July 7, 20212 Comments

G7 Summit 2021: China’s Rise vs the West

By: Mariam Qureshi

The contest for supremacy between the United States and People’s Republic of China has increasingly intensified in the recent years. China has accelerated its efforts for supremacy not only in Asia but across the world under the leadership of President Xi Jinping. The 2021 G7 Summit held in Cornwall, United Kingdom was a stark reminder of how the West stands disputed on the China question. The United States wants to bring together its allies to adopt a hard-line approach towards China, but they remain wary. This ‘cautious’ approach of the West is also reflective of how President Xi is succeeding in making China a major player in the global arena. 

China saw Iraq and Afghanistan quagmire, the 2008 financial crisis, the 2016 British vote to exit the European Union, the election of Donald Trump as the US President, and the January 6 riot at the Capitol as events accelerating the decline of the West. This, coupled with China’s efforts of land reclamation in the South China Sea, its launch of the New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank reflected on China’s recent moves to counter the US influence in its neighbourhood and the global economy. In particular, China’s massive transnational infrastructure project known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) reflects on its dominating hand in its contest for supremacy against the United States.

During this year’s G7 Summit, President Biden reiterated the challenges China’s rise might pose for the West and tried to bring together the US allies to curb Chinese ambitions. The foremost step was to bring forth a rival plan to counter China’s rapidly expanding BRI Project. The West’s ‘Build Back Better World B3W’ initiative aims to provide the developing countries an alternative and transparent infrastructure partnership which is reflective of West’s values, standards, and way of doing business. The White House elaborated that the project would emphasize on environment-friendly policies, corruption-free and transparent financing terms to help developing countries avoid excessive debt. The United States and its allies aim to bring together the private sector to narrow the $40 trillion required by developing countries for their infrastructure development. The details of how exactly the plan would be executed, the timescale and the extent to which the West would contribute towards the plan remain unclear. Beyond the obvious tussle for power and influence over the developing countries, the B3W aims to supersede BRI to prove that Western values can prevail.

For example, the United States strongly condemns the use of forced labour in the global supply chains, hinting to the human rights abuse in the Chinese Xinjiang Province against the Uyghur Muslims. However, West’s insistence on environmentally-friendly policies and human rights might not be as welcomed by the developing countries as China’s ease of dealing with a single group of builders, financiers and government officials along with a no-questions-asked approach. 

Furthermore, the other European countries remain wary of sharing the US hard-line stance on China. The G7 communiqué accepted that the countries are willing to cooperate on a collective approach where Chinese policies “undermine the fair and transparent operation of the global economy” but only as long as “it is in our mutual interest”. Further, the officials of Germany, Italy, and EU expressed qualms over risking their trade and investment deals with China revealing how the West was unclear on whether to approach China as a friend or foe or an outright security threat. 

Thus, reiterating how most of the European countries have now started to digress from United States’ hard-line approach towards China. A week after the Summit, Armin Laschet, the frontrunner to become Germany’s next Chancellor, stressed on how the European Union needs to propel a ‘cautious’ stance towards China as a more aggressive approach to ‘restrain’ it might trigger a new Cold War. He accepted that though China is a competitor and systemic rival because of a diverging ideology, but it is also a partner in efforts to fight climate-change and in trade and investment opportunities. “The 21st century is very different and the prism of how the world looked before 1989 offers limited advice,” he said. “We have a multipolar world [now] with different actors.”

Previously, France much like Germany, were wary of banning Huawei and other Chinese-made networking equipment for fear of retaliation on their investments in China. Similarly, Italy’s inclusion in the Belt and Road Initiative back in 2019 further highlights how China has achieved some success to its efforts to build influence in Europe. 

A Chinese spokesperson communicated China’s response to the B3W proposal by stating how “the days when global decisions were dictated by a small group of countries are long gone”. This reiterated China’s determination to quell the Western monopoly on the world stage and establish for itself a commanding voice in world affairs. The centennial celebrations of the Communist Party of China on July 1st, 2021,  marked the achievement of the ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’. President Xi attributed the rise of modern China to the party and its system and reiterated his determination of expanding China’s sphere of influence by saying that “we will never allow anyone to bully, oppress or subjugate China”.

As China continues to expand its influence in the political and economic spheres of affairs throughout the continents, the western countries are forced to re-evaluate their policy towards China. On one hand, in the age of interconnectedness and globalization, the European countries are unwilling to risk hefty trade deals and investment opportunities with China’s emerging economy. On the other hand, however, United States feels its grip loosening over world affairs and fears a Chinese substitute to the Liberal Order it established in the recent decades. Therefore, it used the G7 Summit as an opportunity to bring together the West against China in a bid to uphold the Western democratic values. However, the Summit was nothing more than a reminder of the fact that there is no consensus on how the West should interact with China. Moving forward, it appears that the disconnect among western countries is likely to ease China’s way towards a steady rise. 

July 5, 2021No Comments

A Comparative Perspective of women and children under ISIS and Al-Qaeda: A Conversation with Cecilia Polizzi.

ITSS Verona's Extremism, Crime and Terrorism group interviews Cecilia Polizzi, President, Founder & Executive Director of the CRTG Working Group, the only existing I/NGO dedicated to protect children affected by terrorism and member of the ITSS Verona Scientific Expert Committee. Ms. Polizzi talks about the plight of women and children under ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

Interviewing Team: Adelaide Martelli & Francesco Bruno.

July 1, 2021No Comments

European Security Challenges II: Russia

By: Alessandro Spada

Picture via West vs Russia: the Clash of Narratives | Madan

The tensions between the European Union (EU) and Russia have considerably increased over the last years. In this context, Ukraine has become a crucial geopolitical flashpoint. Ever since the annexation of Crimea and Russian military intervention in Ukraine in 2014, the relations between Russia and the EU have deteriorated progressively with the adoption of severe sanctions by the latter.

In addition to the Ukrainian crisis, both the Russian intervention in the Syrian war and the attempted poisoning of the former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skipral and his daughter by Kremlin agents in 2018 are worth recollecting. Besides, the use of targeted actions to influence and to destabilise European countries such as disinformation, cyber-attacks and support for pro-Kremlin political parties and NGOs, and in the end, the attempted murder by poisoning of Alexei Navalny, one of the most fearsome opposition leaders of Vladimir Putin, have imposed EU to take further countermeasures.

The Russian threat can be subdivided into the following three categories: 

  1. Military threat: The high-risk level of Baltic States to be invaded by Russian troops in just a few days and short-range Iskander missiles stationed in “the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad” with high capacity to deliver nuclear warheads attack and to reach Poland and Eastern Germany in 2013. In this regard, it is worth highlighting that the repeated NATO airspace and sea space violations have often provoked several skirmishes between the Russian and NATO planes and warships in the Black and the Baltic Seas. In addition, more than 100,000 Russian troops have been deployed to the border between Russia and Ukraine and Russia’s navy presence around the whole Crimean Peninsula, including also the Sea of Azov, are not absolutely less alarming for Ukraine, NATO and European allies.
  2. Hybrid threat: This is meant as financial and political support for pro-Kremlin parties and NGOs, also spreading disinformation. Furthermore, it is worth mentioning the cyber-attacks to influence and cause instability within European Countries and borders. For example, Moscow was able to build strong ties with populist and mostly far-right political parties such as Rassemblement National (RN) in France, Lega in Italy, Alternative für Deutschland(AfD) in Germany, Vlaams Belang (VB) in Belgium and Catalan independence movement in Spain. Among Russian hybrid tools, the state-owned RT news channel and Sputnik news agency, are considered propaganda instruments, which disseminate anti-establishment conspiracy theories, aim at creating divisions on sensitive issues such as migration and Islamic terrorism. At last, it is worth recalling the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the St. Petersburg-based “troll factory”, specialized in fake social media profiles on Facebook and Twitter.
  3. Energy threat: Russia supplies a third or more of EU oil and gas demand and “a large share of this is delivered via pipelines crossing Ukraine, a country whose relations with Moscow are even more problematic than the EU's, raising the possibility that Europe's gas supplies could be held hostage to geopolitical tensions”. Indeed, the energy crisis in 2006 and 2009 created serious warnings for gas supplies.

In reaction to these threats, 4500 troops have been stationed on a rotational basis in Poland and Baltic countries by NATO since 2017 and Lithuania approved the reintroduction of compulsory military service in 2015. The three Baltic countries have significantly raised their defence budget and two neutral countries as Finland and Sweden strengthened partnership with NATO. Furthermore, this year, many European countries took part in DEFENDER-Europe 21, “an annual large-scale U.S. Army-led, multinational, joint exercise designed to build readiness and interoperability between U.S., NATO and partner militaries”. Last May, 600 NATO and non-NATO forces, including troops from Ukraine and Georgia, were involved in the "Trojan Footprint" military exercise across five Eastern European countries (Bulgaria, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Georgia, and Romania). The drill took place “alongside much larger Defender-Europe 21 NATO joint exercises”, mentioned before, which had “some 28,000 forces participating from 26 different countries”. 

Numerous countermeasures have been taken by EU countries to counter Russian disinformation. For example, media literacy training has been introduced in school curricula by several countries and “regulators have clamped down on pro-Kremlin outlets such as RT for failing to comply with media standards”. In 2015, EU created a special task force as East StratCom Task Force for a weekly publication of Disinformation Review identifying and unmasking disinformation from pro-Russia sources. Moreover, it has the purpose to cooperate with Eastern Partnership countries for building resilience to pro-Kremlin disinformation, for example explaining EU policies to audiences from the region by producing Russian-language materials and training journalists. In 2018, the disinformation Code of Practice and the Action Plan were both adopted by the European Union. Several media companies signed the Code of Practice, committing to remove fake profiles and allowing users to see who pays for online political adverts.

The EU has taken meaningful measures to mitigate energy shortage. For example, it has started to build new energy infrastructures - such as interconnecting pipelines enabling EU Member States to share gas, building terminals to import LNG from USA and Qatar and storage facilities to keep gas in reserve. In this context, NATO plays a fundamental role as well, establishing “three main priorities regarding energy security. The first is to enhance allies’ strategic awareness of the security implications of energy developments. The second goal is to support the protection of critical energy infrastructure, including tankers and offshore energy installations. Third, NATO has prioritized enhancing energy efficiency in the military”.       

The EU will have to support Eastern European member countries politically, military and economically to counter Russian threats. It will have to promote major policies of economic development, social inclusions fighting inequalities created by pandemic, more cooperation and investments in counter-intelligence and cybersecurity technologies. Additionally, it will have to invest more financial resources to rebuild the economy based on renewable energies, being less hostage by the Russian oil and gas. In the end, it will need to be more independent from the American influence and speaking with a common and single voice. If Europe does not follow this path, it would put at risk the foundations of European democratic institutions, causing their disintegration, paving the way to antidemocratic and populist political parties and lastly it would continue to be subject to energy blackmail of the Kremlin.

What is sure for now is that Russia is still perceived as a real threat to the whole Western world, as also demonstrated by the UK and USA. Indeed, concerning this last one, in spite of the constructive U.S.-Russia Summit in Geneva on 16th June 2021, the deep underlying tension between the superpowers seems less than solved.

Here you can read the first part of this article.

July 1, 2021No Comments

Politics of oil, gas and decarbonization in Europe: An Interview with Dr. Cyril Widdershoven

A discussion on the geopolitics of gas, oil, and decarbonization in Europe, what should be on the table? A conversation with Dr. Cyril Widdershoven, founder of Veracy and global energy market expert.

June 28, 2021No Comments

Gamers Revolution

'Gamers Revolution' - The ITSS team "Culture, Society and Security" interviews Dr Sergio Alberto Gramitto Ricci from Monash University and Professor Christina Sautter from Louisiana State University

Interviewing Team: Julia M. Hodgins, Sofia Stederini, Leigh Dawson

June 24, 2021No Comments

Balance of power Russian and Europe. An Interview with Dr Gonzalo Pozo-Martin Stockholm University.

Dr Gonzalo Pozo-Martin from the Department of Academic History and International Relations at Stockholm University is answering the questions on the topic whether the balance of power between Russia and Europe has changed in recent years.

Interviewing Team: Igor Shchebetun.

June 23, 2021No Comments

Director Lucio Caracciolo (Limes) on Moroni’s book on Italian Youth Neo-Fascist Movements 1949-1969

In this double interview, Limes's Director, Dr Lucio Caracciolo, offers his views on ITSS Verona Member Alessio Moroni's book on Italian youth Neo-Fascist movements, 1949-1969, ending with his reflections upon the current far-right scene in Italy.

Interviewing Team: Alessio Moroni and Maria Chiara Aquilino.

June 22, 2021No Comments

Interview on the 2021 Iranian Presidential Election with Waqar Rizvi

The International System and World Order team focussing on Middle East for ITSS Verona interview Waqar Rizvi, host of Indus News, on the recent Iranian Elections.

Interviewing Team: John Devine and Omri Brinner

June 21, 2021No Comments

How the Biden-Putin Summit will change the Russian American Relations

By: István Hagyó 

Picture via GettyImages

The long-awaited Biden-Putin Summit took place on the 16th of June in Geneva. The fact that the two sides managed to set up a summit in such a short period of time, taking into consideration previous events that seriously deteriorated their bilateral relations, represents a significant success and shows the willingness and commitment on their part to restabilize the relationship. The Russian military build-up near the Ukrainian border, President Biden calling President Putin a “killer” or the American accusation of Russian interference in 2020 US elections, raised questions on the future of the bilateral relations between the two states. The article analyses whether the summit can lead to a long-term rhetoric change in American-Russian relations.

The relations with each other represents a core role in their global strategy. Therefore, many topics were discussed. From Afghanistan, Iraq, to climate change, Arctics, Ukraine and Alexei Navalny, the growing Russian cybersecurity threat and lastly, the question of nuclear arms control; many of them sensitive and problematic. During the meeting, both leaders were focusing primarily on topics directly affecting their bilateral relations. Progress was seen in three main topics: cybersecurity, nuclear arms control and human rights. These topics require continuous dialogue and are long-term plans, where both sides are interested in solving. 

What was discussed during the Biden-Putin Summit:

Return the Ambassadors: Both sides agreed to return their ambassadors, which serves as a positive indicator for a chance of future talks between the two states. 

Cybersecurity Task Force: President Biden informed his counterpart regarding his concerns about Russian cyberattacks. The recent attack by Russian hackers, the ransomware strike on an American oil pipeline company obstructed the gasoline supply in the country. President Putin denied all the allegations stating that “most of the cyberattacks in the world are carried out from the cyber realm of the United States”. However, facts show that the most damaging attacks are coming from state-backed Russian hackers. Therefore, Biden drew a redline and informed about 16 types of infrastructure that must be free of cyberattacks. As a result, a common cybersecurity task force will be set up to avoid such escalations and initiate dialogue. The potential of it is unclear, however, the willingness to cooperate at least on a working level represents progress.

Strategic Stability Dialogue on nuclear arms control: Issuing a joint statement on nuclear arms control stating that, “today, we reaffirm the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”  In addition, an integrated bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue will be initiated for future nuclear arms control measures.

Human Rights: Biden highlighted the importance of this subject for the American people and for the United States, saying that “it is in our country’s DNA”. It became a sensitive topic, due to the recent imprisonment of the Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, currently in jail. According to President Putin, Alexei didn’t respect the law while returning from Germany being on treatment and consciously knowing that he will face imprisonment. However, President Biden clearly stated that in case of Navalny’s death in prison, there will be “devastating consequences” for Russia. 

Ukraine: Less progress on Ukraine as President Putin dismissed both the possibility that Ukraine will join NATO which he considers unacceptable. Regarding the Russian aggression in East Ukraine, he stated that it is not the business of the United States. 

Analyzing the reactions from the summit between the two leaders, we feel prudence from both, which highlights the importance of the summit itself as a result. Putin said about Biden, “he's a balanced and professional man, and it's clear that he's very experienced," also that, “it seems to me that we did speak the same language", while Bidencommented, "the bottom line is, I told President Putin that we need to have some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by." 

Overall, the summit did not result in a breakthrough and both leaders initially had low expectations, however, sending back their ambassadors and initiating cooperation in new areas like cybersecurity show low but clear progress in the Russian American relations toward stability. Even with fruitless talks on Russian involvement in the cyberattacks on the United States and refusal of explanation about the imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, any progress is seen as a success, due to how low the relations were. Each side informed the other what are the red lines. The summit clearly represented how strategically crucial are these bilateral relations. Both sides affirmed that they don’t want another Cold War, but the reality is that the world has changed. Biden must calculate with a global China and at some point, there will be an interest to cooperate with Russia, regardless of the several obstacles presently obstructing a more cordial relationship. However, Russia can possibly use this card and profit from the tense Sino-American relation. 

To sum it up, it is more than likely that the summit itself will not radically change the rhetoric of the Russian American relation, but can be a cornerstone to initiate that change. 

June 21, 20211 Comment

A WINDOW ON THE WORLD OF TALIBE’ CHILDREN IN SENEGAL

By: Diletta Cosco and Luca Mattei

One of our members of the human rights team is currently working in a shelter for Talibè children located in the Dakar, Senegal. The article is an interview of Abdu Ndao (the name used is to protect the person’s identity), who has been responsible for the shelter. He talks about the exploitation of Talibè children in Senegal.

Could you explain to us who the Talibè children are and what do they do? 

Talibè children are male students from five to eighteen years old generally, who attend Quranic schools called “Daara”, which also serve as the home for every child. The living conditions of the Talibè are quite critical; once they join the school, they are forced onto the streets to beg, and that is the only way where they are able to provide food for themselves. The earnings are daily directed to the Marabout, the Quranic teacher, who establishes a minimum amount of money (around 200-250 Sefa). If the child fails to provide the required sum, he might be subjected to abuse. The Daara and the forced begging is a source of income for the Marabout. The Talibè children come from Senegal itself and the surrounding countries such as Gambia, Mali and the Guineas. During their years as Talibè, children are rarely allowed to return to their home, mostly only for special occasions. However, some Marabouts strictly forbid the children to visit their families.

What are the reasons that lead parents to send their children to the Daaras?

There are several reasons that encourage parents to send their children to the Daaras. Firstly, the main purpose is religious education as parents are determined to make their children learn Quran perfectly. It is believed that by acquiring Islamic knowledge, the children will gain a prestigious education. Furthermore, even if parents are aware of the conditions of the Daara, they are quite convinced by the fact that it will be a great life lesson for their children and that in this way, they will learn how to become real men. Daaras are also considered prestigious schools, as many important men in Senegal were once Talibè students. The children unfortunately only gain a faction of the religious education at the Daraa as they only learn the Quran. Their future is quite limited to become a Marabout teacher mostly. At the end of their Daara period, they lack formal education. 

What is your shelter doing and what is your relationship with the Marabout? 

To mitigate this phenomenon, several shelters which provide relief are spread around Senegal. Among these, our centre is here to provide relief and assistance to the Talibè by offering clothes, food, a shower and some playtime and learning activities with the staff. Relationships with the Marabout is a sort of partnership/collaboration; it can be a constant process of mediation as sometimes Marabout are afraid that children who attend the centre will be indoctrinated by our beliefs. My job here is to convince them that our sole purpose is to provide what I have mentioned before. However, it is important that the Marabout explains his rules to all the staff and to me will be committed to respect them. It is a sort of compromise in order to reach our goal of assisting Talibè children. Rules such as forbidding the children to take a shower or change clothes frequently are two examples. Every relationship with the Marabout, though, can be different as some are radical while others are moderate. Some Marabouts are suspicious because they are afraid centres like ours have hidden missions. For this reason, in the past, some Marabout did not let the children take French classes at our centre, and I had to convince them that there was no hidden agenda. Part of my duty is to visit the Daaras to ensure they meet minimum conditions, such as the presence of mosquito nets. If this is not the case, I am in charge of distributing them as well.

What is the Senegalese government approach to this matter?

The government is fully aware of this phenomenon. There were few attempts to end it, but religion is powerful in Senegal, and Marabout are very influential in the Senegalese society (they are fully part of the political life and can even influence election results). Senegal signed the UN convention on the Rights of the Child, but it has been clearly violated. The government made several attempts and started campaigns named “Zero talibè dans la rue”, with the objective to end the forced begging of Talibè children. However, despite these attempts, not much has changed. The fear of political repercussions and damage to the government reputation is very strong. If the government pushes harder, they fear they will be accused of being against Islam by the Marabouts.