PS21 Event Writeup: ‘Beijing, the US and the South China Sea’

By Oliver Yule-Smith

This event was co-chaired by PS21 executive director Peter Apps and PS21 Chief of Staff Sam Genge.

Dr Chris Weston, an international business consultant on risk management, began by drawing a broad picture of the nature of the regional dynamics, specifically related to the economic dimension. Dr Weston challenged the core tenets of the liberal peace theory by arguing that economic ties between the US and the China do not make conflict completely unimaginable. He drew on the specific example of the parallel between Britain and Germany before the start of World War 1. This helped to feed into narratives of a return to Great Power Politics. Dr Weston then pointed to US tariffs on China, the South China Seas and the unilateral withdrawal of the US from INF treaty and even the Postal Treaty of 1873 as a clear evocative of the skirmishes between Great Powers. The conclusion was optimistic that we are not destined for a war or even a Cold War. However, Dr Weston did suggest that the US are clearly signalling that they want a change in the nature of the relationship as current events show.

David Li, an Asia-Pacific analyst with the economics and risk team for HIS Markit, segued into the specific manifestation of the China-American relationship in the South China Sea. He outlined the current state of play in the South China Sea by arguing that China’s military build-up in the region is already complete and that this has helped to ensure China’s dominance in the region. However, Mr Li noted that there has been considerable reactionary build-up in this region, broadly supported by the US, that might help to challenge Chinese influence in the region. Mr Li then looked at the drivers for China’s aspirations for dominance in the South China Sea by looking at the internal dynamics of the CCP. He, thus, outlined two camps: the hard-line approach personified by the Chinese military that aspired to exert control in the region and the moderate approach led by diplomats who wanted a more conciliatory approach to China’s rise in this region. However, it was argued that the hard-line approach has largely won out but that this approach will cost it dearly with ASEAN and Indian Ocean countries.

Deepa Kumar, analyst at HIS Markit country risk team, picked up where Mr Li left off by stating that China’s dominance in the South China Sea has led to an increasing role for ASEAN and India in the region. Ms Kumar argued that China’s dominance necessitated a response from these countries given the South China Seas importance for trade in the region. Ms Kumar assessed that ASEAN countries are dependent on China FDI flows so will push for a more diplomatic response. This would be a more logical approach given that there is particularly diplomatic strength as an institutional bloc. Ms Kumar then turned her attention to India which she stated would form a cornerstone of any US strategy towards the South China Sea. Drawing on David’s analysis she argued that with Chinese military build-up in the South China Seas the Indian Ocean would become the next battleground. Ms Kumar concluded by stating that whilst ASEAN and/or India will not themselves escalate events if China escalates these countries will have no choice but to respond.

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

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.

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.

Friendship & Cooperation? – India’s African Strategy


William Farmer is a recent graduate from King’s College London, specializing in Postcolonial Africa and political risk.

In its relations with the African continent, the Indian state claims that historical and cultural commonalities between the two naturally engender unique and mutually-beneficial foreign relations. The main tenets of such solidarity are a shared colonial past, helped by the large Indian diaspora in Africa, and the history of the Non-Aligned Movement, of which India, and many African nations were members. This sentiment was also evident at the UN in 2010; India’s representative to the UN, Hardeep Singh Puri, remarked that ‘India’s own links with Africa go back a long way. They are anchored in a history of civilizational contact and friendship across the Indian Ocean. Our friendship and cooperation has been further strengthened through a common journey of anti-colonial struggle and post-colonial nation-building.’[1] This narrative attempts to set India apart from other foreign actors in Africa, such as China or Western nations, whose policies in Africa are often branded as “neo-colonial” and exploitative.


The cultural commonality of India and Africa is used by the Indian state to supplement a narrative of benevolent policy towards Africa. Specifically, the Indian state has argued that their colonial and Non-Aligned past engenders an aptitude for capacity building projects; in other words, it is the ideal nation to “develop” Africa. This can be seen with initiatives such as the Pan-African e-Network, which has been running since February 2009. It is a project that shares Indian skills (namely education and healthcare expertise) with African audiences, connecting ‘53 African countries into one network through satellite, fiber optics and wireless links to provide tele-education, tele-medicine and voice and video conference facilities’.[2] The blueprint of the Pan African e-Network is supposedly ‘within the framework of South-South cooperation.’[3] Even the name of the project evokes notions of the Non-Aligned Movement, with prominent Pan-Africanists such as Nkrumah professing staunch support for the Non-Aligned Movement.


Nevertheless, the relevance and provenance regarding this narrative of cultural and historical commonality is dubious at best. When examining Indian policy in Africa more broadly, it becomes apparent that it is not particularly unique nor benevolent; rather, Indian policy more closely resembles that of China, or Western nations. This is ironic, as India expressly defines its own policies in Africa against that of these competitors. Despite the lengths the Indian state goes to, to differentiate their relationship with Africa from China’s, India has been seen to follow China’s lead. This can be seen in a number of different ways, but primarily through its investment in raw materials. The Indian Department of External Affairs has made this clear, stating that the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) ‘is very rich in natural resources’ and that ‘there is tremendous possibility of enhanced bilateral cooperation.’[4] India, much like China, traded in Africa largely to gain natural resources to service infrastructure advancements in their respective home nations. In 2010, 91 per cent of India’s imports from Africa were primary commodities – this meant that India bought very few processed materials or products from Africa.[5] It is plain to see that India is, in fact, extracting natural resources from Africa in a manner strikingly similar to China, and that the Indian narrative of cultural similarity and cooperation is, in this context, nothing more than a pretext for the extraction of natural resources.


The provenance of India’s narrative of a shared colonial and non-aligned past is equally suspect. Rather than India’s colonial past engendering a relationship across the Indian Ocean that benefits Africa, it can be seen to imbue an unequal and prejudiced relationship. Under the British Empire, Indians were seen as more “civilised” than Africans. With the break-up of Germany’s colonies after the First World War, members of the Indian diaspora in East Africa, with a clear belief in the Indian “civilising mission” in East Africa, lobbied to annex German Tanganyika to British India, as recompense for India’s contribution to the war effort.[6] This thinking has persisted: the experiences of African students in India provides a clear example. In 2013, Jalandhar in the Punjab experienced a series of racially-motivated attacks. Twenty-one Congolese exchange students were arrested and Indian state officials stated that the Congolese ‘stole the bag of the [Indian] victim’, but the Congolese students claimed that this was not the case, and that one student was ‘beaten with a cricket bat in what appeared to be a racist attack.’[7] The Congolese students in question, as well as the president of the Association of African Students in India (AASI) argued that racism against Africans was a big issue in India, particularly in the Punjab. Christophe Okito, AASI president, claimed that ‘many of them [Indians] believe that black people are cursed by the gods, destined to be slaves, whereas white people here are seen as intrinsically successful.’[8] This negative attitude towards Africans, with specific reference to slavery, implies that Africans in India are aware of the colonial roots of this racism.


The mere fact that India positions itself to be a nation fit to take part in “developing” Africa articulates an assumed hierarchical and neo-colonial relationship. Arturo Escobar’s theory of development discourse likens the practice of “development” to colonialism, as the “development” of one people by another presumes the “developer” to be more civilised than their recipients of “development” efforts.[9] This theory helps to explain the racially-hierarchical nature of India’s work in Africa.


This article is not aimed to vilify foreign actors in Africa. Rather, deconstructing foreign policy narratives – such as India’s – aims to provide a case study of the problems presented by the utilisation of cultural or historical commonality for political and economic ends. This article is also a call to those in foreign policy, arguing that they should be equally as critical when considering the role of culture and history in foreign relations. First of all, such narratives can be largely irrelevant to the true practices of states, as shown by the nature of Indian investment in Africa. Secondly, cultural and historical narratives are often used to ingrain a false sense of cooperation and solidarity between nations. The failure of both Indian and African states to accept the real nuance in their relationship – including the hangover of a colonial, racial hierarchy between Indians and Africans – shows that simplified and reductive notions of non-aligned and post-colonial solidarity do not reflect the true nature of India-Africa relations.



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


[1] India’s Foreign Relations – 2010 Documents, ed., Avtar Singh Bhasin, (Geetika Publishers), page 2283.

[2] Ibid, page 2284.

[3] Ibid.

[4] ‘India-DR Congo Relations’, Embassy of India, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, accessed 20/3/16,

[5] Standard Chartered, ‘Africa-India Trade and Investment: Playing to Strengths’, Standard Chartered, On the Ground, Global Research, (08/08/2012), page 5.

[6] Dhruba Gupta, ‘Indian Perceptions of Africa’, South Asia Research, 11:2, (1991), page 163.

[7]  ‘DR Congo shop attacks over arrests in India’, BBC News, 19/06/2013, accessed 23/05/2016,

[8] Christophe Okito, quoted in, accessed 14/4/2016.

[9] Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World, (Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1995), page 9.

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.

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.

PS21 Report: South Asia Geopolitics from Afpak to Sri Lanka


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  • A new “great game” is emerging between China and India, with each competing for the upper-hand in both hard and soft power.
  • Following U.S. withdrawal, Afghanistan has been given the opportunity to choose its own course of action.
  • Sri Lanka’s new government is shifting towards a pro-Western Indian stance, and away from earlier tendencies favoring China and Pakistan.
  • India proclaims a leadership role in South Asia, and prioritizes a peaceful neighborhood.
  • Positive relations with China may actually facilitate India’s economic growth, but enduring disputes may compromise a stronger relationship.
  • Progress in India-Pakistan relations may enable the stability needed for India’s domestic transformation.
  • Domestic political strife is of a lesser concern than in many other regions of the globe, perhaps because elections provide a release valve.

On Friday 13th March 2015, The Project for the Study of the 21st Century (PS21) hosted a discussion in London on South Asian Geopolitics.

The panel was as follows:

Chair: Peter Apps, PS21 executive director

Amjad Saleem: humanitarian and geopolitics consultant, now based in Colombo, and PS21 global fellow

Omar Hamid: former Pakistani government official and head of Asia-Pacific risk at IHS

Rahul Roy-Chaudhury: senior fellow for South Asia, International Institute for Strategic Studies

Participants were speaking as individuals rather than as representatives of institutions.

Please feel free to quote from this report, referencing PS21. If you wish to get in touch with any of the panelists, email:

A full transcript of the discussion is available here.

From Afghanistan to Sri Lanka, South Asia’s geopolitics are in a state of almost unprecedented flux. Almost 15 years after 9/11, the United States is pulling troops from Afghanistan. The rise of China is redrawing the entire neighborhood, not least because of its growing presence in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is taking its own new path, moving closer to Washington and increasingly at odds with Beijing. In Sri Lanka, meanwhile, this year’s presidential election pushed out a pro-China government for one much more inclined towards India.

India will remain the regional powerhouse and should be the key driver of local stability. Its relations with smaller countries nearby, however, have always been challenging.

Roy-Chaudhury: India has had difficult neighborhood relations with other countries. There is a concept of “big brother,” and it’s not surprising. I mean, look at the map of South Asia. India really dwarfs other countries. It is also the only country that has links with most of the other South Asian countries. So I can understand the concern by India’s neighbors about India’s “big brother” perspective.

Modi’s government has shifted away from a foreign policy approach of balancing and hedging, instead favoring a global leadership role for India.

Roy-Chaudhury: I think with Modi’s leadership we’re not going to hear much about the term non-alignment. I think that’s really now the past.

Modi hosted a meeting with all the heads of Indian missions around the world a couple of weeks ago, and he was basically telling them, “Listen, this whole question of hedging, India has always been trying to hedge. Forget it now, India needs to take a leadership role.”

The U.S. withdrawal of troops may allow greater opportunity for Afghanistan to take control of its own fate, rather than depending on direction from outside influence.

Hamid: All the major stakeholders realize that regionally, a stable Afghanistan is paramount… As far as Pakistan is concerned, there has been a definite change in thinking in terms of they believe that it’s not perhaps in their interest, as was definitely the thinking in the past, to have, for lack of a better word, a puppet government.

I think the difference is that in the past everyone’s version of stability in Afghanistan was…that they insisted it was only their vision for Afghanistan that would bring in stability. Whereas I think now perhaps we will see a greater give-and-take. So if there is [an Afghan coalition government] in Kabul, it will not be unacceptable to Pakistan if potentially India has commercial interests and they remain there. It will not be a deal breaker.

Through economic and military prowess, China’s activity in South Asia may preclude Indian influence in the region.

Saleem: Over the last five years, you noticed a definite skew towards China in terms of investment—in terms of social investment, cultural investment, economic investment, the amount of money that was pumped into kind of, for major infrastructure projects—has meant that India was not able to compete at that level.

Last year quote-unquote “naval exercises were conducted with Chinese submarines that came to Sri Lanka’s shores.” Which again, I think that is one of the alarm bells that rang for Delhi.

Significant developments in the U.S.-India relationship indicate a clear tactical change in Delhi’s approach towards Beijing. Still, India’s attempts to check an increasingly domineering China are not likely to result in any truly entrenched partnership with the United States.

Roy-Chaudhury: Modi will want to continue to balance the relations between the U.S. and China, but I think in many ways we are going to see a clear difference in India’s policy towards these countries.

When Modi went to New York and Washington last September, there was a joint statement. When President Obama came to Delhi in late January, there was another joint statement. In these joint statements, both countries agreed that they were concerned over the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a clear allusion to China, though China of course wasn’t mentioned.

My sense generally is that I don’t think we’re going to see a strategic shift whereby India is going to become an alliance partner of the United States, or have military alliances.

India may be warming towards Washington, but it remains to be seen whether the United States can make similar strides in its relationships with others in the region.

China presents unprecedented opportunities, but also critical challenges to India.

Roy-Chaudhury: For Modi’s government, the China factor has astute primary issues that it has to deal with. Firstly, China is India’s largest trading partner. Modi wants to have a peaceful relationship with China because that’s the only way that what he wants for India, which is domestic transformation of India, can take place if you have a peaceful neighborhood. He wants investment from China as well coming in.

At the same time, the right-wing factions are very keen that Modi adopt a hardline position towards China, particularly over Tibet because of the presence of Hindu religious sites there… The thing that really stands out in Modi’s statements is when he talks about the Indian Ocean as being part of India’s near or extended neighborhood. That mindset will be critical, not only for how India is able to become a net security provider for the Indian Ocean islands, but more importantly, because we will see a ‘great game’ emerging between India and China in the Indian Ocean.

The Modi government has maneuvered strategically to counter the shifting balance of power by playing to India’s strengths.

Saleem: I don’t think India can afford the type of investment that China has made in places like Sri Lanka. I mean, you’re not talking just about infrastructure investment, you’re talking about tourism, you’re talking about the cultural exchanges, scholarships, cultural centers, you know all sorts of things. So I don’t think that’s it, but what India has tried to blend, particularly in Sri Lanka, is that it has offered a multi-dimensional aspect. So if you look at the agreements that were signed today in Colombo, you have waivers on visas, student exchanges, things that are more cultural, more soft.

Roy-Chaudhury: On the Indian Ocean, yes, I mean, China has deep pockets… But, I don’t think India is going to compete against this… India is going to leverage its key strengths. What are those strengths? Those strengths are proximity. Firstly, to the Indian Ocean island states compared to China. Very clearly in terms of distance but also its naval capabilities… Today, you have radar stations on the Maldives that are connected to India. You have a tri-lateral agreement between Maldives, Sri Lanka, and India. This is an important cooperative security venture on counter-terrorism and operational issues which very few people know about. But, this is the sort of way India is going to be there. Its leverage is going to be on security issues rather than economic.

Yet, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, greater Chinese influence is perceived positively as an alternative to India’s overbearing role.

Hamid: China is taking, or seems to be taking, a much more interested role in Afghanistan. It’s offering itself as an honest broker. At the same time it’s kind of green-lighted and seems to be going ahead on this sort of massive economic projects in Afghanistan that would link the regions, this China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which is about $45 billion worth of infrastructure and energy stuff that will go diagonally across Pakistan into Afghanistan. So that, I think, in many ways is a reassuring thing for the Pakistanis. They have their big friend actively throwing its weight in the game.

And of course, the other side of it remains that the fundamental bugbear in Afghanistan and elsewhere has been Indian influence, which has come oftentimes in shape of economic activity. So, I think there is certainly a wish that if that could be replaced by Chinese influence in these projects, that would be preferable.

Sri Lanka, especially in light of the country’s most recent elections, has tried to maintain a non-aligned stance. Regardless, Colombo has still managed to become entangled in regional balance-of-power politics.

Saleem: Sri Lanka at the moment, you have to realize, is still a transitional government.  So until we have parliamentary elections, I don’t think you’ll any definite move on foreign policy. What they have tried to do is focus on the domestic, but the need to ease the international pressure in the wake of the human rights council report has led the [transition regime] to make an extra special effort to reach out to India.

It is symbolic that the first state visit that Sri Lanka’s new president did was to India, where he did sign among everything else a civilian nuclear deal, and people’s eyebrows were raised. Well, what does Sri Lanka have to do with nuclear power? It has nothing to do with it, I mean it’s a small island. I think it’s significant that they’ve tried to redress the balance towards India.

China’s rise has overshadowed, to a certain extent, long-standing antagonism between Delhi and Islamabad over Kashmir, but India-Pakistan relations are not at a stalemate.

Hamid: Kashmir hasn’t been as prominent on the agenda, and obviously that has had to do with the fact that over the past ten or eleven years, especially subsequent of 9/11, Pakistan’s relationship with various Kashmiri groups has been brought into question.

Roy-Chaudhury: I think it’s important to realize that actually Pakistan has taken a step forward in this issue by, in effect, agreeing to hold a dialogue with India despite the absence of a Kashmir resolution.

Modi’s focus is really the domestic and economic transformation of India, but the caveat here is that for this transformation to take place, he has to have a peaceful neighborhood. And for that he needs a relationship with Pakistan, and he needs an engagement with Pakistan. A few days ago, in fact, we saw the Indian foreign secretary fly into Islamabad under the aegis of a SAARC role. My sense is that unless India is able to have this engagement with Pakistan, Modi’s key objective of transformation may not happen.

India recognizes that improved relations with Pakistan will be key to stability in Afghanistan, as well.

Roy-Chaudhury: I don’t see a ‘zero-sum’ game between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan. Pakistan is a neighbor of Afghanistan and India is not. India is a near neighbor. Pakistan has tremendous leverage and a very strong relationship with Afghanistan. India has the ability to provide tremendous soft power.

In many ways, I think for India, a stable Afghanistan is key. If President Ghani is able to get the Pakistani security establishment to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, and also clearly end Afghan Taliban safe havens in Pakistan, I think that will be advantageous for India as well, as it will help facilitate stability in Afghanistan.

India must also manage its relations with Bangladesh.

It will be very important for India to take a magnanimous view towards Bangladesh; to move forward on the sharing of the Teesta River water, get the parliament approval on the land border enclaves exchange, and actually work with the new government of Sheikh Hasina to combat extremism and terrorism. And that is how we would really see a tremendous improvement in the India-Bangladesh relationship, and hopefully a beacon for a stable South Asian neighborhood.

Discord between South Asian neighbors is forever oscillating, but in the domestic politics of the region, civil unrest and political strife have not been as destabilizing as in other, more volatile parts of the world.

Hamid: From Pakistan’s point of view, many people have often said, “well, Pakistan, by all rights, should be a country ripe for an Arab Spring type of situation.” We haven’t seen that, I think that of course there is civil unrest of various types and forms as there is in India and even Sri Lanka, but you haven’t seen that kind of outpouring on a single issue that overthrows a regime… I think part of that perhaps, in reference to Pakistan, through the fact in 2013 we had a peaceful, democratic transition from one party to another… Elections are good pressure relievers.

Saleem: I think one of the things the former governments tried to do is to manufacture some kind of Arab Spring and protests that would have then justified them trying to stick onto power and keep the security apparatus intact. I think what happened is the reverse, that the Sri Lankan population by whole actually got out and voted and used social media to get the people out and talk about the campaign, to talk about corruption, and that is what at the moment is keeping at least the current government slightly afloat.

Report by Amanda Blair. Transcript by Yaseen Lotfi, Rhea Menon and Amanda Blair.

Narendra Modi’s Foreign Policy – The View from the West

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Korea, May 18 2015.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Korea, May 18 2015.

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Amitha Rajan is a former Reuters journalist who recently completed an MA at the School of Oriental and African Studies. She is a contributor and volunteer at PS21.

The year 2014 was a decisive one for Indian politics. With the biggest mandate for the post of prime minister, Narendra Modi became the symbol of a new chapter in India’s growth story. While the focus of Modi’s campaign was revitalising India’s economy, he has surprised political pundits with by emphasising foreign policy. From inviting the leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) countries for his swearing-in ceremony to making bilateral visits to 18 countries by the end of his first year in office last month, Modi has been unafraid to raise his profile internationally. After a decade of indeterminate foreign policy under the previous Congress-led government, Modi is keen to show the world that India finally has a strong leader at the helm and that it is an easier place to do business in.

Domestically, opinion on Modi’s approach to foreign and economic policy is polarised: while some view his overseas engagement through the lens of pride and nationalism, his critics chide him for spending far too little time at home and getting his domestic affairs in order. Western observers are less caught up with the ideological debate that makes Modi such a divisive figure in India, but remain uncertain over whether his engagement abroad has been more about style than substance. Part of this scepticism comes from the extremely low bar set by the previous government. India is certainly more visible on the global stage under Modi, but does this imply that the prime minister has made progress in substantive policy issues?

Western views on economic policy, in particular, appear less favourable than is perceived domestically. In an interview, Gareth Price, Senior Research Fellow in Chatham House’s Asia Programme, said that although Modi ran on the platform of economic reform, there is no consensus within the BJP on liberalisation policies, and that attitudes towards reforms were therefore likely to be determined on a case-by-case basis. Indeed, the government has struggled to push through key reforms such as the goods and services tax bill and the land acquisition bill, both of which are critical for Modi’s signature ‘Make in India’ campaign and for luring foreign investment. Although the BJP has a majority in the Lok Sabha – the lower house of the parliament – the absence of one in Rajya Sabha (the upper house) allows opposition parties to stall policy reforms.

Stratfor, the US geopolitical intelligence firm, observes that the BJP has already lost some momentum from the highpoint of 2014. This is demonstrated by the party’s poor performance in the Delhi state elections where the Aam Aadmi Party, a newcomer to politics, had a sweeping victory – and will likely continue to face an uphill battle in the upper house beyond 2016. Growing fissures within the BJP over key political reforms are likely to further hamper progress. An added complication is the curious case of the government adjusting the base year to calculate economic growth, which led to a revision in the 2014 growth rate to 6.9% from 4.7%. Even the country’s chief economic advisor, Arvind Subramaniam, appeared stumped by the new GDP numbers, which CNN called a ‘total mystery. Of course, it does not hurt that the revised numbers are closer to China’s growth rates, an important symbol for a prime minister seeking to attract foreign investment.

Overall, the general view appears to be that for a prime minister elected primarily on the promise of economic revival, Modi’s first year in office has been lacklustre. A Bloomberg editorial concluded that “In his first year, Modi has spent too much political capital to no coherent purpose.” Part of this verdict reflects the unrealistic expectations and the euphoria attached to Modi’s ascension to power. In his first year in office, the prime minister has eschewed bold reforms in favour of what his officials call ‘creative incrementalism’, characterised by steps to tackle issues such as easing bureaucracy, clearing backlogs of projects, cutting fuel subsidies, and re-auctioning telecom and coal-mining licenses. And while the past year has seen pledges for billion-dollar long-term deals from countries such as Japan, the US, China and Russia, restoring the Indian economy to the glory days seen a few years ago will require much more willingness from the government to make tough decisions, pick a fight with political opponents when necessary, and make concessions and build consensus when the stakes are high.

The Western scorecard on Modi’s security policy is more forgiving. Because foreign policy was not expected to be in such sharp focus, Modi’s charm offensive has captured the attention of the international community. Modi’s multi-alignment strategy in foreign policy has helped build bridges and sustain relationships, an essential factor for attracting investment. Moreover, Modi’s clear electoral mandate has given him the flexibility to stabilise relations in the neighbourhood – particularly with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – that were previously held hostage by domestic politics. Crucially, Modi’s strategy is notable for the absence of the ideology-driven bombast that some observers had foreseen, given the Bhartiya Janata Party’s strong right-wing and Hindutva worldview.

The prime minister has chosen pragmatism and tangible outcomes – such as treaties and investment – over dogma in international relations. This approach has helped placate neighbours in South Asia and paved the way for a reset of Indo-US ties. President Barack Obama’s visit to India as the chief guest of the Republic Day celebrations in January – the first time an American presided over the ceremony – had the dual effect of boosting Modi’s legitimacy at home and demonstrating that India and the US are on an equal footing. Western experts credit Modi’s savvy in turning around the relationship, which had hit a trough following the arrest of the deputy Indian consul general, Devyani Khobragade, in late 2013 on charges of visa fraud.

Alyssa Ayres, a former US State Department official under the Obama administration and Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that because Modi has successfully set a new tempo, tone, and trajectory for the bilateral relations – instead of focussing on the Khobragade affair and the earlier rejection of his US visa – the bitterness of those disputes has been replaced by a sense of optimism. During Obama’s visit to India, both countries made progress on the 2008 civil nuclear deal and, importantly, issued a Joint Strategic Vision for the Indian Ocean and the Asia Pacific Region, which affirmed the significance of maritime security and called for the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

The statement garnered a lot of interest because it was a thinly veiled reference to China’s increasingly rigid stance on its territorial claims in the South China Sea, and because it was the first time that India and the US spoke together on the issue. At a time when India is trying to reassert itself as a traditional security partner of countries in the Indian Ocean region, the joint statement had the symbolic value of showcasing the US’s acknowledgement of India’s key role in the region. This, along with Obama’s tilt towards India and strained relations with Pakistan and the progress in breaking the logjam on the civil nuclear deal, has led to optimism among some analysts that a new strategic partnership between New Delhi and Washington is underway.

Modi walking with Afghan President Dr. Ashraf Ghani, April 29, 2015.
Modi walking with Afghan President Dr. Ashraf Ghani, April 29, 2015.

Such expectations, however, may be exaggerated. Rather than an overhaul of existing foreign policy, Modi’s strategy has essentially been a continuation of the previous government’s policies, albeit in a more articulate and confident manner. As Frederic Grare – Director of the South Asia programme at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace – notes, the main difference between the Manmohan Singh administration and the current one is Modi’s ability to communicate effectively, and the most substantial results of Modi’s diplomacy owe their success to policies begun by the previous administration.

There is no doubt that Modi has made visible headway in improving Indo-US relations. But, this is unlikely to translate into New Delhi becoming a strategic ally of Washington. India will work with the US only in cases where it is in its interest to do so. For instance, closer ties with the US have not resulted in the erosion of the friendly relations between Russia and India, even at a time when the Western world is suspicious of Moscow’s intentions following its annexation of Crimea. Modi hosted Vladimir Putin in New Delhi late last year and the visit yielded long-term contracts worth USD100 billion, including crude oil deals and an agreement for Russian construction of nuclear reactors in India.

Moreover, while some in Washington envisage a strategic partnership between the US and India that could help contain China, calculations in New Delhi are different. There is no doubt that the Indian security establishment is cautious about China. Frequent incursions along a massive border on which there is no consensus, China’s development of the Gwadar port in Pakistan and its growing influence in the Indian Ocean region, and Beijing’s ambitions of regional hegemony are viewed with suspicion in India. However, New Delhi is far behind China in military investment, upgrade, and expansion, and it will be a while before the military upgrade that is currently underway in India bears fruit. In the meantime, engaging with all stakeholders in the Asia-Pacific region and actively participating in multilateral forums appears to be the best strategy for India. Furthermore, China is an essential investment component of Modi’s economic policy, which is his top priority. Modi will be careful not to upset this relationship. The policy of multi-alignment is therefore likely to continue in the near term.

Although economic concerns will continue to dictate India’s conduct on the world stage, under Modi there is an acknowledgment of the need – and even a desire – for India to be more visible in international affairs. It remains to be seen if a definitive doctrine emerges at the end of Modi’s term in 2019. What is encouraging is the certainty that the prime minister has a mandate for five years that will give him the leverage he needs to develop a deliberate foreign policy strategy. It may well be that all Modi can offer is delivering on existing plans rather than overhauling New Delhi’s doctrine on foreign policy. Nevertheless, even this accomplishment will go some ways to making India an active stakeholder in world affairs.

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

Crime and Counterterrorism in Karachi: DC Event Key Takeaways


On Wednesday April 15, PS21 held a discussion in Washington DC.

Drawing on his time as a police officer and counterterrorism official in Karachi, Omar Hamid discussed the nexus of crime, militancy and corruption in Pakistan’s most populous city.

Negar Razavi, PS21 Global Fellow, and anthropologist at University of Pennsylvania moderated the discussion.

Download a transcript of the event

Listen to a recording of the discussion

Here are the key takeaways:

“Being a police officer means you really get to see the whole gamut of issues in Karachi,” Hamid said. “There are issues of sectarian violence there are issues that any mega-city has… there are issues of political parties with the militias. There are issues of the growing presence of the Pakistani Taliban. And, of course, you have all of the regular crime.”

Corruption was a central part of life in Karachi, he said. With a population of some 20 million, the city is the commercial centre of Pakistan.

“In effect, the story of the past 25-30 years of the city is the struggle between various groups to squeeze that pie as much as possible,” he said.

“What you can learn from Karachi’s example is exactly what not to do in any mega-city,” he said. “With the expansion of megacities, have a situation where the central government — in many cases the local government — has very little control. As these cities grow organically, control over scarce resources often ends up in the hands of nonstate groups… political parties or organised crime syndicates. The challenge for urban governance will be how the state is able to impose itself or how it can prevent resources from being taken over. That will be the measure of success in urban governance this century.”

The city also had stark ethnic divisions, he said. It contained a population of some 4-5 million Pashtuns (the dominant population of Afghanistan), making it a larger Pashtun city than Kabul. It inevitably produced a complex sectarian politics “All of these various groups feel that they have an interest in the city,” he said. “All of them have competed for that.”

Those tensions helped to produce the nexus between crime, politics corruption and militancy, with most political groups also maintaining their own armed militia. “Those militia come to the forefront of organised crime… (and) corruption.”

Largely as a result, he says, the provision of basic services and infrastructure within the city had become hugely politicised. “Civil servants or police officers go to one party or another to vie for lucrative postings,” he said. “The objective… is to get in the good books of a certain local party, to get a good posting and… to be able to recoup your expenses… by making that poster revenue generating tool.”

“Everything is for sale in Karachi,” continued. Rival political groups including the Taliban were increasingly involved in illegal land grabs, he said, encouraging supporters to illegally squat on land. “They carve slices of land up to create new squatter colonies and then they subsequently sell it off. Because there is a shortage of water in the city, control of the city’s water hydrants is a very key tool in corruption.”

In 2013, he said, rival elements of the Pakistani Taliban force over control of water supplies in parts of the city. “It had nothing to do with religious ideology. It had to do with the cash that could be gained through the water.”

The United States, he said, had completely failed to understand the dynamics in its dealings with Pakistan. “The fact is that the presumption… ever since 911 has been that it was important to back groups that were opposed to religious extremists. On paper that makes a lot of sense but the problem in Karachi is the loss of those groups are also equally involved in criminal activities.”

“The MQM, the largest party in the city, is an extremely secular party, totally opposed to the spread of religious extremism… and yet the MQM operates the largest criminal-political Mafia nexus in the city. It runs part of the city as virtually a parallel state with an extensive armed wing that has regularly taken part in politically targeted killings murders of police officers and government officials.”

“For some time now there has been, it seems to people in Pakistan, a kind of understanding that the West… was all right with the excesses of political parties as long as they were secular and… talking the right talk.”

The western approach to secular Pakistani officials and individuals accused of corruption and criminality was, he said, very different to how would have approached similar allegations against someone suspected of jihadist sympathies.

The Pakistani military had also taken a greater role in the city, he said, launching crackdowns on some militant groups. But there were limits to what it could achieve.

“A military operation in the city will have a short-term benefit, certainly, but fundamentally you need the restoration of the rule of law and to do that you need civic bodies, whether it’s the municipality or the police, to play their role again and provide impartial services to citizens. This is really where the challenge lies.”

The one sign of significant change, he said, was the rise of civil society.

“This has really turned around over the last five or six years,” he said. “When you’re sitting in Pakistan… it feels like civil society does not necessarily have a direction. It’s pretty neat everywhere. But the fact it has found its voice is very important. The other thing that’s aided the growth is the expansion of the media in Pakistan. The media too, at times, seems like it’s a lot of heads shouting at each other nonsensically but it has meant that, unlike in the past, the media is no longer a creature that can be controlled by any particular political party or the country’s political or military establishment.”

“Pakistan remains a very violent place for journalists and in Karachi there have been a number of cases of journalists being murdered by all parties. But overall, if there is hope, it is in this. These things are no longer controllable. The crimes or misdeeds of various groups become very public and the growth of civil society, the growth of social media, means that the contrarian view gets out more often.”


Spike in Media Coverage of PS21 Study on Spike in Death Tolls

PS21’s study, published Wednesday, March 18, showed a more than 28% spike in deaths in the most violent conflicts in 2014, and has been making the rounds on various news outlets. Untitled It also ran on,, Newsweek, the LA Times website, the Christian Science Monitor and Al-Arabiya, as well as on Danish, Chinese, Croatian, Hungarian and Brazilian news providers. The Thompson Reuters Foundation ran a blog post in response to the research from PS21 Executive Director Peter Apps. Peter Apps also presented a video segment on the topic for Reuters TV.

A Conversation with Hussain Haqqani, Former Pakistani Ambassador to the US

Hussain Haqqani speaking at a PS21 discussion in London, March 5, 2015
Hussain Haqqani speaking at a PS21 discussion in London, March 5, 2015


On Thursday, March 5, 2015, PS21 executive director Peter Apps interviewed former Pakistani ambassador to the US Hussain Haqqani.

Mr. Haqqani served as ambassador to Washington between 2008-2011. He is now a senior fellow and director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC.

A full transcript will be published shortly. A complete audio of the discussion is published below and on YouTube along with a shorter interview.

Here are some of the key takeaways and quotes:

Pakistan and the United States have long struggled to understand each other’s narratives and motivations, he said, leading frequently to mutual disappointment.

While Washington has long hoped Pakistan would become a reliable ally both in and outside the region in its fight with first communism then militant Islam, Pakistan has always been more focused on India.

While the US has wanted Pakistan to focus on defeating the Taliban and associated groups, elements of the Pakistani authorities have always seen the Pakistani Taliban and Pashtun elements in Pakistan as vital to stopping India getting a foothold in the country.

“I don’t think the US and Pakistan narratives are going to be resolved any time soon,” he said. “The Americans see Pakistan as a country that has not always followed its promises.”

The rise of China has further complicated the dynamic. Pakistan, he said, saw China as a potentially fruitful ally while Beijing also saw Pakistan as a way of tying down India.

The fact Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was able to find so long in Pakistan before his killing by US forces in 2011 had done lasting damage to the relationship, he said.

“The US likes to divide the world into people they can form and people they can take a there is always a Pakistani that they can take to lunch,” he said. “But the world is rather more complex than that. I don’t think the US has ever really understood the domestic constraints in Pakistan.”