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Climate Change or Terrorism: Which is the True Existential Threat?

Climate change is “the most severe problem that we are facing today—more serious even than the threat of terrorism”.

So said the then UK Chief Scientific Adviser, David King back in 2004.

It’s a view that’s been echoed by, among others, President Obama in this year’s State of the Union address.

Eleven years on, King’s comment came to mind as the UK parliament debated and approved air strikes on Islamic State in Syria at the same time as delegates from more than 190 countries were meeting at the UN climate summit in Paris to try to agree a deal to prevent catastrophic climate change.

The Syria vote took up many more column inches than the goings on in Paris despite the presence of world leaders, including Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at the opening of the summit.

Polls in Britain about the most important issues facing the World, indicate terrorism is seen as a much greater threat than global warming. It also seems public concern about climate change has declined since the last disappointing key UN climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009.

Why should this be when the scientific consensus is that unless the world takes measures now global temperatures will rise by more than 2 degrees and cause catastrophic changes in the climate that will pose a grave threat to all of humanity?

Some climate scientists think it’s partly their fault. They believe they gave people the impression climate change would be more dramatic and also that it may be too late to do much about it. But climate change is likely to be gradual and psychology suggests if people think they can’t do much about something, they will most likely carry on as usual.

But political leaders and the media also bear some responsibility.

When there is a terrorist attack, there is frequent talk about terrorism as an existential threat.

Prime Minister, David Cameron, himself has said he believes IS is an “existential threat” to the UK.

According to the dictionary “existential” means “relating to existence”. So an “existential threat” to the UK is something that threatens the very survival of the country.

Does the Prime Minister really believe IS poses a threat to Britain’s national survival in the same way Nazi Germany did in 1940?

Surely not?

But he is not alone in using this language – other politicians and media commentators have also liberally used the cliché – and it is bound to have an impact on public perceptions.

Anecdotally, I know well-informed people who agree with this assessment of the scale of the IS threat and dismiss climate change as exaggerated – when it is precisely the other way round.

The frog in boiling water is the analogy that’s used to explain the lack of urgency about taking action to combat global warming. Then there’s the fact that because climate science is developing all the time, there is always an element of uncertainty about it, even if the broad trends are clear.

However, there’s already evidence that climate change will disrupt our way of life and threaten the existence of states.

The Pentagon and other defence ministries now recognise climate change as a threat to national security and see it as a driver of conflict.

One of the causes of the unrest that led to Syria’s devastating civil war that may well end in the permanent disintegration of the country was prolonged drought and it’s very likely climate change was a cause of that drought. It’s this research Prince Charles was referring to in a recent interview with Sky News when he grabbed headlines by suggesting a link between terrorism and climate change.

The conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region, which the UN estimates has killed around 300,000 and displaced almost 3 million, has also been linked to drought caused by long-term changes in climate.

Another problem when it comes to public perceptions of the two is that while terrorist attacks are sudden and shocking – that is the whole point of them in the eyes of the people carrying them out – climate change is incremental.

We humans also seem to find it far easier to empathise with the relatively small numbers of victims of sudden random violence than we do the large numbers whose lives are threatened by an creeping menace like climate change.

I don’t intend to diminish the impact terrorism has on its victims and their loved ones.

If you are unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity of a terrorist attack then it is an existential threat to you.

But, unless you live in a handful of countries like Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia or Afghanistan,terrorism is not a threat to the future of your country. It’s also not a threat to human existence. Climate change, on the other hand, probably is.

The (Soft) Power That Daren’t Speak Its Name

 

This week the BBC – used as it is to brickbats from Tory politicians – got a rare bit of good news from the government.

As part of his early turn as Father Christmas, Chancellor George Osborne allocated £289 million to the World Service over the next five years to pay for new services to places like North Korea and Eritrea.

This partially reversed his 2010 decision that the BBC’s international broadcasting would no longer be paid for by a grant from the Foreign Office, but out of the Licence Fee.

BBC Director General, Tony Hall, welcomed the deal as the single biggest increase in funding for the World Service by any government ever.

Despite these warm words from the Corporation, caution would be advised in the corridors – or open plan offices – of Broadcasting House.

Strikingly, the announcement came not in the Chancellor’s Spending Review but in the Strategic Defence and Security Review a couple of days earlier.

What has the World Service got to do with security and defence, you may ask.

The answer lies in politics and international diplomacy.

Many Conservative MPs – even ones who don’t like the BBC on principle because it is publicly funded – like the World Service.

That’s partly because of the feel good factor from when they travel abroad and the people they meet say complimentary things about something British.

But it’s also because politicians have come to appreciate that the World Service is a major soft power asset to the UK.

In a nutshell, soft power is the ability to get people to do what you want by the power of attraction rather than by forcing them.

In many international comparisons of soft power the UK comes near the top of the table – and one of the things that people in other countries like about Britain is the BBC.

By being a high quality, independent source of news that is respected by audiences around the world, the BBC reflects well on the UK and represents the democratic values politicians like to say the country stands for.

The thing about soft power though is that it is hard earned and easily squandered.

It’s a bit like the diplomatic equivalent of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in physics. Because of the scepticism of politicians and governments shared by many people around the world, the more visibly governments try to build up and wield their soft power the less effective it is.

Just ask the Chinese government. It spends billions on international broadcasting but it hasn’t made much difference to its soft power – because it’s perceived as propaganda.

By overtly linking funding for the BBC to the UK’s soft power in the Strategic Defence and Security Review, the government risks undermining the BBC’s reputation for independence and impartiality from the state – precisely what makes it attractive and popular with audiences around the world.

Of course the government’s intention in funding the World Service from its beginnings before the Second World War was always to increase British influence in the world, but when I first started working at World Service in the late 1980s it wasn’t something you talked about in those bald terms and certainly not much in public.

But times have changed and now Tony Hall himself made the link in his statement welcoming the new money.

“The World Service is one of the UK’s most important cultural exports and one of our best sources of global influence.” (my emphasis).

Indeed, pressure on funding has led the BBC down the path of pitching for more money by trying to leverage its contribution to the country’s soft power.

Take the BBC’s proposed new service for North Korea. There has been a small but persistent lobby in parliament for a Korean Service for years, but the BBC had always resisted this on the grounds it wouldn’t be cost effective because not many North Koreans would be able to hear it given jamming and strict controls on radio sales.

Despite the advent of digital and online, the same applies today as access to the internet in the country is highly restricted.

The danger is that if the BBC aligns itself too closely and too publicly with the government’s foreign policy goals and ministers talk about the BBC as part of the country’s security strategy, people abroad may come to distrust it, which in turn could mean the BBC’s influence – and its audience – will decline.

There’s a scene in Ridley Scott’s epic “Gladiator” when the Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, is talking about the danger his ideals may not survive his death.

“There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish… it was so fragile. And I fear that it will not survive the winter.”

The words may come from a movie, but the BBC and the government should take heed.

 

IS: The Limits of Conventional Wisdom

Would Islamic State have attacked Paris twice this year killing almost 150 people if France weren’t bombing it in Iraq and Syria?

Would IS have blown up an airliner killing 229 Russian tourists and aircrew, if Moscow had not intervened in Syria?

Would IS have bombed Shi’ite suburbs of Beirut killing at least 43 if Hezbollah was not fighting alongside President Assad’s forces?

Would IS have launched attacks in Turkey killing 134 peace protesters if Ankara had not turned against it over Syria?

I’m not asking these questions to imply the victims of these attacks somehow brought it on themselves.

I’m asking because as President Hollande said this week his country is “at war” with IS – it has been since it started air strikes against its forces last year – and in a war you are likely to get attacked.

I’m also asking because when IS – or ISIL or ISIS or Daesh – hit world headlines by seizing Iraq’s second city, Mosul, last year, the conventional wisdom among the experts and analysts was that IS was a different kind of threat from al Qaeda – whose signature is mass casualty terrorist attacks anywhere it finds a target, like the 9/11 attacks in the US or the Bali bombing.

It may have emerged out of al-Qaeda in Iraq, but the argument went that ISIS – the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – was what it said on the tin – an organisation dedicated to carving out a state from those two countries.

It followed from there that IS was fighting a more conventional style war with the aim of capturing territory. Sure it used terror against its enemies by publicising on social media the atrocities it carried out when it occupied towns and took prisoners – be they regular Iraqi troops or Yezidi women and girls – but it was not interested in attacking targets further afield.

If this was a correct reading of IS then, we now know only too well it isn’t anymore.

It is tempting to see IS attacks outside Syria and Iraq as a direct response to the intervention of foreign forces against it that began after the fall of Mosul and its advances across the border in Syria.

But one of the first such incidents linked to IS was the attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014 – before the fall of Mosul and several months before the US-led campaign against it began.

Whatever motivated the change in tactics by IS, the conventional wisdom has been proved to be very wrong.

With the escalation of terrorist strikes and the shock of its assault in the heart of a major western capital, the focus is on how to eradicate the Islamist group.

Here another piece of conventional wisdom comes in – that destroying Islamic State in Syria and Iraq can be achieved, but only by using large numbers of ground troops.

Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by US air strikes have had some success and recently retook the town of Sinjar. But the Iraqi army and its Shia militia allies have made heavy weather of retaking Ramadi and the much-awaited offensive to retake Mosul is still to get underway. They clearly need reinforcements though where they may come from is not clear.

But is this wisdom also flawed?

Is there the danger the defeat of IS in Syria and Iraq would see it resorting to more mass casualty attacks in the region and beyond?

Remember, after 9/11, the overthrow of its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan didn’t prevent al Qaeda and its followers around the world carrying out further terrorist attacks, including Europe’s worst to date: the 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed more than 190 people as they travelled to work.

The challenge many European countries face is that they have quite a few young Muslim citizens who are attracted to Islamist ideology.

This seems to be because they are deeply alienated from mainstream society and deeply angry about what they see as their countries’ policies towards the Muslim world.

But being attracted to the ideology and carrying out acts of terrorist violence for the cause are two different things.

What makes some people take to bombing and shooting their fellow citizens is not yet well enough understood. The studies that have been done suggest it’s a complex combination of societal and psychological factors as well as ideology.

Whatever the precise triggers, European countries, like France and Britain, are grappling with a volatile mix – the legacy of their imperial past in the Middle East and North Africa added to recent policies in the region which have angered substantial numbers of alienated young Muslim men and women.

The final ingredient – the detonator – seems to be the appeal of groups like IS offering what to these young people may appear a romantic cause of fighting to restore a glorious past – in this case the Caliphate.

So alongside more effective security measures and increased vigilance from ordinary people, to stop further attacks European countries need to take a deep breath, not overreact to Paris, and try to address the causes of Islamist violence.

So far the prospects don’t look good.

The French and British governments are both proposing changes that will enhance powers that will restrict people’s freedom.

Yet, French politicians and commentators have echoed their counterparts in Britain and other countries that have suffered Islamist-inspired violence by saying the terrorists’ target is the European way of life. So, surely the worst response would be to resort to unreasonable restrictions on people’s rights and freedoms in the name of defeating IS?

If this is partly an ideological struggle, that would be conceding valuable ground.

 

There’s More to Democracy Than Elections

Burma has just held its freest election in decades with the international media in attendance focusing on happy voters and the landslide for Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy.

The optimistic mood has been boosted by the reaction of the military’s proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party of President Thein Sein, which has run the country since the last – less than free – vote five years ago. Although all the results are yet to be declared, Thein Sein has already congratulated Aung San Suu Kyi on the NLD’s performance.

The President has been followed by the Commander in Chief of the armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing, who promised the military – which has run Burma for most of the past six decades – would cooperate with the new government.

The impression is that despite some bumps along the way the reforms started by Thein Sein in 2010 when he released Aung San Suu Kyi from years of house arrest are on course to return Burma to the democracy it was before the army first seized power in 1962.

I don’t want to rain on anybody’s parade, but if you need evidence that there’s more to democracy than elections, Burma may be about to provide it.

Despite the encouraging noises since Sunday’s election, the constitution entrenches military influence in the political system. A quarter of seats in parliament are reserved for officers and the National Defence and Security Council retains the power to remove the government.

Over the years, the Burmese armed forces have trained many more officers than it has needed and many of them have taken off their uniforms and are now prominent in business and other areas and, by and large, they remain loyal to the military’s ethos.

Astute Burmese and knowledgeable foreigners have dubbed the reform process the military’s retirement plan.

Then – perhaps surprisingly to many – there is growing doubt about Aung San Suu Kyi herself.

The defiance of the military dictatorship that saw her kept under house arrest for 15 years won her a Nobel Peace Prize and iconic status as a symbol of democracy among ordinary Burmese and around the world, where she was compared to Nelson Mandela.

But unlike Mandela, who was able retain his iconic status while also being president of his country, Suu Kyi has not shown the same ability to combine politics with moral leadership.

In an attempt to realise her ambition to lead her country she has made many compromises with the military in return for being released, allowed to run for parliament and win a by-election in 2012.

Her freedom helped ease the country’s isolation from western powers and avoid over dependence on neighbouring China, which was one of Thein Sein’s main objectives. But if she expected the military to return the favour and amend the constitution they’d written so she could become President – she is currently prevented because her children were born in Britain – she must have been sorely disappointed.

So it’s perhaps understandable that since the election she has said that whoever the NLD chooses to be President, she will be above them – understandable, but not particularly edifying.

She went on to tell the BBC the constitution won’t stop her “making all the decisions as the leader of the winning party”.

This is not simply loose language. It tallies with her whole approach to leading the NLD.

She takes a regal approach to her followers. There is little debate over key decisions, little delegation to those below her and, by all appearances, no attempt to bring on the next generation of leaders in the party – remember Suu Kyi is already 70.

There is also her attitude to the plight of the Rohingya minority.

They are Muslims of Bengali descent who live in the west of the country and are subject to widespread discrimination and even denied full citizenship. Since the country started opening up, many have also been victims of communal attacks from Buddhist chauvinists and driven from their homes to live in camps or risk their lives fleeing to neighbouring countries in rickety boats.

Aung San Suu Kyi – in order to avoid alienating Buddhist voters – has been mealy-mouthed about condemning all this. In an interview two years ago she even appeared to sympathise with Buddhist fears that “global Muslim power” as she put it “is very great”.

This matters because democracies are societies characterised by tolerance – tolerance not just of different political views, but also of ethnic and religious diversity and Suu Kyi is failing to set an example. If anything, she is reinforcing intolerance and an authoritarian approach to political leadership.

This clearly hasn’t harmed her standing with Burmese voters, but it has made a mockery of the Mandela comparisons and tarnished her image among former supports abroad. Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch went as far as to tweet ahead of the election “if only she were as principled as popular. Shh, please don’t say Rohingya”

Suu Kyi is very much her father’s daughter. General Aung San led the struggle for independence from Britain, but he was assassinated six months before his dream was realised. She has the ambition to go one better and lead the country – even if it means making deals with the men who have imprisoned and tortured thousands and impoverished a country that was once one of the richest in South East Asia.

Whether Burma goes on to become more truly democratic or goes down the track of authoritarian oligarchy seen in other countries emerging from military or one-party rule will depend to a large extent on the choices made in the coming months and years by the military, the officers who’ve shed their uniforms and Aung San Suu Kyi’s newly empowered NLD.

Despite the historic election, optimism may prove to be misplaced.

 

 

Saudi Arabia: Going Rogue

We haven’t heard much about rogue states since George W Bush’s tenure in the White House ended, but maybe the term should be revived and applied to one of America’s closest allies – Saudi Arabia.

The talks on Syria in Vienna have finally got all the relevant international players around the table with Iran taking part along with the Saudis. Following the deal over Tehran’s nuclear programme, the US no longer had a good reason to refuse to talk to the Iranians and as Assad’s main backers they are crucial to making any progress.

So far so good.

But Saudi Arabia seems to have been doing its upmost to provoke the Iranians into walking out.

Ahead of the talks, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, gave media interviews saying Iran had to accept Syrian President Assad’s removal – interesting, given how Saudi diplomats are usually pretty media shy.

Then when the talks started it appears al Jubeir went out of his way to provoke his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, and there was a blazing row.

Under King Salman’s predecessors, Saudi Arabia pursued a cautious foreign policy and shunned the limelight.

No longer.

Although King Abdullah did send troops into neighbouring Bahrain in 2011 during the so-called Arab Spring to put down unrest among the country’s Shia majority, since his successor ascended to the throne in January this year he has taken this regional activism to a different level.

Salman appointed his favourite son, the young and inexperienced, Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud, Defence Minister. The Saudis promptly launched a direct military intervention in the civil war over the country’s southern border in Yemen. With air and some ground forces, the Saudis are leading an alliance of Sunni states trying to crush the Shi’ite Houthi rebels the Saudis accuse of being Iranian proxies.

Many of the more than 4,500 civilians killed so far in the fighting have died in air strikes and recently – in a gruesome rerun of what happened last month in Afghanistan – a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital was hit. The UN says 39 medical facilities have been struck – and possible war crimes committed – in Yemen since the intervention started, although the Saudis deny they are responsible.

Saudi-led forces have imposed a blockade on Yemen though and according to the UN, this is causing a humanitarian crisis as almost 13 million people – half the population – are now short of food, medicine and fuel.

Credible reports indicate the new Saudi government also escalated support – in arms and money – for Syrian rebel groups, including those allied to the al Qaeda-affiliated al Nusra Front. This is thought to have been crucial to the rebel advance which led to Russia’s intervention to prop up President Assad in September.

The new Saudi leadership, unnerved by the prospect of US rapprochement with Iran following the nuclear deal and angered by President Obama’s sudden U-turn in 2013 when he called off American military strikes on Assad’s forces at the last minute, has become markedly less pliant to US wishes.

Like Washington’s other close ally in the region, Israel, Saudi Arabia is doing its own thing and Obama, faced with a determined friend, seems largely content to let the tail wag the dog.

The Americans have turned a blind eye to Saudi links to rebels Washington doesn’t consider “moderate” enough to merit its own backing. The US has also supplied arms and intelligence to support Riyadh’s campaign in Yemen.

While Washington says Assad’s use of indiscriminate force against civilians has put him beyond the pale, the moral and diplomatic credibility of its position is undermined by its failure to oppose what the Saudis are up to around the region.

Try a little exercise. Imagine what President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry would have said and done if it were Iran launching air strikes on Yemen and blockading its ports.

If the US is serious about restoring stability to the Middle East and protecting the rights of civilians there, it should be reining in the Saudis in Yemen, not aiding and abetting them.

On Syria, the Americans should take the Saudis to one side and make it clear to them they should play nice at the talks so as not to extinguish the glimmer of hope for political progress that’s appeared since Russia intervened directly in the conflict.

Sailing by: Trouble in The South China Sea

Most eyes may still be on Syria as the epicentre of global tension, but the temperature just rose in South China Sea too where several countries, including China, lay claim to the same waters.

The much-previewed US challenge to China’s claims has finally taken place with an American navy warship sailing within 12 nautical miles of one of the artificial islands Beijing has built in the disputed waters of the Spratly, or Nansha, archipelago.

Chinese naval vessels shadowed the US ship and warned it off, but no clash took place – this time.  China’s navy commander has warned his counterpart of the danger of an accidental war if the Americans do it again.

The American move comes just a few weeks after President Obama gave President Xi the red carpet treatment in Washington. So what’s going on?

The US was demonstrating that it doesn’t recognise China’s extensive claims in the South China Sea.

It also insists it doesn’t take sides over Beijing’s disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, which also claim parts of the Sea.

To try to substantiate this, the US patrol also passed through areas claimed by Hanoi and Manila, but as Washington has been distinctly quiet over the island-building activities of other countries, which pre-dated China’s, it is clear the Americans are only really bothered by the Chinese.

The Pentagon characterised the patrol by the USS Lassen as “routine”, but given the months of discussion and open hinting by Washington that it would carry out such a patrol, it clearly wasn’t.

There are other inconsistencies in the US position too, although both Beijing and Washington are being disingenuous.

The Pentagon describes the patrol as a Freedom of Navigation exercise to demonstrate that its ships can sail wherever international law and customary practice allow.

But despite its extensive claims in the South China Sea, there is no evidence China is threatening that freedom. In fact, given the dependence of its economy on trade and energy imports passing through the Sea, it is not in Beijing’s interest to do so.

By sailing close to one of China’s artificial islands, the Americans were seeking to utilise one of the clauses of the international treaty governing use of the seas – UNCLOS, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The only problem is the US itself has never ratified UNCLOS.

If Washington is concerned about establishing the right of freedom of navigation for its ships, a more effective and consistent way to do it would be to push the Senate to ratify the treaty.

This patrol was less about international law than raw power. Everybody, including of course China, knows the US did it to show that it can and to show the Chinese it is still boss on the water to try to deter Beijing from consolidating its extensive claims in the region.

As for China, it is a party to UNCLOS, but its position is also flawed.

Beijing denounced the sail-by as “illegal”, but under the Convention it wasn’t.

China has also shown a lack of regard for UNCLOS by refusing to take part in arbitration with the Philippines under the Convention – a refusal that has not had the desired effect of preventing the Permanent Court of Arbitration from allowing the case to go ahead.

Chinese officials say Beijing has built the artificial islands – seven in the past year – to provide airfields and docking facilities to support disaster relief operations in the typhoon-prone region.

That is valid as far as it goes, but by asserting the 12-mile limit around these installations, China is also clearly using them to advance its territorial claims.

If it wants to uphold the international law it says is essential for maintaining peace, China should agree to talks to settle these claims by compromise as it has done on several of its land borders. Instead, it says it wants to agree a code of conduct to manage relations in the South China Sea with its South East Asian neighbours, but talks on that have yet to yield any fruit.

This has led to rising tensions, particularly between China and the Philippines and Vietnam, both of which have turned to Washington for support, giving the US another reason for its challenge to Chinese claims – to show its friends it can be relied on when push comes to shove.

Although, Chinese and American officers have been talking about ways of reducing the risk of accidental clashes on the sea and in the air, more is needed if the two sides want to avoid getting into a shooting war.

A better course would be for China to sit down with its rival claimants and settle their maritime borders – and for the US to leave them to it.

As things stand this is unlikely to happen.

Beijing shows no appetite for multilateral talks and despite Washington’s lip service to the changing global order, the US attempt to stop its allies joining Chinese-led initiatives, like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, shows it has still not been able to truly accept that the rise of China means it has to treat Beijing as more of a military and diplomatic equal.

As much as anything else this is what lies behind the US Navy sail-by, which instead of encouraging compromise over the South China Sea, is only stoking further tension.

Britain’s China Debate: Does It Have To Be So Binary?

It was hard to miss that President Xi Jinping of China was in Britain this week being given the full red carpet treatment including dinner at Buckingham Palace and addressing parliament at Westminster.

Of course the visit was accompanied by a lot of discussion and analysis of the relationship between the two countries. It’s a debate that is welcome and necessary, but does it have to be so binary?

Rather than coming to us in glorious 3D, it’s been in limited 2D: in one corner it’s business and in the other human rights.

Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne – who recently toured China himself – clearly have a business agenda. They gave Xi the pomp of a sate visit, which will help his image back home, because they want cash-rich Beijing to invest in modernising Britain’s infrastructure.

The need to raise money means they are even prepared to brave American disapproval and put security concerns to one side (even if the technology is actually French) and sign a deal for a Chinese state firm to invest in new nuclear power stations.

They also want to boost trade and get China to use the City as the main centre for the growing international trade in its Renminbi currency.

The government’s critics, including one of Cameron’s former advisers, had a field day with accusations that it had gone soft on human rights and was kowtowing to China.

Human rights groups understandably were critical on this front. It’s their raison d’etre after all.

But in the extensive press and online commentary a more nuanced approach has been relatively hard to find, although as you might expect, the leading think tank, Chatham House, produced some of the more sophisticated analysis.

No doubt, President Xi could be forgiven quiet satisfaction that the country that started what the Chinese call the century of humiliation of foreign invasion by forcing its way into China in the 1839-42 Opium War, is now coming to them cap in hand.

Xi also dealt comfortably with human rights issues when they were raised, for instance in his meeting with Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn. In a press conference, the Chinese leader gave what is now Beijing’s boilerplate response that human rights in his country are in need of improvement but this will be done in line with “Chinese conditions”.

China’s human rights record is undoubtedly poor, but then no country’s, including Britain’s, is pristine.

Reading much of the commentary calling on London to be more forceful on human rights brought to mind the biblical quote “he that is without sin … let him first cast a stone …”

Western criticism of China’s record is also often selective, failing to encompass the full panoply of rights, which include economic and social rights, as well as the individual political and civil rights emphasised in the West. This leads to China’s success in lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty being discounted.

An alternative approach would be to frame pressure on China – or any country for that matter – to improve its record by trying to hold its leaders to their commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which they themselves are signed up to.

But the relationship between Britain and China should be about more than either business or human rights.

There are a host of issues Britain and China need to engage on.

The two countries are permanent members of the UN Security Council and the World is in dire need of more international cooperation to try to end conflicts and prevent others breaking out.

Britain was right to defy American pressure and be the first western country to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The West has long been telling China its new-found wealth and power mean it has to do more for the international community and shunning the AIIB would have sent the message that Beijing is only really welcome as a follower rather than a leader.

Climate change is another pressing concern where the two countries play a crucial international role. Despite the recent backsliding by London, Britain is a centre of research, technology and advocacy for cutting carbon emissions and China has invested billions in clean energy and is now committed to reducing the greenhouse gases it produces.

Where the critics of Cameron and Osborne have a point is in the naiveté of their approach.

On his recent trip to China, Osborne chose to visit the western region of Xinjiang – a controversial choice given the China’s ongoing crackdown on protest and violence by the local Uighur population. The Chancellor ended up being praised by the official press for his pragmatism and criticised by Uighur groups.

So why is London willing to risk offending its main ally in Washington and appear craven in its attempt to win favour in Beijing? After all, both the US and Germany have strong economic links and broad diplomatic engagement with China, including on human rights.

The answer lies in the failure to establish a stable and consistent relationship with Beijing.

Since the return of Hong Kong to China, Britain has had a fitful approach and the present government seems to believe London has lost out to Berlin and others in capturing a share of the Chinese market.

In their very haste to catch up and the urgency they attach to attracting investment, Cameron and Osborne are prepared to ignore criticism – and I suspect the advice of their diplomats – and downplay human rights and wider foreign policy considerations to put their emphasis on the purely pecuniary dimension of relations with the Chinese.

Media Interest in Refugees May Have Peaked … the Influx Hasn’t

Children are still paying with their lives trying to get to the EU, but it’s no longer front page news.

Since the beginning of last month when the photograph of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach shocked Europeans – public and politicians alike – into grasping the plight of the thousands of refugees on the move from Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan and elsewhere in Africa, more than 40 more children have died.

Men and women are also continuing to lose their lives.

In total, the International Organisation for Migration estimates 3,000 people have died so far this year and the influx is not expected to slow any time soon despite the onset of winter, which will make the trek even more dangerous.

But much of the media has moved on to other stories and the refugees have slipped out of the headlines and down running orders as journalists focus on what they see as fresher news.

The issue briefly returned to the headlines as EU leaders met to agree a grand bargain with Turkey of more aid and visa liberalisation for Turks in exchange for better control of the refugee flow, but the reporting was focused more on the political deal-making than the continuing plight of the refugees.

When challenged, the argument you’ll hear in newsrooms will be that the refugee flows aren’t really news anymore.

It is a common failing. Unable to come up with fresh angles on a story, editors tend to move on and forget to follow up on stories only a few weeks before they couldn’t seem to get enough of.

With the direct intervention of Russia in the war in Syria at the end of September catching many off guard, including most journalists and commentators, the media returned its attention to what is happening on the battlefield.

The people fleeing the conflict have been of less interest, which is an odd omission given the fact that Russia’s military action backing a new government offensive and the response of the US and Saudi Arabia of increasing support for the rebels only makes it likely even more people will flee and add to the refugee flow.

Missing the obvious, with a few exceptions, media outlets are failing to draw their readers’ and audiences’ attention to the link between the man-made humanitarian catastrophe that is the Syrian civil war, the failure of many European states to contribute adequately to the aid operations for refugees in the neighbouring countries, and people making the decision to leave their life and livelihoods behind to seek refuge away from the bombs and bullets.

So should more of the media have stayed with the story?

While most journalists insist they are not campaigners and they are neutral reporters of events, editors in western countries make much of their role as the fourth estate; the guardians of democracy.

But a democracy can only be healthy when citizens – the voters – are well informed about the key issues their political representatives are grappling with.

The refugee influx is one such issue. The numbers are unprecedented in most Europeans’ lifetimes – not since the aftermath of World War Two has the continent seen so many people on the move.

And although many ordinary Europeans, aid organisations and governments have been trying to help the people arriving by road and by sea, we have also witnessed the less noble side of many on the continent who have resorted to spreading rumour and misinformation for their own ends.

The Hungarian government went as far as to stir up anti-refugee sentiment by stuffing scaremongering leaflets through their citizens’ letterboxes. British tabloids have conflated the people seeking asylum with economic migrants to burnish their attacks on the government over immigration. Even in Germany, which along with Sweden has stood out as one of the most sympathetic countries, far right extremists have attacked refugee reception centres.

If European publics are ill-informed about who the refugees are and why they are coming – that they are ordinary people like themselves who’ve been forced to flee their homes – they are less likely to support decisions made by politicians to share the burden of offering asylum and to increase aid to the chronically underfunded relief operation supporting people displaced by conflict.

Charities and NGOs will also find it harder to raise money for the same cause and that in turn could well mean more people attempting the journey to Europe.

Given the refugees are going to keep on coming for the foreseeable future and governments are already struggling to cope with the numbers, the media will be failing in their role as the fourth estate and failing their readers and audiences if they continue to let their interest in the story fade.

If they think their readers and audiences are zoning out, journalists need to find fresh ways to report and explain the whys and wherefores of the influx and to hold politicians to account for the way they have dealt with both the refugees arriving and the reasons they are fleeing their homes.

Russia: Anything You Can Do ….

Watching Russia’s military intervention in Syria unfold has taken me back to my secondary school days when we put on the musical Annie Get Your Gun.

You may remember it from its best-known song “Anything you can do” and with the Russians carrying our air strikes in support of Syrian ground forces and using cruise missiles launched from ships in the far-off Caspian Sea, Moscow seems to be sending that same message to Washington

Where the US used its air power to help the Kosovo Liberation Army against Serbian forces in 1999 and give the Northern Alliance the edge against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, and where the US Navy used cruise missiles against Iraq, Serbia and Libya, the Russians seem to be using their Syria campaign to put down a marker and demonstrate the US and its NATO allies aren’t the only ones who have such capabilities.

And it is not just in military prowess that President Putin is showing he can do at least some of the things the US and NATO have pretty much had a monopoly on up to now.

More significantly, Moscow is showing that when the US decided to disregard the niceties of international law and the rules-based international system it did so much to establish after 1945, it set a dangerous precedent others would follow.

There has been quite a bit of commentary in western outlets about how Russia’s actions expose the relative decline of US power and also President Obama’s unwillingness to exercise the considerable power the US undoubtedly still possesses.

Russia’s Syria intervention is being seen as evidence that Putin is taking advantage of the unwillingness and inability of the US to lead and we are now living in a G-Zero world where power is exercised – by those who have it – in the pursuit of national interests rather than the common good.

But this analysis is missing some key points.

While it’s true US power is in relative decline and Obama has been reticent in using the conventional military on a large-scale – though not drones and special forces – the US itself is partly responsible for undermining the international order it criticises Russia for flouting.

From the 1989 invasion of Panama, through its disregard for the UN in the 1999 assault on Serbia, to Iraq in 2003, the Americans showed that when rules got in the way of what they wanted to do, they would be bent or just ignored – hence, former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright’s self-serving formulation of the Kosovo intervention as “not legal but … right”.

The US response to Russian criticism over its manipulation of international law has been to argue each case is unique or “sui generis” and to insist it hasn’t set a precedent.

Unfortunately, Washington doesn’t get to decide what sets a precedent and what doesn’t. And since 2007, Putin seems to have decided that while continuing to publicly argue for the primacy of international law, Russia would use American conduct to justify its own actions.

When it went to war with Georgia in 2008 over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and subsequently recognised their independence from Tbilisi, Russia justified its action as humanitarian intervention and cited what the US and NATO had done in Kosovo.

Putin’s justification for annexing Crimea also cited previous western actions.

In entering the Syrian conflict, Putin’s case is more clear cut under international law given he was invited in by President Assad, who heads what is still recognised by the UN as the government of Syria, though we are yet to see if the conduct of the Russian campaign conforms to the laws of war.

If the world is to bolster the international system and establish a semblance of stability, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, where let’s not forget a Saudi-led Gulf alliance has also taken a leaf out of the US book by intervening in Yemen’s civil war (and I’m surprised Moscow hasn’t cited this yet as another precedent for its actions in Syria), then a starting point would be to return to diplomacy over Syria.

An international system based on rules, rather then “might is right”, requires that all the international players, especially the US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, swallow their pride and sit down together to thrash out a political solution that isolates the extremists of Islamic State and al-Nusra and ends Syria’s war and the suffering of its people.

With Russia escalating its attacks, NATO making angry noises at Moscow and Saudi Arabia talking about increasing support for the rebels, as things stand it doesn’t look like they’re willing to do this, so we continue on down the rocky road to a G-Zero world.

Syria: Russia opens a window of opportunity?

In the fog of claim and counter claim over the real target of Russian air strikes in Syria one thing is clear: Russia’s direct intervention is intensifying the war and that means even more civilian deaths and more refugees fleeing to neighbouring states and Europe.

It’s estimated 250,000 Syrians have been killed and 12 million forced to flee in more than four years of fighting.

So you’d think another foreign power intervening is the last thing Syria needs.

But, depending how others respond, President Putin may have opened a window of opportunity to move towards a political settlement of this confused and confusing conflict.

Russia has joined a growing list of foreign players backing different sides in what is now a four-sided battle between the Syrian government, so called moderate rebels, the Kurds and Islamist insurgents.

Fighting alongside President Assad are Iran, its Shia Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, and now Russia, who’ve sent forces to help prop up a Syrian army short of troops.

Then there are the air forces from the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Turkey, Canada, Australia and now France, which joined the fight the same week as the Russians. They are attacking Islamic State, which controls a fair chunk of Syria as well as neighbouring Iraq.

These US-led air strikes are supposed to help the moderate rebels and Kurds, who are fighting IS as well as Assad’s forces.

IS itself originated over the border in Iraq and is estimated to have recruited up to 30,000 foreign fighters from all over the world.

As well as all these international players stoking the flames, the war has dragged on into its fifth year because there’s no international consensus on how to end it.

What began as civil war also quickly became a proxy war between Iran, which is Assad’s key backer, and its Sunni Arab rival Saudi Arabia, which saw an opportunity to remove Tehran’s long-standing ally from power.

Along the way, the varied anti-Assad rebel groups picked up different sponsors with different agendas. In addition to those backed by the Saudis, some were supported by Qatar, some by Turkey, others by the US.

UN efforts to broker a peace deal have been undermined from the start by the failure of the US and Russia to agree on President Assad’s future.

Washington and its western allies made the mistake of assuming Assad wouldn’t last long, so very early on they insisted he could have no role in a settlement.

When he didn’t fall, it left the western powers with little room to manoeuvre between an embarrassing climb-down over Assad or continued, if half-hearted, backing for the rebels.

Despite some signs he may now be prepared to agree a transitional role for the Syrian leader, President Obama can’t yet bring himself to eat the necessary humble pie.

So how could Russia’s intervention open the way to talks?

Moscow says it has entered the war to support the Syrian government’s fight against Islamist terrorists and says its objective is the same as Washington’s.

Except as things stand it isn’t – unless Putin and Obama can break the deadlock over the future of Assad.

Clear strategic thinking is required in Washington and other western capitals.

They need to decide whether their priority is the defeat of Islamic State or getting rid of Assad. Given they decided not to intervene militarily against the Syrian leader but did so against IS, it is safe to assume the defeat of the latter is more important to them. So it’s time policy matched priorities.

In his speech to the UN, Putin offered a grand coalition against IS and this was followed by the first Russian air strikes.

It seems those strikes were aimed at other rebel groups fighting Assad as well as IS. But despite this, the US-led coalition should test Moscow’s proposal and try to forge that grand coalition.

If the war is to be ended and Syria put back together, the international supporters of both Assad and the rebels, especially the Iranians and the Saudis, need to come together and put real pressure on them to stop fighting and start talking.

The UN has its mediation team led by Steffan de Mistura in place to broker negotiations. The legal basis for international involvement is sound too given the Responsibility to Protect can be invoked following the Syrian state’s failure to protect its own citizens and indeed its indiscriminate attacks on many of them.

Alongside the diplomacy, this international coalition would need to agree to isolate IS and the al Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra front and focus their military efforts on reducing the areas under their control.

Of course all this is easier said than done.

It means Washington and Moscow engaging constructively rather than scoring points off each other in the court of international public opinion. Crucially it also means the US needs to agree to sit down at the same table as Iran, as well as Russia, and bring a reluctant Saudi Arabia along too.

It may not work. International pressure may not be enough to stop the fighting, but it can’t make matters any worse than they are now.

The Americans clearly don’t trust the Russians, but Washington needs to agree to Assad’s long-term fate going on the back burner, overcome its reluctance to give Putin a boost and put the interests of the Syrian people and regional stability first.

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