Gulf of Guinea and the Sahel: Where Piracy, Terrorism, and Organized Crime Meet

There is a tendency to believe that proximity is a key determinant of whether events that take place within a state and/or geographic area will have an impact on the day-to-day functioning of a neighboring state and even on the same geographic area. Based on this logic, a state perceived as distant is believed to have no influence in a neighboring area, either because of its geographic location, lack of knowledge about its past or present, let along knowing that it even exists.

In a globalized and interconnected world of today, it is not possible to remain isolated from events happening in other places, affecting different areas, whether political, economic, legislative or social. In the case of unlawful acts, although some types of crimes are committed (and not properly opposed) at the national level, it is possible that these and/or their consequences cross borders and affect other nations and/or geographical areas by affecting the lives of individuals and groups, as well as the economy, security and politics. In this sense, some criminal phenomena are more striking than others, as in the case of terrorism (so far only in the Sahel); and its consequences may be much more obvious, in comparison with other phenomena, such as organized crime (still Sahel) or piracy (now growing alarmingly in the Gulf of Guinea).

However, these criminal phenomena impact on a scale that exceeds the regional scope and in different ways, and they impact the political, economic, and security relations of areas geographically far removed from both the Sahel and the Gulf of Guinea.

The Gulf of Guinea: New Epicenter of Maritime Piracy after the Indian Ocean

The Gulf of Guinea is a maritime region of the Atlantic Ocean that includes approximately 6,000 km of it costs; and, as part of West and Central Africa, two sub-regions meet there—there is the northern region, which includes Senegal, Benin, Togo, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Liberia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde and the southern one with Angola, Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, Republic of the Congo, Sao Tome and Príncipe, Democratic Republic of the Congo (even if for a very short coastline). Among these nations are some of the leading producers of hydrocarbons (this immense space has large reserves of crude oil and natural gas currently exploited and planned-to-be exploited), along with other mineral, agricultural and fishing reserves.

All these resources are exported by sea and are relatively close to Western markets, and they contribute to energy security for the Gulf of Guinea—a very topical issue, given the situation between Russia and Ukraine, and its consequences for Europe, for those countries that import hydrocarbons, as those of the EU. In this way, and due to the geographical position of these countries, the Gulf of Guinea acquires special significance when used as possible transit area for maritime traffic between America and sub-Saharan Africa with Europe.

Thus, it is a hub for the entry of energy supplies to Europe, as well as for other resources of the area, such as iron, gold, diamonds, peaches, agricultural products and fruit, among others. However, its energy potential in particular, and its economic potential in general, is reduced, since the Gulf of Guinea is considered a highly insecure and unstable area.

As often happens, maritime security and stability problems originate and/or contribute to problems on the ground—and all the states mentioned have serious problems, ranging from weakening or the disappearance of centralized power, corruption, the spread of violence—all of which bring instability several countries. In other words, governance is very weak and many states can be considered as being nearly bankrupt. The reasons for this are many.

First, theer are internal ethnic-religious divisions, artificial borders and the phenomenon of the irredentists/separatists (a legacy of both colonialism and the re-formulating of former German colonies after WWI as in Togo and Cameroon), and the harmful effects of a post-colonial robbery, in which leadership, enslaved to economic and external political powers (especially France and the UK), exploits local resources and upsets assets and balances, such as agriculture, which provided self-subsistence (for example, with the super-production of coffee and cocoa).

The showcase of this is Nigeria, where this situation has created an explosive mix that has led, among other things, to a significant development of crime, especially maritime crime, manifested through illicit piracy, trade and fishing. This situation threatens the stability and fluidity of maritime trade—it is estimated that up to 90% of world trade is transported by sea—generating serious consequences for sea routes which are greatly impacted because of criminal acts, leading to insecurity, higher costs for maritime transport (starting with insurance and freight), and putting lives at risk, thus leading to severe economic and material damage.

This is especially true in the Gulf of Guinea, where there are around 1500 fishing boats, oil tankers and merchant ships that navigate its waters on a daily basis. The threat was accentuated after COVID-19, which saw limited public resources allocated to maritime safety, along with the reduction of world trade, and thus of economic growth, with the consequent increase in poverty and unemployment. In connection with this, there was an extension of piracy, right up to the Ivory Coast and south of Gabon, in that piracy became a source of an alternative income and livelihood for the population. However, this scenario got worse when later, in 2020, the price of oil collapsed, which (among other reasons) led to limited maritime safety and a greater demand for necessary resources by the population. This left oil tankers vulnerable to increased piracy.

In 2020, according to the International Maritime Bureau, the Gulf of Guinea saw 84 attacks against ships, with 135 seafarers kidnapped for ransom. The Gulf of Guinea recorded an increase of nearly 50 percent of ransom kidnappings between 2018 and 2019, and around 10 percent between 2019 and 2020. The region now accounts for just over 95 percent of all kidnappings for ransom at sea.

However, official data for 2021 offers a contradictory picture, with 132 incidents, 115 of them approaches, 11 attack attempts, 5 sustained attacks and one case of a vessel hijacked. These are the lowest figures recorded for piracy and armed robbery since the year 1994, and show a decrease in maritime piracy offenses in this sector. This is the result of greater cooperation from regional authorities and a greater presence of international warships, precisely because of the importance of the resources involved and the geographic location.

This apparent contradiction may be due to the so-called “dark figures”—those criminal acts that are not officially notified, and therefore do not appear in institutional statistics and should therefore be interpreted with caution, as it is estimated that up to half of the cases are not reported and, therefore, unknown. Among the reasons that lead to this lack of reporting include the costs that a delay in an investigation can entail for companies whose goods are transported on the ship, or bad publicity for the shipping company, and for the port where the attack took place, or for the ship itself on a global scale. Therefore, and despite the potential inaccuracy of the data in itself, the Gulf of Guinea is a very important center of maritime piracy.

Maritime Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea

To profit economically, maritime piracy has developed an entrepreneurial profile—the illegal oil market: The oil industry is the mainstay of the Gulf area’s economy—and thus there is also the existence of a large black market for crude oil—that is oil stolen from ships, which requires a network of sophisticated organized crime that makes oil piracy profitable. Also, the pirates profit from other revenue related to the hijacking of ships, such as the ransom-money for the captured crew.

Effects of Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea for Europe

Indeed, the evolution and rise of maritime piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is a concern for Europe, as many shipping and fishing companies operate in the region. Piracy also leads to the increase in the cost of maritime transport insurance, which means higher costs for companies, and thuis higher costs for the consumer of those goods.

For these reasons, Spain deployed ocean-going patrol boats in the region in 2010, in support of the 2009-2012 Africa Plan, in an attempt to help the countries of the area to exercise sovereignty and influence in their maritime spaces, as well as offering safety in these spaces. This was done by way of surveillance activities, operations, exchanges of information and bilateral activities, or at the request of the countries in the region, the purpose of which was to increase these nations’ maritime capacity.

In addition, efforts are being made to improve maritime and military capabilities of the police forces of the Gulf of Guinea countries; insecurity generated by piracy not only affects the maritime environment, but also facilitates the access of illicit products through sealed containers in legitimate shipments, thanks to bribery or coercions. This allows the entry of people, weapons and drugs, among others things, which benefit not only organized crime but also localized terrorist groups in the Sahel.

The European, US and International Response

To cope with growing instability and to protect its interests, the EU has launched a complex approach, dedicated to the Gulf of Guinea, since 2014, to support the objectives of the so-called “Yaoundé Architecture,” the intra-regional commitment between ECOWAS, ECCAS and GGC, signed at the Yaoundé Heads of State Summit in June 2013, to counter maritime crime in its broadest sense (proving that despite the difficulties, several states of the region are aware of the risks of destabilization and reputational damage).

[ECOWAS—The Economic Community of West African States was established on May 28, 1975, by the Treaty of Lagos, with its stated mission to promote economic integration across the region. A revised version of the treaty was agreed and signed on July 24, 1993 in Cotonou, to include Cape Verde, Gambia, Guinea (membership suspended due to a coup in the country), Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali (membership suspended due to a coup in the country), Senegal, Benin, Burkina Faso (membership suspended due to a coup in the country), Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Niger, Nigeria, Togo.]

[ECCAS—The Economic Community of Central African States is an international organization established October 18, 1983 for the economic, social and cultural development of Africa, with a view to the creation of regional structures that can gradually lead to a Common Market. Member states of the organization are: Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda, Chad, Sao Tome and Principe.]

[GGC—The Gulf of Guinea Commission was established by the Treaty signed in Libreville, Gabon, on July 3, 2001, comprising Angola, Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria and Sao Tome and Principe. GGC shall constitute a framework of consultation among the countries of the Gulf of Guinea for cooperation and development, as well as for the prevention, management and resolution of conflicts that may arise from the delimitation of borders and the economic and commercial exploitation of natural resources within the territorial boundaries, particularly in the overlapping Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of the participating states. It constitutes a permanent institutional framework for cooperation amongst the countries bordering the Gulf of Guinea in order to defend their common interest and promote peace and socio-economic development based on the bases of dialogue, consensus and friendship. GGC started operations in March 2007, with the establishment of its Executive Secretariat in Luanda, Angola. Cameroon and Democratic Republic of Congo joined GGC in 2008.]

The “Code of conduct relating to the repression of piracy, armed robbery against ships and illegal maritime activity in West and Central Africa,” also known as” Yaoundé Architecture,” has as its objective the promotion of regional maritime cooperation and a stable maritime environment that can contribute to regional prosperity. The signatory states have established regional centers for sharing and coordinating information. These include the Interregional Coordination Center (ICC) in Yaoundé, Cameroon; the Regional Center for West African Maritime Security (CRSMAO) in Abidjan, Ivory Coast; and the Center Central African Maritime Security Regional (CRESMAC) in Pointe Noire, Congo, where experts and military and civilian personnel from both participating European nations, the EU and the local authorities cooperate.

Following the definition of the action plan, Brussels has defined a strategy for the region, aimed at supporting regional efforts to address the many challenges of maritime security and transnational organized crime, substantially increasing the capabilities of the local forces and collaborating closely with regional organizations and international institutions, such as IMB, Interpol and UNODC’s Global Maritime Crime Program.

[IMB—The International Maritime Bureau is a specialized department of the International Chamber of Commerce, established in 1981, and its responsibilities lie in fighting crimes related to maritime trade and transportation, particularly piracy and commercial fraud, and in protecting the crews of ocean-going vessels. It publishes a weekly piracy report and maintains a 24-hour piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. IMB is part of ICC Commercial Crime Services bodies like the Counterfeiting Intelligence Bureau, the Financial Investigation Bureau, FraudNet. IMB has observer status with Interpol and a Memorandum of Understanding with the World Customs Organization.]

As for the option of a stabilizing European naval presence, similar, if possible, to the operation “Atalanta” and the establishment of specific training and support missions for local forces, like EUCAP Somalia—it seems unrealistic, at least at the moment, due to the necessity of concentrating the Euro (Atlantic) naval forces in other areas, and for a general pause for reflection on future of these activities.

[EUCAP Somalia, the Maritime Capabilities Support Mission in Somalia is a European Union civilian mission. Originally established in 201 and called EUCAP Nestor, in tribute to the Greek hero of the Trojan War, the mission changed its name in 2016 to EUCAP Somalia to illustrate a refocusing of the mandate on Somalia.]

Furthermore it must be remembered that France, which has a strong tradition of presence in the region, has set up a training center for the region’s navies (which are nothing more than coast0guards) in Equatorial Guinea, while Spain has deployed ocean-going patrol boats in the region in 2010, in support of the 2009-2012 Africa Plan, as part of an assistance program to the countries of the area to exercise sovereignty and influence in their maritime spaces.

As well, in a broader perspective of the G7, a “steering group” was set up, the G7 ++ FOGG (Friends of the Gulf of Guinea), which carries out an important role in advancing the maritime security agenda in the region by bringing together coastal states, private actors and regional and international stakeholders in its efforts to promote greater international cooperation.

[The G7++ Group of Friends of the Gulf of Guinea (FOGG) is a multilateral maritime security group that supports the implementation of the Yaoundé Code of Conduct for regional maritime security, established in 2013 during the UK Chairmanship of G7 and include Germany, Canada, USA, Italy, Japan, UK, and France), the G7++ FoGG include Belgium, Brazil (observer), South Korea, Denmark, Spain, Norway, Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland, EU, UNODC and Interpol.]

The Sahel as a Center of Operations for Criminal Organizations

The Sahel is a strip of land located south of the Sahara Desert, and which includes the borders between twelve countries, extending from west to east of the continent, about 5,500 kilometers long and with an average width of 400 kilometers. It is characterized by being a large transition space in which community and tribal structures have prevailed over time, with the constant search for resources and for the development of its activities; in essence in the primary sector which tend to be linked to different ethnic groups.

For this reason, it is the climate, as well as its accidents, that dictate the pace of life of its inhabitants. However, the constant increase in the population and the struggle for its resources—rather scarce— generate disputes that quickly lead to ethnic conflicts.

To all this must be added the movements of caravans and businesses that circulate along the same routes, as they have done for thousands of years, and which have created a network of communication in Africa. This network has managed to transcend the continent to connect with Europe and thus obtain advantages, both for trade and for the possibilities of mobility it offers to the population. Therefore, the Sahel is a center of very important interconnections that unite peoples, countries and continents through their ancient routes.

However, this very network in the vast territories that make up the Sahel has been exploited by new non-state and transnational structures which, in the face of border permeability—the lack of effective border control by national authorities that facilitate complete freedom of movement— groups have established dynamics of social relations based on illicit trade and trafficking, thus facilitating the establishment of criminal and terrorist groups in the region. These groups then took advantage of the great political instability and distrust in the system. Given the limited resources of the state for its defense and the great breadth of its territories and the growth of the culture of impunity, the capacity for action for these nations has greatly diminished, and this has contributed in strengthening the dominance of criminal organizations among the population.

In this way, the Sahel, which has long been a trade and mobility route, today is a favorable space, due to these circumstances, for organized crime and terrorism which have firmly established their strongholds and centers of operations in these regions, by subduing the local population. This is how violent armed groups have increased their actions in the Sahel region, expanding their activities and creating major destabilization and impacting development and security, with alarming effects. In short, the region is a paradise for criminal activity.

Coexistence of Terrorism and Organized Crime in the Sahel

The fact that terrorism and organized crime form alliances is well known, given their freedom and ability to act, in that both have established dynamics characterized by adaptation to circumstances and the local population, acquiring a leading role as the new “power manager,” and thus creating a new political context and a new dynamics of socioeconomic. This is how the formation of alliances gives continuity to business and allows for the survival of organized crime and terrorism, for it is the lack of control, governance and the instability of the territory which allows for high degrees of mobility and impunity.

In any case, for their survival, these groups need an ever-increasing flow of human, financial and material resources. For this reason, the recruitment of new followers or criminals is crucial. In fact, on many occasions, they are more trained and better equipped than the armed forces and security organs of the area. However, to get of these resources, requires the control of the ancient routes of the Sahel, which initially were used by nomads, who controlled who crossed the Sahara desert and tolled the merchants who passed through them. Today they are used by several criminal networks, be they organized crime or terrorists, for the control of the territory and the development of illicit trade in the region, including drug trafficking, tobacco, weapons, food, fuel and humans, among others.

Therefore, the Sahel is a transitional space, and its roads, once used by caravans, are now the thoroughfares of criminal networks, resulting in new and greater sources of crime synergies that cross borders, including continental ones.

Effects of Violent Armed Groups in the Sahel for Europe

As with the Gulf of Guinea, it has become clear that the Sahel is at the center of terrorist threats, illicit trafficking and ethnic /religious /tribal conflicts.

The EU has a special interest in the Sahel, most particularly Spain, given its geographical proximity, and its two enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla (on the African mainland) and the Canary archipelago. Thus, Spain feels itself particularly exposed to outcomes related to the instability of West Africa and the Sahel. So it is not surprising that the Sahel region is of prime interest for Brussels (and Madrid), with a focus on military assistance and training missions on the continent.

For organized crime, the connections with terrorism represent new opportunities for illicit trade, from which it makes huge economic profits—generally, through extortion—which not only implies profit, but also expansion of their criminal or terrorist activities. At the same time, this promotes increased political and social corruption, further weakening the state supports of nations increasingly unable to face this landscape or take advantage of it.

Thus, the collaboration between different criminal networks and terrorism not only weakens states, but rather, it creates “failed states,” causing fractures in the governance that are then exploited by these networks, creating environments conducive to achieving the fulfillment of their objectives, and further nurturing activities necessary for their survival and growth.

The weaker the state, the greater the ability of these networks to develop their businesses and to go unpunished and to expand even further. In fact, these growth opportunities materialized in the Gulf of Guinea—among other regions—where organized crime has long found profitability in the smuggling of fuel and financing of pirate groups. At the same time, terrorist groups (Daesh and Al Qaeda territorial branches ) have succeeded in expanding south from the Sahel, through actions carried out last year in Benin, Ivory Coast, Congo and DRC—countries belonging to the Gulf of Guinea, and thus establishing the first alliances with violent Islamist groups that already existed in the territory, such as the ADF (Allied Democratic Force) or Ansar Al Sunna. This has allowed for an increase in their influence in these territories, and in finding new areas from which to recruit more members, stockpile weapons and gain financing.

Furthermore, the possibilities offered by the geographical position of the Gulf of Guinea, with its access to the sea, allows them to establish alliances with other criminal groups present in the area, such as those involved in smuggling, piracy or organized crime. And being close to the sea allows them to continue developing a form of terrorism—maritime—which in itself is not new, but which offers other benefits to terrorist organizations, because of the vulnerabilities of the maritime traffic itself, such as the increased use of containers in the trade—which can be used by terrorist groups for the transport of weapons and people. As a result, the range and presence of terrorist groups increases costs, while organized crime and piracy continue to engage in illegal trade.

Such criminal phenomena complement each other, as long as their interests coincide, even if their goals are not the same. Indeed organized crime and piracy seek profit, while the jihadist terrorists seek to establish an Islamic state, although this is not it is an impediment in establishing alliances whenever they need them, even with entities that they do not agree with in their values, but which can be exploited in order to achieve their jihadist strategic objectives, such as with drugs which weaken the social structures of the Western world.

Conclusions

The development, evolution and continuous adaptation of these groups means that criminal and terrorist alliances will continue to grow, devastating the societies of the region. Furthermore, and contrary to what it may seem, these criminal phenomena take place in spaces closer than it may seem, since the proximity of Europe to the African continent is evident. But the network of age-old routes that connect the Sahel and Europe is still active and increasing in use. Thus the events taking place in the Gulf of Guinea and the Sahel influence European policies, politics, security and commerce, among many other sectors.

Consequently, it seems obvious that all of this region is increasingly becoming an Eden for pirates, terrorists and groups of organized crime. But what is an Eden for these “evil” groups, becomes hell for “good groups,” both in Africa and, through their connections, in Europe. Therefore, it is necessary to continue to monitor and to act positively in this area.


Enrico Magnani, PhD is a UN officer who specializes in military history, politico-military affairs, peacekeeping and stability operations. (The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations).


The Search for Lost Consensus

Between the second half of July and the beginning of August over thirty people died (among them two Moroccan soldiers and two Indian policemen) during very violent riots that opposed civilians from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the “blue helmets” of MONUSCO (Mission des Nations Unies pour la Stabilization au Congo). Local civilians asked UN troops to leave the country and attacked several installations of the mission. The violence and the extent of the incidents, however, let to the suspicion that it was much more than spontaneous and uncoordinated initiatives. These incidents highlight the profound crises of consensus and legitimacy of these operations.

MONUSCO has the weak consensus of the government to operate, but has failed to build legitimacy and consensus among ordinary people, those most affected by an internal and international conflict that began with the end of the Marshal/President Joseph-Désiré Mobutu’s regime in 1997 and has not yet been resolved.

The government of Kinshasa asked the UN to withdraw the mission back in 2010; and the UN has started to reduce it slowly, beginning in 2020, with a plan that should proceed with caution, given the unstable situation in the east of the immense country, the high number of military personnel involved, and the enormous logistical-operational installations and burden.

The protesters, meanwhile, claimed (and still affirm) that they wanted the UN to leave because it failed to protect civilians and ensure peace. As evidence of a situation that became very tense after the incidents, a UN military unit, confronted by a peaceful protest demonstration by civilians, opened fire on them, killing two and injuring over a dozen. This rather serious fact has embarrassed New York and has brought further pressure to bear on the request of the government of Kinshasa to speed up the end of the mission.

In reality, MONUSCO, heir to MONUC (deployed since 1999), is an entity in continuous evolution, having changed, often drastically, its mandate over the years, but always with the same objective—that of cooperating with the local government, contributing to the protection of the civilian population, protecting refugees from the violence of armed groups from the east, disarming the latter (through a special entity of the mission, the Force Intervention Brigade, established in 2017, albeit after much hesitation), and improving internal political dialogue. Many promises, and very few results.

President Felix Tshisekedi, elected in 2019, has an ambiguous attitude towards MONUSCO. His armed and security forces are unable to face external and internal threats in the east, so he needs the “blue helmets” but wants to reduce their presence to the minimum necessary. And he has major problems of legitimacy inside the country, which makes dialogue with the UN even more difficult, which is not willing to appear even indirectly supporting ambiguous internal (and electoral) policies.

At the beginning of August, the Security Council met for consultations after the incidents and the Undersecretary General for Peace Operations, the French diplomat Jean-Pierre Lacroix, informed the Council about his visit to Kinshasa on 28-29 July, where he met with senior Congolese officials and UN personnel in the country. The meeting, sought by India, was held amidst heightened tensions between the DRC, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda, accused by Kinshasa of hostile activities in the eastern region of Kivu through both the infiltration of regular military forces and the support for local armed groups, obscure entities such as M23 and ADF (Allied Democratic Forces) involved in the exploitation of rare earths, diamonds and more, in which the eastern region is very rich.

But the relationship between the UN and the host states is also flawed elsewhere. In Mali, the government’s consensus for MINUSMA (Integrated Multidimensional Stabilization Mission) is equally weak. The government of Bamako delayed authorization for the rotation of troops of the mission for a whole month and only authorized it in the middle of August, with the widely expected result of accelerating the return of the other contingents of “blue helmets,” such as now the Germans. Bamako also expelled the mission’s deputy spokesperson (the government of Kinshasa did the same, immediately after the incidents in the DRC).

From 2020 on, the mission (which was activated in 2013), following a coup d’état, has been sailing in dire waters and is increasingly badly tolerated by the military junta (which is growing closer to Moscow). It has thus managed to speed up the departure of the French troops of the “Berkhane” operation, those of the European multinational mission “Takuba,” and those of the EU training mission, EUTM-Mali. The recent debate at the UN Security Council on the MINUSMA renewal mandate initially stalled on freedom of movement in the country and on how to manage the reported increase in alleged human rights violations by the Malian armed forces and the presence of contractors, such as Russians from Wagner.

The “blue helmets” in Mali today operate in a political context for which their mandate is not suitable, with a diminishing benefit for the civilian population and with great risk for themselves: for eight consecutive years, MINUSMA was the most lethal in the world among UN operations in terms of those fallen in its military ranks.

Protests in the DRC underline how the consensus of the populations, and not just the state, is central to the effective work of UN peacekeeping operations, while the turmoil over the terms of MINUSMA’s deployment highlights how political issues, the inappropriate and the contextualized exercise of force, remain at the center of the debate on how to conceive and conduct peace operations.

If the member states (which ones? And on this question, a serious debate should take place) of the United Nations want multidimensional peacekeeping operations to survive, they should authorize peace operations that create consensus and support for peace and for their presence and objectives at multiple levels—including the state and its populations—along with the drafting of mandates that are anchored in meaningful and context-sensitive political processes which target diplomatic and humanitarian goals. United Nations peace operations are the most important contemporary tool for multilateral conflict management around the world and have historically distinguished themselves from other types of military interventions by adhering to three fundamental principles: the consensus of the parties; impartiality and the limited (and appropriate) use of force.

MONUSCO and MINUSMA, as well as MINUSCA, the United Nations mission in the Central African Republic (CAR), are large-scale peace operations, with stabilization mandates. These three missions involve the bulk of the “blue helmets” deployed around the world, but are also at the center of growing internal and external pressures that make their end, or in the best of cases, their resettlement, uncertain. Unlike the old missions that focused on maintaining peace agreements between warring parties, MONUSCO, MINUSMA and MINUSCA are all tasked with helping the state government deal with violent internal challenges and assert their leadership, reflecting the dramatic change in the nature of the conflicts that have emerged since the end of the Cold War, where the predominant conflicts are intra-state ones to the detriment, up to now, of inter-state ones.

In these missions, the UN is explicitly intervening on the side of the state, and the peacekeepers have been accused of using force in defense of state authority, which sometime lacks legitimacy. But peace operations that undertake offensive military action (applying Chapter VII of the UN Charter) defy the principles of impartiality and the limited use of force, leaving only consensus to distinguish UN operations from other types of military interventions. Consequently, consent matters a great deal.

Traditionally, consensus is based on the approval of the host government, even when the state itself that is rescued by UN action is a notorious violator of the human (but also economic and social) rights of its population.

While MONUSCO today still operates with the consent of the Kinshasa government, it is clear that the civilian population is not very favorable to the presence of “blue helmets;” and this especially in the seething eastern region, where enormous natural wealth and interests of neighboring countries make the area explosive. The mission failed to address the security problems of civilian populations in the east; and for decades, thousands of soldiers have been rotated from half the world—but nothing has changed on the ground.

Furthermore, the behavior of international soldiers towards the civilian population that they should protect from violence is so deplorable that they open deep wounds due to serious and prolonged abuses, which can be easily exploited by those who want to target an exasperated population against the UN.

As a general aspiration, UN interventions are undertaken in the service of people, not just states. In one interpretation, a whole body of international obligations stems from the UN Charter’s initial declaration that peoples, not states, make a pact to save subsequent generations from the scourge of war. In this interpretation, the UN mandate is not simply about defending state sovereignty and the preferences of member states, but about the security, dignity and protection of people—ideas that are reflected in the mandate to protect civilians, that each multidimensional mission has authorized since 1999, and received by the Security Council.

Local activists and scholars have argued that peace takes root only when international actors invest in local communities and when political solutions that center the concerns of the local population have a way to develop. Missions focused on state security rather than people’s will and security explicitly make peacekeepers another potential source of instability in areas already fraught with threats to ordinary people. This more securitized and coercive version of peace operations runs counter to the United Nations’ vision of peacekeeping and peacebuilding that emphasizes the “primacy of politics.”

The Missions in Mali, DRC and CAR, on the other hand, act with the explicit consent of the host state in order to support and extend the power of the nation, often working alongside state forces, to counter the groups that it has identified as rebels.

In Mali, MINUSMA’s sustainability was in question long before the military coups—as the UN Secretary-General’s 2018 report noted, an independent analysis from that year concluded that the mission “was faced with a dilemma between the need to reform and reconstitute the Malian defense and security forces and at the same time support the existing forces in dealing with the current situation of stability,” and that only a “clear regional political framework” would make the mission’s objectives achievable. And now, the cannot move freely; cannot investigate alleged violations of human rights; can rotate troops only after a month of suspension. Finally, while there is an underlying political process on paper, in practice it is empty.

Furthermore, the instability of regional security arrangements raises further questions about the mission’s ability to implement its mandate. MINUSMA depended heavily on French, European, and African counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel, which had formed a unique architecture of external forces with over 21,000 troops deployed across the region. This architecture is in flux, having proved ineffective and largely unpopular (it must be admitted that the narrative of some media on the welcome given by local populations to international forces, wherever they are deployed, is a legend fueled by the needs of internal politics of many states that participate in those operations to make them acceptable to their public opinions, especially in case of a politically controversial operation and in case of sustained human losses).

Furthermore, the same states that formally invite the UN to deploy, very often have no other choice in order to avoid internal collapse; and many governments do not look favorably on foreign military circulating freely in their own territory.

Mali is not the first host state to be so openly hostile to the peacekeepers. Perhaps the best-known example is the United Nations operation in Sudan in the early 2000s, carried out without the consent of Khartoum’s government, which did everything to sabotage its work and freedom of movement. But MINUSMA’s mandate to stabilize Mali makes the situation unusual: the “blue helmets” are in the field to help the Malian government fight jihadists and terrorists, while they are accepted with increasing difficulty by the same government they are supposed to be helping (and this ill-will towards the “blue helmets” is present both in DRC and CAR, at government level and in local public opinion). The political context has changed to such a radical extent that MINUSMA may no longer be in a position to operate in its current form and mandate.

Renegotiations of this year’s mandate at the United Nations Security Council also proved very difficult. The transitional government and Russian mercenaries were accused of being involved in atrocities against civilians and Russia initially opposed the draft resolution to address the violations of human rights and local restrictions on MINUSMA movements; and an attenuated solution was reached to avoid Moscow’s veto, which would have meant the total end of the mission; and, thus, the lesser evil was chosen.

UNSC, now more and more internally polarized, tends to simply renew the mandates and repeat the language and terms of commitment, when possible, instead of having to completely renegotiate the terms of an intervention; and this approach favors solutions of downside compromise. In the case of Mali, DRC and CAR, this approach places peacekeepers in an increasingly hostile environment, with little noticeable benefit, while leaving the door open to their near demise or (costly) irrelevance.

For these three missions, two potential options are open: either to be re-authorized as a more effective mission and with clear mandates, enforceable and clearly negotiated with host nations; or to terminate them. A third option is to prioritize the protection of civilians and document human rights violations, tasks that would require the consent which governments are clearly reluctant to give.

In more general terms, the protests in the DRC raise questions about the current nature and prospects of peace operations. They cannot do their jobs when the local population does not want them there; and UN operations without the consent of the local people are mere exercises to defend state sovereignty, not attempts to build lasting peace (and which therefore leave as soon as possible). And operating in dangerous circumstances without the consent of the host state or the ability to protect people from state violence or a clear peace to be maintained, as they are doing in Mali, DRC and CAR, risks further damaging the position of the UN and its residual prestige.

Building consensus at multiple levels is the key to the lasting success of UN peacekeeping operations and is the cornerstone for finding lasting political solutions to conflicts. The UN has tools and techniques to promote local peacebuilding efforts; and focusing these tools and techniques to build consensus for UN presence in local communities should be a key part of any mission. And, where host state consent is not possible, humanitarian, and diplomatic goals—not security goals—should be the central axis of UN efforts in a conflict. Otherwise, UN peacekeeping operations risk being left in a quagmire between divergent and unattainable goals, such as protecting people and solving security problems.

But if the UN is in the process of losing consensus in Africa, the USA, one of the most important states with the organization (and one of several) is actively looking for it, although the results are not very convincing. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was on tour in Africa, with the announcement of the Biden administration’s policy towards the continent as a highlight of the visit. The new strategy was launched during the South African leg of the tour that also took Blinken to DRC and Rwanda, from August 7-12.

In Blinken’s country-specific discussions in South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda are not to be defined as irrelevant, but as part of the US global strategy to contain Russian and Chinese pressure, and consolidate the anti-Moscow and Beijing approach in every sphere, including that of the United Nations, considered by Washington as basic and legitimizing.

However, it is the announcement of this new policy for the entire continent which is the most significant development, with far-reaching ramifications in the immediate, medium, and long term. It is the tradition of most American administrations to set up political and economic projects and initiatives for Africa, whether they are well-structured and articulated or simply ad hoc and disordered. The importance of these policies is that they shape relationships through trade and investment, political and diplomatic engagements, assistance through various humanitarian agencies and initiatives, and military relations.

According to an improper narrative, Donald Trump’s administration (2016-2020) would have made Africa disappear from its global political agenda. To be fair, the Trump administration hadn’t completely neglected Africa. One of the highlights of the Trump administration’s engagement with Africa was the 2018 launch of Prosper Africa, an inter-agency entity that provides a coordination mechanism for trade and investment programs. That Prosper Africa continues to exist during the Biden era, so ideologically polarized against the Trump one, shows that something good for Africa also came from the Trump administration.

However, the Trump administration did not engineer a global strategy, aside from casual statements by officials at the time—such as former National Councilor John Bolton—and often based on the United States’ exclusive need to stand up to China and Russia on the continent. But essentially there is a lack of a constant approach, replaced by moments of interest and phases of stagnation.

The latest US global strategy towards Africa was formulated ten years ago by the Barrack Obama administration. That policy prioritized strengthening democratic institutions; stimulating economic growth, trade, and investment; promoting peace and security; and, promoting opportunities and development through initiatives in the fields of health, food safety, climate change. While these issues remain relevant to Africa-US relations in 2022, political, economic, security and geopolitical circumstances have changed exponentially in the United States, Africa and around the world.

During the first months of Biden’s presidency, there was optimism in Africa about better relations with the then new administration. Some of the optimisms have been bolstered by the appointment of personalities believed to be in tune with African causes and interests, starting with Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US Ambassador to the United Nations.

While analysts, scholars and strategists await formal politics, there are first indications on the key aspects, which recall what was proposed by Washington on the occasion of the Pan-American Summit in Los Angeles and Biden’s trip to Korea and Japan: democracy, good governance and respect for human rights, security support (through AFRICOM). But on the economic front, the policy should include “economic prosperity,” and to be inclusive; and it should consider not only the interests of American companies, which made offers to the Indo-Pacific and Latin America rather weak.


Enrico Magnani, PhD is a UN officer who specializes in military history, politico-military affairs, peacekeeping and stability operations. (The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations).

China and India: Rivals and Partners in Troubled Waters

China and India are the two major powers in Asia and among the most important countries in the world. Their relationships are complex and difficult. Although the armed forces of the two nations have clashed in brief skirmishes, albeit very violent, on the mountainous borders of the Himalayas, they are both part of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), a very important economic and political bloc, and both have large economic contacts (India’s exports to China are about US $21.25 billion, and its imports from China are about US $94.16 billion). But at the same time, they are involved in a harsh rivalry and game of influences, which in an important part takes place around the geostrategic space of the Indian Ocean (and surrounding waters and countries).

The Indian Ocean is a region of great strategic importance due to the resources it harbors, the trade routes that pass through it, and because it contains some of the most important choke points in the world.

The Indian Ocean oceanic region is essential for the global maritime balance, because it contains some of the most relevant maritime choke points in the world. Specifically, these four strategic crossing points are: 1) Bab el-Mandeb, which connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden; 2) the Strait of Malacca, one of the most important shipping routes in the world; 3) the Strait of Hormuz, the only passage from the Persian Gulf to the ocean; and 4) the Mozambique Channel, an important trade route for transit between the Cape of Good Hope, the Middle East and Asia.

Specifically, for China and India, this is a region of vital importance to their interests; which has led them to develop strategies to establish their presence in this geographical area. As a consequence, this has triggered (and worsened) a geostrategic competition between both states to establish naval bases, consolidate alliances with coastal countries to secure their areas of influence, and develop a maritime force that can confront the counterpart. For this reason, the Indian Ocean appears to be one of the main areas in the rivalry between India and China to establish their particular superiority in the region.

Geographically speaking, the Indian Ocean is the third largest in the world, stretching from the east coast of Africa to the west coast of Australia. This region has grown in strategic importance; and one of the reasons is the growing competition between India and China to establish their leadership in this area. The Indian Ocean region is vital for the international maritime trade that passes through it—the supply of resources, such as oil, the choke points it contains, and the maritime lines of communication present on it.
In general terms, India and China have two different strategies and approaches, which have an inherent element of friction. While China seeks to protect its New Silk Road and its maritime lines of communication through a strategy labeled as the “String of Pearls” (a network of friendly states which allow the establishment of economic and military ties); India intends to establish itself as a regional leader and security provider in this region. These two strategies have collided in the region.

The geostrategic importance of the Indian Ocean has grown in intensity due to the economic growth of Asian countries, especially China, coupled with the rise of India as one of the most important littoral states in the region, and marked by a greater presence of the US in the Asia-Pacific to contain China. For India and China this region is vital. For India, foreign trade through its maritime lines of communication in the region represented 43.4% of its GDP in 2018. In addition, India depends on this area for 80% of its oil supply, being the third largest consumer of oil in the world. For China, the region is even more essential, as virtually all its maritime trade passes through it. Therefore, the Indian Ocean is a vital region for China’s interests. This area is becoming the epicenter of the geostrategic rivalry between India, now the sixth largest economy in the world, and India.
In Beijing, the growing Indian presence raises concern, since this region is of vital importance for their trade, the supply of resources, and their geopolitical ambitions.

After decades of invasions and interference by European powers throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, known as the “century of humiliation,” China is rising as a new world power in the economic and military fields. According to the World Bank, it is the second largest economy in the world, in terms of GDP, only behind the US (although the structural fragilities of its economy carry the risk of blowing up and slowing growth substantially, and thus causing it to fall from that position).
Spurred on by strong nationalism under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China is using its economic growth to return to “Greater China,” a concept related to the geography of the country’s imagination, under which Beijing would reclaim the territories usurped by the colonial powers during the 19th century and implement the setting up of the Heartland theory. The Heartland theory, elaborated by the geographer John Mackinder (1861-1947), establishes that whoever controls the area between Central Asia, Central Russia and Siberia has a privileged position in regards to the domination of the rest of Europe and Asia, and, potentially, world dominance.

But, as a rising revisionist power seeking to establish a new position in the international order, China needs to secure the supply of energy resources.
The control of the maritime lines of communication is pivotal to maintain international trade and retain a global role. This imperative has made Beijing to focus its attention in recent years on the oceans, and increase its maritime defensive capabilities, since the establishment of the PRC, focused on coastal defence. As the South China Sea, adjacent to its territory, imposes certain limitations due to territorial disputes involving several states and US presence, China has (partially) re-oriented its sights on the Indian Ocean to ensure its geopolitical interests.

As mentioned above, China’s interests in this region are to ensure the supply of resources, maintain trade routes and develop its Maritime Silk Road, with which it intends to challenge Western dominance in international markets and in the Indo-Pacific region. Therefore, China’s main objective in this area is to protect its maritime lines of communication; and for this, Beijing has developed a strategy which has been called by several analysts as the “String of Pearls.” Under this strategy, China seeks to increase its military, economic and diplomatic influence in the region through the development of infrastructures and the establishment of alliances with the coastal countries of the Indian Ocean.

In the Horn of Africa, in 2016, China established its first military base outside its territory, in Djibouti. In this way, it aims to increase its presence in an area of vital strategic importance, since the Bab el-Mandeb Strait is located there at the entrance to the Red Sea, and it is the route that connects Asia with Europe through the Suez Canal. In addition, China has made large investments in African countries of the Indian Ocean littoral, particularly Kenya and South Africa. This allow it greater influence in a geographical area where the Mozambique Channel runs, which is one of the strategic choke points in the Indian Ocean region.

Another vital component of the Chinese strategy is the construction of the Gwadar port in Pakistan, in which China has invested heavily, as it is part of the Sino-Pakistani Economic Corridor (CPEC). Located in a region of great strategic value between the Middle East, Pakistan, and Central Asia, the port directly connects Chinese territory with the Indian Ocean through highways and railways.

The relations between Pakistan and China are however subject to many turbulences, and the complicated political life of Islamabad is an element of incertitude for Beijing’s strategy, together with the open file of Afghanistan, which together represent a pending and unresolved threat to the full development of CPEC.

China has also established economic ties with the Maldives, a country that joined the New Silk Road initiative in 2014. These islands represent a major focus of geostrategic competition between India and China. In 2018, the most favorable candidate for Indian interests won the presidential elections. However, considering that Chinese investments represent 80% of the Maldives’ debt, it is very likely that Beijing will continue to maintain its influence. Beijing also maintains a heavy presence in Sri Lanka. In this country it has acquired the port of Hambantota. This location not only serves to control freighters heading towards China, but also allows it to monitor India’s movements in the area. In addition, it can keep a military force in reserve, in case of conflict.

The recent crisis (now political, the consequence of insane economic management) in Sri Lanka is closely monitored by Beijing, being worried to lose an important element of the “String of Pearls.”

China is also present in Chittagong, the largest port in Bangladesh, where it has invested in facilities and warehouses for cargo ships, and has taken part in the framework for the improvement of the national network of communication infrastructures, and the construction of the Karnaphuli tunnel (a.k.a. “Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Tunnel,” an under-construction, underwater expressway tunnel in the port city of Chattogram, under the Karnaphuli river).

Chinese expansion is also going on in Myanmar, specifically in the coastal city of Kyaukpyu on the Bay of Bengal, which appears to be one of the critical sub-areas of the Indian Ocean. There, since 2016, China has been given access by the military government to develop a special economic zone and build a port.

By establishing ground connections between these premises and Chinese territory, Beijing can reduce its dependence on the Strait of Malacca for gas and oil imports. Through the same, Beijing seeks to control the ships that pass through the Bay of Bengal towards the Strait of Malacca.

It is also reported that China is looking to develop surveillance operations near the Cocos/Keeling Islands (Australian federal territory), and/or Indonesia (another willing member of BRICS). The Cocos/Keeling Islands have been eyed for years by the US as possible site of strategic surveillance, focused on monitoring air and naval activities of Beijing in the area. Given the enhanced security ties between Washington and Canberra, this option looks very realistic in the midterm. In the recent past, the possibility of this appeared feasible from the perspective of the withdrawal of US presence from the Chagos Islands, a British territory in the Indian Ocean, due to the sovereignty claims of the Maldives. Now that this option seems over, and the growing military activity of China in the region keeps Cocos/Keeling as an important outpost of the strategy of controlling/countering Beijing with the reinforcement of the surveillance capabilities.

Finally, the “String of Pearls” extends through the South China Sea to the very coast of the Asian country. Here, the island of Hainan constitutes a Chinese military base and the first element of this economic and security architecture of Beijing’s strategy.

Due to its geographical position in the Rimland, India represents an important strategic pivot, critical for the penetration of the Middle East and China towards the sea.

The Rimland is a concept championed by Nicholas John Spykman (1898-1943), professor of international relations at Yale University. To him geopolitics is the planning of the security policy of a country in terms of its geographical factors. He described the maritime fringe of a country or continent; the densely populated western, southern, and eastern edges of the Eurasian continent. He criticized Mackinder theory for over evaluating the Heartland as being of immense strategic importance due to its vast size, central geographical location, and supremacy of land power rather than sea power. He assumed that the Heartland would not be a potential hub of Europe, because: a) Western Russia was then an agrarian society; b) Bases of industrialization were found to the west of the Ural Mountains; c) This area is ringed to the north, east, south, and south-west by some of the greater obstacles to transportation (ice and freezing temperature, lowering mountains etc.). There has never really been a simple land power–sea power opposition. Spykman thought that the Rimland, the strip of coastal land that encircles Eurasia, is more important than the central Asian zone (the so-called Heartland) for the control of the Eurasian continent. Spykman’s vision is at the base of the “containment politics” put into effect by the US in its relation/position to the USSR during the post-WWII era. Thus, “Heartland” appeared to him to be less relevant in comparison to “Rimland.”

While history links India to Central Asia, geography leads New Delhi to the Indian Ocean. It is the largest littoral state in this region, and is located in a strategic position between the maritime routes that join the Straits of Malacca, Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb; three of the most important choke points in the world. India perceives itself as the most important state in the Indian Ocean, thus destined to be the natural leader in the region. India perceives these waters as part of its territory and its maritime border; that is, “India’s Ocean” rather than the Indian Ocean.

Because of this visionary geography, India is suspicious of the presence of external actors in the region, particularly China, and its position can be described as its own Monroe Doctrine, in which it assumes that the presence of external actors is illegitimate and that littoral states must trust India for their security and protection. [The Monroe Doctrine was a US foreign policy position, launched by the US President James Monroe in 1823 that opposed European colonialism in the Western Hemisphere. It held that any intervention in the political affairs of the Americas by foreign powers was a potentially hostile act against the US. The doctrine was central to Washington foreign policy for much of the 19th and early 20th Centuries.] Therefore, India aspires to become the regional leader that guarantees the security of the littoral states.

In pursuit of this goal, India has undertaken a series of internal and external actions to strengthen its position in the Indian Ocean region. Internally, New Delhi has major ports and 200 minor ports on its territory. In addition, it has initiated a plan called “Sagarmala,” which is expected to double the number of main ports in the country. Also, it should be noted that India is the third country with the highest military spending in the world (72.9 USD billion in 2020).

The Sagarmala Programme (garland of the sea in Hindi) is an initiative by India to enhance the performance of the country’s logistics sector. The programme envisages unlocking the potential of waterways and the coastline. It entails investing US $120 billion to set up new mega ports, modernizing India’s existing ports, developing of 14 CEZs (Coastal Economic Zones) and CEU (Coastal Economic Units), enhancing port connectivity via road, rail, multi-modal logistics parks, pipelines & waterways and promoting coastal community development, with the aim of boosting merchandise exports by US $110 billion and generating around 10 million direct and indirect jobs. The Sagarmala Programme is the flagship programme of the Ministry of Shipping, launched in 2015, to promote port-led development in the country by exploiting India’s 7,517 km long coastline, 14,500 km of potentially navigable waterways and its strategic location on key international maritime trade routes. Sagarmala aims to modernize India’s ports, so that port-led development can be increased and coastlines can be developed to contribute to India’s growth. It also aims at transforming the existing ports into modern world-class ports and integrating the development of the ports, the industrial clusters and hinterland and efficient evacuation systems through road, rail, inland and coastal waterways, resulting in ports becoming the drivers of economic activity in coastal areas.

India’s diplomatic strategy is focused on improving its relations with countries like the Maldives and Sri Lanka and prevent them from falling into China’s sphere of influence. As for the concrete steps it has taken, India has established an alliance with Iran, a country which it has helped to develop the first phase of the construction of the Chabahar port, which is of great importance to India, given its location near the Strait of Hormuz. This way, India will not only be present in one of the most important maritime routes in the region, but it will be able to control the presence of Chinese ships in the area, being only 72 kilometers from the above-mentioned port of Gwadar, which is managed by Beijing.

With similar objectives, India has acquired the port of Duqm in Oman, which can provide logistical support to its military ships in the area, in addition to giving it access to the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. All this also allows New Delhi to strengthen its own maritime lines of communication.
India has also established ties with Indonesia. Both countries have reached an agreement for India to acquire the port of Sabang, which is of vital importance due to its proximity to the Strait of Malacca. Indonesia has stated that it does not want to join China’s New Silk Road, so it can become an important ally for India. Likewise, New Delhi has extended its influence on the African coast of the Indian Ocean. Together with Japan, it launched the AAGC (Asia-Africa Growth Corridor) initiative in 2017 to promote infrastructure development and ties between African countries, India, and Japan.

On the defensive front, India’s presence in the region allows it to secure its investments and combat piracy near the strategic Bab el-Mandeb strait. Finally, India has established its presence in the Seychelles and in Madagascar. In the first, an agreement was signed in 2015 whereby India would help create a coast guard to support the fight against piracy and maritime trafficking. In the second, it installed a radar to serve as a preventive system and early recognition of maritime traffic in a region of great importance, since the Mozambique Channel runs through it, which is one of the most important choke points in the Indian Ocean.

As mentioned already, given that both strategies have collided in the same geographical space, given the rising geostrategic competition between the two countries to establish their dominance. To understand this better, it is pivotal to ask the question of how India and China perceive each other.
From India’s perspective, China’s actions, specifically the String of Pearls, cause New Delhi to be concerned that Beijing is trying to encircle it.

herefore, India perceives that the Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean is not only to pursue its economic interests but is also intended to leave India unable to extend its influence in the region. This is exacerbated by the growth of ties between China and Pakistan. Considering its great rivalry with Islamabad, for India these alliances represent a major threat, because, among others, with the help of China, Pakistan is modernizing its naval force, though not at a level to be a serious threat for the Indian Navy, clearly more powerful.

In short, there is a perception that China seeks to establish its maritime power in the Indian Ocean to become a hegemonic actor in Asia; and this to the detriment of India’s interests.

On the other hand, China does not share India’s image of itself as a leader in the region. For Beijing, this image of a regional leader is not reflected in the status of power that it has, which is considered below other nations with a presence in Asia, such as Russia and Japan. It could be argued that while India sees China as an important threat, Beijing’s perception of New Delhi, though it is to be monitored and countered to keep it from growing, is lower.

Furthermore, China alleges that India and other littoral states have a misperception of the strategy referred to as the String of Pearls. Beijing states that its only intention is to protect its maritime lines of communication and trade routes, thus repeating the same explanation that it has used with all the other countries in the world that look at its activities with suspicion.

It is necessary to point out that China is very dependent on these waters for the passage of resources, due to what is called the “Malacca dilemma.” [“Malacca Dilemma” is a term coined in 2003, by the then Chinese President Hu Jintao. It is a term that represents the potential factors that could hinder China’s economic development through choking oil imports. China is the world’s largest importer of oil, accounting for 80 percent of the total oil used by the country, mainly secured from the USA.] This means that for China there is a great dependence on the Strait of Malacca for the supply of resources and international trade, which is why Beijing makes great efforts to secure this area.

For Chinese strategists, the protection of maritime lines of communication is a top priority. Bearing all this in mind, it can be argued that there exists a security dilemma between India and China; and for this reason, the actions of one State to increase its security can be seen as a threat by other States, making them feel less secure, and causing them to also seek to increase their security.

Although China’s actions were only intended to seek to increase its security, according to Beijing, nevertheless India feels that its security is thereby decreased by the presence of Beijing. Thus, New Delhi reinforces its military and economic presence in the region, which makes China fear a blockade of its trade routes, causing it to also increase its military capabilities in the region. This loop of militarization is exacerbated by the re-emergence of an anarchic nature of the international system and the uncertainty and distrust of the actions of the other party which this system generates.
As for the developments of this rivalry, both states have increased their military power and their economic and diplomatic influence in the region.

Some analysts point out that India and China have tried to build a geopolitical fence around the other party. In this sense, China would be trying to surround India to undermine India’s chances of regional leadership. By sea, this strategy would consist of breaking India’s ties with the littoral countries and projecting its naval power into the Indian Ocean.
Beijing has increased the naval presence around Singapore, Malaysia, Pakistan, and South Africa. In the last three decades, Chinese defense documents have given increasing importance to military projections towards the Indian Ocean. One of the objectives is to increase the capacity to stop or mitigate possible interruptions of trade with China and to be able to confront the US and/or India in the event of a major conflict.

Furthermore, increasing economic, military, and diplomatic ties with India’s neighbors, such as Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives can be seen as a way of isolating New Delhi from China. It seems that Beijing is trying to establish a connection between Pakistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal to encircle India. For all these reasons, it can be argued that China’s strategy for India consists of containing New Delhi’s dynamism, while seeking to establish a predominant position in the Indian Ocean region.

For its part, India is responding to China with a similar geopolitical encirclement, attempting to bypass the String of Pearls, progressively established by Beijing.

It is important to highlight the geographical advantage that India has in the region. While China relies on its allies and offshore bases for access to the Indian Ocean, India’s territory connects it directly to these waters. This advantage helps balance the contest, despite India’s military inferiority compared to China. With geographical location on its side, India has strengthened its naval bases in the Indian Ocean, making the country more capable of disrupting China’s sea lines of communication between the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Malacca. It has also expanded its presence in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, attempting to establish dominance in the Bay of Bengal. In addition, since 1995, the Indian Navy has carried out naval operations in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea with several regional and other partners (US, France, Australia).

China also has territorial claims; so, the increase in Indian presence in the area can be seen as a threat by Beijing. Additionally, India is developing ties with Vietnam in the field of security (Hanoi sees with great concern the rise of Chinese military power and in particular the role played by Hainan Island, which dangerously close to the heart of the country, around the Tonkin Gulf). With Vietnam on its side, New Delhi retaliated against China for its increased ties with Pakistan.

In the realm of maritime military strength, India spends less on naval capabilities than its allies and competitors in the Indian Ocean. However, the country has begun to understand the need to increase its naval power. India stated it aspires to become a 200-ship maritime force by 2027, developing a substantive force of aircraft carriers, as well as modernizing its fleet of submarines (and planning the acquisition of SSBN).

These actions to increase its strategic autonomy have been complemented by an external balance-of-power maneuver within the framework of the Quad alliance, made up of India, US, Japan, and Australia. This is intended to strengthen cooperation on security issues in the Indo-Pacific region, but also balance power against China’s increased presence in the region. For this reason, India’s actions in the Indian Ocean should be considered as part of an engagement strategy, which combines containment and commitment. However, New Delhi seems reluctant to agree to the US demand to increase Quad to a re-edition of SEATO, an anti-China tool, which is an indication that despite the rivalries with China, India does not seem oriented to extremize (for the while) the relations with Beijing. [SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) was an international organization for collective defense in Southeast Asia created by the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, or Manila Pact, signed in September 1954 in Manila, the Philippines and dissolved on 30 September 1977. Members of SEATO were Australia, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, UK and US.]

This means that India is using the balance of power to contain China, as it seeks to establish a strong position in the area, through actions described above, and with the goal of becoming a regional leader and security provider for the littoral states, but maintaining at the same time important economic ties.

In conclusion, the strategic rivalry between China and India is developing through a series of actions and counteractions carried out by each country to impose its dominance and deny the counterpart the establishment of power and influence. The rise of both countries in the international arena has caused both to focus their attention on the oceans to support their growth. This situation relates to the current geopolitical scenario in the Indian Ocean with the Sea Power theory.

Specifically, two elements of Mahan’s theory help to understand this geostrategic rivalry. First, ensuring and protecting the flow of resources through sea power. The security of their respective maritime lines of communication has been one of the main reason and justification for India and China to increase their naval strength and presence in this region. Second, the establishment of bases to establish sea power is an integral element of this programme, with consequences in the regional diplomatic scene.

[Alfred Mahan’s (1840-1914) The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783 (1890) stated that the ability of a nation to control maritime trade routes and establish its military superiority would be key to the power and prosperity of that state.]

In this light, India and China have established bases and assisted different port authorities in the Indian Ocean. This would have the objective of assuring their interests and establishing their maritime power in these waters; and it is expected that in the coming years we will see the continuation of this competition to establish new bases and ports between India and China.

Conclusions

Given the importance that the Indian Ocean represents for both countries, India and China have carried out a series of actions that have increased geostrategic rivalry to establish their dominance and influence in this region. This has led to a competition between the two to establish military, economic and diplomatic alliances with countries in the area, as well as an increase in maritime military capabilities and the establishment of bases in this geographical area. This rivalry, as of now, appears to be much less intense and unstable than other regional confrontations, such as between India and Pakistan. Therefore, a conflict between the two countries is highly unlikely and does not seem likely to happen. However, it can be stated that strong geopolitical competition is ongoing between China and India to secure their interests in the region, and will continue in the coming years.


Enrico Magnani, PhD is a UN officer who specializes in military history, politico-military affairs, peacekeeping and stability operations. (The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations).

Two Continents and Two Approaches

The visit of the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, who in the second half of May went to several small states in the South Pacific, ended with much fewer positive results than expected by Beijing (and feared by other states in the region). In fact, only East Timor has concluded an agreement with China, of limited impact on economic and security policies. This alarm bell has further strengthened the fears of many states in the region, starting with the US, of Chinese pressure in the area which, if it has suffered a minor set-back, will not diminish.

To counter the pressure from Beijing, President Biden, during a five-day visit to Asia (South Korea and Japan only) launched a new economic initiative, but which should indirectly also have influence security architectures of the Indo-Pacific macro region. Washington launched the IPEF (Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, using terminology that should draw attention among local partners), a “multilateral partnership for the 21st century,” which should help “economies to exploit rapid technological transformation, also in the digital economy, and to adapt to the next energy and climate transition.”

The push for a new economic pact in Asia with an anti-Chinese function has become a priority for Biden, who on May 23rd announced 13 nations joining the IPEF, which together with the USA, represent 40% of world GDP (Australia, Brunei, South Korea, Fiji, Philippines, Japan, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam; while the EU, France, Great Britain, Germany, Spain would be interested in being part of it, even if nothing official has still emerged on the matter).

Such a vast and articulated area brings different responses: Japan, (and Taiwan, a ghost, but very important participant) and South Korea want to work with the US, especially on emerging issues, such as the digital economy, and help set a standard for future business. India also reacted favorably to the initiative; Australia, New Zealand, Singapore are easy adherents, while for Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia the outcome will be more difficult, as with environmental transition. As White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell noted, economic engagement is “an area where the United States, in effect, must step up its game.”

Unfortunately for Washington, this plan seems unlikely to have a significant impact. While partners in Asia appear eager to join any US-led economic initiative as an anti-Chinese shield, Washington’s proposed framework lacks the incentives that the region’s economies are seeking. Indeed, the plan does not offer partners greater market access in the US or tariff reductions (and the Biden administration, although at the ideological antipodes of the Trump administration, which dismantled the region’s network of bilateral and multilateral economic agreements, does not seem at all willing to go back to the concerns that the return to globalization would have on the US economy and labor market). The plan does not even consider the effect China has on regional supply chains and appears to be focused on what the US can unilaterally achieve instead of finding mutual benefits for all potential members. Poorly designed in this way, there is a risk that the initiative will remain a dead letter soon.

Biden’s Indo-Pacific drive Lacks Strength and Strategic Vision

In addition to the intention to protect themselves from China, many Asian nations want closer economic ties with the United States. But if the allies of the United States are critical of the lack of incentives and ambitions in the Indo-Pacific economic framework, they remain doubtful about the security initiatives, which although more numerous (AUKUS, ANZUS, RIMPAC, Shangri-La Dialogue, Quad, various bilateral agreements)—(1) seem disconnected from the economic dimension and therefore make Washington’s action not as effective as the Biden administration hopes. The perplexities of the regional partners, beyond the accession (a formal act that must be filled with content), are also obvious, since large regional agreements are already functioning, without the participation of the United States, such as CATTP and RCEP; and (2) the IPEF is built around four pillars: (a) supply chains, (b) infrastructure and clean energy, and (c) taxes and anti-corruption, (d) and fair-trade.

But since the agreement is not a commercial agreement, there will be no negotiation of tariff reductions, which the partners insist on.

While the details of these pillars are still being negotiated, the White House wants high standards, particularly in labor and environmental provisions. As many advanced economies in Asia are already committed to fighting climate change and have strong labor protections, meeting these high standards should not be difficult. However, given the amount of political investment the Biden administration has made to restore American diplomatic relations, these standards could make it difficult for some developing economies to join. And the Biden administration would prefer to have as many members as possible to present, in the US tradition, “a global crusade against evil,” in this case, China.

To address these problems, the IPEF is an open and a la carte structure; in fact, to be considered as a member, a state can join at least one of the four pillars of the initiative. A big hit could be a digital trade deal. The CAPTPP—with Japan, Australia, Vietnam, New Zealand, and Singapore as members—already has a digital chapter in place. The US and Japan have a similar deal, and Singapore and Australia have a separate digital economy deal. Singapore also supported its partnership agreement for the digital economy. This topic is likely to prove to be one of the few areas of IPEF success.

As mentioned, the difficulty related to the effectiveness is that the Indo-Pacific countries want to talk about access to the US market and reduction of tariffs, which, as mentioned above, Washington does not want to discuss. Removing regulatory barriers is good; but it can have a limited impact on the grand scheme of supply chains.

In addition to the lack of ambition that the US partners see in the picture, there are also concerns and skepticism about its functional architecture, given that the management of the IPEF is shared between the Department of Commerce and the Office of the Foreign Trade Representative, with fewer than 500 officials), while the Department of State has so far played a secondary role. The picture might seem more of a diplomatic victory than an economic one. Meanwhile, all ASEAN members (such as Cambodia, considered a Chinese protectorate, but a small economy) are unlikely to join the IPEF, given their inability to meet higher standards, or their animosity towards the US. Of course, it is doubtful that China will be invited to join.

A Basic Ambiguity for all Concerned

These aspects, which underline the complexity of the international scene, and the very close links between economy and security (understood as a set of foreign and defense policies), also highlight other problems. In addition to the willingness of the US to maintain global and pan-regional leadership, there is an underlying ambiguity that involves all members of the IPEF, including Washington. While everyone is afraid of Chinese pressure, be it political, military, economic, at the same time doubt arises that the economic or commercial ties with partners of importance like China will be reduced, which in some states, such as Australia (which is also the most concerned about the push from Beijing), represents a very important percentage of the national GDP. So, if Washington aspires to have its partners in the Indo-Pacific macro region apply “decoupling” from China, for itself, it wants to be an exception, and maintain a dialogue, on its own terms. Beijing is well aware of these ambiguities.

And despite the many internal/external difficulties (economic slowdown, environmental reconversion, the impact of the pandemic, a conference of the CCP that promises to be difficult, relations with Russia, the situation in Hong Kong and civil rights), China yet does play all its cards with unrelenting care, starting with the fact that it owns a considerable part of the US public debt, aided in this, unwittingly, by the structural weakness of the IPEF.

The Other End of the Thread

This situation is presented in very similar terms also in the western hemisphere. Here, too, the US arrived empty-handed at the IX Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. Now that Washington has been surpassed by a China that is today the first trading partner of Brazil, Chile, and Peru, and the second of Argentina and Colombia, and this makes us think how much time has passed since the Monroe Doctrine and that of Theodore Roosevelt. In December 1994, Bill Clinton had brought together 33 heads of state and government from Canada to Chile—all but Cuba—for the first Summit of the Americas in Miami. The context seemed favorable to achieving the goals set by George H. W. Bush, in his so-called Initiative of the Americas, especially the most ambitious: the creation of a free trade area from the Bering Strait in Alaska to the Strait of Magellan in Patagonia.

Democratic advances and economic liberalization in Latin America and the Caribbean have generated expectations of greater and lasting political and economic consensus because the end of the Cold War also included the end of the Cuban model for the left and military dictatorships for the right. However, it was a clearly premature burial, as revealed by the Joe Biden administration’s difficulties in having the presence of several heads of state on the continent, where the rift between many Latin American countries and the US is evident. The US decision not to invite Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua led the presidents of Mexico and Honduras to stay home in protest, while the presidents of El Salvador, Bolivia and Guatemala refused to attend for other reasons.

The polarization was also evident in the summit’s civil society forum. Many local activists have complained about the missed opportunity to demand that governments engage productively with their respective oppositions and ensure free and fair elections. Local groups working with migrants have also called for attention not only to those arriving at the US border, but rather to the millions of Venezuelan refugees and other who have fled to other countries in the region. Here too Biden presented a kind of IPEF clone, to which the migration control pillar is added (a critical issue for the USA and for the impact it could have on internal political dynamics, increasingly polarized in a harsh ideological confrontation between Democrats and Republicans).

But the situation is even worse. In fact, even if many nations, although ruled by left-wing leadership, would have been willing to strengthen economic ties with Washington, and have access to US markets, there is still the problem of a weak and uncertain supply chain (as acknowledged privately by senior US executives), and clashes with the accelerating Chinese presence, which has made massive investments in infrastructure projects. Thus far, Chinese pressure is less strong in the field of security; but there is an increase in infiltration attempts, especially in the fight against drug-trafficking and illegal fishing control, with the proposal of using Beijing coast guard, in aid of local forces. Up to now, these offers have not received positive responses, but for the future it is difficult to bet, given that old dynamics are being re-proposed, such as Nicaragua’s availability to host the Russian military presence, which has just been expressed.

Conclusions

Despite praiseworthy rhetoric, mainly due to the rejection of what was dismantled and made conflicting by the Trump Administration, the action of the Biden administration remains overall not up to par for several reasons, starting with the priorities of internal policies (economic and social), while leaving the external ones dominated by the security approach, with all the weaknesses of a sectoral vision in the face of global problems.

(1) The militarization (and re-militarization) of the anti-Chinese coalitions in the area is witnessed by two elements. In the sidelines of the three-day Shangri-La Dialogue session, which ended in Singapore in mid-June, UK, and other regional countries (all belonging to the Commonwealth), announced efforts to expand and re-energize the Five Powers Defense Arrangements (FPDA), a 51-year-old series of mutual assistance agreements comprising the UK, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand. At its core, the pact commits the members to consult with one another in the event or threat of an armed attack on any of the FPDA members, and to mutually decide what measures should be taken, jointly or separately.

There are no specific obligations to intervene militarily even if there was the ANZUK set up, a joint tri-service force made up of Australian, New Zealand, and British units and formed in Singapore, on 1 November 1971 and disbanded on 31 January 1974. The FPDA was set up following the termination of the United Kingdom’s defence guarantees of the then Malaya (now Malaysia and Singapore) under the “Anglo-Malayan Defence Agreement,” because of the UK’s decision in 1967 to withdraw its armed forces east of Suez. The return to the East of Suez by London was mirrored in the recent deployment of Royal Navy carrier group in the region, an answer also to strong domestic political needs, post-Brexit; but it a small presence in Singapore, and Brunei, two small territories in the Indo-Pacific region (Pitcairn Islands, practically depopulated, and the archipelago of Chagos, vacated by its original population in the 1970s and now used almost exclusively by US forces).

During the same session of the Shangri-La Dialogue, the recently appointed French Minister for the Armed Forces, Sébastien Lecornu, announced that Paris would strengthen and modernize its military presence and capabilities in the Asia-Pacific zone, particularly on New Caledonia and Polynesia. Lecornu said: “There are fears among our partners who are wondering if the crisis in Ukraine could distract us from the Indo-Pacific. It is not so,” France will deploy permanently, as of 2025, six new ocean patrol boats in the Indo-Pacific, including two in the Pacific this year, one based in New Caledonia, the other in Polynesia” for “surveillance and sovereignty missions…Similarly, the five Falcon (reconnaissance) aircraft in the Pacific will be replaced by five new, more modern models.” France will organize a sovereignty mission in the Pacific, “Pégase 22,” which is also planned with the combined deployment of the Rafale fighter jet and A400 M military transport aircraft. Thus, the French forces will continue to participate in multiple multilateral exercises, organizing some of them to maintain “a significant presence in the region, to show France’s attachment to the stability of the Asia-Pacific region.”

(2) The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), or Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, was a proposed trade agreement between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and which the US signed on 4 February 2016. Just after taking office, newly elected President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the TPP in January 2017. As a result, the agreement could not be ratified as planned and did not come into force. The remaining countries negotiated a new trade agreement, called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPATPP), which incorporates most of the provisions of the TPP and which went into effect on December 30, 2018. The TPP started as an expansion of the Transpacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPSEP or P4), signed by Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, and Singapore in 2005. Since 2008, other countries have joined the discussion for a broader agreement: Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, USA, and Vietnam, bringing the countries involved in the negotiations to twelve.

As mentioned, in January 2017, the US withdrew from the deal. The other 11 TPP countries agreed in May 2017 to restore it and reached an agreement in January 2018. After ratification by six of them (Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, and Singapore), the agreement entered in force for those countries on 30 December 2018. The UK joined the CPATPP in 2021; Taiwan, Philippines, Colombia, Thailand, and Indonesia, Bangladesh, India South Korea, Sri Lanka, and China have expressed interest in joining the CATPP.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a free trade agreement between the Asian and Pacific nations of Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The 15 member countries represent approximately 30% of the world’s population (2.2 billion people) and 30% of global GDP ($ 29.7 trillion), making it the largest trading bloc in history. Signed in November 2020, RCEP is the first free trade agreement between major Asian economies, including China, Indonesia, Japan, and South Korea.

The RCEP was conceived at the 2011 ASEAN Summit in Bali, Indonesia, while negotiations were formally launched during the 2012 ASEAN Summit in Cambodia. India, which took part in the initial negotiations but later decided to give up, has been invited to join the bloc at any time. Any other country or separate customs territory of the region can join the agreement, 18 months from the date of coming into force of the agreement, on 1 July 2023. The treaty was formally signed on 15 November 2020 at the ASEAN virtual summit hosted by Vietnam.

As of January 17, 2022, seven of the ten ASEAN signatories and all five non-ASEAN signatories have deposited their RCEP ratification instruments with the ASEAN Secretary General. For the top ten ratifying countries, the trade pact entered into force on January 1, 2022. The RCEP includes a mix of high-, middle- and low-income countries, and plans to eliminate around 90% of import tariffs among its signatories within 20 years of coming into force, and to establish common rules for e-commerce, trade and intellectual property.


Enrico Magnani, PhD is a UN officer who specializes in military history, politico-military affairs, peacekeeping and stability operations. (The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations).


A Difficult Restart for a Failed State

On May 3, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, the UN Security Council, the US State Department and the European High Representative Josep Borrell issued harsh statements condemning an attack by the Islamist Al-Shabab militias on an advanced base in Elbaraf, in the Middle Shabelle region, held by Burundian troops, of ATMIS, the recently activated stabilization operation of the African Union, established at the end of the mandate of AMISOM.

There are conflicting reports of the attack. Officially, there were about ten killed among the “green helmets.” Other sources report instead of almost two hundred killed and that the base was briefly occupied by Islamist militiamen, who after having sacked and burned it, abandoned the position.
The gravity of the incident was however confirmed by the fact that the President of the Commission of the African Union (former Chadian foreign minister Mussa Faki) also broke silence by condemning the incident. Although AMISOM (like ATMIS) is, albeit in a politically ambiguous way, an articulation of the Union, a declaration from Addis Ababa reveals the gravity of the moment (especially considering that the regional organization has always been very sparing regarding public statements about Somalia, which is considered the most difficult area for the organization).

The attack on the base, in central Somalia, part of the Al-Shabab, was a grave signal to the AU, but also to the UN (whose Security Council Resolution 2628 of 31 March 2022 sanctioned the end of AMISOM and the activation of ATMIS), and to the EU, which has several operations on site, such as EUTM-Somalia (which has been operating since 2010 and in which military instructors from Italy, Spain, Sweden, Finland, Romania, UK and Serbia take part), the EU CAP-Somalia (which has been operating since 2013), and the EUNAVFOR “Atalanta” (activated in 2008). It also means that the change of name means nothing and the Islamicists will continue to strike.

ATMIS (African [Union] Transition Mission in Somalia) replaced AMISOM (African [Union] Mission in Somalia) on 1 April, in line with a decision by the AU Peace and Security Council. The new mission has the mandate to support the Somali government in the implementation of the Transition Plan and in the transfer of greater responsibilities to the Somali armed forces and police. The activation of ATMIS was scheduled for December 2021 but disagreements with the Somali authorities delayed it and an agreement was finally reached on what appears to be more only a change of name and an extension of the existing mandate. ATMIS will operate until the end of 2024, after which all responsibilities will be transferred to the Somali security forces.

The ATMIS “capacity” of approximately 18,000 soldiers, 1,000 policemen (from Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Djibouti, Burundi, Uganda, Sierra Leone) and a hundred civilian staffers (all diplomats seconded from their respective nations and based in Nairobi) seems a mirror of its predecessor, as well as a large part of its mandate. The work of AMISOM, which began in March 2007, was focused on degrading the military capacity of Al-Shabab and strengthening the capacity of the Somali army and police, so that the mission could eventually withdraw as soon as possible. This happened only in part; the pan-African forces engaged in violent clashes with the Islamist militias, suffering heavy losses (some sources refer to up to 3,000 KIA), and even carried out an amphibious assault in 2012 in Chisimaio.

The mandate of the “green helmets” has been renewed several times and came to a difficult end in 2021. However, the exit did not happen, as the security threats that necessitated the arrival of pan-African soldiers continue to exist and Somalia continues to face three emergencies: security, governance, and development. These emergencies continue to grip the country and AMISOM, which was supposed to be the first response to security challenges, and the start of a positive loop, in which governance and development would lead the country out of the condition of a failed state (in existence since the fall of the never sufficiently deprecated regime of Siad Barre, which laid the foundations of the current instability). There has only been control of the situation, but no reversing of the negative trend.
To determine the future of AMISOM, the AU and the UN conducted independent assessments last year and various options were proposed. An agreement was required on the mandate, composition, size, strategic and specific objectives of a new mission and the tasks of the military, civilian and police components. These processes have made the relations between the international community and the Somali authorities very tense, which although divided over everything, were unanimous in the very strong opposition to any possible reduction of forces and substantial modification of the mandate of AMISOM due to the slow process of integration between the national armed and security forces and those of the autonomous regions of Puntland and Jubaland.

Such was the hostility that last November the deputy head of the mission, the Ugandan diplomat Simon Mulongo was expelled, and a week after the start of ATMIS (!). The same was done with the Special Representative of the African Union Commission Chairperson for Somalia (SRCC), the Mozambican diplomat Francisco Madeira.

Now the mission is guided by an acting head, and Addis Ababa is negotiating with Mogadishu for another head of mission; and clearly the problem is not in the choice of the person but what the mission should do. This shows how for ATMIS the scenario is difficult and all uphill even without Al-Shabab. Somalia’s government wants ATMIS to focus on implementing the Transition Plan, developed in 2018, to transfer security responsibilities from AMISOM to the country’s security forces, but with substantial cash flows to equip and train them. It has recently been revised and will be implemented (hopefully) over the next three years. The AU and the UN agreed to this approach. Bankole Adeoye, the Nigerian diplomat who is the AU Commissioner for Political Affairs and Head of the Peace and Security Council, said the stabilization and construction goals of the Somali state and the activation of ATMIS will be fully in line with the Transition Plan.

The AU Peace and Security Council outlined a mandate for the new mission which included reducing the military capabilities of Al-Shabab and other terrorist groups, providing security, building the capabilities of security forces, justice and local authorities and support for peace and reconciliation. But as well, the mandate of AMISOM was the same and was aligned with the Transition Plan, so there was nothing new in ATMIS in this regard, compared to the previous one.

The biggest change is perhaps that the emphasis on the idea of a “transition” is most strongly rooted in the logic of the new mission, which has a four-step timeline for working with the Somali government to implement the Transition Plan. In addition, some minor adjustments should also occur, such as realignment of ATMIS facilities relative to those of AMISOM and greater command and control authority under the mission force commander; but these are limited overall. In terms of operational changes, ATMIS will differ from AMISOM in increasing mobility, lethality, and efficiency in every sector of the mission, with the main goal of rapidly degrading the capabilities of Al-Shabab and other extremist militant groups.

This capacity should increase soon, after it was dramatically reduced when the US forces present in Somalia were withdrawn in a controversial decision by President Trump in December 2020. Just after the election of the new President of Somalia, the Pentagon notified the return of a substantial presence. This presence, with special forces operators and drone units, and after the withdrawal was re-deployed in Djibouti, will increase the capabilities of the pan-African troops.

Regardless of the May 2 attack, Al-Shabab continues to exert strong pressure on international and Somali forces and the group still controls vast territories of central and southern Somalia. It carries out deadly raids in the Somali capital itself and has substantial financial resources (according to a research institute based in Mogadishu, in 2021 it has collected about $180 Million in revenue [taxes and customs] and has spent 24 million dollars on weapons). In recent months, many attacks have been reported, aggravated by social strikes and riots in Mogadishu and Beledweyne which caused over 53 deaths.

As mentioned, the presence of the “green helmets” was envisaged as an element of activation of a process of national unification, albeit in a federal context. Thus, prioritizing the political deadlock would help resolve the country’s security challenges; but the replacement of AMISOM with ATMIS comes at a critical time. Political tensions in the country still threaten the modest progress made over the years. The divisions among the Somali elites over the distribution of power and resources are at the heart of all problems. Two peaceful transitions of power occurred in 2012 and 2017, but the third faltered due to disputes over election management. President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmaajo,” in power since 2017, remained in office after his term expired in February 2021 and he was re-elected on 15 May, ending, at least formally, the institutional stalemate and re-activating a more serene dialogue also with the international community.

Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble (the defeated competitor of “Farmaajo” in the presidential run) has been tasked with reforming the electoral process. But progress has been slow, despite the tireless mediation work of UNPOS (UN Political Office for Somalia). The country’s future is unpredictable, with the political impasse sometimes leading to armed clashes and persistent external interference, such as by Turkey, Qatar and the UAE, which have their own agendas (and substantial military presences on the ground) and which do not necessarily coincide with the plans of the UN and the EU. (But then the UK also has its own bilateral training mission of the Somali armed forces, the “Tangham” operation, with about sixty instructors; and Italy, the former colonial power, has a similar one, MIADIT-Somalia, which is focused on training the Somali and Djibouti police forces and which works closely with EUCAP- Somalia).

In terms of the wider regional dynamics, how the new government will position itself in the neighbourhood will have implications in terms of realignment of regional politics and may affect the project of a tripartite alliance of Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia. The outcome of the election will also affect Somalia’s relations with Gulf countries. Qatar is said to have supported Farmaajo’s re-election, whereas the UAE has maintained ties with Roble and some of the federal member states.
ATMIS will also suffer the same financial problems as AMISOM. The United Nations has provided logistical support to the mission, and will continue to do so with the UNSOS (UN Support Office for Somalia). The new (or old) AU presence in Somalia will impact also in the format and mandate of UNSOS, which will get a “technical” extension mandate in the month of May from the Security Council in the perspective of a strategic assessment of the mission and a possible re-tailoring.

The EU, it is supposed, will continue to pay the salaries of ATMIS military and police personnel, as it had done for AMISOM. But the EU has progressively reduced its support in recent years (also to protest the internal policies of some countries participating in AMISOM, especially in the areas of political and civil liberties), and its intentions for ATMIS are not yet clear, even if the EU Delegation in Somalia assured that the organization is ready to contribute and ensure predictability of funding as long as the configuration plan is realistic, pragmatic and focused.

Thus, it appears that ATMIS will not differ substantially from AMISOM in its ultimate purposes. It will mainly be a continuation of the current military support which, although essential for the security of the country, will not be new.

As political deadlock is at the heart of Somalia’s social and security problems. Resolving these should be the priority; and the recent election of a new President is not a guarantee for such a resolution, given the controversial and conflictive political life of the country. If it is to differ from AMISOM, the mandate of ATMIS and the reconfiguration of international and local forces should include a solid political commitment to support reconciliation between the country’s divided political groups and better political cooperation between the UN and AU (and EU). Otherwise, the exercise of simply renaming the mission without addressing the institutional and political problems in the first place that afflict the country and that keep it anchored to the condition of a “failed state,” will not help much to change.
Analyzing the recent developments in Somalia and the Horn of Africa, a region of increasing importance, naturally leads to a broadening of view, considering, or at least trying to consider, the possible future regional and sub-regional repercussions of the war in Ukraine. Russia’s relations with Africa are under heavy pressure in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine and amidst the articulate reactions from the continent’s states to the new war in Europe.

In recent years, Moscow has strengthened ties with countries across the continent, especially those plagued by internal violence and which are also disillusioned with Western powers. Russia remains a leading arms supplier and Russian private military contractors continue to expand their presence, most recently in Mali, Central Africa, Cameroon, and Sudan (not counting the political-diplomatic forays into Guinea, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad). Whether Russia is pursuing a broader strategy, or simply engaging in tactical power plays, focused to disturb the role and presence of Western powers in Africa, remains a matter of debate. Russia has long sought a naval base on the Red Sea and holds its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council to influence the Continent.

Africa’s response to the Ukrainian crisis has been far from united. During the historic session of the UN General Assembly in early March, the emerging rifts were clearly shown: only about half of African states supported the resolution’s denunciation of Russian aggression; one, the only one of the Continent and furthermore belonging to the Horn of Africa, Eritrea, has opposed. While some countries have strongly condemned the invasion as a flagrant violation of crucial norms, others have been more hesitant, often emphasizing the West’s inconsistent commitment to these same principles in other situations, and the West’s murky and contradictory statements and actions.

It is a fact that in the African Continent, and in the very sensitive region of the Horn of Africa and its surrounding areas (the Suez Canal/Red Sea/Bab-el-Mandeb Strait axis), the situation remains open to interference, if not directly Russian, possibly by other players (such as Iran, present in Yemen), with further upheavals in an already fragile region.


Enrico Magnani, PhD, is a UN officer who specializes in military history, politico-military affairs, peacekeeping and stability operations. (The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations).


Featured image: mural by Nujuum Hashi Ahmed, 2020.

The Sahel: Setbacks and Insecurity

While all the world is focused on the Russian-Ukrainian war in Ukraine and terrible consequences, calling attention to other regional conflicts might seem diversionary, or even offensive. But the world is a complex and cruel landscape, involving international dynamics and various interest groups which affect the lives of people.

Thus, it is useful to look at the Southern “near abroad” of EU and NATO blocks, where dynamics risk to impact (seriously), with implications for the security of Western states, including military threats, migrations routes, and the energy landscape.

Nine years after the French intervention in Mali, violent extremism continues to spread in the Sahel, showing remarkable resilience, despite efforts to prevent and combat radicalism by local governments and international actors. Jihadism, which seemed to be limited to northern Mali a few years ago, now extends to 75% of its territory, in addition to affecting Burkina Faso and Niger, with an increase, in the Sahel as a whole, of 70% in the number of jihadist actions; and with Burkina Faso in the focus for now, with dangerous and worrying intrusion into Western Guinea Gulf subregion states.

The complicated situation in which the Sahel finds itself, at a time when Operation “Barkhane” is being called to come to an end in 2022, in favour of a new, more modest military deployment, has brough into play various questions about the future of security in the region, where there are emerging more and more problems challenging the confrontation between the Euro-Atlantic economic and security architectures and Russia in primis (and China in the shadows).

Further, to complicate the matter, analysis, approaches, and management, as a caveat, when mentioning the Euro-Atlantic economic and security architectures, there are various imprecisions, given the divergent agendas and erratic priorities of some partners of these coalitions, like Turkey, or strong national interests, like France (reinforced by an exclusive colonial dominance, established in the region in the second half of the 19th century and which ended in the 1960s; and it should be remembered that since those years, French forces have carried out in Africa at least 50 operations, without considering the secret ones, as secrets, are not recorded).

The Current Stage

What will be the consequences of the end of Operation “Barkhane” on regional security? To what extent can regional governments and, more specifically the juntas that govern Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea (and in a limited extent, also Chad) respond to the articulated security challenges? What alternatives or possible solutions meet the growing regional deterioration, at a time when new external stakeholders, such as Russia, are now on the scene, formally and informally (using the infamous contractors of the Wagner group)?

Nine years after the French intervention in Mali, violent extremism continues to spread in the Sahel, showing remarkable resilience, despite prevention and counter-radicalism efforts by local governments and international actors. The weakening of jihadist groups, following the French intervention in January 2013, proved to be short-lived and the survivors of Operation “Serval,” to which “Barkhane” is the successor, have shown a great ability to recover and adapt quickly to the changing security environment.

In Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger alone, more than 6,200 French military personnel were killed in action. Since 2013, the Sahel is the region where terrorist groups have grown the most, with the Islamic State now replacing the Taliban as the world’s deadliest group and Burkina Faso as the main locus.

Of course, the galaxy of terrorists’ groups is a complex landscape, because of the persistent merging and splitting among its members, as well as allegiance to tribal, ethnic, ideological, and personal elements—all of which makes such groups extremely difficult to track and to identify individuals and trends. As a result, strategical and operational lines, approaches and targets also become difficult to ascertain.

During the early days of Operation “Barkhane” (which began in 2014, and which weakened the presence of French forces in other Francopohone states in the region), jihadist groups, mainly Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), managed to survive, thanks to their “low profile” strategy, through which they concealed themselves among the population, thus eliminating the need for operational structures (“katibas”) that would be too large and therefore easily detected and destroyed by an opposing force which had air assets.

In this way, AQIM, supported by the Malian jihadists group, Ansar Dine, gradually reorganised itself to operate throughout Mali, and even extended its actions to Burkina Faso and Niger. Thus, from 40 attacks recorded in 2014, Mali experienced 98 the following year, and 157 in 2016, becoming progressively more complex as armed groups began to operate south of Niger, as evidenced by the spectacular attacks on the Radisson hotel in Bamako (20 November 2015), Ouagadougou (15 January 2016) and Grand-Bassam in Côte d’Ivoire (13 March 2016), all involving Western citizens as targets.

The katibas that moved around AQIM were soon joined by Amadou Kouffa’s jihadist group, Macina Liberation Front (FLM), a group that abruptly emerged in January 2015, with the aim of expanding jihad to southern Mali (and restoring the empire of Macina, which existed from 1818 to 1862). This group, which recruits among the Fulani populations of Mali, trapped between the Tuareg and Malian farmers in the south who reproach them for their pastoralist traditions, demonstrated its operational capacity by taking control, albeit temporarily, of the town of Fakola in the SW of Mali in June 2015.

In March 2017, all Al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist groups reunited in a tactical alliance, self-labelled, the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (JNIM), which in turn was the result of the artificial merger of historical terrorist groups Ansar Dine, AQIM, the Macina Liberation Front (FLM) and Al Mourabitoun (a jihadist group created in August 2013 and whose leader, the Algerian Mojtar Belmojtar became notorious in January 2013 with his attack on the Tiguentourine/In Amenas gas facility in Algeria). The new JNIM leader became Iyad ag-Ghali, the head of Ansar Dine, who led the 1990 rebellion of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MPLA) against the Malian government and who is known in the West as an intermediary in the liberation of European citizens in the first decade of the century.

The aim of this merger, despite heavy personal rivalries, was to increase the synergy of their actions, by sharing networks, experiences, and results, but also by following al-Qaeda’s strategy, they distanced themselves from the other branch of international jihadism represented by the Islamic State (a.k.a. Daesh), which was then emerging strongly in the Sahel. JNIM used the strategy of presenting itself as a reasonable actor, a promoter of Islamic governance and capable of issuing apologetic statements when civilians were killed, rather than the bloodthirsty terrorists that Daesh fighters were being labelled as. This group emerged as a Sahelian brand of Daesh in the Middle East, adopting the name, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (IS-GS) and established itself in the “Three Borders” region (between Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso), in an area particularly neglected by the Niamey, Bamako, and Ouagadougou governance.

The IS-GS took the oath of allegiance to the Islamic State in May 2015, under the Sahrawi, Adnan Abu Walid al-Saharawi, former spokesman of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA, or MUJAO in French) and former “emir” of Al-Mourabitoun in Mali.

The IS-GS became particularly prominent in sub-Saharan Africa and was characterised by following the most intransigent and ultraviolent tenets of jihadism, becoming the preferred target of Western forces and local states troops. Its fighters were largely from the MUJWA/MUJAO, established in 2011 by the Mauritanian Hamada Ould Kheira, who had left AQIM because of the group’s internal ethnic-tribal antagonism, under the control of Algerian Islamist terrorist chiefs, such as Droukdel and Belmokhtar, while the fighters were mostly black Africans recruited from among the Fulani, Daoussahaks and Gao Moors (all from Mali).

From its stronghold of Ménaka, and strengthened by its local roots and its egalitarian discourse, the MUJWA/MUJAO became known for its campaign of kidnappings and suicide bombings modelled on al-Qaeda. However, MUJWA/MUJAO was faced with a strong internal struggle, with mutual accusations by Algeria and Morocco, which blamed its historical rival to be supporting the group and undermining the regional security to win advantage for their respective regional leadership ambitions.

Of particular interest is also the relationship between IS-GS and the other Islamic State (IS) franchise operating in the Lake Chad region, under the name, Islamic State in the West African Province (ISWAP). This group emerged in 2016 as a splinter group of the Nigerian-based Boko Haram, the most active and lethal group in West Africa, which, by 2019, had killed more than 35,000 people, and originated more than two million of IDPs (Internally Displaced People) and connected the Sahel area with the Islamist insurgency in Chad, northern Cameroon, Niger, and NW Nigeria.

Established in 2002, in the Nigerian state of Borno, and led since 2009 by Abu Bakr Shekau, after the death in police custody of founder Mohammed Yusuf, Boko Haram was characterised by indiscriminate attacks on civilians and spread to neighbouring Niger, Chad, and Cameroon.

In 2015, Shekau pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) and the group changed its name to ISWAP. Dut due to his extreme brutality, IS decided to remove him in 2016, appointing Al Barnawi, the founder’s eldest son and until then the group’s spokesman, as his successor; thus, creating two factions: Boko Haram and ISWAP.

Both groups pursued the same aim of creating a Salafist-jihadist caliphate in the Shari’a-ruled Boko Haram’s actions, as opposed to ISWAP’s greater concern of gaining the acceptance of the local population. Their phoenix-like operational trend tells a similar story for both, their greatest strength being their ability to use areas with weak state presence to retreat into and regroup, while using a variety of tactics to maintain the flow of resources that have made them deadly and resilient jihadist groups.

However, Shekau’s death in June 2021, and after the rival splinter group stormed his Sambisa Forest fiefdom, has weakened Boko Haram and facilitated the integration of many of its members into ISWAP.

In terms of the relationship between ISWAP and IS-GS, the two jihadist groups are geographically independent, although IS-GS is technically considered a sub-group of ISWAP, according to the Islamic State’s architecture. ISWAP is particularly active in the Lake Chad Basin region, where it has intensified attacks against security forces since mid-2018, and mainly in Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon; while IS-GS is more confined to the Liptako Gourma region, with operations in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.

Another differential aspect of Sahelian jihadism concerns the relationship between JNIM as an Al Qaeda affiliate and IS-GS as an Islamic State affiliate. For several years there existed, in contrast to affiliates in other regions of the world where they operate, a kind of tacit agreement of non-belligerence, and even cooperation between the two in joint raids against shared enemies; this is what came to be known as the “Sahelian anomaly.”

This made it easier for jihadism to expand its range of action in other Sahelian and West African countries since 2017, taking advantage of porous borders were, rural, poor societies, marginalised by their states, lived.
However, in 2019, this pact was broken, and tensions between JNIM and IS-GS became violent in the “Three Borders” area of the Liptako region. The causes of this rupture must be attributed to several factors; the main one being the ideological hardening of the IS-GS, resulting in its integration into the more radical ISWAP, and the consequent pressure to confront JNIM. To this should be added the tensions that have arisen between the two groups, driven by the growing operational ambitions of the IS-GS, which competes for fighters and resources in the Sahel.

The jihadist threat now look to Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, and Senegal; and although ISIS has been weakened in Mali, through military action by France and its partners and has lost its leader, Adman abu Walis al-Sahrawi, in a spectacular action in September 2021, it continues to seek a foothold in Western Niger and Burkina Faso, even if that means linking up with Boko Haram in Nigeria. The JNIM, whose hatred emir Droukdel was also killed in June 2020 in Southern Algeria, is reportedly trying to strengthen itself in the Azawad region by taking advantage of the lack of reaction from Algeria and in central Mali, where it is forced to coexist with nationalist groups in the Azawad.

To complete the picture of armed (and institutional) threats in the Sahel, there is also the existence of the separatist groups in northern Mali, signatories to the 2015 Algiers agreements (many other such agreements were signed as well before, but without any real impact on the tribalism-separatistm trends of the region), agreements that were supposed to guarantee peace and reconciliation.

These armed groups have formed a kind of parallel army in the Kidal region, dominated by the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), which is an alliance of rebel groups, created in Mali, in October 2014, with the aim setting up a new Touareg-dominated state, named “Azawad,” which would include the northern area of Mali, SE Algeria, West Niger, and SW Libya).

These groups came together in September 2021 to form the “Permanent Strategic Framework” (CSP), which is dominated by Tuareg and Arab nomads, and where Mali’s ajority communities (all Black Africans, like Songhaïs, Peuls, Bellahs) are poorly represented.

Foreign and Regional Military Assets and Actions

As far as Western and Sahelian government military forces are concerned, it is undeniable to admit that, from a tactical point of view, important successes have been achieved in recent years. Operations against armed terrorist groups during 2020 and 2021 have resulted in the targeted elimination of some of the most important jihadist leaders, including Abdelmalek Droukdel (head of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM), Bah Ag Moussa (one of the leaders of JNIM), Abu Walid al-Saharoui (head of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, IS-GS), or Abu al-Maghrebi (religious leader of JNIM).

These favourable results on the ground have not, however, prevented the spread of jihadist violence to southern Mali and Burkina Faso and to western Niger, and even attacks in Burkina Faso’s border areas, with countries in the Gulf of Guinea. This was the main reason for the double military coup in Mali in August 2020 and May 2021, and the coup d’état in Burkina Faso in January 2022.

The deterioration of the situation led French President Emmanuel Macron to decide, after much incertitude and contradictory statements, in early June 2021, to suspend joint operations between French and Malian forces, while assuring that France would remain militarily engaged in the Sahel, but within the framework of an “international alliance associating the states of the region,” a new mission whose precise outline is not clarified.

In fact, this is not a new decision. At the Pau Summit in January 2020, which brought together the G5 Sahel countries (Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad) countries and France, Paris had already expressed its desire to reduce its presence in the Sahel and reiterated the need for African countries to take responsibility for the security of their citizens.

Among the reasons for France’s stance were the frustration over the lack of military and political achievements, the human and financial costs of “Barkhane” and the substantial lack of support from the domestic public opinion, distracted by national economic and social emergencies. However, it was the second coup d’état on 26 May 2021 which ousted interim President Bah Ndaw and made Mali’s hitherto vice-president Assimi Goita as the transitional President, which precipitated the decision to withdraw from Mali, even if not fully completed in the spring of 2022.

The new Malian junta, in a context of growing popular hostility towards the French presence in Mali—the greatest expression of which was the expulsion of the French ambassador in January 2022—demanded the departure of all French and European forces, and the handover of the “Barkhane” bases to the soldiers of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the Malian army, but also to the Russian private security operators (or mercenaries) of the Wagner group who, in early January 2022, settled at the main military base of the operation, in Timbuktu.

Consequently, the French “redeployment” of forces was an implicit recognition that its counterinsurgency strategy was not working (despite a consistent, prolonged but very discrete support from USA), and that the natural consequence was to reduce the number of troops in the “Barkhane” force by half, in a process that was to be completed by the middle of 2023. The military force would thus be reduced from 5,100 to 2,500 French soldiers redeployed outside Mali, mainly in the “Three borders” area in Niger’s territory, and its mission would be exclusively anti-terrorist, aimed at curbing the expansion of jihadist groups towards the south, a trend that has been increasing recently.

This operational redefinition of the framework for French military action implied—along with a commitment to continue fighting terrorism—a significant reduction of its conventional, elite and SOF (Special Operation Forces) units in favour of a greater increase in SF (special forces), as well as a major reliance on air and space assets (fighter, helicopters, UAVs, ISTAR, satellites) to the detriment of ground capabilities, as “force multiplier.”

The increased use of UAVs since late 2019, combined with SF, would support this troop reduction strategy, as they are more effective at eliminating adversaries than ground forces. As a result, UAVs now account for 40% of air strikes, with the result of operations in the area multiplying.

The reduction of French troops in the Sahel will necessarily affect other French operation in the region, namely, Operation “Sabre,” which has been active since 2009. With its operational base in Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, Task Force (TF) “Sabre” is composed of 400 French SF troops and has been primarily responsible for the elimination of most high-value targets (HVTs), such as jihadist leaders.

In the new context of French redeployment, France’s organisational and operational autonomy vis-à-vis “Barkhane” risks being affected by the end of this operation. In fact, TF “Sabre” could lose some of its assets if “Barkhane” disappears, to the benefit of the increased power of the new “Takuba” force that, although European, bases its structure to a large extent on the French SF that have defined the ROE (Rules Of Engagement) and operational procedures.

Activated in July 2020 to make up for the shortcomings of the EU’s training mission in Mali (EUTM)—given the impossibility for military trainers of the mission to accompany Malian soldiers during their operations—the “Takuba” force was planned to reach 2,000 combatants, from several European countries, and to take part in counter-insurgency actions, replacing “Operation Barkhane.”

As for “Takuba,” it is important to specify its institutional framework, which in a way, has impacted on its operational capabilities. “Takuba” is activated outside of the EU official defense and security architecture, led by EEAS framework, and it is closer to the scheme of the “coalition of the willing,” which led the establishment of the multinational naval force which operates in the Persian-Arab Gulf, the EMASOH (European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz).

This choice, strongly pushed by France, aimed at having more agile and lethal capabilities of the forces deployed, which by the way, never reached the planned level. Their deployment is an implicit recognition of the inability of French forces to control the vast territory of the Sahel, except temporarily and in specific areas, and of the weakness of local armed forces, especially in Mali. Thus, the constituent purpose of Task Force “Takuba” is to integrate local forces with European SF teams, thereby creating a critical mass of assets capable of defeating any opposing group and better protecting the population. This would obviously not solve the structural problems of local armies, but it would allow them to be more effective on the ground and to quickly do more. And in counter-insurgency warfare, the principle is that hitting the enemy is good, but controlling the terrain is better, with the combination of the two effects producing the best results. This principle works well in theory, but it remains to be seen whether it could yield strategic results in the Sahel scenario.

Moreover, TF “Takuba” is suffering from serious structural problems, stemming from its slow deployment, and the reluctance of some states to participate in it, despite the strong pressure by Paris on its partners. For example, the Danish component was withdrawn from Mali when it arrived, on the grounds of bureaucratic shortcomings, the small number of its components, which did not exceed 800 troops, half of them French, and the fact that they cannot operate in Mali, where the centre the insurgency is located.

Also, it should be remembered that Sweden, few days after the notification from the Bamako authorities to expel the Danes, to avoid a similar humiliating situation which was likely approaching, withdrew its own contingent.

Finally, the “Takuba” concept suffered from the perceptions of many of its potential contributors, reluctant to risk their precious assets of SF, on behalf of France and its benefits, which is not generous in opening economic spaces in what Paris considers an exclusive domain.

As far as training missions are concerned, they remain today the EU’s main and most substantial contribution to security in the Sahel. Although the will of Europe is to strengthen its means and capabilities, to support the security forces of the countries in the region, an objective it considers crucial in increasing the protection of local populations and bringing about stability of the region, its survival will depend, in any case, on whether the necessary conditions are met, as recognised in the EU-AU joint declaration of 17 February 2022, in the side-lines of the 6th EU-AU Summit in Brussels.

These conditions include a strict separation between its activities and those of the Russian group Wagner, which is increasingly active in the Sahel, and a guarantee that EU-trained Malian soldiers will not subsequently join units operating under Wagner’s orders. Despite the lack of consensus on the future of EU operations in Mali, with several member states in favour of suspending the mission, and while others are reluctant to do so, the European Council decided on 12 April of this year to close and withdraw it (EUTM-Mali was activated on February 2013), formalizing and finalizing a long-standing crisis between Brussels (and Paris) and Bamako.

It should be said that despite an important growing in staffing (more than 600 personnel between trainers and support staff), resources, and assets, the EUTM-Mali suffered several problems due to, among others, the existence of non-coordinated training paths between the national teams of trainers. It is useful to be reminded that the other EU-led presence in Mali, EUCAP-Sahel Mali is in limbo; but given the persistent hostility of the Bamako military junta, it will be withdrawing as well.

The other two forces on the ground will not produce tangible results in improving the stability situation, due to a lack of equipment, poor financial means, and poor transnational coordination. The G5 Sahel Joint Force—created in 2017 and officially composed of 5,000 men drawn from the elite units of the armed forces of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad—is conditioned by the need for greater regional cooperation to prevent each of them pursuing their national interests above all else. Moreover, reliance on the support of other military structures, such as the “Barkhane” force for training and MINUSMA for operational support, does not facilitate operational performance, either.

The G5 Sahel Joint Force was established following the activation, in 2014 of the G5 Sahel, a sub-regional organisation set up to deal with conflict management in the Sahel, when it seemed unlikely. Some analysts were already describing a “security traffic jam” in the region.

This concept emerged when Chad offered, but out of the G5 framework, additional forces, and AU a multinational brigade; the Chadian troops, briefly deployed in the “Three Borders Area” were called back due to the institutional crisis following the death of the President Deby, who fell fighting Islamist elements in his country (and who was replaced by his son); the AU brigade of 3,000 troops, despite being officially announced, was never deployed.

There is a wide range of stakeholders involved in conflict-management in the Sahel; but this multiple presence is based on uncertain approaches and weak actors, especially at the local level, where the G5 Member States may be easy labelled as “failed states” for their economic and social performances.

The multinational force of the G5, in theory formed by the elite elements of their respective armed forces, never reached an effective operational level, not even the ancillary roles of relieving the French forces of “Barkhane” and garrison duties of main urban areas and major communication axes.

Thus despite, an important flux of assets and finance (however not well coordinated) from donor countries, the local actors remain intrinsically weak, as noted by the strong report of a UN Security Council delegation visit in the region, in October 2021.

In the case of MINUSMA (UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission) in Mali—present in Mali since 2013—its work is hampered by the fact that its mandate is limited to the territory of Mali. With France’s withdrawal, the UN Security Council has announced an increase in personnel from 13,000 troops and 1,700 police officers to 17,300 to fill the territorial gaps created by the “Barkhane” withdrawal and to prevent security vacuums. But this risks falling, once again, in the typical mistake of UN-led peacekeeping missions, because of “Mission creep:/”Mandate creep.”

Further, the capability of MINUSMA is affected by divergent views of the Western major players in the area, France, and US, thus keeping the operation in a conceptual vacuum which does not help in formulating a proper approach, but only a limited confrontation to the Islamist insurgency.

The reduction/withdrawal of “Barkhane” worsened the burden on the Mission, and the future remains uncertain, without the permanence of MINUSMA, at least in the medium term.

However, as with the G5 Sahel Joint Force, MINUSMA suffers from lack of material, financial and intelligence capabilities; and the fact that its mission is exclusively to support the authorities and not fight counterinsurgency, make it difficult for it to replace the role of the French. Further, the mission’s effectiveness is threatened by the reduction and/or withdrawal of contingents from Western countries, leaving an additional burden on the poorly trained and equipped Third World country troops, who represent the bulk of the mission.

To better understand the current military (and political) stalemate which affects Mali and the region (and to be fair, it is not new), it is useful remember that in parallel deployment of “Serval,” the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) deployed, with the support of a NATO air bridge, the AFISMA (the African-led International Support Mission to Mali) sent to support Bamako against Islamist rebels in Northern Mali.
The mission was authorized with UN Security Council Resolution 2085, passed on 20 December 2012, which “authorizes the deployment of an African-led International Support Mission in Mali for an initial period of one year,” and which reached a peak of 8.000 troops (these troops, when MINUSMA was activated, were ‘re-hatted’ to blue berets).

On the other hand, there are regional armies and self-defence forces that have spontaneously emerged from within the civilian population because of the deteriorating security situation. Their performance falls far short of internationally accepted standards. And the Malian army’s overreaction against Fulani tribe civilians, accused of harbouring both JNIM and IS-GS militants, is having the opposite effect of increasing local recruitment and this has driven many in the population to seek protection from the jihadists. Indiscriminate attacks against the local population by government-affiliated forces, according to MINUSMA, has resulted in more civilian casualties than actual jihadist casualties by 2020.

In other cases, it is local communities that have set up rural self-defence militias, with the consent of the state, who then violently impose their own law. This situation has also spread to Niger, a large and poor country, currently threatened on five of its seven borders, by major jihadist groups. Niger is considered the best French alternative for deployment after the expulsion of its forces from Mali.

The “Alien”

As mentioned above, another actor that has emerged strongly in the security arena in recent years is Russia, which is increasingly active across Africa. But how has Moscow managed to push the French out of several countries that Paris lazily assumed were “acquis?”

A Wagner group financier, and the spearhead of Russian influence on the continent, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who made his fortune in the restaurant business, is one of the most important oligarchs within Putin’s entourage. Since hosting the first Russia-Africa summit in October 2019 (the next one is planned in November 2022) in Sochi, President Vladimir Putin has been striving to make his country play a leading role in Africa, extending geopolitical competition, as in the Cold War era.

In the Sahel, as before in Syria, Central African Republic and Libya, Russia has taken advantage of the insecurity and the vacuum created by the announcement of the departure of French forces from Mali, and is seeking to replace Paris’ influence there, and extend it in the region through regular and irregular means. To this end, its strategy, which began in December 2021, has relied on disinformation by facilitating the activities of the private military company (PMC) Wagner, linked to the Kremlin through the Ministry of Defence and the Federal Security Service (FSB), and by capitalising on a growing anti-French sentiment spreading across the region.

As in the Central African Republic and Mozambique, Wagner has taken advantage of the Malian junta’s turn towards Russia to secure regime protection services and security for senior Malian officials against any coup attempt, while securing significant financial benefits through financial and mineral concessions.

It should be recalled that Mali since independence (1960), was never a docile member of the so-called “FranceAfrique” and had an historical proximity with Moscow (before as USSR and now with the Russian Federation).

However, it cannot be assumed that the use of Wagner guarantees success, considering what happened in Libya, where 1,200 Russian mercenaries failed to deliver victory to Field Marshal Haftar, in his offensive against Tripoli, in the spring of 2020. Moreover, if we take into account their poor operational results in carrying out similar missions—for example, in 2019, against the Islamist insurgency in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province—and add to this the high legal and humanitarian costs they impose, including serious allegations of human rights violations, it could be concluded that Wagner is more of a tool to increase Russian areas of influence on the continent than an element to increase security and regional stabilisation. In any case, its influence on the region’s political future will depend greatly on the outcome of the war in Ukraine, where Russia’s attention is currently focused.

To What End?

The major transformations in the security situation in the Sahel in recent times, with the announcement of the “end of Barkhane,” the emergence of a strong regional hostility towards French policy and the multiplication of ad hoc agreements with JNIM-affiliated jihadist groups in both Mali and Burkina Faso, seem to pave the way for the relaunching of a possible negotiation at a national level, initially in Mali, but which could be extended to other countries affected by the Islamist insurgency.

Eventual negotiations would be favoured by a regional context in which jihadist groups have been able to exploit local grievances and bad governance—using rhetoric based on anti-colonialism—to stir up local sentiments, presenting themselves as indispensable actors to expel foreign forces.

To this end, JNIM’s recent willingness to enter into negotiations with the Malian state authorities seems to indicate a certain strategic flexibility, albeit based on a non-negotiable extremist ideological position on jihad, whether global or local. No matter how many setbacks and delays they suffer and no matter which regime they face, their mission to turn the Sahel into an Islamic emirate remains a priority.

This negotiating position, whose interlocutor is the terrorist leader Iyad Ag Ghali, is supported by Algeria, which is concerned about the evolution of the political and security situation among its southern neighbours, especially in Mali, and which has always been wary of the Barkhane operation, an anti-terrorist action led by the former colonial power.

Moreover, the G5 Sahel initiative, still supported by France, is also viewed with some caution by Algiers, which would have preferred the management of the continent’s security issues through the African Union and regional and bilateral collaboration between states, such as the Joint Operational Military Staff Committee (CEMOC) launched in 2010 and based in Tamanrasset.

Algeria, whose counter-terrorism policy has traditionally oscillated between the carrot and the stick—a counter-terrorism policy based on conventional operations, but leaving open the possibility of jihadists surrendering in exchange for some form of amnesty—now favours strengthening the JNIM vis-à-vis the CMA, albeit conditional on any agreement having the approval of Algiers, which looks with suspicious the idea of “Azawad.”

However, reaching a possible agreement does not seem to be an easy task. It would also require the current JNIM fighters to lay down their arms, something that can only happen if they are offered significant rewards through an ambitious disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) process, funded by the international community (UN?). In this scenario, it is quite possible that the IS-GS, a group that categorically rejects any dialogue, would attract all those disgruntled people who, for ideological or personal-interest reasons, will not accept a negotiation process with the governments.

Future Outlooks for Security in the Sahel

The outlook for security in the Sahel remains uncertain in the short to medium term. Jihadist groups have been demonstrating great resilience in adapting quickly to the dynamics of operations on the ground, even when faced with tactical defeats. Every time an African government has declared that a group is “defeated,” the claim has been disproved shortly afterwards. Military efforts to defeat them on the battlefield, the preferred option for restoring security, have been disappointing. The military efforts of French and local forces, despite having taken out many of the jihadist leaders, as well as regional initiatives, such as the G5 Sahel Joint Force, or military training provided by EUTM-Mali, have not yielded the expected results and, surprisingly, have failed to overcome local jihadist groups as reliable providers of security and services.

In this regard, experience over the years indicates that military strikes against jihadist organisations tend to displace them by forcing them to seek refuge, rather than eradicate them, so that once military pressure diminishes, they return stronger and expand further, unless the capabilities of the state, in which they have been operating, have substantially improved.

On the other hand, and regardless of the difference in approach or ideology, the new security reality in the Sahel is marked by the bitter rivalry between regional Islamic State and al-Qaeda franchises, exacerbated by pre-existing structural vulnerabilities, which have resulted in increased violence and conflict.

However, competition between the two branches of jihadism in the Sahel may be a favourable factor in the new context of French withdrawal and may contribute to the weakening of these groups and the depletion of their resources, effectively diluting the threat they pose.

But the opposite can also happen: direct competition for new recruits and the support of locals can lead to a “bidding up” process using increased levels of violence to demonstrate their commitment and relative power vis-à-vis the competing organisation. Such competition between jihadist groups can aggravate the insecurity situation by encouraging operational innovation, increasing recruitment and pushing civilians to choose sides, contributing to the prolongation of the conflict, as well as to the resilience and adaptability of competing groups. If this were to happen, it would further complicate the security landscape in an already fragile region.

Moreover, the change in the mechanism of Operation “Barkhane,” to delegate responsibility for counter-insurgency to local armies and “Takuba,” comes too late, and does so at a time when protests by local populations and the French authorities’ inability to communicate strategically are showing the limits of external military action.
It seems fundamental, therefore, in order to have a minimum guarantee of success, to achieve a greater “hybridisation” between international forces and local armies that avoids possible rejection, so that the former appear as a support element and not as those responsible for counter-insurgency action.

Finally, the progressive intromission of a new stakeholder (Russia) has changed the strategic view of the Western actors in the region, re-focusing their action to expelling Wagner from Mali so that Moscow does not gain influence in Burkina, Guinea, Niger and Chad.


Enrico Magnani, PhD is a UN officer who specializes in military history, politico-military affairs, peacekeeping and stability operations. (The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations).


EU And AU: The Face Behind The Mask

Even if the difficult international scene (Ukrainian war and the persistence of COVID) seems to make us forget everything else, occurrences, such as the 6th EU/AU Summit, maintain their validity and even increase their value, especially for future prospects in the light of the afore mentioned crises.

This Summit has been described very superficially as one of the typical kermesses of the international community, where dozens of heads of state and government and senior leaders of international and regional organizations are in an infinite ballet of bilateral encounters (more or less confidencial), dinners, mass meetings, group photos. It has been all this (and it could not have been otherwise).

But the Summit has also been much more and is part of the various partnership conferences that many states and organizations have in place in their relation with the African continent, such as Australia (with the AAPF, Australia Africa Partnership Forum ), China (with FOCAC, Forum on China–Africa Cooperation); France, India, Iran, Russia, Japan (with TICAD, Tokyo International Conference on African Development), Russia, South Korea, Turkey, the USA (with AGOA, African Growth and Opportunity Act), Italy (with its ministerial conferences), Hungary, Germany, the OECD with the AFP (Africa Partnership Forum) and the EU.

These conferences and summits seem to be the modern re-edition of the “scramble for Africa” of the late 19th Century, when all the powers, large, mid, and small, competed to divide up colonies and protectorates and get their hands on local resources through partition conferences. A lot has changed, but a lot has remained the same. Modes have become less direct (apparently), but economic interests have grown and extended to sectors ignored until recently, starting with hunting for the mineral products necessary for new technologies, the grabbing of land for agricultural use, intensive fishing, mega infrastructures.

It is true that the decisions adopted in the final Brussels declaration of 18 February were numerous and contain some differences compared to previous summits (2000, 2007, 2010, 2014, 2017). There are 8 years left to realize this “vision for 2030.” Europe and Africa have decided to move towards a new “state of mind,” to which the incumbent President of the AU, the head of the state of Senegal, Macky Sall, returned at the closing ceremony: “We also need to create a new working climate, a climate that is more suited to the political will we want to give to this partnership. A new mood needs to be instilled in Euro-African relations. This is what I called, new relational software based on a true vision of partnership, for shared growth and prosperity,” he insisted.

The Summit’s final declaration underlines a common vision, and calls for a renewed partnership, based on “human bonds, respect for sovereignty, mutual responsibility and respect, shared values, equality between partners and mutual commitments.” An extensive program. And concretely, this is what the next few years of this partnership will be like:

150 Billion Euros For Africa Through The Global Gateway

This EU initiative launched in December 2021 aims to mobilize € 300 billion over the next 3 years, according to Ursula Von Der Leyen, President of the European Commission; and it is the backbone, politically and financial speaking, of the Summit. 150 billion euros will be allocated to Africa for the African investment plan.

The Global Gateway is an alternative that Europe offers Africa to work on investments, at a time when Russia and China (with Belt and Road Initiative, BRI) are invading the continent. The EU intends to invest primarily in people and infrastructure. Announced at the opening of the Summit, the financial support of Europe through the Global Gateway was therefore confirmed. The significant amount of at least € 150 billion aims to encourage sustainable investments on a large scale.

“We have decided to mobilize around projects that correspond to African priorities, in order to support development, innovation, prosperity in the climate, digital and infrastructure sectors,” said the President of the European Council (and former Belgian Prime Minister), Charles Michel. He especially insisted on creating a follow-up mechanism to give substance to the intentions: “It has happened that in the past the intentions were strong, generous and extremely ambitious and the results did not always match our ambitions. There we will put in place a follow-up and monitoring mechanism.”

The EU wishes to become Africa’s main partner of reference for financing its infrastructure. Several projects have been identified, including a list of strategic corridors, a sector where EU has had strong experience, especially for railways. They could involve CamRail rehabilitation projects, the Damietta-El Mansoura-Tanta railway corridor or the Tanzania-Uganda, Ghana-Burkina Faso-Mali interconnections.

Six Hubs For RNA Vaccines

These hubs will be created in Senegal, Egypt, Tunisia, South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria, the first countries to host an RNA messenger technology transfer. These will consist in the training of scientists and the production of vaccines against COVID-19, to then commercialize them in Africa and beyond the continent.

This technology transfer will mobilize 40 million Euros from the European consultancy side. “The remaining argument is related to intellectual property rights and even there the conclusions we have reached are encouraging and should allow us, in the coming months, by spring, to arrive at a dynamic compromise that will allow us to complete things”, assured Macky Sall, President of the AU.

A Green Partnership

The common vision adopted in Brussels is also ecological. Europe will support the climate resilience of African countries. This will be done through the implementation of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and National Adaptation Plans (NAPs). The partnership will also be oriented towards the development of supply chains.

Similarly, the launch of a joint EU/AU action plan for the development of plant proteins in Africa will make it possible to make the economic component of the “Great Green Wall” operational, responding to a triple challenge of food and nutrition security on a continental scale and the development of sustainable agro-ecological practices.

“We have to support Africa in its agricultural model. Here I would like to recall the importance for us of the great green wall which is a Pan-African initiative that we reactivated in January 2021”, declared the French president. African and European leaders went further to reaffirm their commitment to the full implementation of the Paris Agreement and the outcome of the conferences of the parties.

“We recognize that Africa’s energy transition is vital for its industrialization and for bridging the energy gap. We will support Africa in its transition to promote just and sustainable pathways to climate neutrality. We recognize the importance of using available natural resources as part of this energy transition process”, reads the final declaration of the Brussels Summit.

“We want green partnerships to flourish on the continent. The world needs Africa to fight climate change,” concluded Ursula von der Leyen. The aim of environmental rehabilitation of vast areas is focused to avoid those masses of population being forced to migrate because of unbearable living conditions.

New Approaches To Migration

The “delicate” (sic) issue of preventing irregular immigration is also being discussed, as well as the measures to be taken in the face of the smuggling of migrants. Priority was given to efforts for effective improvements in terms of return, readmission, and reintegration.

Asylum systems will be strengthened to provide adequate reception and protection for those entitled to them. But the leaders tried to focus on the root of the evil, with key measures to promote the empowerment of young people and women.

“We have taken steps to finance African training centers to allow training in trades that correspond to this economic development that I have spoken about,” said French President Emmanuel Macron, who held the EU rotational Presidency.

Security And Stability: “Reversing The Approach”

The other big step forward of the EU/AU Summit is the paradigm shift on security and stability issues. Without renouncing the support of the European military forces, the leaders of the two continents are counting on the strengthening of capabilities and equipment to intensify the autonomous operations of African forces.

“Today there is an absolute need to look things in the face and act accordingly. African states are ready to mobilize men. We also have the AU reserve forces in our architecture, brigades by region (they were planned to be five, but it is missed target, so far). I think we have to reverse the approach,” said Moussa Faki Mahamat, President of the AU Commission (former Chad FM), who also expressed his vision of financing peace at the end of the summit.

Europe too sees priority in this direction. French President Emmanuel Macron also took the opportunity to recall the directives by stating, “We have consolidated a partnership approach based on the requests and needs expressed by African countries”, before acknowledging African mobilization capacity within a regional framework. “We support the request of African states to the United Nations for new mechanisms that can be financed by the UN and that allow African armies to carry out stabilization operations in the fight against terrorism.”

Cooperation between the two continents will also be strengthened on other issues, such as fighting organized crime, maritime safety.

A Constellation Of Satellites To Connect The Two Continents

The latest decision was not actually taken in Brussels, but this Summit confirmed that it will benefit all of Africa. On Wednesday 16 February, during the Space Summit organized in Toulouse, France, the EU decided to launch a “megaconstellation” of 250 satellites. With an estimated budget of six billion euros, this constellation will provide a high-speed internet connection, even in the digital desert areas that currently struggle to access a traditional terrestrial network. However, these myriads of satellites will cover a low orbit area of about 500 kilometers above Europe and Africa.

Conclusion

This thorough examination shows that the Summit (and it usual list of nice words and good will) and its results have a strong political and strategic background on the part of Brussels, that of trying to free Africa from Chinese and Russian influence. In this strategy the events linked to the aggression of Moscow against the Ukraine, the ambiguous position of Beijing and a worrying number of African states that either abstained or did not participate in the UN General Assembly vote that condemned Russia, makes more urgent, for the Brussels perspective, the implementation of this plan.

The project was born as a response above all to the Summits that Moscow and Beijing have had in recent times (that of Sochi in 2019 and a second one scheduled for next November [sic]) and that of Dakar last November; those meetings also raised the alert for the acceleration that Russia (especially in Mali and Central Africa) and Beijing have given to their African policies (China would be interested in obtaining a new military base in an African country after the one in Djibouti, but one which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean; and it speaks insistently of Equatorial Guinea).

It is not known how African states will respond. The new international situation could be an excellent temptation to raise the price, not just financial, of their collaboration with Europe. Meanwhile, given the persistent difficulties in relations with the coup junta in Bamako, which is very close to Moscow, the EU has just announced that it will withdraw its training mission for the Malian armed forces, the EUTM-Mali.

It is useful to consider that in such a large project on the part of Europe there are also national priorities, especially on the French side which, given the tarnishing of the “Francafrique,” finds the EU plan particularly useful in trying to resume her influence in the continent.

What was lacking in the Summit, however, was the commitment by both (Brussels and Addis Ababa) to improve the governance of African countries, whose low (not to say non-existent, in too many contexts) quality is at the root of the difficulties facing the continent.

Another silence (at least public) on the European side was the mutations by force of the constitutional frameworks with coups d’état (Mali, Chad, Guinea, Burkina Faso) or referendums that remove limits to presidential mandates and allow ossification of the ruling classes and transformation of republics into de facto hereditary monarchies (as in the case of Chad, and the next one would be Uganda). These are not insignificant details that could make the whole European project unrealistic, inconclusive, and expensive.


Enrico Magnani, PhD is a UN officer who specializes in military history, politico-military affairs, peacekeeping and stability operations. (The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations).


Featured image: “Africa,” an engraving by Nicolaas Berchem, published by Pieter Mortier, ca. 1690.

Strategic Inconsistencies

Remembering what the Italian historian and philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) said that history repeats itself, there is again a repetition in relations over the strategic use of old assets and new materials.

The international debate is about the strategic weakness of the West (and especially Europe) facing the threat of LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) being cut off from Russia over the row between Moscow, Washington and Bruxelles (NATO and EU capitals) concerning the Ukraine. This issue shows the long-standing foolishness and lack of vision of the Euro-Atlantic community leaders. But the problem is not only limited to that, for other challenges also are putting an immense strain on our individual and collective future.

In prehistoric times, the discovery of the metallurgy (copper, bronze and iron) brought great changes to humanity, with the emergence of new powers and the end of pre-existing structures and powers.

During the Bronze Age, the shortage of bronze (1800 and 1700 BC) led to various conflicts in the Mediterranean region, focused on the control of this meta; with which weapons were made. Subsequently, using what is now known as “replacement technology,” it was possible to produce superior quality weapons from a much more abundant metal, but through a more complicated metallurgical process. The metal was iron. Its use spread, and the Iron Age began.

Rare earths today are the cornerstone of our technological evolution. Rare earth metals are needed to produce most high-tech products. Without them, many of the sectors in more developed countries, such as energy, telecommunications, medicine, and defense, would collapse the world over. On the other hand, the quantitative scarcity of rare earths, and the difficulties of various kinds and in their access, are nothing new. Shortages have already been predicted by 2025, by the European Commission, limiting the technological growth of Europe and the US and favoring that of China, with a strong impact on the struggle for global hegemony and international security.

Rare earths were first discovered by a Swedish army officer in 1787, but they did not generate the current frantic search, and their use was initially limited. Up to 1947, only 17 rare metals were found, and their importance increased with research in atomic physics, quantum physics and chemistry.

Today, it would be impossible to imagine everyday life without rare earths, as they are used in medical technology as contrast agents, as well as in radar devices, plasma screens, LEDs, special paints or lasers, to name a few. Their use in electric motors especially, such as in magnets or in batteries or fuel cells make them a key resource for the energy transition, which has become a global necessity. The properties of some rare earth elements make it possible to reduce the size of electric motors, increase the strength of the magnets and allow the use of lighter but more resistant alloys. The application of rare earths in most technological processes has triggered its demand, which is (thus far) endless.

The concentration in which these elements are found in minerals is very low, hence the name “rare.” They are not rare in the world, but their low proportion gives them the name. Rare earth deposits are abundant all over the world. However, the economic profitability of their exploitation depends on the concentration in which they are found in these locations. China owns a third of the world’s reserves, followed by Brazil, Vietnam, and Russia. Further, the extraction and separation of rare earths represents a technological and logistical challenge, associated with severe environmental pollution problems.

The industrial significance of rare earths is not yet equivalent to other raw materials, such as oil or gas. But many industrial sectors that would be affected by an interruption in the supply of rare earths are directly or indirectly linked to human safety and/or national security. The main reason is the link between rare earths and technology. Today, technology dominates the industrial processes, and its development is inconceivable without the use of rare earths.

For example, in the defense sector, rare earths enable the development of more effective, smart, and intelligent military capabilities and combat systems. Rare earths are now essential for night vision devices, precision guided weapons systems, communications equipment, navigation systems, batteries, stealth technology, drones, target design lasers and satellites for communications. They are also used in high performance protections and in both armored vehicles and projectiles to give them durability. Any disruption in the rare earth supply-chain would have a serious impact on the defense capabilities of any country with technologically advanced armed forces.

The importance of rare earths becomes strategic and particularly relevant when it is observed that, while the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) controls 41% of oil production, it is spread, even if unequally among, 13 states, China controls about 75% of rare earth production alone.

This fact has a direct bearing on the strategic choices of many nations. For example, during 2020, there was a direct threat from the Chinese government against two major US weapon system manufacturers, though it ultimately did not materialize. However, this also suggests that any nation that could, even indirectly, pose a threat to China’s security could be sanctioned with limitations or interruptions in the supply of rare earths. And seeing China’s growing determination on the international stage, this is not just an academic hypothesis. Therefore, it becomes a strategic priority to have a secure supply-chain for these critical minerals.

The only country in the world with a complete, independent, and autonomous supply-chain is China. The difference of interests between the value-chain (economic interest) and the supply-chain (strategic interest) means that each economic and socio-political model has a different perspective on the supply of rare earths and the associated value-chain. The more liberalist perspective, like that of the US, is based on the “efficient market,” leaving self-regulation in the hands of private corporations, to generate an adequate value-chain that should (ideally) have an associated supply-chain—in this case of rare earths. From the point of view of Beijing, the State/Communist Party intervenes directly in its companies and the private ones are kept under very strict control, and even more so those that operate in sectors considered strategic. Beijing primarily pursues national security goals, protecting the supply-chain, and subsequently, seeks to maximize value-chain profits.

Even with 40% of rare earth reserves currently in China, Beijing is also the world’s largest importer. Thanks to these imports and the use of its own resources, the final production of rare earths in China amounts to about 140,000 tons, about 75% of world production. This figure readily shows China’s dominance in the rare earth chain, followed by Australia (11%) and the US (8%).

The Belt Road Initiative (BRI), a pillar of China’s government policy, also serves as supply, trade and transport routes for rare earths and their associated products, both for import and export, and thus supporting China’s quasi-monopoly around the world.

Today there are only two companies outside of China that can be considered global producers of rare earths: one from Australia (Lynas Corporation) and one from US (MP Materials).

However, MP Materials ships its rare earth concentrates to China for processing and the Chinese government has a 10% stake in the company itself. China, in turn, sells manufactured and finished products at a large profit margin. The buyer countries thus maintain a relationship of dependence on China. Making political decisions without considering the entire supply-chain, or without knowing the relationship between each of its processes, can lead to financing and increasing the Chinese monopoly of rare earths.

The trade war between US and China is not limited to the economic sphere and is associated with the pursuit and maintenance of technological superiority and the control of supply routes. Technology not only represents a growing value for the economy, but also has a direct impact on the daily life of citizens. And, historically, technology has played a decisive role in the quest for international power, while control of the supply-routes enables the security of supply chains, which have expanded and diversified with the advance of globalization.

Without an adequate supply of rare earths, it would not be possible today to maintain not only technological advantage, but also the normal functioning of the various sectors of the economy.

Some of the technologies currently under development may be disruptive; for example: artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, robotics, biotechnology, and nanotechnology. These technologies will not only change daily life but may also alter current international hierarchy. China has already made public its plan to achieve independence in 10 key technologies by 2025. Currently, as regards the supply of materials that are the physical basis of these technologies, independence is already ensured. China is constantly moving towards strategic autonomy. On the contrary, since Beijing has a near-monopoly on rare earths, the maintenance of US technological hegemony depends precisely on China.

The Biden Administration is fully aware of the problem and has ordered a supply-chain review in key areas of medicine, commodities, and agriculture. The resulting review sternly states that “decades of underinvestment, together with public policy choices that favor short-term solutions, have left the system fragile.” The Departments of Defense, Agriculture, Energy, Interior, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are trying to address the supply-chain problem for rare earths and other critical materials. So far, the major effects of these policies have been reflected in the attempt to bring the supply-chain back to US soil, with the reopening of mines, activation of processing centers, agreements with commercial companies and securing of supply-lines—all by 2025.

Despite the trade war between China and the US, with the exchange of sanctions and other punitive measures, Washington has always kept rare earths out of it, no doubt because of the risk that China could still use them as a deterrent weapon.

But China primarily has no interest in imposing export quotas, as this would damage Beijing economically, triggering a new escalation in the mutual imposition of economic or tariff sanctions.

In general terms, however, China’s economic dependence on the US has been steadily declining in recent years and Beijing continues to build architectures that work to its advantage. It should be noted that, at the end of 2020, the largest free trade agreement in the world was signed, the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership), promoted by China, and in which all ASEAN nations participate (without Timor-Leste), including Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. The RCEP, operational since the beginning of 2022, representing 30% of world trade, has also seen the UK apply to join this treaty.

As mentioned above, the EU and the US have already officially predicted the shortage of rare earths by 2025. But this shortage, in addition, to being an instrument of pressure from Beijing to condition the international community, is also a problem for China because of the strong increase in domestic demand for the consumption of rare earths. Chinese development in recent decades has led to the emergence and growth of a huge middle-class (equivalent to the entire population of Europe) which, despite some slowdowns, continues to grow in number and economic capacity. This enormous middle-class now has access to previously unavailable technologies and goods, but their limitation could have a negative impact on internal governance, with risks related to domestic stability.

As an example, the Chinese demand for rare earths in the last five years has exceeded its own production, and the priority of Beijing will probably be to guarantee domestic market supply in the first place, but also continue to give regularity to their supply for strategic sectors, such as defense, medicine, and energy.

The outcome of this struggle for world hegemony can be determined by the pace, that is, by the speed of reaction by the US and its allies, or by China, which will take advantage of this clear geostrategic dominance for as long as it can maintain it.

Beyond the security impact of the Western world from the scarcity of rare earths, this situation would also allow China to gain an advantageous negotiating position on international security, which the United States may not be willing to accept.

China’s rare earth monopoly serves on the one hand, to strengthen its technological transformation and continue its economic progress associated with its struggle for hegemony. At the same time, for the US, China’s dependence on the supply of rare earths poses a serious threat to its strategic autonomy, a potential threat to its security and apply a possible brake on its economy and technological development. With this monopoly, China has a weapon, not only economic and diplomatic, but also militarily, because by interrupting the supply of rare earths it could block the production of the defense capabilities of its competitors.

The US strategy dedicated to rare earths moves to promote replacement technology, the exploitation of new fields and the development of new metallurgical centers, reducing dependence on China. In the short term, increasing reserves of rare earth metals, increasing efficient recycling methods, and expanding secure supply-chains would be the best way to react to rare earth shortages.


Enrico Magnani, PhD is a UN officer who specializes in military history, politico-military affairs, peacekeeping and stability operations. (The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations).

The Year Of Opportunities—And Risks—For Asia

2022 confirms that Asia will be one of the planet’s hubs, where great tensions and opportunities, risks and fractures are concentrated, where important trends are confronted and amalgamated.

2022 will be a year of potential political changes in many Asian countries, bringing as well a confirmation of the current situation. There will be several presidential elections (Philippines, South Korea and East Timor), legislative (Australia and Japan) and local (India). Regardless of their results, the strategic lines of those countries, will remain the same. Even powerful and threatening China will see changes in the perspective of the Communist Party Congress.

However, a new calendar year does not mean a clear break with the past. Some of the main events of 2021, such as the coup in Myanmar and the takeover by the Taliban in Afghanistan, will continue to impact in 2022. And, for the third consecutive year, the COVID-19 pandemic will loom over all other events. 2021 began with the launch of vaccines and the hope of post-pandemic normality; the year ended with the Omicron variant which once again closed the borders, and by 2022, all of Asia-Pacific will have to balance health precautions with the protection of its economies.

It is useful to start talking about the USA, a true hegemonic power still on the chessboard, even if increasingly undermined by Chinese pressure. The second year of the Biden administration should see an even greater emphasis on the Indo-Pacific region (and a consequent decrease in the importance of Europe and the Middle East, albeit with notable exceptions, like Ukraine and Iran).

2020 will see the publication of very important documents, such as the National Defense Strategy and the review of the National Nuclear Posture, which should be largely focused on the Beijing challenge. Relations will remain difficult, but the mid-term legislative elections in the US and the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China should create sufficient incentives on both sides for a “managed” relationship, though the points of friction will remain; the Biden administration will continue in its actions of trying to harness Chinese forces by focusing on the network of regional and sub-regional alliances and agreements—not only on specific areas (such as Taiwan), but also on ideological issues, such as human rights and the autonomy claims of East Turkestan, Inner Mongolia, and Hong King.

In this perspective, the alliance system for Washington becomes, even more than today, a critical element, especially with regard to Japan, South Korea, Australia and India. The Quad will continue to be pushed and promoted, and it is likely that Washington will aim at the qualitative and quantitative expansion of this forum.

The other difficult point of the region, such as North Korea, will be observed by Washington with great attention, especially in the case of a conservative victory in the South Korean elections.
In addition to the stabilization of AUKUS, 2022 will see the absorption of the crisis with France (which is much more relaxed after the unionist victory in the third and definitive referendum on independence for New Caledonia, which secures its stay in the region and weaken substantially the notion that French Polynesia would follow the search for independence).

ASEAN, despite some internal criticisms, such as Cambodia and Myanmar, will remain another important partner for Washington in its confrontation with Beijing, but also for economic cooperation. In fact, given the economic (and demographic) dimensions of Asia, the economic dimension will be the other pillar of US actions.

Japan has serious difficulties, beginning with an ossified political leadership and a tired parliamentarian alternation. But the pandemic, the demographic frost, the unresolved relationship with Korea, the ambiguous relationship with Moscow are all elements of uncertainty for Tokyo, which feels gravely exposed, despite a massive weapons program.

For geographic reasons and dimensions, tensions with China (the gravity of which is evidenced by the recent installation of a “red telephone” between the two capitals) remain central to Japan. Tokyo will confirm a foreign policy and cooperation centered on the US, and with Taiwan increasingly regarded as a sovereign state. Also, for Japan, the issue of the protection of human rights in China will remain a decisive element, even if it seems that (so far) Japan will not boycott the Olympic Games, a true symbolic moment for Beijing. Meanwhile, Tokyo is increasingly solidifying its ties with other countries, in anti-Chinese functions, such as the Quad and the Japanese participation at regional military exercises with US, Australians, British and French forces.

For South Korea, the presidential elections, which could see the conservatives win, would represent a further element of tension with North Korea. With nuclear talks between the US and North Korea still stalled, in 2022, Pyongyang will continue to enhance its nuclear and missile capabilities to strengthen its influence in denuclearization negotiations. In recent years, North Korea has been testing various missile technologies, including short-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. North Korea has not (yet) crossed the “red line” set by the US— nuclear weapons tests or ICBMs—but Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un has pledged to further develop the military capability of the North by using such capability as an element of deterrence to block temptations of “regime change” (in Washington, more than in Seoul).

Seoul also follows Tokyo’s steps in strengthening its military apparatus, witnessing a feeling of insecurity, but its ever difficult relations with Japan are an element of weakness for the security architecture that the US has built since the 1950s.

In addition, South Korea’s attention to Beijing is a matter of concern for Washington, both for reasons of economic interest and as an element of mediation in the face of North Korea’s excesses. Since President Moon Jae-in officially proposed ending the 1950-53 Korean War at the UN General Assembly on September 21, 2021, Seoul and Washington have consulted on a draft for the declaration. However, amid the stalemate in North Korea-US bilateral talks and deteriorating US-China relations—both of whom are expected to co-sign such a declaration—no progress has been announced on the initiative, because of concerns about an end-of-war declaration, which hold that it could weaken the South Korea-US military alliance and the role of the UN Command (which has seen a significant increase in participating states and reactivation of others in recent years). The decision on whether to proceed with the end-of-war declaration will depend on the results of the South Korean presidential election in March.

With the opening ceremony on February 4, 2022, Beijing will become the only city in the world to have hosted both the Summer and Winter Olympics. But despite China’s stern and repeated warnings against the “politicization” of the Olympics, the Beijing 2022 Games have taken on very important political connotations, with the focus, by a growing number of states, on long-standing protests over human rights violations against ethnic minorities, and in Hong Kong.

The US said in December that it would not send an official delegation to the Beijing 2022 Olympics because of human rights concerns. Australia, Canada, and the UK quickly followed suit. As if that weren’t enough, China’s organization of the Olympics will also be proof of its ruthless commitment to a zero COVID policy. Beijing won the Games at the International Olympic Committee votes, expecting great public relations success to showcase its wealth and influence on the global stage. But the events of the past two years suggest that China will face much more scrutiny during these Olympics than in 2008.

Beijing will face another important moment in the fall of 2022, when the Chinese Communist Party will hold its 20th Party Congress, in which it will promote a new list of leaders. Xi is expected to break the previous (even recent) pattern and get a third term as the CCP Secretary-General (the first mandate was in 2012). The big question, then, is whether Xi will allow an heir-apparent, at least initially, on the Politburo Standing Committee, signaling that he will step down in 2027; or whether he is looking for a role of “life leader.” Linked to the confirmation or not of XI, but not only, in the dynamics of power in Beijing, there are those linked to Taiwan.

Last December Nicaragua established diplomatic relations with Beijing and cut off those with Taipei, which has only 14 states left with which to (officially) have diplomatic relations. Beijing is convinced that it will be able to eliminate this residual diplomatic presence in mid-term (at least one a year).
On the other hand, the trend of countries extending their unofficial relations with Taiwan (Lithuania, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia are the most recent examples) is likely to continue, defying pressure and retaliation from Beijing. Other European countries could follow in 2022, especially after a resolution by the European Parliament calling for ties to be strengthened with Taiwan. In particular, it will be necessary to see whether the EU or the US will take concrete steps towards free-trade agreements with Taiwan, long desired by Taipei but so far not taken seriously by either Washington or Brussels, because of concerns about Beijing’s retaliations.

Alongside the diplomatic game, there is the military dimension, which actually remains worrying, with the continuous Chinese amphibious exercises and air and maritime show of force. China remains fully committed to absorbing Taiwan and refuses to rule out the use of force to achieve that goal if forced to (from its point of view). A Chinese invasion of Taiwan remains a low-probability event, but it would be potentially risky, even for Xi, if he remains the CCP leader, because failure of any sort will make it politically too expensive, as well as catastrophic.

Also, in India, there will be key elections in 2022 and with heavy indications on the general policy of the country. In addition to the presidential elections, several states (Goa, Manipur, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat) will elect local assemblies. The outcome of the Uttar Pradesh elections is the most important, as it is the most populous state in India (it holds about one fifth of the seats in the Indian federal parliament) and should provide useful indications on the political direction in the country, in consideration that that state is ruled by the nationalist BJP party, which also heads the federal government, and suffers from strong internal criticism for the economy and the management of COVID-19.

The disputed region of Kashmir will remain a hot-spot in Indian politics, as it affects relations with Pakistan (and to a secondary extent with China). The region, used as an electoral bastion by the BJP, and its belonging to India is the focal point of the patriotic narrative of India, a unifying element of an extremely complex, divided subcontinent. Even in this region, the elections for the local assembly will be an element of tension, given that they will be the first after the unilateral revocation of the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019 by the federal government (and which has further worsened Indo-Pakistani relations).

But the proximity of Kashmir to Afghanistan makes India concerned about possible infiltrations by terrorist elements from both Al Qaeda and IS. Here, too, China will remain the main concern for India’s security and foreign policy. Several rounds of talks between Indian and Chinese military officers and diplomats over the situation in Ladakh (where there have been several clashes and a massive deployment of forces in the region by the two contenders) have not yet borne fruit. There is the possibility that India will push Russia, thanks to its historical proximity, to discreetly facilitate the repositioning of the opposing forces from the disputed points of Ladakh, as a prelude to a possible summit meeting (without further indications, it remains a mere hope).

India’s other major concern with Beijing is China’s growing presence and influence in South Asia. India can be expected to strengthen its economic diplomacy with its neighbors to counter China’s growing presence in the region; and New Delhi has made progress in this regard in 2021, especially in Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

For Pakistan, there are many elements that mirror India, albeit with the important variant of the institutional weight of the armed forces, increasingly opposed to civilian leadership, and public opinion. With the victory of the Afghan Taliban, the challenge of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has increased, and the Pakistani Taliban have increased attacks on official institutions, using their own sanctuaries in Afghanistan, even though the Kabul leadership has already said that the TTP does not exist in Afghanistan and that the issue is an internal issue within Pakistan.

For Pakistan, too, China is fundamental, albeit in a different sense, given the once good relations with Beijing are rapidly deteriorating due to the management of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The growing divergences emerging between Pakistan and China over the issue of payments, development costs, security threats and the increasing resistance of local populations, especially in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, risk leaving Pakistan without support, should it decide to break ties with Beijing (given that the US would not fail to pay for its proximity to China).

2021 saw Pakistan fail to meet its payment deadlines, prompting China to withdraw funds, and even stop some projects. The CPEC slowdown has had a severe impact on Pakistan’s cash-strapped national economy, as the country’s trade deficit expands and foreign debt grows. Once hailed as a turning point for national development, CPEC has become an increasingly controversial topic in Pakistan, particularly around the port of Gwadar, where thousands of residents have called for local control of resources, which they believe will benefit exclusively China. It cannot be ruled out that Beijing may suspend work on the Gwadar port and related infrastructure projects, with a devastating impact on Pakistan, as the country’s economy remains under pressure, and there seem to be no new avenues of financial support.

So far, no country in the world has recognized the new government of Afghanistan, the so-called Islamic Emirate of the Taliban, which was built in August 2021 on the very expensive ashes of the previous architecture. First of all, the Afghan problem, beyond the institutionalized violations of civil and human rights, is a problem of recognition, where both Russia and China, which have relations with the Taliban, are reluctant to let them sit at the UN. Western countries and the leadership of the UN link the offer of recognition to an “inclusive” (sic) government. This situation is linked to the enormous governance problems for the Taliban (who do not have any), as well as financing, given that the 9 billion dollars of the reserves of the central bank of the Afghan Republic, kept by Western financial institutions, are frozen.

The local branch of IS, the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK), formed around 2015, despite heavy difficulties and conflicts with both the “official” Taliban and Al Qaeda militias, seems to be present in all provinces of Afghanistan and represents a threat to the Taliban themselves who do not have the ability to hold ISK in check nor to prevent incursions in the surrounding areas (which go as far as India and China [East Turkestan]).

A humanitarian disaster of epic proportions awaits that wretched country, linking itself to political and security challenges. These difficult political and economic conditions have mixed with a recent drought and early winter to set the stage for a colossal humanitarian catastrophe by 2022. According to the UNDP, a staggering 97% of Afghans could fall into poverty in 2022, as the economy contracts sharply. The UN emergency food aid agency, the World Food Program, has warned of the impending famine. For the Taliban, the inability to provide for the Afghan people can make it nearly impossible to rule the country. After the war that began in 1980, 2022 could be the worst year for Afghanistan.

Even for the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, the ramifications of the fall of Afghanistan are heavy and are linked to pre-existing complex situations, where Russia and China, allies and competitors at the same time, work hard to push any other influence out of the area. The US and Western presence and/or influence, somehow less visible because of the prolonged process of reducing NATO forces in Afghanistan (and after the summer disaster in Kabul), led to the building (by China) and/or rebuilding (by Russia ) of influence, as in Moscow with the imposing push to spread again the use of Russian, which was greatly reduced from a vehicular language after the exodus of a large part of the Russian-speaking population; this decline of the use of Russian began after the end of the USSR, starting from 1991.

Kyrgyzstan’s political system was shaped into the desired form by President Sadyr Japarov: an almighty president, a constitution, a parliament that poses no obstacles. In 2022, Kyrgyzstan will face major challenges, starting with the instability of the energy and gold markets, rising food prices, high unemployment and serious corruption.

As with Kyrgyzstan, energy (fuel price increases) and environmental (persistent drought) problems could become political problems with severe protests across the area, starting with Tajikistan (which borders directly on seething Afghanistan) and ending. with Uzbekistan. But for all these states, including the most distant Kazakhstan, Afghan developments impact the region. The once quiet, solid, rich (and maid of Moscow) Kazakhstan saw a sudden and very rapid change of scene at the beginning of 2022 with President Nursultan Nazarbaev (a relic of the Soviet system), who had managed to navigate between Russians, Chinese, and Europeans, was overthrown by a very violent popular revolt, ignited by the increase in fuel prices, but which seems to contain elements of fatigue of the local population because of the immovable leadership of the country.

The crisis of Kazakhstan, quickly solved by determination of Moscow, teaches how apparent-tranquility can end up, and how Russia learnt the lessons of Maydan, where a disastrous management of the local leadership originated a major shift for the Moscow security landscape after 1991 (another, also ignored, lesson of how Russia studies the past, and acts rapidly, is the Belarus file) with the entry of Ukraine in the Western sphere of influence. Russia, a peculiar presence in Asia, will work hard to defend its space; consolidate and, if possible, expand it.

For two decades, Central Asia’s position on the map has made it important to the US, and this parameter has prevailed over a range of value-based concerns, not least democracy for national security. This has allowed several of these states to have obtained repeated waivers from US sanctions related to civil liberties and human rights, but without major pressures. Now, these exceptions, also due to the ideological approach of the Biden administration, could be suspended and sanctions applied (with the ultimate result of bringing these states closer to the Russian orbit and the growing Chinese influence, in search of energy resources). As in Pakistan, local Islamist groups close to the Al Qaeda and IS spheres could find space and enjoy sanctuaries not particularly disturbed by the Taliban forces.

The stalemate continues in Myanmar. After the coup d’etat in February of last year, despite persistent civil disobedience, the resumption of armed uprisings in the border areas, and uncertain international pressure, the military junta seems willing to remain in power by playing on the divisions of international partners and seeking to take advantage of support from regional actors, starting with China, which seeks to weaken ASEAN, to keep Westerners away and to maintain solid economic control over important parts of the Myanmar economy.

At the closing ceremony of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit on October 27, 2021, Brunei handed over the presidency of the regional bloc to Cambodia. The small nation of Southeast Asia takes its toll in a potentially crucial year for ASEAN, which finds itself besieged by a series of pressing challenges. These include strategic competition in Southeast Asia, continuing tensions in the South China Sea, the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and the Myanmar crisis. There is another reason why the presidency of Cambodia will be closely observed: the very close ties with China would make Phnom Pen a Beijing agent within ASEAN, with all the consequences and risks of such a role. Thailand, in a prolonged state of crisis since 2014, should see elections in 2022 to return to stability and normality, contributing to the recovery of ASEAN credibility

Political transitions are underway in Indonesia, the Philippines (where the progressive absorption of the Islamist insurgency in the southern part of the archipelago seems to be progressing well), Singapore and East Timor. But maritime security problems remain intact, leading to the consolidation of ties also between states which had open border problems and thus increased the military dimension of ASEAN, hitherto exclusively economic. The architecture for trilateral patrols between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines to tackle piracy, illegal fishing, illicit trafficking and a series of transnational crimes had begun to be built before COVID-19, but progress slowed as the pandemic broke out. However, the three sides still held dialogues and consultations on how to proceed and expand their cooperative work.

Indonesia’s regional and global leadership will also be in the spotlight in 2022. Indonesia (which will host the G-20 Summit) has nonetheless shown its leadership role on some key issues in recent times which affect its national interest, such as maritime economy, or the situations in Afghanistan, after the US withdrawal, and in Myanmar, after the coup, or Thailand for the political blockade.

The Australian federal election is perhaps the most important event for the sub-area, given the ripple effect it will have on other key issues in Oceania in 2022. Although there is no confirmed date, the elections will be held between March and May. With major contenders battling over important issues, such as climate change, how to interact with China and, more broadly, what role Canberra should play on the international stage, the outcome of the vote will have significant implications not just for Australia but for entire Oceania, given the importance that this country has on the chessboard.

The current conservative government has had several setbacks (of its actions and of image), leaving aside the painful management of the AUKUS pact, the equally negative ones of wildfires, floods and COVID. If Labor achieves an electoral victory, there will be a major shift on key issues, in particular climate policy and migration. The only thing that should remain unchanged, if not accelerated, will be the massive rearmament of the armed forces, and the determination to face China, in every field and area (especially in the South Pacific).

Many Pacific Island countries have handled the pandemic well, with only a handful of cases or none; but their economies have been shattered because of the region’s reliance on a narrow range of external sources of income, particularly tourism. The mineral riches of many islands (starting with precious nickel) and their institutional events have long been at the center of Beijing’s attention, which has consolidated the cooperation of various players, such as the USA, Australia and France.


Enrico Magnani, PhD is a UN officer who specializes in military history, politico-military affairs, peacekeeping and stability operations. (The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations).


A Tropical Storm

While the main tensions in the Indo-Pacific region are concentrated, others are ongoing and growing, in some visible critical points, such as Taiwan, the Pescadores islands, the Senkaku/Diaoyu/Diaoyutai, the islets of the South China Sea (Paracelsus). All this is because of powerful deployments and exchanges of fiery declarations between Beijing and its increasingly numerous competitors, gathered around the USA. The observant, silent eyes of Chinese leaders are looking for other opportunities to extend China’s influence and its global near-monopoly on rare earth minerals and flex its muscles further. In short, there are specific and little-known situations that could have great, repercussions on a planetary level.

In this context, we want to talk about New Caledonia/Kanak, Bougainville and Tonga. These are three different territories, being groups of small archipelagos in the South Pacific. Not far away from each other, but all united by difficult economic and social situations, with important natural resources and strategic locations, different legal statutes and a turbulent political history. From a general point of view, the Chinese push towards those small islands, besides, as mentioned, trying to absorb the control of mineral resources (starting with the increasingly precious nickel), seems to retrace the great themes of Japanese expansion in the 20th century, to create a vast area of security, to ensure control of natural resources, to break the siege (including geographically) of the various barriers that stand between Beijing and free access to the Pacific, and to seriously undermine US control over these waters, unchallenged since the end of WWII.

A Small France Downunder

Let’s start with a brief analysis of the situation in New Caledonia/Kanak, which is a French overseas territory from 1853 (and from 1864 until 1924 it was a tough penitentiary for insurgents and rebels against colonial rule, and for the survivors of the bloodbath of Paris’s Commune). It has been included since 1986 in the list of non-autonomous territories to be decolonized by the UN, and which as such had the right to choose whether to become independent or remain linked to France (in the UN language peculiar to the UN, “non-selfgoverning territory means colonies and protectorates, of which there are now seventeen around the world, and which in majority are small islands scattered in several oceans, from Falklands/Malvinas to Gibraltar, from Saint Helena to New Caledonia).

The story of New Caledonia began a long time ago when an armed independence movement (of which Gaddafi was said to be the distant supporter and financier, as in other local states, such as Kiribati) carried out various actions against the military and police forces (and the French residents). A decisive clash took place in April 1987, the terms of which are still unclear; but we only know that it was very dire for the insurgents.

After the use of force, the door was opened to dialogue, and Paris, with the agreements of Hôtel de Matignon (the residence of the French Prime Minister) in 1988, accepted “the opening to the peaceful demands of the local populations, who lived in difficult economic conditions and launched” development programs, and economic and social integration of the locals, even if their discontent with substantial marginalization in regards to residents of French origin, remained very much alive. The agreements of the Hôtel de Matignon of June 26, 1988 provided for a ten-year transitional statute that would lead to a referendum process of self-determination for Caledonians (local or French residents), to vote for or against independence.

In 1998, upon the expiry of the agreements of the Hôtel de Matignon, those of Nouméa (from the name of the head of the territory) were signed; alongside the regulation of the electoral process, concessions were made, such as, the name Kanak, which could be accompanied by that of New Caledonia and the use of a semi-official flag (which greatly angered the metropolitan French residents). France, which in any case tried in every way to postpone and limit the access of the local population to the voters list, and consequently to the referendum (actually three referendums, according to the terms of the Nouméa Accord). Also, Paris always demanded (and obviously obtained) that the election observers sent by the UN be called “experts,” as there was nothing special to observe, as in other referendums for the independence of colonial territory (sic).

On December 12, again and for the third time (the other two were in 2018 and 2020) the vote was No to independence, and this time with very wide margin: 96.5% of the votes, while 3.5% were cast for the Yes-side. A landslide victory but very low participation. Out of about 185,000 registered voters, only 80,000 went to the 307 polling stations, or 43.88% of them. This was because of the boycott by the independentist movement (which controls the local government, however, with little responsibilities, leaving everything important in the hands of the French High Commissioner, directly appointed by Paris) who had unsuccessfully asked to postpone the vote because of the impact of COVID.

End of story? Certainly not. The problems remain, and the results of the vote show the ethnic split of the French territory, the numerical prevalence of the local element and which could be the source of future problems (and interference from the outside). Paris, in anticipation of the vote, silently and speedily sent 1,300 riot police (while many other similar forces were quickly deployed to Martinique and Guadaloupe, recently devastated by violent riots; another sign of the problems that crisscross what remains of the French empire), and even the special units of the Gendarmerie, in the case of the repetition of the serious incidents of October 2020, and fears that the vote would divide the two communities that up till now lived together peacefully, after the crisis of the 1980s.

Now, after the self congratulations where he also said “France is more beautiful because New Caledonia has decided to stay in it,” President Macron has several options ahead, both safe and uncertain. It is certain that France will have to try to invest much more financially than it has done till now to try to overcome the greatest reason for local discontent, the economic and social inequalities, while improving internal regional connections and with the Hexagon, and securing the mining assets of the territory, which will make it an economic hub in the future (in other words to ensure that nickel does not end up in Chinese hands, even through intermediary properties).

However, the low participation in the referendum undoubtedly removes the legitimacy of the vote even if Paris, with the results in hand, next year will try to have New Caledonia/Kanak removed from the list of territories to be decolonized at the UN General Assembly (and it is not guaranteed to succeed). Alongside this, if Paris wants to continue to be considered a player in the region, it must reinforce its military presence, reduced for years to a minimum level (to underline the importance of the archipelago, during the WWII, it hosted the largest US military installations of the South Pacific area) and do the same with neighboring Polynesia, also included in the list of territories to be decolonized by the UN General Assembly 2013 (again with furious reactions from Paris) and characterized by the presence of a local independence movement that has the same reasons as New Caledonia/Kanak.

Everything suggests that the French future in the area is not very easy, starting with the financial commitment that will have to be substantial and prolonged. Everything else is uncertain, and it is a lot. Those who are breathing a sigh of relief, so far, are the French residents (who feared, unreasonably, of being expelled in the event of a victory of the independence movement) and the people of Wallis and Futuna, two islets united to the territory who feared to pass from Parisian paternalism to local neo-colonialism; and they were clearly the only locals who voted against the option of independence. The USA, Australia and New Zealand had also followed the situation closely and feared that the independence of a small, sparsely populated state with great natural wealth would open the door to a dangerous rival. However, one can be sure that Beijing will continue to discreetly monitor the context and if, if the opportunity arises, it will not miss it.

A Difficult Chapter

Another difficult junction in the South Pacific is represented by the future of the island of Bougainville (whose name derives from the French admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville who too possession of it in 1768). It is a tropical paradise, colonized and administered by Germans, Australians, Japanese, Americans and (again) Australians. The fate of the island has been linked to that of Papua New Guinea, as this territory was first mandate of the League of Nations (1920-1941) and subsequently as territory under UN trusteeship from 1945 to 1975 (when it achieved independence), again from Australia.

Ethnically, the population of the island is closet to that of the neighboring Solomons (who, as we shall see, are going through difficult times) than to that of Papua New Guinea. The problems emerged immediately after the independence of Papua New Guinea. Because Bougainville is rich in copper and gold, a large mine was established in Panguna in the early 1970s by Bougainville Copper Limited, a subsidiary of the large multinational Rio Tinto. Regional residents’ disputes with the company over negative environmental impacts, failure to share financial benefits, and negative social changes brought about by the mine have led to a local awakening of a secessionist movement that had hitherto been dormant (as can be seen, a red thread links the requests of Bougainville and New Caledonia/Kanak).

A group of local activists proclaimed the independence of Bougainville as the ‘Republic of Northern Solomon’ in 1975 and again in 1988; both times government forces suppressed the insurgents, called BRA (Bougainville Revolutionary Army). The second uprising was particularly violent and led to at least 20,000 victims (and Papua New Guinea’s employment of Sandline “contractors,” given the poor quality of its military and police forces) and which ended with a peace agreement that saw the sending of an Australian-led multinational stabilization force (“Operation Bel Isi“), the PMG (Peace Monitoring Group) which operated between 1998 and 2003. The PMG (and its substitute the Peace Monitoring Team, which ended its activity in 2005) which oversaw personnel, military police and civilians from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Vanuatu, cooperated with a small UN civilian mission, the UNPOB (UN Political Office in Bougainville) which operated to facilitate dialogue and the destruction of insurgent weapons (about 2,000 of all kinds), to respect agreed pre-electoral deadlines, and, finally, to facilitate the elections themselves.

The UNPOB ended its mission in 2005, leaving the normal economic and social assistance and aid activities of the “less advanced territories’” (as the UN calls these territories) with the UNDP (UN Development Program) as leading agency. The politically relevant aspect of the 1997 agreement (which prepared peace on the ground) led parties to decide to hold a referendum on the political independence of the island in the future, which would have a regional government with wide autonomy—all under careful Australian supervision, as Canberra, given the geographical proximity and the great economic interests of the area, is particularly interested in any development in the area.

A non-binding independence referendum was held at the end of 2019 with 98.31% of votes for independence rather than autonomy within Papua New Guinea; and, as a result, the region will become independent by 2027 (and this with all due respect to the concept of a “non-binding” referendum. But Papua New Guinea is so weak that it has little to oppose, even given the overwhelming majority in favor of independence; and Canberra does not like other convulsions in the area).

In principle, the aspirations for independence always have positive consideration and sympathy, at least formally. In reality, the international community looks at them with suspicion for the precedents they can create elsewhere, with balkanization and destabilization in tow. However, the latest developments seem to lead to an acceleration of the independence process, which the regional government of Bougainville wants to be effective as soon as possible (the ideal would be even before 2025). Australia, and first of all, New Zealand, the USA and France are observing the process very carefully, which should be peaceful (and at the moment everything suggests that it will continue to be so), but which could bring about another small, weak and potentially unstable territory at the behest of other interests (also in this case Chinese).

Australia, which has a difficult relationship, to use a euphemism, with Beijing, absolutely does not want Chinese economic agents to settle there to make Bougainville an outpost of the CCP’s imperialism. However, it is useful to remember a paradox (international relations are full of them): Papua New Guinea, which seems resigned to let Bougainville go (also because it has no other options) finds itself in the situation where the western part of the island would like to separate from Indonesia and reunite with Port Moresby, starting with the ethnic community.

However, Indonesia, which took control of that part of Papua (the last remnant of Dutch colonialism) in 1964, with a real diplomatic coup orchestrated by the USA and with the acquiescence of the UN (ignoring the wishes of the local populations and annexed to Indonesia regardless of their opinions on the matter), mindful of the disasters of East Timor and, conversely, of the prudent management of separatism in the Aceh region (eastern part of Sumatra), has opted for a conciliatory and inclusive policy, which has brought good results by calming the situation and fully reintegrating Aceh into Indonesia.

Another Outbreak

At the end of last November, the Solomon Islands also returned, albeit briefly, to international prominence. The reason was that very violent incidents broke out between the local population and the local security forces. On a geographically small scale, the capital Honiara is little more than a large town. The local government in obvious difficulty has asked for the support of neighboring countries.

Again, Australia, followed by New Zealand, Fiji and (even) Papua New Guinea, answering a desperate request by the government of Solomon Islands, sent military and police personnel with the greatest possible urgency sent a force, which although numerically small (less than 500 units), represents how serious was the violence in a small community. The Solomon Islands also emerged from a long period of instability and violence, and appeared to be stable. But the agreements were only superficial and the reasons for the difficulties remained intact, if not worsened.

What caused the riots? In apparently enchanting places (for tourists), realities are harsh. The ongoing antigovernment protests over long-standing poverty and unemployment turned violent in mid-November as crowds tried to storm parliament. Rioters burned down buildings and destroyed property in the Chinatown area of Honiara. At least three people were killed. Although calm was largely restored, tensions remain high.

But inter-provincial tension has also fueled the unrest, as many of the protesters came from the province of Malaita, a neighboring island that has a history of disputes with the Guadalcanal province, where the government is based. For example, Malaita opposed the current Prime Minister’s decision, in 2019, to formally recognize China instead of Taiwan.

In addition, various local authorities, starting with the provincial leader of Malaita, have spoken out against the presence of international troops, seen as supporting the central government. Even though the riots lasted only three days, they plunged the Solomon Islands into chaos, exposing widespread frustration with low living standards and exposing the weaknesses of local governance. Despite years of investments from abroad, especially by Australia, the Solomon Islands have not emerged from the quagmire of the lack of development and the violence that marked the small former British protectorate (independent since 1976) between 1998 and 2003.

Canberra—cautious in not repeating a deployment of a stabilization force (the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, RAMSI) which remained in place for 14 years and which ended only in 2017—(but at the same time vigilant of Beijing maneuvers and lest its agents are installed there) stressed that this time they will remain in the islands only for a limited period.

As mentioned, the reasons for the violence have not been overcome and date back to the late 1990s, when ethnic rivalries and economic differences were the spark of very serious and prolonged violence, where the inhabitants of various peripheral islands confronted and then clashed, in measures more and more violent, with those of Honiara. Tensions led to the establishment of ethnic militias; and in late 1999, after several failed attempts to broker a peace agreement, the then prime minister declared a four-month state of emergency and also requested assistance from Australia and New Zealand. But his appeal was denied.

Meanwhile, violence was rampant in the archipelago. After several attempts, an agreement was reached between the parties, promoted by Canberra and signed in the Australian city of Townsville in 2000. The economic situation of poor islands worsened and, as often happens, the violence of politics is connected with ordinary crime; and such was the instability that in July 2003, over 2,000 military and policemen from Australia and other Pacific islands (Fiji, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu, Nauru, Kiribati, Tuvalu) arrived in the Solomon Islands under the auspices of RAMSI (divided into the phases “Helpem Fren,” “Anode” and “Rata”). With the arrival of international forces, the security situation improved, but with over two hundred deaths (very few compared to what happened in nearby Bougainville). In reality, the Solomon Islands are close to the condition of a “failed state.”

This draws the attention of those who may be interested in increasing influence. The current Prime Minister, as often happens in such situations, has accused foreign powers and “certain elements” that seek to overthrow his government, indicating opposition to his decision to move closer to Beijing and break ties with Taiwan. Perhaps. But the real problems all remain, from underdevelopment to corruption, from entire economic sectors in the hands of (Chinese) ethnic groups that have a monopoly on the local market. The Solomon Islands remain one of the most aid-dependent countries in the world. 40% of the population is under the age of 14, according to data from the World Bank, and it is estimated that 70% are under the age of 30. Unemployment is endemic and the restrictions for Covid-19 have made everything, if possible, even more difficult.

Compared to what is proposed for New Caledonia/Kanak and Bougainville, interesting from a mining point of view, the Solomon Islands are less attractive. Gold mining began in 1998 at Gold Ridge on the island of Guadalcanal, which was suspended in 2006. The islands are potentially rich in undeveloped mineral resources, such as lead, zinc, nickel and gold. But the real strength of the Solomons is the geographical position, although regional relations are not optimal. In addition to Australia and New Zealand, which play a predominant role in the security-making of the area, Papua New Guinea has a problematic relationship with Honiara, accused by Port Moresby of pushing for Bougainville separatism in order to establish a unitary state among the two entities. So far, Australia does not want to go beyond a neutral peacekeeping force and does not want to mediate between opposing tendencies (ultimately for or against Beijing).

Conclusions?

In fact, it is difficult to draw a conclusion. What is certain is only that the situation is open. The players (Beijing on one side and the “others” on the opposite side) are in full swing and are trying to strengthen their positions. For example, in mid-December, the USA launched a major program to improve the infrastructure networks of communication, fundamental for the socio-economic development of territories spread over vast areas. But they are viewed with suspicion. Let’s wait, see (and hope).


Enrico Magnani, PhD is a UN officer who specializes in military history, politico-military affairs, peacekeeping and stability operations. (The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations).


Featured image: “Buka Town,” by Vireil, painted ca. 1988-2001.