Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Israel-Palestine talks end without agreement

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (seated)
A US deadline for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Territories has come to and end April 29 without the two sides reaching any new agreement, BBC reported…Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said April 26 he will pursue further peace talks with Israel…During the recently announced plan to form a unity government between the Fatah and Hamas, Mr Abbas agreed to recognise Israel in order to re-start peace talks and denounced the holocaust as “the most heinous crime”…Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was unconvinced with Mr Abbas’s conciliation, saying “it doesn’t make sense to negotiate with the enemy” referring to Hamas…The United States is maintaining an optimistic outlook for the talks but the negotiations are showing serious signs of wear…A proposal to unify Fatah and Hamas undermines future talks and makes it very unlikely the talks will continue after April 29…Israel is not going to negotiate with the Palestinian government so long as Hamas is involved, but the reality on the ground may force them back to the table…They will need to wait for the final framework of the Palestinian government…But bringing Fatah and Hamas together will not be easy as there is a lot which could still go wrong…If they can reconcile, it will do much to shape the policies of many countries around the Middle East.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Ukraine separatists stir tensions

Two of the eight captive members of an OSCE military verification
team are marched in under armed guard for a press conference 
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has dispatched a negotiating team to the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk try to secure the release of OSCE observers being held by armed pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine, an OSCE spokeswoman said April 26, Reuters reported…The pro-Russian group has offered to release the observers…The OSCE’s monitors are part of a German-led military verification mission which went to Ukraine in early March at Kiev's request…The separatists holding the observers captive said they found a Ukrainian spy traveling with the party…Meanwhile, Russian military aircraft repeatedly crossed over into Ukrainian airspace overnight, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said April 27, Euronews reported… The aircraft may have been testing Ukrainian radar or making a show of force, the officials said…A Pentagon spokesman called on Russia to immediately de-escalate the situation…Tensions are running high in eastern Ukraine as Kiev dispatches troops to dismantle pro-Russian checkpoints while armed “protesters” storm municipal buildings…Kiev has failed to show convincing evidence it can bring the region under its control…Thousands of Russian troops remain stationed close to the border …The troops could simply be posturing or be waiting for a pretext before entering Ukraine proper on behalf of the pro-Russian “protesters”…Releasing the OSCE observers is important for Berlin because it wants to avoid a major economic confrontation with Moscow which would undermine efforts to stabilise Europe's economy and sour important business ties between Germany and Russia…Moscow will gain an important propaganda win if the observers are freed resulting from its intervention.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Is the US "pivot" to Asia really necessary?

It has been three years since US President Barack Obama announced his intent to “pivot” strategically to Asia. Perhaps because of the dozens of the world’s burning conflict zones or whether the “pivot” plans were simple rhetoric, there has been little progress towards implementing this strategy.

And yet Mr Obama is now visiting some of America’s stalwart allies in the Asia Pacific on a weeklong tour. He will stop in at Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines on a mission to reassure these nations that the US has not forgotten them.

One question on everybody’s mind is: can the US president convince increasingly sceptical allies that he is committed to Asia’s future? But the real question should be: does it need to?

It can’t be easy being the US president. The world is a fluid place and America has fingers in most pies. Right now, the international news cycle is focused on Eastern Europe where Russia is making splashes in its backyard Ukrainian pool. In the Middle East and South Asia, where the US spent all of last decade fighting wars, the situation is not cooling either.

In stark comparison, the Asia Pacific region is characterised by relatively cordial and peaceable relations between the various countries. None have taken drastic military actions for decades and transnational militancy is almost unheard of. The worst events usually arise from natural disasters which are becoming easier to deal with as each nation grows in prosperity.

Taking a step back, and putting the simmering maritime disputes aside for a moment, the security situation in the Asia Pacific is actually one of the safest in the world. Most of the economies are growing stronger each year, largely on their own steam. Trade is booming and standard of living is rising.

Yet Mr Obama is looking at the region from an American point of view. He wants the region to keep relying on America militarily and economically. But he also sees the reality: a region growing without too much input from the world’s largest economy.

Many elites in Asia want more American focus, especially to counter a rising China. Mr Obama agrees with them, at least in theory, but his actions seem to belie a different path and a more nuanced strategy.

Looking again at details of the US planned defense spending reveals the Obama administration never meant to spend more that $US10 billion of additional military resources in Asia as part of the “pivot” this year.

So after three long years and little evidence of regional initiatives or commitment of military resources, perhaps Mr Obama is beginning to recognise the limits of US dependency. He will have his hands full this week with a diverse agenda as he tries to balance a defence commitment with US allies and console China that this updated defence structure is not directed at them. But he won’t be able to have it both ways.

The role of the US is changing in the eyes of the Asia Pacific governments and is probably considered more as a back-up option, than the first port-of-call these days.

Japan is taking good care of itself militarily, as are the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and China. This attitude is in part a response to a US retreat from overstretched commitments, but there is also a sense that Asia does not need the US as much as it did in the past.

With all that said, there will be a ceiling to how far the region can go if it strikes out on its own. It must be remembered that the ability to concentrate on their economies in the past few decades, rather than spend precious resources on their military, comes from the promised US military protection umbrella.

America spent its own resources to keep the vital trade routes open, thereby giving the Asia Pacific a huge free boost when they matured as economies. The Asia “pivot” is clearly still forefront in the minds of the Obama administration and will receive more resources once the world’s other pressing problems are resolved.

That’s all very well, but the world is not going to settle down any time soon. If Mr Obama wants to pursue his goals in Asia he will need to knuckle-down and just do it.

America is still vitally important to international security and if there is a problem, Washington is still the first phone call to make. So there is probably more to his hesitancy than meets the eye.

The simple reality is that most of the time, the US is not as important as they would like to believe. Mr Obama’s tour ticks the important box of reassuring America’s allies in the region. He will receive plenty of questions about protection, but the real breakthroughs will come via economic negotiations.

After all, the real driver in the world system is interdependent trading alliances. American warships are useful only if they ensure Asian countries can continue their trading. Mr Obama appears to understand this reality.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Bombings in Iraq emphasise need for Iran strategy

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari is scheduled to visit Iran on April 30 after the Iraqi parliamentary election, the Iraqi envoy to Tehran said April 22, Fars News Agency reported...During the visit Zebari will continue negotiations on issues related to the Shatt al-Arab dispute, a territorial dispute leading to the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s...Iraqi terrorists attacked Muslim Shiite targets elsewhere in Iraq April 22 killing over 30 people in Baghdad, Samawah, and Iskandariyah...Clashes also occurred between Iraqi troops advancing on Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) positions in Fallujah and Ramadi...Both towns have been under implicit control of the jihadi group since early February...Talks between Baghdad and Tehran will no doubt lead with the Shatt al-Arab dispute but Iraq’s deteriorating security situation is a priority...Iran has deep ties with the Shiite-majority government in Iraq with an interest in propping the legitimacy of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki...The Sunni groups are escalating violence to prevent the Shiite-led government from maintaining national security as elections approach, scheduled for April 30...Sunni jihadist groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) and ISIS, control an arc from Basra to coastal Syria and appear entrenched...This exact crescent of influence was Iran’s grand strategy until events forced it to retreat...Nuclear talks aside, a driving motivation for Iran’s negotiations with the US is to place Iran in a position of greater regional authority enabling it to move against Sunni militant groups with implicit American blessing, and potentially even covert assistance...Using Iran to tackle Sunni jihadists both removes the burden from Washington and nurses a nascent balance of power in the region...Both are priority American goals, predicting continued cooperation between Washington and Tehran.

High airstrike tempo in Yemen may have killed bombmaker

Al Qaeda head bombmaker Ibrahim al-Asiri may have been killed late April 20 in a US UAV strike on a car driving between Makhah and Bayhan districts in Yemen's Shabwa governorate, a security source said, Baraqish reported April 21…Witnesses said a helicopter landed near where the strike hit and soldiers collected four bodies from the car…American UAV and fixed-wing aircraft conducted airstrikes on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) training camps over the weekend…Over 30 militants are suspected to have been killed within the past week in an unprecedented uptick of military action against the group…The assumed death of al-Asiri is difficult to verify considering the constraints on independent journalism in Yemen, but if true it signals a significant loss of capability for AQAP…Spending time on damage assessment by deploying US helicopters to the site indicates a high-value target might have been involved, but that target may not be Al-Asiri…If al-Asiri is dead AQAP will struggle to replace his innovative talents quickly, if ever, and are unlikely to successfully attack transnational targets in the short term…If al-Asiri has not been killed he could take this opportunity to disappear into the shadows to avoid observation…The greatest loss will be on AQAP’s home-front in Yemen where al-Asiri’s bombmaking skills were a huge fighting boost against the Yemeni government…AQAP will remain a threat, but given the steep learning curve necessary for competent bombmaking and the current high tempo of US counterterror operations, the group is struggling to export their fight outside Yemen.

US troops arrive in Poland

The first of 600 US soldiers began to arrive in Poland on April 22 for a series of military exercises in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, according to the Pentagon press secretary, AP reported…The exercises will begin with 150 soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team on April 23 in Poland…Troops could begin arriving in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on April 28…American troops in Central European countries will help reinforce the feeling of security among NATO members in a time of heightened trepidation…Equally, the small troop amount could indicate the deployment is more political than strategic...Although the troops are only participating in a temporary exercise, it could herald an increased US presence in the region…The deployment could be part of the US-proposed anti-ballistic missile shield which was to be based in Poland and other Central European countries, announced under President Bush but sidelined under President Obama, and it may well be back on the table…Military exercises can be a good way to reposition troops legally and quickly…The Pentagon may decide to permanently base a greater number of troops in Poland or the Baltics depending on what actions Russia takes in the near future.

Monday, 21 April 2014

How to fix the Asia Pacific sea disputes

The world is a fluid and changeable place, but one thing is for certain: the Asia Pacific is the centre of gravity in an increasingly globalised system and will continue to be for at least the next century. Countries in the region feel a geopolitical change around the corner. That shift is already proving to be tough and dangerous, but the status quo does need changing - or at least updating for the new era.

A new report compiled by the International Energy Agency (IEA) paints in very sharp terms why the region needs a change of mindset.

Close to a quarter of the world’s liquid hydrocarbons are consumed by China, India, South Korea, and Japan. By 2030, 80% of China’s oil will come from the Middle East which will require the waters around the Asia Pacific to be calm and free for trade. India is expected to rely on the Middle East for 90% of its oil consumption.

Even greater amounts of fossil fuels are expected to be consumed in the region as the century rolls on. According to the report, China will account for 40% of growing consumption until 2025, at which point India will overtake. By 2025 India’s energy growth will increase to 132%, while China’s will increase by 71% and Russia’s by 21%.

What is happening in Asia with the belligerency over disputed islands and various shoals could be a result of nationalist ideals and reawakening power structures, but there is something else to the story as well. Many of the squabbles can be helpfully explained using these terms, but keeping the commercial waterways into and out of the Asia Pacific open is very motivating factor. Controlling them is not strictly necessary, but it has become part of every Asian country’s behavioural calculation.

Each nation fears being cut off from the global system by a blockade or arbitrary closing of the already very constricted waterways. Many see the contest as a zero-sum, I-win-you-lose sort of problem. There is little cooperation and almost no rules for international sealane dispute resolution.

China and Japan are slipping closer each week to a mishap in the East China Sea which could end in muzzle-flashes. South Korea and Japan have still not sorted out their own island issues. The Philippines are going through the motions of court action against China because of overlapping disputed economic zones. And Vietnam and China have not decided who will administer another series of islands between their two countries.

None of these nations are prepared to concede on any claims to sovereignty, rights to search for oil, or space to trawl for fish. All of them are building militaries to enforce those claims. It could simply be a matter of time before a simple case of mistaken identity escalates the situation irrevocably.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. As loudly proclaimed in the recent IEA report, the region is going to need more cooperation and less friction. Thankfully, there are a few historically-tested paths which might help mitigate the chances of a clash.

The first possibility is what China and Japan experimented with in the 1970s when Okinawa was returned to Japan after World War II. Some islets between China and Japan were not considered important enough for argument with both countries retaining sharing sovereignty over the islands. The status quo ensured that if the islands weren’t used for outright military purposes, then freedom of navigation was open to all shipping, regardless of nationality.

This is still a good solution to today’s simmering conflicts. The status quo needs to be updated for the 21st Century because the underpinning necessity of keeping the sealanes clear requires that no country has the ability to blockade. Perhaps the best course of action is the creation of some sort of maritime ecological preserve with shared governance. It might not be perfect, but at least it would allow for cooperative exploration of hydrocarbons and mutual teamwork for fishing.

The second step is to create a clear and decisive rule of law for the sea. If a mistake or miscalculation were to occur in the region, it would most likely be committed in the lower ranks of the various navies. This is the dangerous part.

While the top-level commanders talk to each other regularly, it is not clear what captains should do in a tense situation. Rules of engagement and standard operating procedures need to be formalised between the Asia Pacific nations. For instance, it is still not known how near submarines are allowed to shadow surface ships or how close aircraft can fly to each other.

To update this part of the status quo may require the creation of a sort of Asian NATO structure. Such an organisation would serve to homogenise the interactions between states - especially military interactions - and coordinate reactions to regional threats or ecological disasters. An Asian NATO would set understandable rules and create a centralised discussion platform where issues could be raised in a diplomatic setting.

The key will be in how quickly the various nations can understand the importance of not upturning the status quo without offering a workable solution in its place. It’s all very well that each nation wishes to protect its own interests, but in a region as interconnected as this, national interests overlap considerably and cooperation is far more important. Fixing things would be better than multiple competing air defence zones and jittery navies.

After all, as analyst Robert D. Kaplan warns, knowing what causes wars is not the same as sacrificing some portion of one’s own interests in order to prevent them. The answer to the broiling problems in the Asia Pacific will not be simple, but there are tried and tested processes which could be implemented and could uncover a more robust answer.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Western al-Qaeda recruits pose threat for future

A New Zealand citizen killed in an American airstrike in Yemen last year may have been in the country as part of an al-Qaeda franchise group operating in the war-torn country. The group concerned is most likely Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade confirmed April 16 the New Zealand-born man was killed in the counter-terrorism operation on November 18 of last year.

The Australian reported the man may also have held a dual-Australian citizenship and gone by the name of Muslim bin John. He is reported to have died alongside an Australian citizen named as Christopher Harvard of Townsville. According to reports, a US unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) conducted the airstrike as the pair travelled in a convoy of cars with another militant.

AQAP has been the most active of al-Qaeda franchise groups. They’re attacks have not been isolated to Yemen, where they are predominantly based. They have set their sights on attacking Western targets especially US-bound airliners.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key confirmed he had been informed of the man’s involvement in a training camp in Yemen, and that the man was the subject of an intelligence warrant. Mr Key defended the use of  UAVs in the operation, saying the three people killed were well-known al-Qaeda operatives.

A video also surfaced April 16 purportedly showing a large group of al-Qaeda militants, including AQAP’s commander Nasir al-Wuhayshi. The video appears to be authentic and CIA analysts are combing the footage for potential clues, according to a US official. Mr al-Wuhayshi appears to be addressing a large outdoor crowd of AQAP members who may have been celebrating a February prison break. During the break, which occurred in February, perhaps 29 AQAP inmates escaped after militants stormed the complex.

Senior bombmaker Ibrahim al-Asiri, suspected as the most competent of al-Qaeda technicians, is still at large in supposedly residing in Yemen.

Some of the militants appear in the video not to be wearing scarves over their faces. These people have had their facial features pixelated in post-production which could indicate a third party’s involvement in preparing the film before it was released to the media. Such protective measures might point to an evolving operational security practised by the AQAP militants, although obscuring vulnerable faces has been standard procedure in all media and is unlikely to be a new process for the group.

Instead, obscuring faces of some of the members may stem from the fact that more Western individuals, such as the recently killed New Zealander, could be included in the group.  According to anonymous US intelligence officials, radicalised Western recruits have been tracked entering various conflict zones around the world and fighting alongside or as part of al-Qaeda franchise groups on a number of occasions.

Syria and Pakistan have become the two main war zones attracting Western recruits in recent years. But AQAP and the Somalia-based al-Shabaab are also reportedly actively engaging radicalised recruits from Europe, United States, and Australia. An ongoing concern for Western intelligence agencies is what happens to these individuals when they finish their fights and decide to return home. Britain’s MI6 and the American CIA are actively involved in monitoring these people.

It is assumed many of the recruits will not return to their homelands because they take part largely as simple foot soldiers. The most common recruit apparently wishes for “martyrdom” in battle, rather than experience, indicating they do not intend to finish their adventure alive.

Militant leaders will take these recruits, but they prefer those with an education or possessing foreign desirable passports and identities. Historically speaking it is these recruits who tend to outlive whatever war they’re fighting and return home. Western counterterrorism agencies will find it difficult to monitor and track where these individuals eventually go, due to their training in terrorism tradecraft. However, each of these militants possess impressive first-hand battlefield experience, especially those returning from Syria.

These individuals will pose a problem for their home countries. What is especially worrying is the sheer amount of such experienced people milling around in war zones. Because of this reality, Western nations are likely to experience an uptick in terror attacks and militancy in the coming decade.

If the number of obscured faces in the AQAP video is the total amount of Western recruits in the group, then it would be a surprisingly small figure. Other individuals are likely not included in the video.

The video is likely to concern US counterterrorism officials that such a high-level meeting was not detected before it took place. The brazen attitude of the militants and the fact that the meeting was conducted during the day. shows they may not be as worried as in years past about American UAV strikes. The video should encourage US officials to prioritise more UAV surveillance flights to disrupt AQAP’s ability to conduct attacks. It should also go some way in funnelling more resources to bolstering the human intelligence (HUMINT) effort on the ground in Yemen.

That the meeting took place at all points to a potential lack of rigorous on-the-ground HUMINT assets in the war-torn country. The United States has tended to rely overwhelmingly on electronic and technologically-heavy surveillance platforms, such as their various fleets of UAVs, satellites, and manned aircraft.

Since 2008, these platforms have had good success rates targeting militants across the Middle East, South Asia, and Sahel Africa. However, the de-emphasis on HUMINT work could be creating nasty gaps in situational awareness leading to completely missing large-scale gatherings such as the militants shown in the video.

Western-led human intelligence is slowly getting a greater share of resources from governments, but the reality in almost every developed nation is still deference to electronic surveillance as a first option. Of course, the reason for missing the AQAP meeting might not entirely be blamed on negligence on behalf of intelligence work.

As with many long-term operations, the meeting could have been part of an important surveillance effort and perhaps the timing to target the group did not fit into the larger picture of the operation. Intelligence operations are by their very definition opaque, with the open-source world rarely hearing about successful operations.

Targeting a New Zealand-born man suspected to be affiliated with AQAP does however offer a good example of both a successful operation and the danger of Western radicals fighting in overseas war zones.

Moscow taking greater risks in Ukraine

Witnesses on April 16 said that the personnel of six Ukrainian armored transport vehicles deployed to the eastern city of Kramatorsk have switched sides to join pro-federalist activists, RIA Novosti reported…A witness said one vehicle carried a Russian flag and joined protesters headed to Slovyansk…Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoli Antonov on April 16 told Rossiya 24 Television that there is no Russian military threat directed against Ukraine...Antonov ridiculed reports about Russian troops reaching Europe and downplayed reports about the number of Russian troops on Ukraine's borders…However, Ukrainian troops did identify troops who landed from Russia in Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, Focus News Agency reported April 16, citing UNIAN...According to Kiev, there is no doubt that Russian elite armed forces are stationed in eastern Ukraine…Russian separatists continue to frustrate Ukrainian forces in the east of the country, but its military has also reportedly harassed US military assets stationed in the region as well…A Russian fighter/interceptor came within 500 meters of the USS Donald Cook, a guided missile destroyer underway in the Black Sea, before departing after 90 minutes…Russian-backed movements in eastern Ukraine and in the air over the Black Sea suggest it is willing to take more dangerous risks to maintain control over the region…Reports of Russian troops in Ukraine could indicate the presence of GRU (foreign intelligence service) assets and could be a pretext for more provocative actions.

Why Putin won't repeat Crimea in Eastern Ukraine

Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov on April 15 said a military operation has begun to take control of cities in eastern Ukraine and quell the unrest fomented by pro-Russian militants. Mr Turchynov said the operation began in the early morning hours in the Donetsk region.

A clampdown on the new “people’s republics” shows that Kiev is not willing to let what happened in Crimea leak into mainland Ukraine. The interim government is moving swiftly to break apart the protests before they can coagulate into a broader movement.

Some of the protesters in question stormed the Regional Administrative Building in Donetsk and demanded that regional legislature hold an extraordinary session to decide whether their region should join the Russian Federation. Over the past week, more and more pro-Russian protests have flared around Ukraine, mostly in the east.

Some of these protests appear to be separatist rallies and many have turned violent, such as the one in Donetsk which included an estimated 2000 people. Gunfire and masked men recorded in Slovyansk also. Unauthorised checkpoints have also appeared on some roads.

After the groups take control of buildings, they tend to also declare the formation of interim independent statelets. The group occupying a government building in Donetsk announced a new “Donetsk People’s Republic” in a statement to media. Groups in Lugansk have done the same.

So far the mostly pro-Russian demonstrators control only isolated buildings in at least six towns. Importantly, no significant land area is been claimed by the various groups. It appears that control of physical land is not their intended goal.

Rather, the movement is doing its job by attracting political and ideological attention from international media. This is certainly part of an ongoing larger political game being conducted between Kiev and Moscow behind the curtain.

All the locations experiencing unusual protests fit usefully into any Russian-backed destabilisation plan for Ukraine. The cities all border Russia and contain very high proportions of ethnic Russians. What connects the demonstrations is not their attachment to the mass protests earlier in the year. That particular phase is now all but over.

Instead it is the almost identical calls each time for independence from Ukraine that has lead Western governments to publicly air their suspicions that Moscow is behind the protests.

The government in Kiev said that the “people who are holding the buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk are being used by the enemies of Ukraine”. Such a statement points an indirect finger at Moscow.

Ukraine’s Right Sector was pivotal in removing former President Viktor Yanukovich, and the government in Kiev has been trying to incorporate the group as best they can. But many of the demonstrations occurring now bear a striking resemblance to what happened in Crimea before Russia intervened.

In Crimea, presumably “local groups” seized government buildings and demanded the regional government join the Russian Federation. These groups essentially gave Moscow the perfect pretext for sending Russian troops into Crimea to take control. Now the same thing appears to be happening in eastern Ukraine. While unrest in this region is unlikely to result in an outright Russian military involvement, Moscow is showing Kiev and the West that it can destabilise Ukraine without military intervention.

The Russian military is still building up its reinforcements on the border with Ukraine, but this is likely only a precaution rather than an outright invasion force. Russia certainly has the capability to invade and occupy their neighbour, but their overall strategy would probably not benefit from such an action.

Any invasion would extend only so far as to control the eastern region of Ukraine. This is where the majority of inhabitants claim greater Russian affiliation and where Russian is also the most commonly spoken language. If they were to invade, the Russian military would probably only drive as far as the Dnieper River.

Of course if it got to this point, the Russians would begin to experience the pain of protracted insurgency from Ukrainians not politically aligned with Moscow. US and NATO forces are very familiar with the obstacles of an uncontrollable population from their time in Afghanistan and Iraq, as are the Russians in the Caucasus. While Moscow needs to control Ukraine for its own strategic benefit, it knows better than to walk into a trap.

Instead, the best option is still to maintain direct economic pressure on Ukraine by controlling energy flow, and maintain implicit military pressure by fomenting unrest and positioning troops in case the worst-case scenario arrives.

An indication Russia is preparing to go further would be the appearance of well-armed and organised “self-defence” groups bearing no insignia, suddenly taking control of key military and municipal buildings. At this point it would be clear Russia is using the same tactics it employed in Crimea.

The interim government in Kiev, despite the political constraints on the ground, needs to be careful its crackdown on protest groups doesn’t give Moscow a catalyst for intervening in greater Ukraine.

Russia has already shown it can override a sovereign nation’s integrity, and it probably wouldn’t take much to do it all again. Although, Ukraine would be a different ball-game for Russian President Vladimir Putin than Crimea turned out to be.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Three lessons China learned from Crimea invasion

As of mid-April, satellite photography shows the Russian military carefully reinforcing troops on their border with Ukraine. While Russia is not likely to invade mainland Ukraine, China in particular is paying close attention and thinking deeply about what the whole scenario means for its own stability.

China has many problems right now. At least three standout issues can be identified for which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s advice was surely requested during his visit to Beijing on April 14.

•            Instability among a Chinese population facing escalating economic woes has refocused the state’s security efforts. 
•            China is dealing with an increasingly violent separatist Uighur Muslim population in the rural east of the country. 
•            Territorial disputes with Asian neighbours over small islands are beginning to show visible signs of wear.

The first has been the source of leadership paranoia in China for thousands of years. The relatively richer coastal region is constantly worried that rural Chinese will revolt to show their displeasure against wealth disparity. This has happened so often to be almost cyclical.

It is especially concerning today because much of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) legitimacy springs from an implicit agreement that every citizen will experience rising standards of living indefinitely. That is a mighty promise for any country, yet it is exactly why the CCP cannot afford to let their economy slow. 

To counter any threat, Chinese authorities are building an enormous surveillance network. The stated purpose of the system is to catch corruption, but once completed it would be ideal for monitoring and suppressing internal dissent.

China is spending billions of dollars wiring its cities with Internet, video surveillance cameras, cellphones, GPS location data and biometric technologies, all of them fused into a monitoring system of Orwellian proportions. 

One example is in Sichuan province where over $NZ4.85 billion is being spent on 500,000 security cameras. Guangdong province is spending $NZ6.92 billion on 1 million cameras and Beijing’s municipal government will install cameras in every entertainment venue.

Political contagion spreads easily in an age of light-speed communications. International news is difficult for Chinese citizens to gather, but even if they can, and even if they take encouragement from the Kiev protests, an invasive surveillance state ensures anti-regime sentiment is nipped in the bud. 

Which leads to China’s second priority: a smouldering Uighur Muslim militancy creeping across China. Although qualitatively different to the Caucasus militancy in Russia, China’s problem with the group shares some similarities and appears to be getting worse. 

On March 1 a group of around 10 knife-wielding men attacked people waiting at a train station in Kunming killing 29 people and injuring over 130. 

The attacks highlight a broader foreign policy issue for China: threats are now suspected to come from anywhere, at any time. Russia has used this excuse to suppress assumed threats from outside its borders. 

China could be learning from the Russian experience that it can do whatever it wishes to stop threats, so long as it keeps the noise down. The international community should encourage Beijing not to let the coming crackdown against the Uighur population cross humanitarian lines.

Two Chinese surveillance ships 
The third lesson China learnt might be the most worrying for international security. While panicky Western diplomats tried to defuse the flashpoint and reassure worried allies in Eastern Europe, one important international relations taboo was quietly broken. 

Former deputy director of the CIA, John McLaughlin, points out that since the end of World War II territorial acquisition (a political euphemism for invasion and absorption of land) is blessedly uncommon. Russia’s effort to annex Crimea is the first time this occurred since 1976.

It would be entirely unfair to assume China is waiting for a chance to do the same in its backyard. But the nationalistic bellicosity and territorial squabbles flaring up almost every week in the South and East China Seas suggests a different mindset in Beijing.

China might not have the same reasons as did Russia to annex Japanese or South Korean islets, but the basic situation is not too dissimilar. Right now, Crimea is effectively lost to Europe because neither NATO nor the US is willing to do anything to drive Russia out of the territory.

China has surely noticed that reaching out to take small chunks of contested land might not attract the feared attention from the US military after all. Perhaps if they could package such a movement in the dry political dialogue so expertly manipulated by Russia, they might get away with absorbing whatever island they want.

Russia’s movements in Eastern Europe are a lesson for everybody, including China. Responses by the international community to aggressiveness need to be unambiguous and strong. 

Nations with territorial arguments are learning lessons about what the international community is ready to respond to, and what it is not. The last thing the world needs is for the dangerous ripples of geopolitics in one region to spread across the world unchecked. 

Monday, 7 April 2014

Eroding privacy mars Indian elections, spooking foreign investment

Beginning April 7 and running until May 12, India will conduct elections to choose the 16th Lok Sabha, or the lower house of the country’s parliament. In what could well be the largest democratic event in history, one of the world’s most populous countries will decide on how best to propel its struggling economy as it faces tough economic and legislative obstacles.

Perhaps reflecting the deep internal divisions in India and a lack of any real effort to address its crippling corruption culture, the government recently enacted unsettling new laws controlling domestic surveillance. These new measures risk harming the Indian economy further by spooking foreign investment due to their broad targeting and high potential for mismanagement.

It is unclear whether the two main political parties - The Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, and the Indian National Congress - will be able to fix India’s growing problems sufficiently.

Both parties are extremely polarising with little in the way of agreement connecting their ideologies. The BJP’s candidate is controversial pro-business Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi. While the semi-socialist Congress is one of the world’s oldest political parties, currently in its fourth generation of Gandhi family leadership.

Mr Modi is placed by some leading analysts with a strong chance of victory despite his controversy. But even his charisma and dedication may not assuage India’s geographic and demographic realities even if he is victorious.

On top of the inherent divisions in the Indian nation, India’s economy is not performing anywhere near as strongly as it was during the last ten years. Some of the usual sticking points are front and centre during this election, as can be expected, but the big topic is economic trouble.

India was already slowing down considerably before the past few months exacerbated this trend. March 2014 was the first month in a while where the Indian stock market managed to catch its breath, but a dangerously fluctuating rupee still threatens to dip the economy even further into strife.

Foreign investment also dissipated over the past 12 months as worries about India’s economy spread outside its shores. India needs this type of direct investment to grow, which is what makes the rushed passing of new surveillance systems so curious.

Two massive surveillance programmes - Project NETRA (dealing with internet traffic) and the Content Monitoring System (targeting telecom) - are now running at full capacity, scooping vast quantities of data and communications from throughout the Subcontinent.

The CMS is an upgrade from the old Lawful Interception Systems which required India’s telecoms to use these systems on their premises for targeted surveillance of individuals. CMS goes significantly further this time.

With the new scheme, Indian authorities now have the capability to monitor tens of thousands of calls simultaneously. Each of the more than 70 telecom companies registered in India is required to monitor a minimum of 30 telephone calls concurrently and forward their data streams to each of the nine law enforcement, intelligence, and tax agencies.

Given India’s reputation for corruption and misallocation of authority, this new system is bound to be abused, with even greater social and political consequences than with previous iterations considering its increased power and breadth.

There is supposed to be an oversight protocol for CMS where all surveillance requests can be logged and assessed, but it is not clear who will be the gatekeepers. No judicial review system or legal framework currently exists to determine what would constitute a legitimate monitoring request. It simply appears that everyone can be targeted, at any time, for whatever arbitrary reason.

Project NETRA is a slightly different beast. It aims to close the gaps which any tech-savvy Indian enjoys using Skype or Google Hangouts for communications. The initialism stands for Network Traffic Analysis and will use around 1,000 nodes stored inside India’s ISPs to search for keywords among Indian internet traffic such as “terrorist”, “bomb”, etc. Even though intelligence agencies have for years known that terrorists do not use these words, the system has been given the green light.

What is most disturbing about these two systems is their catch-all operation. They are meant to monitor domestic Indian communications with an eye for security, but there is nothing stopping officials turning those eyes onto foreign business interests operating in the country.

India’s privacy and free speech laws were abysmally weak before the new surveillance was created, and it reflects a stunning naivete of the government if they assume the programmes will not be misused. The programme’s original motive is admirable - created to protect the country from threats of terrorism and militancy - but it does not fit well with India’s massive corruption problem.

In such a cultural environment, a dragnet surveillance programme will not encourage the foreign direct investment required to take India’s economy back up to cruising speed. Systems such as CMS and Project NETRA operating inside a country where 1,500 legislators are presently indicted on corruption charges and awaiting trial is enough to scare even the most risk-averse investor.

Unless India can enact tough anti-corruption laws and privacy regulation, all Indian nationals, and anybody who interacts with them electronically, is at risk of invasive surveillance. Business interests in the country should be careful to remember that all emails and phone calls to the Subcontinent could be ultimately captured, stored, analysed, and potentially sold to the highest bidder.

We all thought the American snooping programmes were bad, but at least the United States has institutions protecting citizens from government overreach. Indians enjoy none of these luxuries, and Western business interests should be wary.

Reader reply: Edward Snowden is not a Whistleblower

Dear Sir,

I found your recent article (March 28) on Edward Snowden to be the first media analysis of the real effect of his revelations. I have the benefit of being a director of a US network security company operating in Washington DC and have over a decade of understanding the issues facing US cybersecurity at both a Government and Military level.

Edward Snowden is commonly referred to in the media as a “whistleblower”. Legal protection for whistleblowers, including in the US, normally requires elements of an existing employee learning of some illicit activity of the employer, raising it with management to no avail and then informing authorities. Edward Snowden meets none of these requirements.

Edward Snowden was not an employee of the NSA nor of a contractor to the NSA. He met with representatives of WikiLeaks in Hong Kong to conspire with them how to steal information from the NSA. Based on that plan, he gained employment with a contractor and set about the theft, largely by the improper use of legitimate employees’ passwords. He then used that stolen information for gain. His denials are contradictory. He lied on his resume.

If anyone in New Zealand did the same he would be liable for criminal action, not lauded as a ‘hero’. It seems that for certain people any illicit behaviour is somehow acceptable if it is seen as anti-US. If media accuracy is important, the use of “whistleblower” should be reserved to those employees who deserve it, not to criminals like Edward Snowden.

Huawei came from nowhere to its major commercial position today by copying Cisco products. A US Government audit a few years back found that much of its network which was thought to be Cisco product was in fact Huawei – how they fooled the trusted suppliers to Government into believing Cisco provenance is another story.

Cisco subsequently changed key elements of its platform. It is still the number one provider in the world and the bulk of networking is Cisco-based. For the New Zealand Government to rely on Huawei for networks here is foolish not only from the ‘back-door’ aspect (there is no question of Huawei’s Chinese Government role) but also from a business perspective – New Zealand has effectively selecting a redundant system.

We are somewhat naive on cybersecurity in New Zealand – the stakes are very high even for us as you have indicated.

Yours faithfully,

Thanks for writing in Patrick,

The Snowden issue is horrible for the intelligence community. Right now, I suspect the NSA is basically back to square one with their sources and methods. They are trapped because they simply do not know what material he took. As long as Snowden refuses to tell the NSA exactly what he has, the NSA will produce faulty and suspicious product for the US government and its allies. If he was a whistleblower, he would have told the NSA by now, either confidentially or overtly, because his job is done. The US people know about the privacy breaches. He has won. The NSA should now be plugging the gaps and breaking off their old compromised sources and methods and starting afresh. 

But it’s worse than that because Snowden is not working for himself on behalf of freedom any longer (I doubt he ever was). The NSA has to operate on the assumption that everything is compromised, from programs to methods, all the way to actual people on the ground all throughout the world who’ve risked everything to give information to the US Government. If Snowden and Greenwald - his vitriolic media lackey - don’t think their leaks have hurt real people, they are even more stupid and childish than they realise. 

And it goes even deeper. The NSA simply has no way to know whether the intelligence they’re listening to is disinformation or real information. They have no way of knowing whether their target has learned of the NSA’s methods and changed their protocols or whether they still have an opening. Everything they hear and see must be rigorously checked and verified, far more than it ever has been in the past, but they cannot know to a certainty that this product is accurate. Non-state actors and lone-wolf terror groups and individuals are learning how to conceal their communications and planning cycles to best conduct attacks away from the eyes and ears of the NSA. That’s extremely worrying for all of us.

Snowden spent over a year, at different listening stations, trying to extract the most that he could from the NSA databases. I’m comfortable with his initial reasons for doing this (to expose NSA efforts to monitor US domestic traffic), but only if this motive turned out to be the driving force behind his actions. I have my own views on privacy and Snowden’s information was unnerving for those of us around the world concerned about unreasonable search and seizure. But that motive was never in his mind, or if it was, it was a fleeting idea. His theft is a carefully managed attempt to disrupt and degrade the NSA’s abilities. 

Some have pointed out that Snowden ending up in Russia is no accident. Perhaps he was controlled by officers from the FSB (which is different only in name from the KGB) and directed to steal the files from the beginning. That would probably be a little too far than I’m willing to go to explain his actions. The FSB wouldn’t want this to come back on them. Especially with all the smearing and propaganda being thrown about the media. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the hypothesis of Russian intelligence assistance is a blown-up American disinformation theory containing only a kernel of truth. 

Either way Snowden’s original idea has been co-opted by people and powers he perhaps used to believe didn’t exist anymore. That’s where his idealism and naiveté have coincided to make the world a much more dangerous place for all of us. He’s little more than a useful idiot in the eyes of some of the world’s oldest and nefarious intelligence services. The FSB and Chinese intelligence agencies probably will have access to all of Snowden’s information eventually. If they don’t already, they are far more incompetent than any of us ever expected, which is certainly not the case given their espionage history.

There are now reports the Russians may have used new methods of communication to conduct the recent annexation of Crimea. They slipped right passed the NSA eyes and ears. Snowden being in Russia is an intelligence coup for the FSB. Clearly they are willing and able to use the stolen information to immediate and devastating effect. They’ve learned a lot of new tricks from the Snowden leaks, and if this news is correct, then it’s very worrying for international security. After all, this is only the news that makes it into the media. All the other moves going on behind the scene - diplomatic, economic, political, etc – are concealed and likely even more dangerous.



Wednesday, 2 April 2014

China outplayed in Ukraine by Russia

Given the way the Western media talk, one could be forgiven for thinking China’s main geopolitical rival is the United States. Sure, that bilateral relationship is now one of the world’s most important, especially considering their economic ties. But Continental United States sits out of reach thousands of kilometers over a very large, wet buffer called the Pacific Ocean.

What really keeps central planners in Beijing talking and worrying at night is Russia. China’s geostrategic calculation, as with any nation sharing a landmass with rival powers, is to ensure its own safety from any country able to simply drive tanks or march troops over a connecting border.
To be clear, China and Russia are not coming to blows, nor are they in any hurry to quarrel. There are far easier and richer spoils to be gained through cooperation than antagonism.

A Moscow-Beijing alliance stretches back decades. Chinese leaders from Jang Zemin to Hu Jintao and now Xi Jinping each shepherded their own agreements with Russia concerning contentious border and land issues. As even a modicum of recent news consumption might reveal, China isn’t easily deterred from border disputes with neighboring nations, so a largely amicable cooperation over this issue in the last fifty years is somewhat remarkable.

Moscow and Beijing generally see eye-to-eye with international politics, agreeing on contentious issues ranging from Libya, Syria, Iran to human rights, press freedoms, and arms control.

China is also the hungry recipient of Russian natural gas and oil. Russian pipelines to Europe are not under any real threat, either politically or militarily, so Kremlin-controlled energy companies don’t have to worry about short-term sales. But dozens of booming Asian countries present Russia with a whole new market to gather more obscenely high cash flows.

However, some intriguing splinters in the old alliance have formed over the past few months. Not only is the Chinese push for greater dominance of the Asia-Pacific region conflicting with Russia’s own plans for this part of the world, the events in Ukraine have teased out a particularly ironic fracture, right down at the core of the relationship. 

No matter how friendly a partnership, there is always a worry one of the partners might become stronger. It may only be a feeling easily suppressed on most occasions, but it always pays to be vigilant, especially between nations sharing borders. 

This particular concern of relative strength is gripping Russia. Russia is simply not happy about China being the world’s number two power. That is a mantle reserved for a superpower, but it has been a long time since Russia could claim that title and China is not quite there yet. No matter which way it’s cut, China is further along that route today than Russia can claim to be.

That might not be so bad if China’s rise wasn’t due in part to Russian technology advances. A large portion of China’s power and ability today comes straight to China, ironically, courtesy of the Russian military factories, via Former Soviet Union states.

For years China gambled on forging a direct strategic relationship with Ukraine because it knew it could never get access to high-end Russian military equipment from Moscow. Not that it could do a lot of good (nor did it in the end), but in return China would offer Ukraine a “nuclear umbrella” against invasion, seeing as Ukraine relinquished its own nuclear weapons after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The China-Ukraine relationship netted China hundreds of working Russian Sukhoi 27 fourth-generation fighter aircraft, which the People’s Liberation Army promptly cloned into a Chinese version called the J-10 and J-11 fighters. China also purchased its flagship aircraft carrier from Ukraine as well as multiple Zubr-class hovercraft which it used in recent military exercises simulating invasions of small islets and islands.

China has also been keenly purchasing fertile agricultural land in Ukraine. A controversial land privatisation scheme, which many in Ukraine suspect is actually a sell-off, has been high on China’s state-owned farming organisation’s list of things to do. 

Unfortunately for these exploits, the recent Russian intervention in Ukraine turned Beijing’s gamble into a bit of a debacle. Any hopes China might have to create a competitive triangulation between the three nations is now very unlikely. Russia considers Ukraine to be firmly under its, not China’s, regional influence and nuclear umbrella.

Unfortunately for China, it may not only have lost a bond with Ukraine, it could have severely damaged its relationship with Russia. China cannot do anything about the situation in Ukraine. Beijing fails if it denounces the interim government in Ukraine just as much as if Beijing endorses it. Lucrative contracts could disappear or it could anger its “strategic partner” Russia even more. Neither option is desirable.

China is now facing a lose-lose situation of its own making as the Ukraine situation heats up. If China backs any Russian move into greater Ukraine, it can forget fulfilling its economic goals in the country no matter who controls it. But if Beijing doesn’t get behind a Russian move, then the arguably more important Moscow-Beijing relationship could be scuttled indefinitely.

One wonders how the central planners in Beijing sleep at night as China is once again pushed into international irrelevancy and beaten at the game of geopolitical intrigue by an admittedly far more experienced player.