that all was not going well.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that United States and allied officials were reviewing White House plans to scale down NATO troop numbers in Afghanistan to several hundred by the end of next year, from some 10,000 now. A reduction on that scale, they apparently worry, could leave the door open for not just a Taliban recovery, but also significant inroads by elements of Islamic State.

Like the Russians before them, NATO appears to have squandered lives, resources and a surprising degree of goodwill — and with little left to show for it.

Even the most cursory examination reveals phenomenal waste. According to calculations at the end of last year by the Financial Times and others, the war had already cost almost $1 trillion (less than the $1.7 trillion spent on Iraq, but still staggering). The official responsible for scrutinizing spending, U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko, says that, adjusted for inflation, efforts at development in Afghanistan have now cost more than the Marshall Plan to reconstruct post-World War Two Europe.

Divided equally among Afghanistan’s 30 million citizens, the trillion dollars amounts to some $33,000 per head. That would be more than $2,300 per year, per person spread across the 14 years of the war. (Although, in reality, the lion’s share of spending has come in the last seven years of the Obama administration.) Annual per capita Afghan income in 2014 was only $670.

According to SIGAR, the United States has no real idea, even now, how many Afghan troops, health centers or schools its money has backed. The money is almost certainly going to pay for personnel who never existed. (SIGAR’s reports and comments make depressing but fascinating reading — a must for anyone who really wants to understand what has gone wrong in Afghanistan.)

The simple truth, I would argue, is that we tend to look at the Afghan war in entirely the wrong way, and because of that the United States has spent its money poorly, too. The United States, British and broader Western media outlets have focused their coverage on the Western soldier experience.

Even now, if you told most Americans or Brits to consider the “real tragedy” of the Afghan war, they would think of dead and maimed NATO personnel, of their widows and children. But that’s like my view of the Sri Lanka war being entirely colored just because I broke my neck in it (which of course it is).  It’s understandable, even unavoidable — but it misses the bigger picture.

According to fatalities monitoring website, 3495 coalition soldiers have been killed since 2001 — 2364 Americans, 453 Brits and 678 others. Brown University’s Cost of War Project, however, estimates that a total of 92,000 Afghans were killed over the same period. At least 26,000 of those, they believe, were civilians.

The real fight that counted was always the struggle for control between the government in Kabul, the various regional power centers and the Taliban. It’s a fight that had been ongoing since the Russian withdrawal in 1989.

The hope in Afghanistan was that several years of tough action by Western troops would break the Taliban and shape a country that could be handed back to the Afghans. The reality, though, seems to have been that all sides knew Western troops would eventually leave.

Exact breakdowns of where the money went in Afghanistan are difficult to make — not least because Western personnel rotating through the country often failed to keep proper records, according to SIGAR. But it is clear that a very large amount — probably the vast majority — went to the Western military effort. According to the Washington think tank the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, by 2014 the war cost $2.1 million for every U.S. service member on the ground.

Huge amounts of equipment — from mine-hardened patrol vehicles to new patterns of camouflage clothing — were rushed into production. By 2010, a U.S. or NATO soldier suffering catastrophic injuries in Afghanistan could expect a better standard of medical care than that available at any major Western city trauma center.

For all the talk of strengthening the Afghan forces, their kit was always much more basic — troops without body armor, often in civilian-style pickup trucks.

This weekend, the New York Times reported Afghanistan’s most decorated helicopter pilot complaining that new U.S.-delivered attack helicopters were all but useless — unable to reach the mountaintops often occupied by Taliban, often suffering jammed guns and other mechanical failures. According to SIGAR, Afghan security forces are seriously lacking in cold-weather gear — a must for soldiers based in mountainous regions where winter can last for seven months.

Several commanders, particularly U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, tried to focus on building Afghan capacity and winning hearts and minds. For most of the troops and more junior leaders in warfare, however, Afghan forces were rarely more than a distraction, danger or joke. Given the number of times Afghan troops turned on NATO members, that’s hardly surprising. And while the New York Times might only just have discovered the alarming habit of Afghan forces having sex with teenage boys, the phrase “man love Thursday” had long been the topic of horrified conversation among Western soldiers not easily shocked.

The problem, though, is that if Western troops don’t stay in Afghanistan forever — and they probably will not — the Afghan forces are almost the only show in town. And if Afghan forces can’t hold, power will be transferred to the kind of warlords who preceded them, Taliban or otherwise.

Even the work done on strengthening the Afghan government may simply have created something unsustainable. SIGAR estimates that the Afghan government costs $8 to $10 billion a year to run — but can raise no more than $2 billion itself in revenue. That leaves it more dependent on outside support than probably any other nation.

It’s not all bad news. Even SIGAR — never prone to put a gloss on things unnecessarily — points to reduced maternal mortality rates, at least modestly improved access to education, and a new government under President Ashraf Ghani that seems genuinely keen to assert its authority and tackle corruption.

The U.S. forces that remain there may still be able to make a difference. Indeed, it is easy to forget now that many, many fewer — only a handful of special operators and intelligence agency paramilitaries — worked with local groups to oust the Taliban from much of the country within weeks after September 11.

Their departure, though, would not mean the end of the fight for Afghanistan. It might only be the beginning.

This article originally appeared on on October 1, 2015. 

PS21 is a non-governmental, non-ideological, non-national organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.