October 10, 2022No Comments

U.S.-China: The New Normal?

Author: Francesco Cirillo.

Tensions between China and the United States seem frozen at the moment, a consequence of domestic commitments of both Beijing and Washington. On the one hand, Xi Jinping will have to pass a Communist Party Congress to secure a third term as General Secretary of the Party, reappointment to the post of Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and reappointment as President of the People's Republic. Xi has several dossiers. The first is the issue of the anti-covid policy that has blocked production chains in recent months due to continuous lockdowns; the second is the delicate relationship with Moscow, which has seen in its Russian partner a greater weakening and consolidation of Beijing's political position in several areas of influence. For Xi, the October Congress is the turning point for the consolidation of his leadership within the Party. The main international dossier facing Beijing during the Congress session will be relations with Washington and the sensitive Taiwan issue. In the previous months several articles have been published by Chinese academics linked to the Party. CSIS, Center for Strategic of International Studies, translated an article by Liu Jieyi, director of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council from a seminar on the Taiwan issue held between August 17 and 18. The seminar was attended by several academics close to Communist Party and government positions. Liu Jieyi in the piece titled "Reunification Has Entered an Irreversible Historical Process [统一进入不可逆转历史进程]" described that the reunification process has now entered an irreversible historical process and that not even Taipei's so-called "anti-Chinese forces" and "independence vagueities" will oppose the unification of the Island with the People's Republic.

Image Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/peking-forbidden-travel-china-1908167/

The Diplomatic clash between China and the United States on the Taiwan issue was raised after the visit of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi but two other elements changed the approach of Sino-US relations. The first was the presentation of a new document(Taiwan Policy Act 2022) by the U.S. Senate Foreign Affairs Committee that if approved could allocate some $6.5 billion in aid. If it is approved by both the House and Senate it could further deteriorate Washington-Beijing relations. Another bone of contention is the approval by the U.S. side to sell a $1.1 billion arms package. At the moment, relations between the People's Republic and the U.S. have returned to a certain "new" normalcy, a consequence of the domestic commitments of both Beijing (Party Congress" and Washington ( Mid-Term elections for the renewal of the U.S. Congress) .

On the international context, the war in Ukraine could, in the coming months and early 2023, lead China and the U.S. to engage in consultation given that at the SCO summit in Samarkand a certain Beijing discontent with the war being waged by the Kremlin was noted, a position that after the Party Congress could solidify further reducing Beijing's indirect support for Russia's junior partner.

July 18, 2022No Comments

Prof. Germano Dottori on Iran’s shifting role amidst developments in the Middle East

In this interview conducted by the "Iran Desk" at ITSS Verona Prof. Germano Dottori addresses and analyzes Iran's role within the new developments in the Middle East. The interview focuses on the possible outcomes of Biden's travel to the Middle East and the developing potentials of new Middle Eastern alliances.

Professor Germano Dottori was the Chair of Strategic Studies at Luiss-Guido Carli University in Rome until November 2020. He was an Adviser to the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee between 2001 and 2006. He has worked with the Rivista Italiana di Difesa (Italian Defence magazine) since 1997. He has published books and research in Italy and Great Britain on security and defence.

Interviewer: Shahin Modarres

June 1, 2022No Comments

ITSS Verona 2021/22 Webinar Series: “The View From Africa”, with Ilas Touazi and Michele Tallarini

For its third event of "The View from" Series, Ilas Touazi from University of Sétif 2 and Michele Tallarini, ITSS Verona, Africa Team, discuss US-China competition in Africa, touching upon regional dynamics, trade, BRI, questions of debt, and Chinese military presence in the continent.

May 16, 2022No Comments

Manochehr Dorraj on the development of bilateral relations between Iran and China

In this interview conducted by the "Iran Desk" at ITSS Verona Prof. Manochehr Dorraj addresses and analyzes the gradual development of bilateral relations between Iran and China. The interview focuses on the importance of Iran to China, how both countries try to optimize their gain and influence through this bilateral relation, and how this relation is affected by and may affect regional bilateral relations with China. 

Manochehr Dorraj is a Professor at Texas Christian University where his areas of focus cover International Affairs, Comparative politics, Political Theory and Middle East politics. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author, coauthor, editor or coeditor of 7 books and more than 80 refereed articles and book chapters.

Interviewers: Shahin Modarres, Yasmina Dionisi and Filippo Cimento.

January 28, 2022No Comments

ITSS Verona 2021/22 Webinar Series: “The View From South East Asia”, with Bitzinger and Timur

In this second event of "The View From: Voices from South East Asia" conceptualised and moderated by ITSS Verona members Arslan Skeikh and Arnaud Sobrero, Dr Richard Bitzinger and Dr Fitri Bintang Timur share their immense experience on issues regarding international security, great power competition, trade, diplomacy, and conflict in greatly strategic South East Asia.

December 22, 2021No Comments

AUKUS and its Consequences for the EU: Strategic Autonomy and the Future of Transatlantic Relations

By: Eleonora Shehu and Alessandro Spada.

Image Source: https://www.asianews.it/notizie-it/Aukus,-le-paure-delle-isole-del-Pacifico-54123.html

On 15th September 2021, a trilateral security agreement, AUKUS, was announced by the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, as part of a broader US foreign policy effort in the Indo-Pacific. Although not explicitly specified in the text, the agreement seems to be directed as a wider strategy to counter China’s growing influence in the region. Despite AUKUS being a standard security agreement and apparently harmless for the EU, it has caused the biggest diplomatic crisis in transatlantic relations since the Iraq War in 2003, as it came as a surprise package to the European Union and France in particular. As written in the text, AUKUS will contribute to build eight nuclear-powered submarines in Australia and “will focus specifically on deepening integration in defense-related science, technology, industrial bases and supply chains, with particular emphasis on cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and new undersea capabilities”. 

This partnership however, unleashed the anger of Emmanuel Macron, who called AUKUS a betrayal vis-à-vis Paris and the EU as a whole, describing it as a “stab in the back” from Australia and a “brutal and unilateral decision” from Washington by the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian. As a sign of protest against the signing of this agreement, on the 17th September President Macron immediately recalled his ambassadors to the U.S and Australia.

The reasons for France's discontent are numerous. The first one is that Australia unexpectedly scrapped France from a A$90bn (£48bn) submarine contract, signed with the contractor Naval Group in 2016, to purchase 12 conventional attack submarines and to replace its old six conventionally powered Collins-class submarines. Moreover, Paris was not informed by Canberra beforehand and found out about the agreement together with the rest of the world, showing a serious breach of trust between the two countries. Last, but not least, this agreement also had an unfortunate timing: AUKUS was announced to the public the same day the EU published its own strategy for the Indo-Pacific, putting the EU in a disadvantageous position compared to the other Western powers and reviving the discussions on the EU’s strategic autonomy. 

In fact, “strategic autonomy” has been taking increasingly more space in the EU discourse since the almost back-to-back events of Afghanistan first and the creation of AUKUS next. Strategic autonomy for the EU means the ability of the union to achieve its foreign policy objectives cooperating with its allies when possible, but also acting alone when it is necessary. This was made also clear in the 2021 State of the Union annual speech by the European Commission President Von der Leyen, in which she emphasized the importance of the creation of the long-overdue European Defense Union, because, as she argued, “there will be missions where NATO or the UN will not be present, but where the E.U should be” because “Europe knows better than anyone that if you don’t deal in time with the crisis abroad, the crisis comes to you”. 

Even though the submarine contract between France and Australia was a bilateral issue only with no other EU member state being affected, the AUKUS deal resulted in a serious breach of trust with deep consequences not only for France but for the EU in general: this agreement raises, first of all, serious doubts within the EU about Biden’s administration pledge to multilateralism, demonstrating de facto that this administration is still acting unilaterally, continuing to carry on what is becoming an American trait. Secondly, and most importantly, this strategic agreement relegates the EU to a secondary player position with no real say in decisions concerning the Indo-Pacific, highly contradicting what was written in Biden’s administration Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, in which it is clearly stated that in order to deal with an increasingly assertive China, the US pledged to restore and further strengthen its alliances both in Europe and in the Indo-Pacific region

With that being said, both the events of Afghanistan and AUKUS have forced EU officials to seriously think about a common European defense strategy, which will come to a head with the definition of a Strategic Compass intended for adoption in March 2022. A newly found strength behind the implementation is likely to come as France will hold the EU’s rotating Presidency for the first half of 2022. France has not only been the most affected by the agreement but it has also been a strong advocate of a European defense strategy especially in the Indo-Pacific, where almost 2 million French citizens live, thus making France the biggest European player in the region

In conclusion, this diplomatic incident entails serious consequences for transatlantic relations: although a European strategic autonomy never entailed a separation from the US, it is also increasingly widespread a feeling in Europe that something is broken in our trans-Atlantic relations", says Thierry Breton, Internal Market Commissioner, who is proposing for a "pause" and a "reset" between the EU and the US.

December 10, 2021No Comments

Geopolitical Implications of Finland’s H-X Program

By: Arnaud Sobrero and Romain Gallix

Image Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/77821971@N07/48909659726/

Finland is currently seeking to replace its aging F-18 with a global competition dubbed H-X worth $11 billion. It is expected that a decision will be made public before the end of 2021. Arguably, fighter jets represent a crucial component of States’ security and a decisive hard power asset in every conflictual context. This article aims at uncovering the underlying dynamics of the Western defense industry implied by the evolution of the Finnish tender. 

As of December 2021, the Finnish Ministry of Defense has received responses for its request for information from the European Eurofighter Typhoon, the Swedish Saab Gripen, the French Dassault Rafale, and the American Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin F-35. 

Divided European contenders open the way for American offers

The Finnish request for information received answers from all major Western fighter jets producers; hence the comparison of contenders allows us to identify several factors shaping the evolutions of the industry. The very fact that Finland launched its fleet’s renewing process very close to the expected decommission date for its current Hornets, as their “structural fatigue” denounces, exemplifies how procurement programs are not at the top of policy-makers agenda (Finnish Ministry of Defense).

The cost borne by single states with limited expenditure margins is becoming increasingly untenable, especially where political pressure on taxpayers’ spending is large (e.g., the United Kingdom). Moreover, countries may not dispose of design and production capacity over the entire technological spectrum, such as Italy and Spain. The relative political frenzy generated in recent decades made transnational fighter jets’ fleets a common feature of Western air forces. However, the pan-European Eurofighter Typhoon underwent difficulties showcasing the complexity of such projects, with reluctant transfers, unclear directions, and soaring costs due to fragmented production. 

Meanwhile, the individual offers from France and Sweden do not seem greatly superior. The Dassault Rafaleand the Saab Gripen offer suffer from their limited interoperability and relatively isolated stance in the current geopolitical equilibrium. Indeed, the political logic of defense procurement programs vastly supersedes the economic aspects of the choice. Was Finland to purchase the Saab Gripen underdog from its neighbor, its strategic prospects would be very limited and centered on Russian containment. The Rafale, in turn, would signify Finland’s alignment on the French posture of European strategic autonomy from the U.S. The 1,340km-long border Helsinki shares with Russia makes this perspective impossible. Therefore, although the Rafale has recently been sold to Croatia and Greece, Dassault’s offer seems compromised.

The American bidders consequently benefit from the lack of unity of European actors and put forward the geopolitical continuity they represent as a sales’ argument. The Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet proposal would minimize the H-X program costs due to pre-existing maintenance and operating capacities while selecting the F-35 would guarantee the acquisition of new, cutting-edge capacities

A degrading security environment

In recent years, we have witnessed a degradation of the international security environment with Russia’s resurgence and the growing assertiveness of China’s behavior. Primarily concerned with Russia, Finland finds itself in a delicate position as it is the E.U. member that shares the largest border with Russia. Russia has been particularly active in recent years by bolstering its military, as demonstrated by its intervention in the Syrian front, its attempts to upset the status quo, and its destabilization of NATO from within. Growing tensions between Russia and Ukraine are fueling a sense of regional insecurity with a Russian troop buildup as well as creating some levels of uncertainty regarding Russia’s intentions. Amid a large scale rearmament program, Russia has been able to field the SU-57, a modern stealth fighter aircraft, and develop lighter fifth-generation aircraft, the Checkmate, focused on export markets and somewhat reminiscent of the F-35.

Given the growing insecurity of its regional environment, Finland may be looking to maintain its strategic relationship with the U.S. and reinforce its indirect relationships with NATO. A critical political and strategic factor to consider is the interoperability of weapon systems within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Although Finland is not a member of the Alliance, the Lockheed Martin’s F-35 and Boeing’s F-18 Super Hornet would expand the reach of NATO and its ability to share data, engage in secure communication, and increase interoperability capabilities between the U.S. and other U.S.-allied European assets. Thus, beyond the interoperability aspect of those deals, acquiring the F-35 or the F-18 does bring diplomatic benefits and strengthen relationships with the United States.

The case of buying a strategic relationship with the U.S.

When it comes to large military hardware procurement, countries’ decisions are influenced by the prospect of a future strategic relationship with the procuring country. Buying U.S. material implies future interoperability, a valuable prospect in a world of growing tensions. In addition, the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) framework is largely seen as a political instrument by Washington to deepen relationships with key allies. As such, the F-35 initially developed to replace aging F-16s, is poised to become one of America’s biggest exports. By strengthening military interoperability with U.S. allies across the globe and elevating their airpower capabilities, the F-35 is instrumental to America’s containment military strategies. Furthermore, some experts argue that the F-35 program acts as America’s Belt and Road Initiative, at least from a strategic and military standpoint. It provides a network and a platform acting as ‘a generator of wealth and peaceful co-existence on a global scale.’

Even soaring costs do not prevent countries from buying the F-35. Small players such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland have already chosen to buy the F-35 jets, notwithstanding questionable financial dispositions. This perfectly illustrates the underpinning political challenge at stake. For example, Switzerland agreed to buy 36 F-35As in July 2021 and Patriot air defense systems, even though the decision was controversial and considered overkill.

Thus, buying American-made fighter jets does bring significant commercial, industrial, and geopolitical benefits. Indeed, by buying American fighter jets, Finland would essentially strengthen its strategic relationship with the U.S.

Conclusively, given the degrading security environment Finland finds itself in and the growing importance of the U.S. strategic relationship, Finland is more likely to acquire U.S. technologies to replace its aging F-18s. Arguably, the F-35 appears better suited to meet Finland’s short and long-term requirements by strengthening its military and political relationship with the U.S. and acquiring an aircraft that could address the existing and emerging military threat as Russia deploys additional advanced stealth combat airborne platforms. 

October 26, 2021No Comments

The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) and the Threat it Poses to and from the New Afghanistan

Image Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/72ccNLMJ-sU

By Adelaide Martelli, Francesco Bruno, and Zachariah Parcels

Proceeding the culmination of the Taliban’s 20-year insurgency, complete withdrawal of NATO forces, and reinstatement of the Taliban’s repressive policies reminiscent of their harsh rule in the late 1990s, domestic actors have emerged to question the Taliban’s renewed governance. Amidst the frantic evacuations of foreigners and vulnerable Afghans, Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP; aka ISIS-K) or Wilayat Khorasan emerged in our public consciousness with their horrific attack on 26 August at Kabul’s International Airport. This attack seemingly inaugurated ISKP’s ongoing suicide bombing campaign currently inflicting Afghanistan. ISKP appears to represent the most significant threat to the Taliban’s already teetering “domestic sovereignty” and internal integrity. Thus, to understand the potential security threats emanating to and from the new Afghanistan, it is essential to understand ISKP’s history, operational capabilities, and radical ideology. 

The Beginning of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP)

ISKP was formed in 2014 by defecting Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP; Pakistani Taliban), Afghan Taliban, Lashkar-e-Islam, and disenfranchised al Qaeda fighters active in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These defections were welcomed later by representatives from Iraq and Syria of the Islamic State (IS), corresponding with IS 2015 announcement of a “Khorasan” province. Among the TTP defectors were high ranked commanders previously active in Pakistan and its Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), including ISKP’s first wali (governor), Hafez Sayed Khan

Under Sayed Khan, ISKP successfully infiltrated Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar Province in 2015, conquering eight Taliban districts and displacing thousands who did not conform to the group’s apocalyptic ideology. According to Lushenko et al. (2019), contradicting the Taliban’s aspirations to “Talibanize” Afghanistan and effectively counteracting the latter’s opposition to government and coalition forces, acute disagreements between the two groups has resulted in increasing violence plaguing Afghanistan and bogging of Taliban forces. The looming expansionist threat of IS, at that time, caused coalition forces and Kabul to redirect resources to eradicate ISKP from Afghanistan. This campaignseemingly alleviated and unintentionally strengthened Afghan Taliban forces.

Under Khan, ISKP rapidly consolidated territory – predominantly from the Taliban. Albeit thousands of ground and air operations against ISKP by coalition and Afghan forces – including the deployment of the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) munition – fighting with the Taliban, and the death of Khan in 2016, ISKP continued to make gains. This includes ISKP nearly capturing the infamous Tora Bora cave complex from the Taliban in June 2017.

However, by 2017, Wilayat Khorasan (ISKP) had suffered heavy casualties, including the loss of three walis, half its fighters, and two-thirds of its territory. Notwithstanding, ISKP still maintained the capability to launch consecutive terrorist attacks in Kabul in 2017, predominantly against Shi’a mosques and cultural sites to spark sectarian divisions. Nevertheless, after a sustained campaign, ISKP surrendered to the Taliban in the summer of 2018. Though, Taliban-IS relations reportedly have not been fully hostile, as parts of the Haqqani Network have coordinated with ISKP. ISKP faced further setbacks in 2019 when more than 600 fighters surrendered to Afghan forces. 

These setbacks drove the Islamic State (IS) Core to make internal transformations. IS founded new provinces in India and Pakistan in May 2019, territory formerly under ISKP’s purview; and, in June 2020, appointed the zealous Shahab al-Muhajir – who was previously associated with the Haqqani Network and planned urban attacks in Kabul for ISKP – as ISKP’s new wali, as the incumbent Aslam Farooqi was captured. 

ISKP’s Contemporary Operational Capabilities

Contemporarily, the organisation can count on a number of foreign fighters who have been smuggled into the country. The organisation has a strength of between 2000 and 4000 fighters spread across the provinces of Kabul, Nangahar, Kunar, Jowzjan, Paktia, Kunduz, and Herat, areas in which the organisation has claimed attacks.

Though when analysing ISKP’s current capabilities and operational organisation, it is possible to argue that ISKP is going towards a period development and readjustment due to Afghanistan’s changing landscape amidst the withdrawal of the US-led coalition. These changes can be both an opportunity and a risk for the organisation. Until 2020 (and illustrated above), ISKP was threatened by the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the US-led coalition, and the now-defunct Afghan government. By a tacit consensus, the three were able to repress the group and dislodge it from their main areas of influence which worked as a catalytic for fundraising

Since the US withdrawal and the Taliban takeover, the landscape has profoundly changed. There are two key elements to consider. First, Afghanistan remains one of the most prominent theatres of jihad, disproportionately increasing the number of foreign fighters moving to the country. For instance, al-Qaeda has encouraged its members to relocate to Afghanistan from Syria and Iraq, while IS has smuggled key leaders into the country. Secondly, the power and security vacuum left will consequently cause instability that ISKP aims to capitalise on. This has resulted in an increased number of attacks since the beginning of 2021. ISKP conducted 77 attacks only in the first 4 months of the year, with the most known being the attack at the airport in Kabul, which killed 170 civilians and 13 US Marines. Similarly, it is unclear if the Taliban will be able to stabilise the country and provide basic necessities to the population. This instability provides ISKP with an opportunity to gain more traction among the population, gain more recruits in their fight against the Taliban, and plan new international attacks from Afghanistan – as they have done until recently.

ISKP’s Ideological Threat

Islamic State Khorasan Province’s (ISKP’s) security threat – both to the Taliban’s governance and internal integrity and to the international community – is not only manifested in their capabilities but also their ideology. ISKP is a Salafi-jihadistmovement whose goal is to establish a global Caliphate through armed struggle. With this purpose, ISKP follows the teaching of two Salafi scholars, Ibn Taymiyyah and Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahab, who supported purist visions of Islam and the necessity of Sharia lawTakfiri strategy is their modus operandi that, similarly to other jihadist groups, allows them to kill all those Muslims declared as kafir, meaning “apostate”. Not accepting their same extremist ideology is enough to be labelled as such. Considering this, ISKP rejects the Taliban government and its rules.

ISKP has a transnational and all-encompassing goal, unlike the Taliban which they consider as a “nationalist movement” with an “impure” ideology. The latter is a pivotal factor when considering its success over the larger audience. This group does not only focus on the region – the “Near Enemy” – but adopts a global jihad mentality in which the West is seen as an urgent target to destroy. Another difference with the Taliban, which is consequential to the first, relies on its relationship with the United States (US). ISKP has always condemned the presence of this foreign power on Afghan territory while the 2020 US-Taliban peace deal represented a huge occasion for this faction to delegitimise its counterpart.

ISKP is a threat not only to the Taliban’s renewed governance in Afghanistan but its internal integrity. ISKP is very effective in winning the “hearts and minds” of its followers because of a variety factors. Furthermore, it takes advantage of the fractures inside other jihadist groups, awards compensations to its followers, and employs several platforms to spread its propaganda, such as through Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, and its radio channel, “The Voice of the Khilafat”. These virtual channels are fundamental when waging global jihad, they are the main, and sometimes also the only means to incite and attract recruiters abroad

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