China and Cambodia sign free trade agreement: What is the significance?

China and Cambodia signed a landmark free trade agreement (FTA) on Monday (12/10/2020), the first such deal between Cambodia and a foreign state. The agreement covers tourism, trade, agriculture and investment, of which more than 90 percent will be tariff free.

Cambodia has been an important ally for China in recent years. It has been accused of giving China de-facto veto power in ASEAN’s decision-making process in return for economic support. This has of course been denied by both parties and Cambodia insists its foreign policy is not influenced by China. It is inevitable that a strong relationship with Cambodia will give China some level of influence in the region. I must add this is by no means a new tactic on the international stage.

Cambodia is the first on China’s four stop tour of Southeast Asia. Engagement with Southeast Asian states is vital for China, as its rivalry with the US intensifies the importance of economic allies in the region increases. Observes suggest China is acting as the economic backbone to ASEAN states in the wake of the pandemic caused economic downturn. This will embed strong Chinese relations for years to come, ensuring influence and support in the region. Similarities can be drawn to the US’s role post-WWII, propping up European economies in part to keep the USSR at bay. In this sense, possibly a measure to keep US influence in the region to a minimum.

This soft power tactic is clearly taking an increasing role in Chinese foreign policy. Not only is there a focus on trade, investments into infrastructure are a key component. As part of the agreement, there is a project to improve hospitals and the development of sewage systems across Cambodia. They have also offered Chinese vaccines in the fight against Coronavirus, another potential hit for the huge pharmaceutical companies of the US and the UK. Taking this holistic approach focusing beyond economics is proving beneficial for Beijing.  

Comments were made about US foreign policy in the region by Chen Xiangmiao, a research fellow at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies. Perhaps quite rightly, Chen suggests that cooperation like this should not be classified under the US cold war mentality, meaning Cambodia is either with the US or against it. He goes on to say that China has no intention of forcing a nation pick sides and that China ‘offers a helping hand while the US stands idly by armed with pressure and threats’. Those in western states may disagree with this analysis but perhaps that is the problem, this potentially outdated way of thinking is limiting cohesion on the international stage. Chinese investment in Cambodia should not mean to say it has picked a side, China and the US could work alongside one another. Harmonious and cooperative relations between major powers may be an overly optimistic outlook but it does not mean to say it is not important.

Having said this, a US built facility in the Cambodia’s largest port was reported to have been demolished to make way for Chinese funded expansion plans. A symbolic gesture that highlights Beijing’s expanding influence.

The embrace of China may serve as a jab at the European Union, who rescinded Canbodia’s duty-free access to the European Market back in August of this year on human rights grounds. Likewise, China may have seen this as an opportunity to further extend their influence at the expense of the EU, who have been (along with the UK and US) struggling to combat China’s aggressive investments and growing influence across the globe. A political and economic success for China in this regard.

The UK Integrated Security and Defence Review: What can we expect?

Over the past few months, the UK Government has been conducting an Integrated Security and Defence Review, said to be the largest since the end of the Cold War. At its core, its aim is to modernise the armed forces. It comes at somewhat of a defining moment for the UK with the main components of its foreign policy shifting. Brexit means an end to EU membership and the ‘special relationship’ with the United States is under pressure. The review essentially aims to set out national security interests and the subsequent plans for promoting and defending them.

The reasons for a review like this are twofold; to evaluate Britain’s place in the world and to assess the capabilities of military hardware in dealing with and adapting to, emerging threats. There are challenges in the face of the review, political mandates often hinder real change and the ever-present budget issues are especially problematic now. Concerns have been raised over how future budgets will be affected as a result of economic pressures.

In an attempt to meet the drastically changing face of modern warfare, technology, automated warfare, cyber, space and Artificial Intelligence capabilities are at the forefront of this review. Reports that the Challenger II tanks are to be axed have been heavily refuted, but cuts are likely. Head of the Army, General Sir Mark Carlton Smith has stated the diminishing role of heavy armour in modern warfare.  This is an unprecedented shift in military thinking, the importance and significance of which should not be underestimated. Personnel could also be taking a considerable hit, reducing troops by 20,000 is a possibility. Of course we will not know the full extent of the plan until the review is over later this year.

It is easy to think that a reduction in military hardware mentioned above would diminish the power, influence and international role of the UK. However this should not be the case, it is about adapting and shifting focus elsewhere onto capabilities that can combat emerging threats. Tanks and traditional soldiers play no role in cyber or information warfare. Cuts are necessary in order to injected the saved money into new capabilities.

Despite inevitable cuts to traditional military hardware, the UK’s international role is still fairly secure. It still has a nuclear deterrent and is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Critics can rightly or wrongly make comments about firepower, but that does not take away from the leading diplomatic role the UK plays internationally. Its military capabilities do need to match its place on the international stage however.

That being said, Brexit and the economic downturn caused by the pandemic is putting a real strain on the UK’s ability to meet its 2% of GDP defence budget. This puts further pressure on its relationship with the US, who have quite rightly been stricter on NATO members spending 2% of GDP on their military budget. NATO and the UK are also struggling to address China and its strategic investments in Europe and the Middle East. As well as modernising the military, a focus on trade and prosperity to increase the UKs soft power is as important as ever.

Yet again, the Government have an unenviable task, with an outcome that could define the UK’s trajectory on the international stage for decades to come.

Intra-Afghan Peace talks: What issues will they face?

On Saturday 12th September 2020, the Afghan Government and Taliban sat down in Qatar for the formal intra-Afghan peace talks. It is being hailed as a momentous breakthrough in reaching a peace settlement in Afghanistan. A stable political future for Afghanistan, effective law enforcement and social inequality, namely women’s rights will be on the agenda.

Prior to this, a US-Taliban security agreement was reached in February of this year committing the Taliban to Intra-Afghan negotiations. To allow these talks to happen, the US accepted the Taliban’s request for all American troops to withdraw from the country, bringing an end to its longest war.

Despite both sides agreeing to formal negotiations, the complications persisted. The biggest of which was a prisoner exchange. There was to be an exchange of 5,000 Taliban prisoners for 1,000 members of the Afghan forces in a 10-day window. This took 6 months. The negotiations reportedly went down to the minute the plane took off with the final few prisoners, which included persuading them to get haircuts to look presentable.

So far it is clear that the Taliban want power. One senior negotiator claimed that the Afghan government was a ‘sinking ship’ and a coalition would result in the downfall of the Taliban too. He stated that it was ‘the Taliban’s turn’ to take control. They are trying to prove they have the capacity to be a legitimate global player, ‘we will prove that as the Taliban was a hard enemy, in the future we will be a solid and trustworthy partner’. Claims that those in the West and many in Afghanistan I am sure, will find hard to believe. Other negotiators have agreed that the group should be given a share of the power, some ministries to run and the integration of Taliban into the national security forces. This compromise is promising sign and does seem to be a realistic option to bring stability. However, negotiators on the same side supporting different goals does not instil a great sense of confidence.

Whilst these talks are of huge significance, a lot still stands in the way off a meaningful outcome. Perhaps the most obvious is the inherent differences between the two sides. The Afghan Government and Taliban will have to address their fundamental differences on ideology, power-sharing, justice and integration of the Taliban into national security forces. The Taliban must also be willing to compromise on its desire to recreate the Islamic Emirate for them to show they are participating seriously.

The Taliban are accurate in their assessment of the weakness of the Afghan Government. There was dispute over the outcome of the 2019 election and divisions over the acceptance of the US-Taliban agreement. Fractures within the Afghan government weaken its ability to form a unified front in negotiations. Corruption is rife and their lack of ability to exert control over much of the country is worrying. Warlords, powerful officials and politicians representing larger minority ethnic groups could challenge the Government on agreements made with the Taliban.

Issues also lie within the Taliban. The large number of cells and web-like structure of the group was a reason for their success in the war but may well be their downfall in peace talks. Different factions of the group will need to be acknowledged or accommodated in negotiations, adding to the complexity. Some have already refused to acknowledge the agreement between the Taliban and the US, whilst others may try to strengthen ties with IS. Further splintering will only hinder efforts.

The most worrying prediction is that the Taliban could prolong negotiations to keep favour with the US until it withdraws its troops, allowing the group to attempt to overthrow the Government. The current escalation in violence highlights the organisations apparent lack of ability to control its members. This being said, the chief negotiator, Mawlawi Abdul Hakim Haqqani is reported to carry significant influence that may be able to keep even the most distant cells united.

There is hope yet for a successful outcome to these peace talks. However, it is important to remain cautious, many challenges still stand in the way of peace.

Exploring an effective framework for Counter-Terrorism

The 19th anniversary of 9/11 has just gone by and the enquiry into the Manchester Arena bombing having started not too long ago. I feel it an apt time to revisit my undergraduate dissertation; ‘Is there a model of best practice in Counter-Terrorism’. I found myself drawn to this topic at university due to the apparent lack of research to find a solution, outside of a kinetic approach, to stopping terrorist attacks, predominantly in western states.

The research found that there is a three-pronged approach, Prevention, Rehabilitation and Aftercare. This model was developed by assessing literature on counter-terrorism measures of countries all over the world.

The Prevention aspect offers few surprises, tackling the causes of radicalisation and catching the signs early. The UK is seen as somewhat of a leader in this area, using the community as its driving force. Schools, families and local community leaders are used to tackle radical narratives and identify those at risk or showing signs of radicalisation. Educational institutions also aim to educate students across all age groups in such a way to protect them from radicalisation. The creation of a web of surveillance across the community can help to identify those at risk. This doesn’t come without its drawbacks, often it is the environment that people are in that leads to radicalisation, be that family members, peers or religious leadership figures.

The rehabilitation side I found of most interest. Vocational learning forms a significant part of global rehabilitation schemes. Research found that often the cause of radicalisation was a disenfranchisement with society. Radical groups benefit from this; providing members with a purpose, a common goal and a society they could feel a part of. Often bonding over a common ‘enemy’. The aim of rehabilitation is to tie the individual into civil society, give them a purpose, skills to get a job and so on. Leisure activities have been proven to be useful too and are used as part of the Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Saudi Arabian rehabilitation schemes. Sport can be beneficial in providing a sense of community and social interaction, that in many cases was lacking. The inclusion of seemingly insignificant aspects of society, such as sport, have been shown to make a considerable difference in the reintegration process. Rather than the traditional judicial response of punishment, offering opportunity through rehabilitation has found better results.

Aftercare measures are vital in any effective penal system. With the risks so high, tracking inmates convicted of terrorism charges after release is vital, yet not always done. I found there was no evidence in CONTEST (the UK’s current counter-terrorism strategy) of a robust aftercare system. This was disappointing to see as the work being done in prevention and rehabilitation will be let down by a lack of aftercare. No doubt opportunities have and will be missed as a result.

The example of Abdallah al-Ajmi is clear evidence of the need for a robust framework in counter-terrorism, detention is not the sole answer. He was a detainee released from Guantanamo Bay and repatriated to Kuwait in 2005, who subsequently carried out a fatal suicide bombing in Iraq in 2008. The US’ efforts in Guantanamo Bay have been heavily criticised for not following a model similar to that I explained above. It is widely thought by commentators that had Abdallah al-Ajmi received effective rehabilitation, reintegration assistance and been monitored after release, this attack could well have been avoided. This is by no means an isolated case; countless times you hear that a terror suspect was ‘known to intelligence services’. It just shows how important it is for a framework to continue working beyond the initial detention.

This is an incredibly complex issue and I of course don’t claim to hold the answers, but it is interesting nonetheless to explore what has worked for others and compare.

Joe Smerke