1 May 2019

Trump tightens sanctions on Iran’s oil exports—How India will respond

Tanvi Madan

The Trump administration’s decision not to extend waivers from Iran sanctions will not be welcome in New Delhi. India imports over three-quarters of the oil it consumes, and Iran has long featured in the list of its top sources. Washington had previously issued it a waiver, and, since sanctions had gone into effect, India had decreased its imports from Iran.

As a U.S. strategic partner, whose cooperation the Trump administration has sought for its Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, India had hoped to get another waiver—even if that required further import reductions on its part. The administration’s decision will therefore irk Delhi, particularly since Washington has also imposed sanctions on another of India’s top suppliers, Venezuela. 

Indian public- and private-sector refiners will likely find other sources—the Indian government has indicated that it has been planning for this eventuality. Among those alternatives might be Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, whose relations with India have deepened in recent years; they might also include the United States, a relatively new source of imports for India.

How Sri Lanka’s Christians Became a Target


The deadly bombings in Sri Lanka over the weekend follow a pattern of religious terror that has become grimly familiar around the world. The attackers targeted churches on Easter Sunday, when Christians would be gathered in large numbers and vulnerable during worship. They also chose crowded and exposed public spaces, including hotels likely to be hosting foreign tourists.

And they may have been associated with an Islamist militant cause: On Tuesday, the Islamic State claimed responsibility, although this has not been independently verified. Sri Lankan officials have alleged that at least one local Islamist group was involved in the attacks, and suggested that the attacks may have been carried out in retaliation for the white-nationalist shooting spree at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March; they did not say what led them to make that claim. The bombings killed at least 321 people, according to Sri Lankan police, and injured hundreds more.

Sri Lanka Is Already Drawing the Wrong Lessons From the Attacks


Within 72 hours of last Sunday’s Easter attacks in Sri Lanka, Colombo had passed a 30-day Emergency Regulations act. The measure gives the military carte blanche to enforce the already draconian strictures of Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act, which has been in place since the late 1970s.

The move may have been a predictable reaction to a moment of mass violence. In response to national catastrophes such as Sunday’s attacks targeting churches and hotels, which killed more than 250 people, governments typically try to enact a one-size-fits-all counterterrorism policy, often drawn from the countering violent extremism (CVE) industry playbook. But in Sri Lanka, such prescriptions are more likely to incite violence than quell it.

The recent attacks do bear some of the hallmarks of a classic terrorist strike, but Sri Lanka’s contested political landscape doesn’t fit neatly into existing narratives about violent extremism: namely, prevalent theories that focus on individualized radicalization into groups like the Islamic State rather than the collective struggle of anti-state movements that have shaped Sri Lanka’s own history of violence.

The attacks in Sri Lanka and the threat of foreign fighters

Daniel L. Byman

If Sri Lankan foreign fighters played a significant role in the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks, it would be the largest killing by foreign fighters linked to the Islamic State ever, and the largest foreign fighter-linked attack since 9/11, writes Daniel Byman. This piece originally appeared on Lawfare.

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the horrific terrorist attacks on Easter Sunday on churches in Sri Lanka, which killed over 300 people. It appears that the group may have worked with a local radical Islamist group, National Thowheeth Jama’ath, mixing the resources and capabilities of both. Initial reporting—still to be verified—indicates that many of those arrested in the follow-up sweep had fought in Syria. Early reports are often wrong or exaggerated, but if Sri Lankan foreign fighters played a significant role in the terrorist attacks, this would be the largest killing by foreign fighters linked to the Islamic State ever, and the largest foreign fighter-linked attack since 9/11. The attacks suggest both the danger posed by foreign fighters and the importance of government efforts in stopping them.

China Retools Vast Global Building Push Criticized as Bloated and Predator

By Jane Perlez

BEIJING — It took only a week for China’s all-powerful President Xi Jinping to yield. Malaysia had publicly slammed China for vastly overcharging on a showcase rail project, canceling the deal.

In a rare admission of Chinese excess, Mr. Xi replied in a major speech last year that his prized global infrastructure program would be more cautious, more consultative. This month, China slashed the cost of the rail by one-third.

Broadly facing criticism about overpriced and superfluous projects, China is reshaping and retooling its grand infrastructure plan, known as the Belt and Road Initiative. But Beijing isn’t retreating from its vision to build a network of ports, rails and roads that puts China at the center of global trade and enhances its geopolitical ambitions.

China’s Debt Diplomacy


This week, leaders from around the world are descending on Beijing for China’s second Belt and Road Forum, a conference to showcase China’s signature diplomatic initiative. But these leaders should be clear-eyed that China’s efforts to use its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to broaden its geopolitical and economic clout risk saddling developing countries with unsustainable debt while increasing their dependency on China.

The fact that poorer countries struggle with debt is nothing new, but after years of successful efforts to reduce their debt burden—including through the largest debt forgiveness program in history, started under U.S. President Bill Clinton and advanced by the George W. Bush Administration and the international community—they are once again going into the red. Unlike before, developing countries’ strategic assets, such as their resources, mineral deposits, port access rights, and the like, are now targeted by creditors as collateral in many of these predatory deals.

China Gets a British Bedfellow


The United Kingdom is starting to get on board China’s signature, trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, a departure from the more confrontational line toward Beijing that’s taken hold in Washington and Brussels.

One reason for London’s outreach may be Britain’s sense of vulnerability in the wake of the stalled plans for Brexit, which have left the British reassessing their trade relations globally.

Philip Hammond, the British chancellor of the exchequer, said on Friday at the Belt and Road forum in Beijing that the U.K. is committed to helping China realize its ambitious but controversial infrastructure investment project.

Hammond’s visit to the high-profile forum underscores what he calls the continued “golden era of relations between China and the U.K.,” a bid for closer economic ties between the two countries that kicked off during the previous government of Prime Minister David Cameron.

A dash of stimulus helps stabilize China’s wobbly economy

David Dollar

David Dollar gives an economic update on China, unpacking the first quarter (Q1) data, explaining the government's current stimulus actions, and commenting on the ongoing U.S.-China trade negotiations. This piece originally appeared on The Hill

China was a frequent topic of discussion at the International Monetary Fund (IMF)/World Bank spring meetings held April 12-14 in Washington.

The IMF marked down the 2019 growth forecasts for every major economy except China. The forecast for the U.S. was reduced 0.2 percentage points, to 2.3 percent. China was marked up from 6.2 percent to 6.3 percent — a small change but a signal that the Chinese economy is stabilizing. 

The first quarter (Q1) data reported this week ratified this confidence: GDP growth of 6.4 percent year-on-year (y/y) was better than expected; industrial production growth in March came in at a surprisingly high 8.5 percent y/y; and retail sales in March were up 8.7 percent. 

Is a U.S.-China War Really Possible?

by Claire Walters

which asked students across the country to answer the following question: Are the United States and China on a path to conflict?

The West once greeted the rise of China with cautious optimism. By the end of Cold War, liberal theorists in particular expected and hoped that peace would flow from deeper interdependence as China’s economy grew—a theoretical expectation that took policy form in the Clinton administration’s policy of constructive engagement toward China. In contrast, offensive realists continue to worry that this hope is misplaced and that a growing China will be a growing threat. Many who share this concern sit in the current U.S. administration. Amid rising tensions between the United States and China, many now believe that armed conflict between the two states is more likely than ever. Yet the case for impending doom is unsound.

Construction begins on the Freedom Tower for the new World Trade Center in New York City.

ISIS’s Newest Recruiting Tool: Regional Languages


When ISIS claimed responsibility for the coordinated bombings in Sri Lanka that killed more than 350 people, it did so, as one would expect, in Arabic and English. But it also issued statements in other languages—including Tamil.

There is yet no independent verification of the terrorist group’s claim, but the pronouncement in a language spoken by about 70 million people, overwhelmingly in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, as well as in Malayalam, spoken by about 35 million people mostly in the southern Indian state of Kerala, suggests the organization has recruits fluent in what are essentially regional languages with relatively few speakers.

It is this sort of targeted outreach at which ISIS is particularly good: Like other militant groups, ISIS exploits weak governments, but it also capitalizes on disenfranchisement among Muslim minorities, speaks to their particular grievances, and looks to recruit educated professionals for its sophisticated propaganda efforts.

The End of Hubris And the New Age of American Restraint

By Stephen M. Walt

Today’s world presents a seemingly endless array of challenges: a more powerful and assertive China, novel threats from cyberspace, a rising tide of refugees, resurgent xenophobia, persistent strands of violent extremism, climate change, and many more. But the more complex the global environment, the more Washington needs clear thinking about its vital interests and foreign policy priorities. Above all, a successful U.S. grand strategymust identify where the United States should be prepared to wage war, and for what purposes.

For all the talk of how U.S. foreign policy and the country’s place in the world will never be the same after the presidency of Donald Trump, the best strategic road map for the United States is a familiar one. Realism—the hard-nosed approach to foreign policy that guided the country throughout most of the twentieth century and drove its rise to great power—remains the best option. A quarter century ago, after the Cold War ended, foreign policy elites abandoned realism in favor of an unrealistic grand strategy—liberal hegemony—that has weakened the country and caused considerable harm at home and abroad. To get back on track, Washington should return to the realism and restraint that served it so well in the past.

Overextending and Unbalancing Russia

by James Dobbins

This brief summarizes a report that comprehensively examines nonviolent, cost-imposing options that the United States and its allies could pursue across economic, political, and military areas to stress—overextend and unbalance—Russia’s economy and armed forces and the regime's political standing at home and abroad. Some of the options examined are clearly more promising than others, but any would need to be evaluated in terms of the overall U.S. strategy for dealing with Russia, which neither the report nor this brief has attempted to do.

The maxim that “Russia is never so strong nor so weak as it appears” remains as true in the current century as it was in the 19th and 20th.Share on Twitter

Today’s Russia suffers from many vulnerabilities—oil and gas prices well below peak that have caused a drop in living standards, economic sanctions that have furthered that decline, an aging and soon-to-be-declining population, and increasing authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin’s now-continued rule. Such vulnerabilities are coupled with deep-seated (if exaggerated) anxieties about the possibility of Western-inspired regime change, loss of great power status, and even military attack.

Iran Faces Bleak Options as the U.S. Turns the Screws

Despite the United States' move to end exemption waivers for Iran's oil exports — the country's economic lifeline — Tehran will continue to make some shipments. Nevertheless, the robust measures will exacerbate Iran's economic, currency and financial crises as the country struggles to import much-needed food. Iran's lower and lower middle class will begin to feel economic pain as a result of the sanctions, raising the risk of a humanitarian crisis that would compound the one Iran is already facing because of record flooding. Hard-liners are calling for a strong retaliation, including Iran's departure from the nuclear deal, but such action would come at a high cost for Tehran. As part of its campaign of maximum pressure, the United States is likely to allow other waivers to expire without extension and impose even more sanctions on Iran.

In a Search for Options, North Korea Turns to Russia

With relations between the United States and North Korea still in disarray after an abrupt ending to their recent summit in Hanoi, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is reaching out to another partner: Russia. On April 25, Kim will hold his first summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But one key figure who won't be accompanying the North Korean leader to the meeting in Vladivostok is Kim Yong Chol, the country's longtime lead nuclear negotiator with the United States, amid rumors that he lost his post heading the United Front Department, a major party institution. Ultimately, Kim Yong Chol's absence suggests that Pyongyang could be changing up its negotiating team.

The Big Picture

America Isn’t as Powerful as It Thinks It Is


Just how powerful is the United States? Is it still the unipolar power, able to impose its will on adversaries, allies, and neutrals, and force them—however reluctantly—to go along with policies they think are foolish, dangerous, or simply contrary to their interests? Or are there clear and significant limits to U.S. power, suggesting that it should be more selective and strategic in setting goals and pursuing them?

The Trump administration has embraced the first position, especially since John Bolton became White House national security advisor and Mike Pompeo took over as secretary of state. Whatever President Donald Trump’s initial instincts may have been, their arrival marked a return to the unilateralist, take-no-prisoners approach to foreign policy that characterized George W. Bush’s first term as president, when Vice President Dick Cheney and the neoconservatives held sway. A key feature of that earlier period was the assumption that the United States was so powerful that it could go it alone on many issues and that other states could be cowed into submission by demonstrations of U.S. power and resolve. As a senior advisor to Bush (reportedly Karl Rove) told the journalist Ron Suskind: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Compromises and coalition-building were for wimps and appeasers; as Cheney himself reportedly said in 2003: “We don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it.”

The four “I”s undermining democracy

Dhruva Jaishankar

It will be an important year for democracy around the world. In April and May, India heads to the polls in what will be the largest organized political activity in history. Israel, Indonesia, and Ukraine just held very contentious elections while Spain, Australia, Canada, Tunisia, Argentina, Sri Lanka, and the European Parliament are set for important votes later this year. Meanwhile, the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign season is already underway.

These electoral contests come at a tough time for democracy, not just because of notable instances of resurgent authoritarianism and populism, but also disruption and corruption in places like France, Brazil, South Africa, and the Philippines. But it would be premature to conclude that democracy is in crisis. Pessimists often forget the tumult that democracy in the United States, France, and India experienced in the 1960s and 1970s. Most large-scale assessments of democracy suggest stagnation in recent years rather than decline: Today, over two-thirds of people living in democratic societies are outside the West and in many countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America democracy is broadening and deepening. And public opinion about democracy remains strong in India, Africa, and Northern Europe, even as skepticism is growing in the United States, Middle East, Japan, and Australia.

Cross-Strait risks are rising and need to be managed

Ryan Hass

Washington, Taipei, and Beijing are falling into an action-reaction cycle on cross-Strait issues, even as they disagree on who is at fault, writes Ryan Hass. In they lack the ability to clarify the meaning of events, all sides will face a bias toward assuming the worst. This piece originally appeared in the Taipei Times.

Taiwan’s political atmosphere is growing more fervid as the January 2020 election draws nearer. The roster of contenders includes candidates with experience governing and an understanding of the need for balance, and others who rely on charisma and offer promises without consideration of potential consequences.

There also is growing momentum in Washington for judging that Beijing’s bullying of Taiwan is escalating at intolerable rates, and that the antidote is for Washington to show stronger support for Taiwan to counteract the squeeze that Beijing is putting on Taipei.

Risking Great Power War Over Small Stakes

By Michael E. O’Hanlon

America needs better options for resolving potential crises

In recent years, the Pentagon has elevated its concerns about Russia and China as potential military threats to the United States and its allies. But what issues could provoke actual conflict between the United States and either country? And how could such a conflict be contained before it took the world to the brink of thermonuclear catastrophe, as was feared during the cold war?

Defense expert Michael O’Hanlon wrestles with these questions in this insightful book, setting them within the broader context of hegemonic change and today’s version of great-power competition.

The book examines how a local crisis could escalate into a broader and much more dangerous threat to peace. What if, for example, Russia’s “little green men” seized control of a community, like Narva or an even smaller town in Estonia, now a NATO ally? Or, what if China seized one of the uninhabited Senkaku islands now claimed and administered by Japan, or imposed a partial blockade of Taiwan?

The Importance of Nepal’s First Satellite Launch

By Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Earlier this month, the United States launched Nepal’s first satellite, NepaliSat-1, into orbit. The satellite, equipped with a 5-megapixel camera and a magnetometer, is meant to gather information about Nepal’s topography and earth’s magnetic field, and is part of the greater attention the country is paying to the space realm amid domestic and wider regional developments.

The NepaliSat-1 was launched by the United States under the “Birds-3 satellite launch to International Space Station project.” The BIRDS project is a UN initiative to help countries launch their first satellite and the Japanese Kyushu Institute of Technology has been involved in this particular project. Under the project, there was also a satellite from Sri Lanka, named Raavana-1, that was launched along with the NepaliSat-1.

The Age of Splinternet: The Inevitable Fracturing of the Internet

By Matthew Bey

The days of a global internet with relative openness are over as regulation and digital borders rapidly increase in the coming years. Nationalism and concerns about digital colonization and privacy are driving the "splinternet." Those forces will not reverse, but only accelerate. The United States will still back a relatively open internet model, but it has clearly assessed that a global pact to govern cyberspace would tie its own hands in the competition with China. A complex labyrinth of different regulations, rules and cybersecurity challenges will rule the internet of tomorrow, which will become increasingly difficult for corporations to navigate.

In 2001, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — whose company had yet to turn a quarterly profit — said in an interview, "I very much believe the internet is indeed all it is cracked up to be." Now, 18 years later, the emphasis should be placed on how "cracked up" the internet could become. The concept of a "splinternet" or the "balkanization of the internet" — in which the global digital information network would be sectioned off into smaller internets by a growing series of rules and regulations — has existed for years. But we're now barreling toward a point where concept will become reality.

How AI Could Change The Art Of War


Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) relies on the JARVIS artificial intelligence to help pilot his Iron Man suit -a model the military is looking at for future troops (Marvel Comics/Paramount Pictures)

ARMY WAR COLLEGE: What happens when Artificial Intelligence produces a war strategy too complex for human brains to understand? Do you trust the computer to guide your moves, like a traveler blindly following GPS? Or do you reject the plan and, with it, the potential for a strategy so smart it’s literally superhuman?

At this 117-year-old institution dedicated to educating future generals, officers and civilian wrestled this week with how AI could change the nature of command. (The Army invited me and paid for my travel.).

Rush To Military AI Raises Cyber Threats


Militaries May Be Rushing To Failure, Says Frederick Chang, former NSA Research Director

WASHINGTON: As the US and other countries scramble to develop artificial intelligence (AI) solutions for military applications, the failure fix cyber vulnerabilities is teeing up a rush to failure, senior US and UAE AI gurus worry.

Frederick Chang, former director of research at the National Security Agency under President George W. Bush, told an Atlantic Council conference earlier this week that there just has “not been a lot of work at the intersection of AI and cyber.” Governments are just “beginning to understand some of the vulnerability of these systems,” he said. So, as militaries rapidly push to deploy systems they risk “increase the size of the attack surface” and create more problems than they solve.

Failure by governments to take proactive measures to ensure the security of AI systems “is going to come back to bite us,” Omar Al Olama, minister of state for artificial intelligence for the United Arab Emirates, warned. “Ignorance in government leadership” is leading to deployment of AI “for AI’s sake” — not because it is needed or is a wise thing to do. “Sometimes AI can be stupid,” he said. Olama stressed that following the traditional commercial model of patching cybersecurity vulnerabilities after the fact would not work when building AI systems, because it “might be too late” for the security of nations and their citizens.

Security Think Tank: Surviving the existential cyber punch part 2

Gregory Touhill

Good CISOs know that the dreaded day when they and their organisations are confronted with a potential existential attack is just around the corner. The great ones know that day may be today and are prepared to ensure they and their organisation can take that cyber punch and keep going.

I am often asked what is the first thing a CISO should do when alerted to a hostile attack or other significant cyber incident. My answer is always the same: “Don’t panic!”

Too often, CISOs and the organisations they support exhibit what I call a “sense of fear and panic” when confronted with a potentially existential attack or incident. Many ignore existing playbooks, policies, procedures and checklists and revert to a panic-driven, knee-jerk response.

I have observed some who tried to do everything all at once, stressing their staff, confusing their organisation, destroying evidence and losing control of the confident and disciplined incident response effort they are expected to lead.

Online Information Operations Cross Platforms. Tech Companies' Responses Should Too

By Jessica Brandt, Bradley Hanlon 

In March, Facebook took down more than 2,600 pages, groups and accounts engaged in sweeping coordinated information operations on its platforms—an important step in the platform’s effort to prevent malign actors from spreading content designed to polarize and mislead. However, when our team at the Alliance for Securing Democracy took a close look at the small number of blocked pages and groups about which Facebook and its partner, the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DRFLab), shared information, we found that related accounts on Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram continue to operate, spreading falsehoods. Despite the promises of better communication and reform, there is a concerning lack of coordination between Facebook and its peers. 

Online information operations have emerged as a key tactic in the toolkit employed by malign foreign actors to interfere in democracies. As Special Counsel Mueller’s reporthighlighted, malign foreign actors have used social media platforms to spread divisive content as part of a broader campaign to undermine democratic institutions. Our organization investigates these efforts and develops comprehensive solutions for government, private sector, and civil society to counter and deter foreign interference. After Facebook announced its takedown of inauthentic networks a few weeks ago, our research team took a close look at each of the accounts and pages that were publicly identified by Facebook and its partners.

The U.S. Military: Like the French at Agincourt?

By Bret Stephens

Early on a Sunday morning in 1932, a fleet of some 150 fighters, dive-bombers and torpedo planes struck the naval base at Pearl Harbor. The ships lying at anchor on Battleship Row sustained direct hits. Also hit were the base’s fuel storage tanks and the Army Air Corps planes parked nearby at Hickam Field.

The surprise was as complete as it was devastating. Only this was an Army-Navy war game, the attackers were American pilots operating from the carriers Saratoga and Lexington, and the bombs they dropped were sacks of flour.

The lesson of “Grand Joint Exercise 4,” as it was called, is that forewarned is not always forearmed. It took the actual sinking of much of the U.S. battle fleet nearly a decade later to bring the lesson home to U.S. military planners that the age of the carrier had arrived.